Russell Moore, Jesus Freak
The idea behind this sort of Moral Majority-era politics was clear, Moore writes in his new book, Onward. “Most Americans agreed on certain traditional values: monogamous marriage, the nuclear family, the right to life, the good of prayer and church attendance, free enterprise, a strong military, and the basic goodness of the American way of life. The argument was that this consensus represented the real America.” Presumably, everyone else—gays, divorcees, pacifists, socialists—lived outside the “real America.”
If such a “real America” ever existed in more than Leave It to Beaver re-runs, it certainly doesn’t exist now. Gay marriage is legal. Church attendance is down. Most TV shows are less about happy homes than the hectic, diverse tumble of American family life; the cultural preoccupation with perfectionist conservatism has largely come to an end.
Some see this as a loosely defined form of “secularization.” These are the people, Moore said, who approach him after church and ask, fearfully, whether Christianity is dying. “Behind that question is an assumption that Christianity is a sub-culture of American life,” he told me. “I think what is dying is cultural, nominal Christianity, and I don’t think we should panic about that. I think we should see that as an act of God’s grace.”
It may be more effective to package Christianity in terms of God and country and tradition, rather than sin and Christ and blood, but in Moore’s eyes, it’s less authentic. As he wrote in his book, “We were never given a mission to promote ‘values’ in the first place, but to speak instead of sin and of righteousness and judgement, of Christ and his kingdom.”
Moore is making an argument for embracing Christian strangeness. “Our message will be seen as increasingly freakish to American culture,” he writes. “Let’s embrace the freakishness, knowing that such freakishness is the power of God unto salvation.”
This word, “freak,” is both jarring and effective: It’s a high-school-hallway diss, all hard-edged consonants and staccato contempt. Christians have reclaimed this word before; the 1960s-era “Jesus freaks” mixed gospel teachings with hippie counter-culture. In many ways, Moore wants to capture a similar mentality, one of standing against and apart from culture, rather than trying to win it over. This is not quite the same as “the Benedict option,” as Rod Dreher has called it—a strategic retreat from culture and fortification of communities that share similar values. As Moore pointed out, the core of being an evangelical is evangelism, spreading the good news of Christ; there’s no low-church history of monastic retreat like there is in the Catholic or Orthodox traditions. But it is a strategic reorientation: to see the world through the eyes of the outcast, rather than the conqueror.
Read the whole thing. It was a treat to read this sitting in the Charlotte airport, in transit to Nashville, where Moore will preside over the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s 2015 national conference — this year’s theme is the Gospel and politics. With Moore at the ERLC helm, you can bet that this year’s event is going to be something new and bold. Tomorrow, I’m going to be on a panel with Ross Douthat, Michael Gerson, and Erick Erickson to talk about Christianity and political engagement. In what time I have, I’m going to make a pitch for the Benedict Option.
Maybe Emma Green is onto something in distinguishing between the Benedict Option and what Moore is teaching, but I’m not quite sure. I look forward to meeting him (at last) at the ERLC event, and maybe talking this through. It could be that Moore’s strategy is simply what the Benedict Option looks like from an Evangelical point of view. I have said that there can’t be a single Benedict Option, and that the Benedict Option will have to be tailored to specific traditions.
A couple of clarifications: I don’t think any lay Christian gets excused from evangelizing; it’s what Christians of all kinds do, though obviously Evangelicals have a particular emphasis on that. I have said it before and I will say it again: lay Christians are not monastics; the Benedict Option will draw from monastic spirituality and customs, adapting them to life in the world.
Second, it’s also true that while Catholics and Orthodox have had monasteries since virtually the beginning of Christianity, America has relatively few of them; monasticism has made little or no impression on American Christianity, so it’s not like we have many living models of monasticism to draw from. We Catholics and Orthodox are more like Evangelicals in that sense, though we do have monasticism in our traditions, so it’s not entirely foreign to us.
What I would say to Moore and other Evangelicals is that in order to be faithful to their calling as Evangelicals, they are almost certainly going to need to cultivate both the detachment that Moore rightly calls for, but also undertake retrenchment — that is, thicken their communal bonds, and recommit to the kind of spiritual practices (or develop new ones!) that reinforce our identity as Christians, and as freaks. Once again, let me point to church historian Robert Louis Wilken’s 2004 essay, “The Church As Culture,” especially these parts:
Can Christian faith—no matter how enthusiastically proclaimed by evangelists, how ably expounded by theologians and philosophers, or how cleverly translated into the patois of the intellectual class by apologists—be sustained for long without the support of a nurturing Christian culture? By culture, I do not mean high culture (Bach’s B-Minor Mass, Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew); I mean the “total harvest of thinking and feeling,” to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase—the pattern of inherited meanings and sensibilities encoded in rituals, law, language, practices, and stories that can order, inspire, and guide the behavior, thoughts, and affections of a Christian people.
Material culture and with it art, calendar and with it ritual, grammar and with it language, particularly the language of the Bible—these are only three of many examples (monasticism would be another) that could be brought forth to exemplify the thick texture of Christian culture, the fullness of life in the community that is Christ’s form in the world.
Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture. The unhappy fact is that the society in which we live is no longer neutral about Christianity. The United States would be a much less hospitable environment for the practice of the faith if all the marks of Christian culture were stripped from our public life and Christian behavior were tolerated only in restricted situations.
If Christian culture is to be renewed, habits are more vital than revivals, rituals more edifying than spiritual highs, the creed more penetrating than theological insight, and the celebration of saints’ days more uplifting than the observance of Mother’s Day. There is great wisdom in the maligned phrase ex opere operato, the effect is in the doing. Intention is like a reed blowing in the wind. It is the doing that counts, and if we do something for God, in the doing God does something for us.
In talking with my Evangelical friends, I tell them that I sometimes envy the zeal that Evangelicalism has for Christian living. That’s something we from the older traditions can learn from them. But some of them complain about how thin and shallow Evangelical culture is, and how much of it is built on enthusiasm and emotionalism. To the extent that that is true, they could learn from us the habits of Christian culture and practices. We Christians must all reacquaint ourselves with all these things, if we are going to make it through what is to come.
OK, time to board the flight to Nashville. I’m really looking forward to meeting new Evangelical friends at the conference. We are all in this together, all of us Jesus freaks.