Moore to the Point
Hello, fellow wayfarers. How there’s more than one way to pit Jesus against the Bible … Why the antidote to civil war might be in a hardware store in Henry County, Kentucky … Why the world isn’t actually as crazy right now as it looks … And the Desert Island Bookshelf … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.
Russell Moore
Revenge of the Black-Letter Christians

I remember once standing in a convention hall arguing with an elderly lady about the song “Jesus Loves Me.”

Let me say, first of all, that today I would thoroughly rebuke my 20-years-ago self for overconfidence in the theological correctness of my “tribe.” And I felt bad even at the time, because this woman reminded me of all the Southern Baptist ladies who had taught me Sunday school (and “Jesus Loves Me”!), right down to the bouffant hairdo. I’ll bet she had peppermints in her purse too.

I was annoyingly polemic, and she had every right to pat me on the head, say “Bless your heart,” and send me on my way.

We were on opposite sides of what was then a big doctrinal schism in my denominational tradition, and we were debating a point of contention in that controversy. When I asked for her interpretation of a biblical passage dealing with whatever the subject was, she said, “That’s Paul; that’s not Jesus. Jesus never said anything about that.”

When I turned to another passage, she said, “That’s the difference between you and me. Your authority is the Bible; mine’s Jesus.”

I responded, “But what do you know about Jesus apart from the Bible?”

And she said, “I know everything I need to know: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know!’”

And to that I said, “…for the Bible tells me so.”

At that, the woman turned and walked away.

I cringe now when I think of how proud I was of “winning” that debate. I assumed she walked away because she couldn’t respond to my devastating retort. Now I know she was probably thinking, Who is this punk, and how do I get away from him?
That said, while I now better understand the point she was trying to make, I still agree with my own point—if not with the churlish way I made it.

There was a time when I really worried about “red-letter Christianity”: the idea that the words of Jesus (printed in red in many Bibles) are more authoritative than the rest of Scripture and can override a theological or ethical teaching found in, say, the Old Testament or the Pauline Epistles.

I still am concerned about this mentality, which can be found in many places. But, increasingly, I’m seeing its mirror-image—a kind of “black-letter Christianity” that’s just as perilous.

At first glance, a prioritizing of the red letters makes sense. Jesus is, after all, more authoritative as a person than Moses or Jeremiah or Paul or John. If we found ourselves in a crowd of resurrected saints in heaven and some point of biblical interpretation came up, no one would look to Nahum if Jesus was nearby. The fullest revelation of God is Jesus Christ, and he makes sense not just of the rest of the Bible (Luke 24:27) but of the entire cosmos (Col. 1:17).

The problem with this direction is not that it becomes too focused on Jesus but that it isn’t focused enough.

Jesus’ view of the Bible is that it is the Word of God and cannot be broken. He reinterprets the revelation of God and the story of Israel, explaining how it is about him. Even when Jesus says, “Moses said, but I say unto you …,” it is never to explain away the hard edges of the Old Testament. Rather, it is to sharpen those edges even further: “Moses said no murder, but I say no rage in your heart either.”

Jesus also told his disciples that he had more to say, things they weren’t ready to hear just yet (John 16:12–13). And then, just as God chose prophets through whom to speak, Jesus did the same through apostles (Eph. 2:20). Even the direct speech we see from Jesus after his ascension, such as his letters to the churches in Revelation, comes through apostles he has chosen (in that case, John).

Moreover, without a view of the inspiration of all of Scripture, we don’t have red letters at all. Almost everyone acknowledges that the earliest-written New Testament books weren’t the Gospels but some letters of Paul. And the Gospels were written not only by Matthew and John, disciples of the Lord, but also by Mark and Luke, associates of apostles such as Peter and Paul.

The Bible claims that all Scripture “is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16), that the writers of Scripture “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21), and that the Spirit doing that carrying is “the Spirit of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:11). If that’s true, then as I used to tell my seminary students, every word of the Bible should be in red letters.

Many view red-letter rhetoric as a slippery slope that, taken to the extreme, could lead to an attempt to split apart Word from Spirit, Father from Son, Head from body. Those dangers are all real.

Yet like many other things, we tend not to see, as C. S. Lewis warned us in Mere Christianity, that the devil sends errors into the world not one by one but two by two—in “pairs of opposites,” on either side of the truth.

In the present discussion, that means splitting the Bible from Jesus is a temptation not just for red-letter Christians but for black-letter Christians too—and the stakes are just as high, if not higher.

In Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry described Jayber the barber listening to Troy, a waiting customer, rail about rounding up all the Communists and having them shot. Jayber stopped, looked at Troy, and said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”

Troy replied, “Where did you get that crap?”

When Jayber said, “Jesus Christ,” Troy could only respond, “Oh.”

Jayber then reflected, “It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.”

When I first read that, I assumed Berry was creating an especially hyperbolic scenario to make a point, contrasting authentic Sermon-on-the-Mount Christianity with the cultural version we see so often in American life. But over the past several years, I’ve heard and seen the exact same scenario happening in real life—from evangelicals who would all say that they believe the Bible.

We’ve heard some evangelical leaders and the politicians they support ridicule the “weakness” implied in “Turn the other cheek.” If that were just the bizarro world of cable television news, I would perhaps dismiss it. But several pastors have told me that when they’ve cited biblical principles like “Turn the other cheek” or “Love your enemies,” someone afterward has asked where they were getting their “liberal” ideas.

Another minister told me that after preaching on the Sermon on the Mount, a congregant said, “We’ve tried the ‘turn the other cheek’ stuff; it doesn’t work. It’s time now to fight.”

To be clear, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t “work,” and it never has—if what we mean by working is seeing the world’s definition of success on the world’s timetable. Ending up crucified is no society’s definition of winning.

That’s exactly the point Jesus was making. He turns all those definitions and expectations upside down.

Through many of the scandals happening in the church—and bubbling beneath the surface—some may find it easy to think that actual Christlikeness is not only optional for leaders but also an impediment to them. Many (if by no means all) churches will (rightly) fire and discipline a leader for sexual immorality. But when is the last time we’ve seen someone held accountable for quarrelsomeness or vindictiveness—things explicitly addressed by Jesus himself?

We can also see the tendency to split the Bible from Jesus in the kind of preaching that seems suspicious of using story, parable, and narrative—Jesus’ very method of teaching, which is consistent with the way God speaks in the Old Testament and is even presupposed by Paul and the other apostles in their letters.

If every Scripture passage, whether proverb or psalm or parable, must be put into a structure of point by subpoint by sub-subpoint in order to be preached, then we are not actually teaching the Bible. We are teaching a systematic theology or an ethics manual.

We are not saved by Christology; we are saved by Christ.

Thomas Jefferson cut up the Bible, taking out all the miraculous parts that his scientific mind couldn’t accept and leaving the ethical teachings of Jesus. That way is not true Christianity at all. But neither is the opposite tendency—to cut up the Bible, leaving all the miracles but ignoring the teachings of Jesus.

If Jesus is just a moral teacher, he is just another deceased guru. If Jesus is just an abstract means of delivering the systematic category of “atonement” and not a person who speaks to us and claims lordship, then he is just another debating point to win an argument or to claim one’s own orthodoxy. In neither case would he be worth following.

If all Scripture points to Christ and is interpreted in and by Christ, that means, as the apostle Paul put it, that all Scripture is “useful” (2 Tim. 3:16). When we hear any word of Scripture, then, we are hearing from Jesus, just as if he were speaking the words to us verbally.

The question is whether the prophets and apostles who wrote Scripture were bringing a word from their own minds or a message they were carrying from their Lord. That’s always been the question, which is why Paul repeatedly says, “I am telling the truth; I am not lying.” If we believe what the Bible claims for itself, what Jesus taught us about the Bible, then that question is resolved: The Bible is black and white and red all over.

But the red-letter Christians are right to remind us that when we see Jesus, we have seen the Father (John 14:9). Jesus is the full revelation of the glory of God (2 Cor. 4:6). As former Archbishop of Canterbury Arthur Michael Ramsey put it, “God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all.”

All of the Bible holds together with a plot line that comes together in one Person: the living Jesus of Nazareth. Less clear passages are interpreted by clearer ones—and the clearest revelation of all is this Person who says to us, “Come, follow me.”

In other words, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Culture Wars and Prepaid Forgiveness

Speaking of Wendell Berry, I was struck by part of a profile of him in the February 28 issue of the New Yorker. Berry described to the author, Dorothy Wickenden, how Trump voters and Biden voters seemed to get along at the hardware store in Henry County, Kentucky.

“If two neighbors know that they may seriously disagree, but that either of them, given even a small change of circumstances, may desperately need the other, should they not keep between them a sort of pre-paid forgiveness? They ought to keep it ready to hand, like a fire extinguisher,” Berry said. “A society with an absurdly attenuated sense of sin starts talking then of civil war or holy war.”

This seems to be right at the core of what we’re facing now. As a whole, we have almost no concept of prepaid forgiveness because we don’t think we need each other. Somehow, we believe that we need the ideological tribes we think we belong to. But arguing on the same side on the internet is not belonging. It’s not what Berry would call “membership.”

Belonging is not a transactional sense of “I might need you later, so I’ll love you now.” Instead, it’s a sense of one’s own dependence—a shift in perspective.

Maybe a domineering parent would see his or her child differently by recognizing that someday that child will be the one lifting the parent on and off a bedpan. The flame wars on the Nextdoor app might not exist if those involved could imagine themselves someday needing a next-door neighbor to set up a generator after a tornado. This sort of realization can lead to a sense of humanity, a benefit of the doubt that keeps us on this side of a “holy war.”

Prepaid forgiveness is not a panacea. If it were, we could all move to Henry County and have our culture wars there. But it’s not a bad place to start.

Everyone Is Not Going Crazy

As I’ve mentioned here before, these days when I’m talking to an older person with a broad sense of history or to an actual historian or sociologist, my first question is this: “Is everything as crazy as it seems? Is this new, or is it just life and I’m just now noticing it?”

So far, almost everyone has said the same thing: Something indeed is different and has gone badly wrong. Even so, that doesn’t mean everyone has gone crazy.

Axios reported this week that research backs up what many of us know by intuition: Most people actually aren’t as angry and anxious and unhinged as it appears on Twitter or Facebook. “We dug into the data and found that, in fact, most Americans are friendly, donate time or money, and would help you shovel your snow. They are busy, normal, and mostly silent.”

“The rising power and prominence of the nation’s loudest, meanest voices obscures what most of us personally experience: Most people are sane and generous—and too busy to tweet,” the authors state, pointing to these statistics:

  1. About 75 percent of Americans never tweet.
  2. On an average weeknight, only 1 percent of American adults watch primetime Fox News, and only 0.5 percent watch MSNBC.
  3. Almost three times more Americans (56 percent) donated to charities during the pandemic than those who usually donate to politicians and parties (21 percent).

This doesn’t mean that everything is fine. I expect that the dominance of the least-healthy voices could make the appearance of craziness become a reality. In other words, if all that people see of Christianity are the wildest talk-radio hosts and the theo-bros on Twitter, it will change the dynamic of those who give Christianity a hearing. If the only ones talking at the school board meetings are those bussed in to scream, it will change the dynamic of those who show up for those meetings.

Still, in a time of Russian invasions and deadly viruses, we will take the good news where we can get it. Your neighbors probably don’t hate each other as much as we think. Crazy seems to be winning, but sanity is still around.

Desert Island Bookshelf

This week’s submission comes from reader Jim Chatfield, who lists these books:

The 49th Mystic, by Ted Dekker—Saga of high stakes and a mind-bending quest (from the dust cover)

Rise of the Mystics, by Ted Dekker—Cannot just have volume 1

Do You Believe?, by Paul David Tripp—Historic doctrines, with one chapter discussing the doctrine and another chapter discussing the doctrine in everyday life

A Practical Primer on Theological Method, by Glenn Kreider and Michael J. SvigelApproaching theological methods from eight unique “disciplines”

Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans, compiled and edited by Robert Elemer

Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, by Russell Moore—As it states on the back cover of the book, “Keep Christianity strange.”

How Should We Then Live?, by Francis A. Schaeffer—The rise and decline of Western thought and culture (Note: originally published in 1976. Too bad I probably wouldn’t be able to watch the video series on a desert island.)

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by J. R. R. Tolkien—Epic quest

When Doctrine Divides the People of God: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity, by Rhyne Putman—(not pictured because my copy is loaned out) As the publisher describes it: “encouraging us toward grace in disagreement and firmness in truth”

Thanks, Jim!

Readers, what do you think?

If you were stranded on a desert island and could have only one playlist or one bookshelf with you for the rest of your life, 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 to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

Quote of the moment

Tribalism is community for lonely narcissists.
—David Brooks

Currently Reading

Wisława Szymborska, How to Start Writing (and When to Stop): Advice for Writers (New Directions)

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy: With Annotations and Guided Reading by Trevin Wax (B&H)

Michael Kazin, What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Eric C. Smith, John Leland: A Jeffersonian Baptist in Early America (Oxford University Press)

Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks, The Other Half of Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation (Moody)

Karl Allen Kuhn, Luke: the Elite Evangelist (Liturgical)

Currently Watching

Thanks to a recommendation in Matt Labash’s (excellent) newsletter, I am watching the movie North of the Sun, a Norwegian documentary about two surfers who build a driftwood cabin on the bay of an Atlantic coast arctic island.

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Russell Moore

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