Moore to the Point
Hello, fellow wayfarers. Why Good Friday should redefine our social media warfare … What the Big Bang has to do with Easter … How to define evangelical … Plus, a Desert Island Bookshelf that I would happily take to sea with me … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.
Russell Moore
How the Cross Contradicts Our Culture Wars

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote this week in The Atlantic that we are all now living on the other side of the Tower of Babel. Haidt, an atheist, doesn’t mean that literally, of course. The metaphor points to America’s fracturing into culturally tribal factions, which Haidt argues reached its tipping point in 2009, when Facebook pioneered the “Like” button and Twitter added a retweet function. Although culture wars existed before, these technological developments encouraged triviality, mob mentalities, and the possibility of everyday outrage in ways never seen before.

For Haidt, this descent into Babel means not a new culture war but a different kind of culture war—where the target is not people on the other side so much as those on one’s own side who express any sympathy whatsoever for the other side’s viewpoints (or even their humanity). Political or cultural (or religious) extremists whose goal is to produce viral content thus target “dissenters or nuanced thinkers on their own team,” making sure that democratic institutions based on compromise and consensus “grind to a halt.”

At the same time, Haidt contends, this sort of outrage-fueled, enhanced virality explains why our institutions are “stupider en masse” because “social media instilled in their members a chronic fear of getting darted,” leaving the discourse controlled by a tiny minority of extremist trolls—all looking for “traitors” or “Karens” or “heretics” to root out.

Haidt’s metaphor might be even more on point than he knows. Babel, after all, was not just a technological achievement leading to fragmentation and confusion. Babel was rooted in two driving forces—which are also behind the outrage culture we are submerged in right now.

One of these is the desire for personal glory and fame. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves,” the Babel builders say (Gen. 11:4).

On any given day, we can see this dynamic at work in people who think the only way to build their personal brand is to attack someone they deem more significant or to say something outrageous enough to draw mobs of supporters and dissenters.

The other driving force is the desire for self-protection. The tower was necessary, the builders said, because “otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (v. 4). The technology was needed to forestall an existential threat.

So what should a Christian posture be in this post-Babel world?

James Davison Hunter warned over a decade ago that much of American evangelical “culture war” engagement was based in a heightened sense of “ressentiment,” which he said went beyond resentment to include a combination of anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge. In ressentiment, a sense of injury and anxiety becomes key to the group’s identity.

Often, this sort of anxiety-fueled rage and revenge is bound up not with a fear of specific policy outcomes but with a more primal fear, more akin to middle school: the fear of humiliation. It feels like a kind of death—the kind that leaves one exposed and ridiculed by the outside world.

In Hunter’s view, a ressentiment posture is heightened when the group holds a sense of entitlement—to greater respect, to greater power, to a place of majority status. This posture, he warned, 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.”

It was no coincidence that Jerry Falwell Sr. named his political movement the Moral Majority. Hearkening back to Richard Nixon’s “silent majority,” the idea was that most Americans wanted the same values as conservative evangelicals but were stymied by coastal liberal elites who were able to rule over the wishes of most people.

Often—whether it’s immigrant caravans overwhelming the border, the concept of American elites developing a global pandemic to control the population with vaccines, or the rhetoric of Satan-worshiping pedophile rings at the highest levels of government—the most contentious aspects of American life center on the question “Who is trying to take America away from us?”

In her book High Conflict, Amanda Ripley writes that humiliation happens whenever our brains have conducted “a rapid-fire evaluation of events and fit it into our understanding of the world.” But that’s not enough. She argues, “To be brought low, we have to first see ourselves as belonging up high.”

To illustrate this, Ripley points to her once-ever golf outing, in which she missed the ball over and over again. She laughed at herself, she said, but didn’t feel humiliated because “being good at golf is not part of [her] identity.” However, if world-renowned golfer Tiger Woods did the same thing, he would likely feel humiliated, especially if his misses were caught on camera in front of a wide television audience.

Yet the Cross is quite different. As Fleming Rutledge notes in her magisterial work The Crucifixion, the Roman Empire could not have chosen a worse means to signify humiliation and domination than to crucify those who stood against their rule. A cross did not just end a life; it did so in the most ridiculing way possible—magnifying Caesar’s domination over the one gasping for air on a stake.

With Roman soldiers standing around and crowds screaming in rage and laughter, Good Friday looked like the triumph of Babel, right down to the signs in multiple languages over the head of the crucified King.

And yet Jesus spoke of this downward trajectory as the way in which he would be “lifted up,” and would “draw all people to himself” (John 12:32).

This stands in contrast not only to those who would seek to magnify themselves, such as Caesar who wanted no rivals to his reign, but also to those who would seek their own self-protection, such as the disciples who fled in fear. Only the crucified Christ—the sin-bearing Lamb of God—vindicated by the resurrecting power of his Father, could pour out the Spirit in a way that could reverse Babel at Pentecost.

But the Resurrection and Ascension were not an undoing of the Crucifixion. They were, instead, a continuation of what Jesus pronounced to be already a triumph through defeat, a power through weakness.

As New Testament scholar Richard Hays once noted, after his resurrection Jesus did not appear to Pilate or to Caesar or to Herod. To do so would have been to vindicate himself—to win an argument rather than to save a world. Instead, as Luke puts it, Jesus “presented himself alive” (Acts 1:3, ESV) to those he had chosen as witnesses. That’s because Jesus’ kingdom would advance not through resentment and grievance but through those who bore witness to him with sincerity and truth, even to the loss of their own lives.

Conquering like that—through “the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:11)—is what winning looks like when one sees who the Enemy actually is.

Experts tell us to expect the next few years to be worse than the previous ones. Those who seek to make a name for themselves by exploiting fear and outrage will continue to get better at it. And they will not lack for an audience that will believe the only thing standing between them and annihilation is the requisite amount of theatrical anger.

Culture wars and outrage cycles can fuel ratings and clicks and fundraising appeals, but they cannot reconcile sinners to a holy God. They cannot reunite a fragmented people. And they can’t even, in the long run, make us less afraid.

As Christians, Good Friday should remind us that adding more outrage and anger to a culture already exhausted by its own is not how God defines his wisdom and power.

Babel building can’t help us. Only cross carrying can.

The Big Bang and the Empty Tomb

“Don’t you want to come spend the evening with the world’s only surviving hobbit?”

So asked a friend of mine, inviting me to gather with other folks at his house to spend time with one of my favorite poets, Malcolm Guite, who was visiting Nashville from England.

From Guite’s white mane and beard to his three-piece suit, to the smoke rings he blew from his pipe, I felt as though I were at a fireplace somewhere in the Shire. I could have listened to his stories all night.

At some point, he started talking about Easter Sunday sermons, and I haven’t been able to shake what he said.

Guite mentioned one such sermon by physicist and priest John Polkinghorne from some years ago. The poet recalled that the scientist spent an extended portion of the homily’s opening talking about the physics of the Big Bang and the outward expansion of the universe ever since. This is all fine and good, the poet thought. But it’s Easter.

That’s when, Guite said, the sermon turned to the empty tomb. He recalled Polkinghorne pointing out that just as the singularity of the Big Bang allows us to observe a tiny fragment of this vast universe, perhaps the resurrection of Jesus does the same in some ways.

Unable to get the imagery out of my head, I went and looked up a few talks in which Polkinghorne used this metaphor. One need not agree with Polkinghorne on everything (I don’t) to see the power of this analogy. He seemed to direct these talks to people who are skeptical of the Resurrection because resurrections just don’t happen. When we go to a funeral, none of us expect the corpse to stand up and greet us. Dead is dead.

But, Polkinghorne argued, of course we don’t expect resurrection from the dead. The Resurrection is the beginning of a new creation, he said, just as scientists view the Big Bang as the beginning point of the cosmos. Those who can’t imagine the reality of the empty tomb don’t understand that they are judging an entirely new state of reality by an old one.

Polkinghorne argued that the resurrection of Jesus, as the “firstborn from among the dead” (Col. 1:18) and the start of the new creation, is a singular event whose reverberations—like the Big Bang—expand ever outward.

We often wonder, as did the early church, why we are so far out from the Resurrection and yet the kingdom is not yet fully here. Jesus has not yet returned. The rest of the dead are not yet raised. We still exist in a world of decay and death and sin.

And yet, the physicist reminds us, in the span of cosmic time, the Resurrection just happened. We are only at the beginning.

I may think about that sermon, which I heard only secondhand, every time I hear something about physics or astronomy or the structure of the cosmos. Maybe the resurrection of Jesus is the truer and better Big Bang.

Maybe behind that moment in a borrowed tomb, when a heart started pumping again and a hand reached up to pull off a facecloth, was the quiet echo of a familiar voice saying, “Let there be light.”

A Pretty Good Definition of Evangelical

Speaking of Fleming Rutledge, I was rereading her truly magnificent book on the Crucifixion and noticed in my highlights a footnote I had forgotten about. Rutledge quotes the biblical scholar F. F. Bruce describing what he means by the word evangelical.

The term evangelical, of course, has suffered much at the hands of evangelicals. Many don’t even want to use it anymore. Some want to define it in merely sociological or political terms—as though an evangelical is merely a demographic bloc. And some want to define evangelical theologically but in a way that makes it all about assent to a series of abstractions. At worst, these definitions turn out to be not very theological at all; instead, they are based on whatever the last generation of controversies were, separating the in-group from the out-group on the basis of all those old arguments.

Yet Bruce, Rutledge noted, defined the word differently: “An evangelical is one who believes in the God who justifies the ungodly.”

Each of those words requires an entire chapter of the Book of Romans to unpack. But as definitions go, it’s not a bad start.

Desert Island Bookshelf

This week’s submission comes from reader Matt Wiley. Matt and I have such similar tastes that I think we should start a book club together.

  • Marilynne Robinson, Gilead—A novel about paying attention.

  • Cormac McCarthy, The Road—A story about the apocalyptic journey.

  • Luci Shaw, ed., A Widening Light—A collection of poems about the Incarnation.

Thanks, Matt!

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

“The Cross of Christ is not the preliminary of the Kingdom; it is the Kingdom breaking in. It is not the clearing of the site for the heavenly city; it is the city itself descending out of heaven from God.”
—P. T. Forsyth, in The Justification of God

“Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.”
—Matthew 28:5–6

Currently Reading

Eberhard Busch, The Barmen Theses Then and Now (Eerdmans)

Jonathan A. Linebaugh, The Word of the Cross: Reading Paul (Eerdmans)

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (Vintage)

Gal Beckerman, The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas (Crown)

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Russell Moore

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