Moore to the Point
Hello, fellow wayfarers. Turns out Festivus is a darker story than I knew—and maybe it’s just the right holiday for the moment. … I think through the finale of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill with a little help from Johnny Cash. … A podcast listener tells me more reasons why I’m wrong on capital punishment. … I magnanimously refrain from telling a great reader that he’s wrong to prefer the Zac Brown Band’s cover of “Jolene” to Dolly Parton’s. … And it’s almost Christmas. … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.
Russell Moore
Always Festivus and Never Christmas

In my much younger years, I celebrated Festivus. This was not by choice. Every year, at my workplace’s celebratory holiday party, one guy always spent the entire time airing grievances at the rest of us. One of my coworkers would say, “Are you ready for Festivus this year?”

He was, of course, referencing the famous story line on the television comedy Seinfeld, in which George Costanza’s father, Frank, celebrated his own made-up holiday—complete with an aluminum pole, feats of strength, and the airing of grievances. I always laughed at my coworker’s joke because, after all, Festivus was funny, the product of Jerry Seinfeld’s or some writer’s comedic imagination.

Except that it wasn’t.

On an episode of their podcast Fever Dreams, the news website Daily Beast (some profanity there) talked to former Seinfeld writer Dan O’Keefe, who explained the real-life origins of Festivus. He said the holiday was not fictional, at least not for him as a child, and it was anything but funny.

O’Keefe’s father, a Reader’s Digest editor and “an undiagnosed bipolar, severe alcoholic,” invented Festivus—symbolized by placing a clock in a bag and hanging it on the wall. The famous aluminum pole wasn’t part of it, but the airing of grievances definitely was.

“It was just a very formalized setting for yelling at us,” O’Keefe told Fever Dreams. “Growing up, myself and my two brothers were in a form of child abuse that yet wasn’t recognized as such by the state of New York, induced to perform seasonal rituals.”

Despite his best efforts, some of O’Keefe’s Seinfeld colleagues found out about this family Festivus holiday and convinced him to write it into the show. So he adapted it to Frank Costanza’s version—minus the abusive behavior and the childhood trauma. And who knows how many writers’-room sessions later, the Festivus we’ve laughed at in reruns for years was created.

My first thought was That is dark. Then I thought, How did I never hear this story till now? I wondered how many more of my favorite comedy moments started this way. Is there a horror story behind Dundies awards? Or behind funerals for beloved miniature horses? I didn’t want to know.

But then I wondered whether Festivus is the holiday of this cultural moment.

Over a decade ago, James Davison Hunter warned that Christian cultural and political engagement had failed for a number of reasons. One reason was that this culture’s politics has been increasingly characterized by what Friedrich Nietzsche called “ressentiment.” This involves more than resentment, Hunter argued; it includes “anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge as the motive of political action.”

In his book To Change the World, Hunter wrote, “Ressentiment is grounded in a narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged.” This is especially true, he contended, when the group holds a sense of entitlement—to greater respect, to greater power, to a place of majority status. Such a posture is a political psychology that expresses itself with “the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable.”

In Hunter’s explanation, the church—at least in its culture war activist form—did not withstand this pull but plunged into ressentiment headlong. Thus, we end up with the language of “reclaiming” America or “taking back the culture.”

I started to say that Hunter probably did not foresee it getting this bad—but then I remembered that he also wrote the book Before the Shooting Begins.

And as it turns out, it all comes down to airing of grievances and feats of strength. Before we say, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” we should consider what it has done to us—not only as a country but, more importantly, as a church.

Consider Luke 4:16–30, that pivotal moment in which our Lord Jesus announced his mission. To the rest of the world—to our own children—do we look more like the One proclaiming the “the year of the Lord’s favor” or like the crowd outraged by the suggestion that the kingdom was bigger than their ethnic and national boundaries? Do we look more like the “furious” mob seeking revenge at the edge of the cliff or like the One who calmly “walked right through the crowd,” face set like flint toward the Cross?

This doesn’t make sense in a world where feats of strength are necessary to ward off threats. If one has no living God, the Sermon on the Mount looks weak and the protection of Pharaoh looks strong (Isa. 30:1–2). If there is no judgment seat of Christ, then grievance airing, with its accelerating shrillness and theatricality, is the way to make sure that “it is mine to avenge; I will repay” (Rom. 12:19)—only after we redefine what avenge means and who I refers to.

Avenging ourselves is all we need to do to avoid our calling as ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18–21) and embrace a different calling—one that feels better, intimidates more, raises more money, and mobilizes more crowds. Sure, it leads to death in the end (Prov. 14:12). But death is a long time off, isn’t it?

And yet, here we are with Scripture that makes its way even into some of the Christmas carols playing in the grocery store or the mall. Herod was “disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him,” at the news of a different King (Matt. 2:3). His rage and ressentiment were a sign not of how strong he was but of how threatened, scared, angry, and pitiful he felt. Like the old spirit of Eden, he marches forward “filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short” (Rev. 12:12). Old Herod still speaks with just as much wrath, just as much fear, and just as much hunger for power, saying, “Come, follow me.”

But we have something different.

We have a word handed down to us that tells us, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). And the sign is in a feeding trough (v. 12). The sign is at the pigeon table in the temple courts (vv. 22–38). The sign is a body present on an imperial execution stake and a body absent from a borrowed tomb. The sign is what seems weak and foolish and unrealistic. That’s where the wisdom is, the power is, the Reality is.

But what we have requires a different kind of power than Darwinian strength projection to prove our worth to whatever Pharaoh or Caesar we want to protect us. It requires a different kind of belonging than what comes by loathing all the people our tribe tells us to hate.

It requires us to be a people who really believe that what we carry is news, that it is good, and that it is for all people.

Feats of strength and airing of grievances are exhausting and demoralizing. Look at all their fruits. Are we more connected, or are we lonelier? Is the light of the gospel more visible or less?

David Foster Wallace warned us about this: “Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay.” And, like Festivus, it all seems funny until you see the trauma underneath.

Maybe what we need is not a new holiday, real or metaphorical, for “the rest of us.” Maybe what we need is “rest, for us.” Maybe what we long for is the kind of rest that need not prove by its self-protection and influence that it is worthy of love.

Maybe what we need is a different witness—an older kind, a kind that really is good news in a world where it’s always Festivus and never Christmas.

Some Thoughts on the Mars Hill Finale

During a 2020 episode of NPR’s This American Life podcast, one of the producers said that her family watched The Sound of Music a lot when she was a child. But somehow her parents misplaced the second VHS tape in the set, so she always thought the movie ended right after “So Long, Farewell” and the Christmas party. To her, it was a light, heartwarming movie about a singing family and romance—until, a few years ago, a friend mentioned the film’s Nazi characters. Her response was “What Nazis?” So she watched it again as an adult. And she was shocked that something she had seen with one perspective turned out to be utterly different.

I thought of this story as I tried—and failed—to listen all the way through the finale of CT’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, a podcast written and hosted by my colleague Mike Cosper.

Through all the episodes, I’ve been stunned with just how powerful a storyteller and analyst Mike Cosper is. And I’ve been amazed by how this series demonstrates that what many people find relatable comes not through the generic but through the particular.

Even—or maybe especially—for people who’ve never lived in a place like Seattle or never heard of Mars Hill or Mark Driscoll, this series landed precisely because it wasn’t about the abstractions of celebrity or success or church dysfunction. It was the story of a particular church, in a particular place, at a particular time, with particular people. And by our “living” there with them, we were able to see, for good and for ill, a much bigger story.

But what surprised me about the finale was not its excellence; I knew to expect that. It was the way I responded. I was listening while driving down the road, by myself, when I suddenly found myself crying—and then crying harder, to the point that I had to pull off the road and pause the episode. Maria would tell you that I easily mist up, usually when listening to sad songs about nostalgic themes, but it’s really rare for me to actually cry.

This happened to me as former Mars Hill staff members described how it felt to realize, in hindsight, just how toxic their situation was; how terrifying the 24/7 of it all turned out to be; how they chalked up to “just life” what was actually trauma; how they endured and, in many cases, unknowingly contributed to the trauma through their support.

It all felt so familiar.

Maybe someday I will write about why all of it affected me so much, but I’m not quite ready to yet. I did talk to a couple of friends who had the exact same reaction, though.

I thought about Johnny Cash’s song “Drive On,” about a Vietnam veteran haunted by the memories of well-loved friends who were killed before his eyes. The vet was taught, in war, to “drive on; it don’t mean nothin’.” There was no time to stop and grieve since you might well get shot. Driving on—convincing yourself that the horror wasn’t real and that you had to just press forward—was the only way to make it out of the jungle alive.

In his live Storytellers performance with Willie Nelson, Cash explained that, of course, such tragedies didn’t mean “nothin’”; they meant everything. As the song portrays, this old soldier’s telling himself otherwise didn’t keep the trauma away but only drove the memories deeper inside:

Well, a mortar fell 20 feet away
And I carry shrapnel, to this day
I came home, but Tex did not
And I can’t talk about the hit he got
But I got a little limp now when I walk
And I got a little tremolo went I talk
But I finally found out who I am
I’m a walkin’, talkin’ miracle from Vietnam.
Drive on, it don’t mean nothin’
My children love me, but they don’t understand
And I got a woman who knows her man
Drive on, it don’t mean nothin’, it don’t mean nothin’
Drive on.

The vet’s push to “drive on,” which seemed necessary to survive the war, couldn’t be the way to survive the aftermath. For that, he needed to grieve, to cry, to look at what was too painful to see.

I plan to listen to the rest of the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill finale today. But I find the power of that podcast remarkable, seen in the fact that it was so real—too real in the moment for me to just drive on.

A Listener on the Death Penalty

On a recent “Tell Me Where I’m Wrong” episode of the Russell Moore Show, Shane Claiborne talked about where he thinks I’m mistaken about the death penalty. One listener, Stacy Rector, executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, wrote in:

I recall in your conversation that you asked the question “Is there room for someone to say that he or she biblically supports the death penalty but that the current death penalty system is broken?” I am not sure if Shane answered that question directly, but I would like to. The answer is “Yes, there is!”

As you well know, Christians can disagree about biblical interpretation and how Scripture instructs us on a variety of important issues, including the death penalty. But the reality of the current death penalty system is that it is broken beyond repair and cannot be trusted to be fair or accurate.

We know the death penalty system continues to be unfairly applied, disproportionately impacting people of color, those living in poverty, and those with mental health issues. The system is far more expensive than the alternatives—which means that these are resources we are not spending to support victims of violent crime and their families and on evidence-based initiatives that actually reduce crime and make our communities safer, such as trauma-informed policing, community-based violence prevention, and more access to mental health care.

We also know that since 1973, 186 people have been exonerated from death rows across this country when evidence of their innocence emerged. This means that for every eight executions we have carried out in the same time period, we have let someone go because we were wrong—and those were the individuals who were able to demonstrate their innocence in time. Since we have alternatives that can ensure accountability and public safety, we do not need to risk the death of innocent people with the continued use of the death penalty.

The question becomes then, as one of my colleagues in ministry has said, not is the death penalty biblically justifiable, but can we do it justly? Is today’s death penalty in keeping with the high standards of the biblical death penalty? I think the answer is “no” on both counts.”

I truly believe that regardless of our biblical positions on the death penalty, most of us, when given the facts about how today’s death penalty is administered and applied, would agree that it is broken. I am convinced that there is room for Christians who believe in a biblical justification for the death penalty to also believe that the death penalty we have today is simply not working and not needed.

Again, Dr. Moore, I am deeply grateful for your having this incredibly meaningful conversation with Shane, for the great questions you posed, and for your willingness to listen.

Thank you for listening, Stacy. I look forward to learning from you.

Desert Island Playlist

This week’s submission comes from reader David Bailey, from my old stomping grounds in Louisville, Kentucky. David writes, “I am so thankful that you introduced the option for a desert island playlist. I like books, but I love music; so I had to take on the challenge. My Spotify Wrapped told me that my musical ‘aura’ was Focused and Wistful—and I’m still not totally sure what that means. But I guess between my love for melancholy ballads, dance pop, and everything in between, it probably means something fairly eclectic. I’ll let you be the judge.”

1. “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room,” by John Mayer. This is the centerpiece of Continuum, which is easily a Top 5 album of all time for me, but the live version is the best. That guitar solo still gives me chills, no matter how often I listen to it.

2. “Piano Man,” by Billy Joel. I had to pick at least one oldie to put on this list, and this is just a fun song that has me singing along every time it comes on.

3. “Miracle of Living,” by Darrell Scott. This song gives me a sense of adventure and reminds me that life is good—both of which would be helpful while stranded on a desert island.

4. “Jolene,” by Zac Brown Band. Probably the ultimate song commemorating a love lost. It pairs nicely with the song by Dolly Parton, but there is only room for one Jolene on this playlist.

5. “All Too Well,” by Taylor Swift. My favorite song by my favorite artist. I believe I’m legally obligated as a Swiftie to include this as my track 5.

6. “Misery Business,” by Paramore. Several times each year, I find myself listening to pop punk nonstop. If I wind up with that craving while on my desert island, I want to make sure I’m prepared with the one song that will be a staple as long as pop punk is still being listened to.

7. Uptown Funk,” by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars. I literally don’t believe that I can refrain from dancing whenever this song comes on, and I think that’s an important thing to have on a desert island playlist.

8. “The Road, the Rocks, and the Weeds,” by John Mark McMillan. I’m so glad a friend shared this song with me in the early stages of the pandemic. The album (Peopled with Dreams) and this track, in particular, helped me through that tough season. I’d imagine it would be handy again on the aforementioned desert island.

9. “One Day More,” from Les Misérables. Or maybe “ABC Café.” Or, actually, I’m on a desert island so let’s just include the whole two-hour soundtrack and pretend it’s one song.

10. “Beth/Rest,” by Bon Iver. I’m not sure what exactly it is (I mean, you can’t even understand the nonsensical lyrics), but this song is hauntingly brilliant. If I’m on a road trip at twilight or watching the sunrise over the ocean, it’s a guarantee that this song will be playing.

11. “Evermore,” by Taylor Swift. Okay, I had to squeeze in one more Taylor song. She is an amazing lyricist, and when you mix that with a simple but poignant piano melody, you have a song that I would listen to anytime and anywhere.

David concludes, “Okay, that was a fun exercise. I guess I'll go make a Spotify playlist for it now.”

Thanks, David! What do you think?

If you’d like to join in, ask yourself this question: If you were stranded on a desert island and could have only one bookshelf or one playlist with you, what books or songs would you choose?

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

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

Include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like. You can send these to

Quote of the Moment

The Inevitable is what will seem to happen to you purely by chance;
The Real is what will strike you as really absurd;
Unless you are certain you are dreaming, it is certainly a dream of your own;
Unless you exclaim—“There must be some mistake”—you must be mistaken.

—W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio


Thomas R. Schreiner, The Joy of Hearing: A Theology of the Book of Revelation (Crossway)

R. J. (Sam) Berry with Laura S. Meitzner Yoder, John Stott on Creation Care (IVP UK)

Donald Hall, Old Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions (Godine)

Paul K. Moser, The Divine Goodness of Jesus: Impact and Response (Cambridge University Press)

Anna Della Subin, Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine (Metropolitan)

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Russell Moore

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