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Hello, fellow wayfarers … What Egyptian mummies taught me about the state of the American church … Why I’m of a mixed mind about Stephen King’s pencil … How “inverted hypocrites” are quietly living the sorts of lives they would never publicly commend … a Desert Island Bookshelf from Maine … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore

The Body of Christ Cannot Be Mummified

Over the past several weeks, I was away with a Christianity Today group, teaching through Exodus up and down the Nile River in Egypt. Along the way, I found myself in lots of temples and tombs—many of them filled with the embalmed corpses of ancient Egyptian kings and queens.

As I was there, though, I couldn’t help but think about the American church. With all the talk—some legitimate, some not—of an “exodus” away from religion, I wonder if we’ve lost the point. Maybe the American church isn’t dead. Maybe it’s not even dying. Maybe the predicament is worse than that. Maybe the American church is mummified.

Mummies are more than just a way of disposing of bodies; they represent a specifically ancient Egyptian vision of life and death. Mummification, after all, isn’t easy. Only a society as technologically advanced as ancient Egypt could accomplish embalming bodies in a way that could preserve them for thousands of years. Mummification reflects a certain stability of the powers-that-be. Pharaohs and governors, and those they choose to be with them, are those who are mummified—an assumption that in the life to come, power is defined just as power is now; the first will be first and the last will be last. Denial, as they say, is sometimes just a river in Egypt.

Christians often forget the most famous mummy in Scripture—the way the Book of Genesis ends. Joseph, the hated younger brother of the sons of Israel, was, of course, sold into slavery, reported to be dead, and then rose to power in Egypt. He was so thoroughly acclimated into the Egyptian way that his own brothers did not recognize him when they saw him. Genesis ends with Joseph, having forgiven his brothers, pleading with them to carry his bones with them on the day God returns them to the Land of Promise.

The book that starts with the words “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” ends with the words, “They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt” (50:26, ESV throughout). That seems like an anti-climax. It’s actually a cliffhanger. These words signify the Exodus that is to come—an exodus promised not with Israel in slavery in Egypt but with Israel in power there.

In describing the faith of Joseph, the Book of Hebrews does not commend all the things we might expect: his interpretation of dreams, his refusal to sin sexually, his up-from-the-dungeon comeback to power, or his saving the world from a famine through the use of grain-storage technology. It doesn’t even mention his forgiveness of those who had wronged him. Instead, it reads, “By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave direction concerning his bones” (Heb. 11:22).

At the end of his story, Joseph was as Egyptian as he could be: an embalmed mummy in the land of Pharaoh. His faith was that he saw a different future. Joseph’s skeleton ends up being a recurring theme in the Exodus account. With everything going on—on the heels of a series of plagues, with Pharaoh’s armies on the march, with thousands of enslaved refugees needing to be evacuated—the Bible says, “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him” (Ex. 13:19). When Israel crossed the Jordan into the Land of Promise, the Book of Joshua says, “As for the bones of Joseph, which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt, they buried them at Shechem, in the piece of land that Jacob bought” (Josh. 24:32).

Joseph wasn’t the only one whose acculturation into the ways of Egypt had to be undone. The pivotal account of idolatry—the people of Israel dancing around a golden calf they named as the god who brought them out of Egypt—was because, the early Christian martyr Stephen preached, “in their hearts they turned to Egypt” (Acts 7:39). Having left a land of graven images, the people wanted one of their own—something they could see and feel, a source of solidarity and community since “this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Ex. 32:1).

The pull to Egyptianized affections is denounced by the prophet Isaiah, as the people of Israel sought protection from their enemies through the power of Egypt. Egypt as an ally was as bad as Egypt as an oppressor, perhaps even worse. “Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation” (Is. 30:3). Whether trusting in Egyptian-like statues or in Egyptian-led armies, the impulse was the same: seeking protection and a future in an idol instead of in the way of God, a way that looks, in the terms set by Pharaoh or Caesar, to be failure.

The prophets warned that the making of idols—those objects or ideas or affiliations that replace for us what should be ultimate—are destructive. At this moment, though, the idols don’t seem to be killing us. They seem to be helping us succeed. In reality, though, they are doing worse than killing us—they are deadening us.

Idols are useful. They draw people together. They give a person a sense of meaning, a cause for which to live and die. Nothing can mobilize a nationalistic sense of identity better than the chant “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:28). Their usefulness, though, is the very reason the Bible says they are useless.

Idols have two fatal flaws: They are self-created and they are dead. The man who “falls in love” with his chatbot can have all the glandular sensations of what seems like a love affair. Ultimately, though, he has to know that what he “loves” is himself—what the algorithms repeat back to him is what he put there in the first place. Idols, the Bible warns, are dead. And what’s worse, the Bible warns, “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Ps. 115:8).

At the end of the path to idols, you end up enclosed in your own self, but a part of you knows that what’s controlling you is a construction of your making. You end up, moreover, dead—numb to the very source of your life and being. And then, seeking to answer the deadness, you construct some other idol to give a rush of what feels like life.

Several years ago, I would have agreed with those who warned that the fundamental problem in the American church was that there’s “no place for truth”—that doctrinal shallowness was hollowing us out. I wonder now if the even more perilous problem was—and is—that there’s “no place for life.”

Bored by prayerless, numb lives, believers lose a sense of adventure and try to find it in political idolatry, in public spectacle, in addiction to online visual sex or online verbal violence. Lacking the confidence that comes with genuine life in the Spirit, we fall to Pharaoh hunger—longing for strongmen of the church or of the state to deliver us from evil at the price of our saying to them, Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Without life, we seek to prove our standing through choosing the right syllogisms, hunting the right heretics, fighting the right culture wars.

We’ve never been more technologically advanced. And we’ve never seemed more personally dead. Jesus warned us about this (Rev. 3:1), and, to turn it around, he gave us no ten-point strategy. He told us to wake up, to “strengthen what remains and is about to die” (v. 2).

Joseph’s embalming was a really Egyptian thing to do. And yet, his faith showed him all his mastery was just the keeping together of a corpse. Life would mean something else, depending on a people who could carry him back from where he was lost, and on a God who could count all his bones.

Maybe American religion needs the same. You cannot have both a Pharaoh and a Father. You cannot serve both God and mummy.

The Dilemma of Stephen King’s Pencil

Seth Godin often speaks or writes about the problem of Stephen King’s pencil. He’s referencing the kind of question that will often come up at a Q&A at the end of a King lecture or public reading. The gist of it is, “What kind of pencil do you use?” Or it might just as easily be, “What time of day do you write?” Godin argues that such questions are ridiculous—that they assume that if one used Stephen King’s pencil one would write like Stephen King.

That’s true enough for writing, but I’m of a mixed mind when it comes to questions of spiritual formation.

Many Christians ask Christians they respect questions along the lines of, “How do you decide what Bible reading plan to follow?” or “What time of day do you set aside for prayer?” For a long time, I assumed that these were kind of “Stephen King’s pencil” questions. After all, there’s no biblical mandate to pray at a certain time of day or to read the Bible in a certain pattern. And often, the answers to such questions can lead to an awful legalism. Just because it helps me to pray by walking is no sign that that’s the least bit better than the person who finds it easier to pray by sitting still (or kneeling, or whatever; David sometimes danced).

And, of course, many Christians are reluctant to give too many examples of how they pray or read Scripture because Jesus specifically told us that when we pray, we must “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matt. 6:6). The reason I say I’m of a mixed mind is because right after saying that, Jesus taught his disciples—with a specific model—how to pray (Matt. 6:9–13).

Based on the kinds of questions I am getting about prayer and Bible study and similar matters, I wonder whether we’ve overcorrected from an overly specified and mandated Here’s how to do your quiet time to a situation in which people don’t know how to pray because no one’s showed them how.

Sometimes the way we learn is through imaginations that are informed by the various options for doing something. Maybe there’s a way to both give people examples of ways to pray (and to confess sin and to read Scripture and to share the gospel) while differentiating between the commands of Jesus and the suggestions of those also imperfectly trying to follow him.

Revenge of the Inverted Hypocrites

I was struck last week by a conversation between Jane Coaston of The New York Times and University of Virginia professor Brad Wilcox about marriage. Coaston asked about the problem of hypocrisy when it comes to marriage—an important question given how many “pro-marriage,” “pro-family” people are later found to have been cheating or divorcing, etc. Wilcox acknowledges that problem but then refers to another—the problem of “inverted hypocrites.”

He talked about how many—particularly among those most responsible for shaping contemporary culture—actually marry, stay married, and provide stable homes for their children. “They’re living better lives in private than they’re kind of standing for in public,” Wilcox said.

“So I talk about people ranging from Hollywood moguls to Washington editors who are living very kind of neotraditional family lives,” he said. “They’re stably married, they’re prosperous, both they and their spouse and their kids are benefiting from this institution. And yet the kinds of cultural programming that they’re sponsoring, the kind of media stories that they’re presiding over are often sending an anti-nuptial message to the broader public.” As Richard John Neuhaus used to say, these are people who don’t preach what they practice.

Maybe a similar dynamic is at work when it comes to Christians and spiritual formation. Often the most visible professing Christians in a venue are the most prayerless and spiritually adrift. Those who are really given to prayer and to fasting and to the other spiritual disciples don’t talk about those things, for entirely good reasons, as noted above. Perhaps, though, we need a bit more preaching from those who practice in a world of preaching from those who don’t.

Desert Island Bookshelf

Every other week, I share a list of books that one of you says you’d want to have on hand if you were stranded on a deserted island. This week’s submission comes from reader Michele Morin from Warren, Maine, who writes that she lives with her husband of 34 years, and that they have “four married sons and six adorable grandchildren.”

She writes: “Thanks for all you do. I enjoy your podcasts and your newsletter and was challenged by your latest book. Actually, I’d be interested in seeing people’s Desert Island Podcast Lists, but I suppose the average desert island wouldn’t have internet access.”

Michele notes that some books are absent from the photo because she reads them on her Kindle to save space on the shelves (I hope the battery holds out on the desert island, Michele). Here’s her list:

  • Till We Have Faces—This is my favorite of C. S. Lewis’s books (and I understand that it was his favorite as well). I could probably be content on a desert island with 12 of Lewis’s books.

  • Crossing to Safety—I always hear this book calling to me in the fall. It’s a story in which a friendship is so front-and-center that it seems to become one of the characters in the book. Luxuriating in Wallace Stegner’s gorgeous prose makes the rich storyline and well-developed characters all the more riveting.

  • Hannah Coulter—I consider myself an honorary citizen of Wendell Berry’s Port William, and Hannah Coulter is my mentor and friend. I listen to this audiobook in the car just about every year because I need to hear her quiet wisdom.

  • Writing the River—This was my first introduction to Luci Shaw’s poetry. Even now in her 90s, she continues to write and is a role model for living a generative life.

  • God in the Dark—This is Luci Shaw’s memoir that chronicles her first husband’s battle with cancer, his death, and her grieving process. She shares vulnerably from her journal and punctuates the story with poetry she wrote in that season.

  • Practice Resurrection—I would happily welcome any one of Eugene Peterson’s series of spiritual theology books to my Desert Island Bookshelf, but if I really were on a desert island, I’d need something to remind me that “Jesus alive and present” changes everything!

  • A hymnal—Right now, I’m using the 1972 version of Living Hymns, reading a hymn every day as part of my devotional practice and recording in my journal how the hymn names or refers to God.

  • Gilead—Marilynne Robinson captured the voice of her protagonist, Pastor John Ames, so beautifully that the first time I read it, I had to keep reminding myself that it was fiction.

  • A Lamp Unto My Feet—Elisabeth Elliot has been the voice of reason in my ear since my days as a young mother. Here, though, she is simply sharing wisdom from her own reading of Scripture.

  • Learning to Walk in the Dark—I don’t agree with everything Barbara Brown Taylor thinks or writes. Still, she writes winsomely and imaginatively and I appreciate her comfort level with a “lunar spirituality” that admits God is still at work in the darkness.

  • Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? by Tim Keller is a review of the gospel, a glorious acknowledgment that sin is deadly and guilt is real, and yet God’s mercy, forgiveness, and acceptance are so rich that we will spend the rest of our lives deepening our understanding of his love for us.

Readers, what do y’all think? If you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life and could have only one playlist or one bookshelf with you, what songs or books would you choose?

  • For a Desert Island Playlist, send me a list of up to 12 songs, excluding hymns and worship songs. (We’ll cover those later.)

  • For a Desert Island Bookshelf, send me a list of up to 12 books. If possible, include one photo of all the books together.

Send your list (or both lists!) to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like, along with the city and state from which you’re writing.

Quote of the Moment

“Today’s crisis of religion cannot be explained simply with reference to the fact that we have lost all faith in God or become suspicious of certain religious doctrines. The crisis suggests that, at a deeper level, we are gradually losing the faculty of contemplation. The intensifying compulsion to produce and communicate makes contemplative lingering difficult. Religion requires a particular form of attention.”

—Byung-Chul Han, Viva Contemplativa: In Praise of Inactivity

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Russell Moore

Russell Moore
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