What does it mean that we must "lose our religion" in order to regain the integrity of the gospel message? What must the church do to regain its faithfulness to the way of Jesus in our polarized culture. Join Scott and Sean as they discuss these questions and more with Russell Moore, Editor in Chief of Christianity Today, and one of the most insightful commentators on the intersection of Christian faith and contemporary culture.

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).
The Wall Street Journal has called Moore “vigorous, cheerful, and fiercely articulate.” He was named in 2017 to Politico Magazine’s list of top fifty influence-makers in Washington, and has been profiled by such publications as the New York Times, the Washington Post, TIME Magazine, and the New Yorker.

Episode Transcript

Scott: Has the evangelical church lost its integrity, its credibility? What does it mean that the church must "lose its religion" in order to regain its soul? We'll answer these questions and more with our guest and good friend, Dr. Russell Moore, executive editor of Christianity Today and author of a brand new book called "Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America." I'm your host, Scott Rae.

Sean: And I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell.

Scott: And this is Think Biblically, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University. Russell, so glad to have you with us again.

Russel: I'm always thrilled to be with you.

Scott: You're one of our very favorites here.

Russell: Well, likewise.

Scott: And I so appreciate your book. This is one to read slowly and carefully. And my guess is, it sounds like it's the culmination of quite a long spiritual journey for you. So how would you summarize the backstory behind this that motivated you to write it at this time?

Russell: The backstory really came out of a bunch of conversations that I was having with people who were coming to me and saying, "I'm just almost in a place of despair." And I was actually also having that conversation myself with people that I trust and working through that sense of, is everything as crazy as it seems? And is there an off ramp to all the craziness? So, it was working my way through those conversations really was the starting point to write the book.

Sean: We had you on about five years ago, which was close to the beginning of this podcast, interestingly enough. You were one of our early guests. Thanks for joining us. But I distinctly remember you said there were some subjects to which you asked us not to go there. Namely related to a particular controversial candidate named Donald Trump. But in this book, you don't pull any punches, not only on that topic, but on others. What's changed?

Russell: Well, I decided when I wrote this book that I was going to speak very honestly and bluntly as I could to people as though I were sitting with them, talking to them. Because it's at a place where I think that there are a lot of people who simply say, "Well, let's just focus on the good things." And that leaves a lot of people saying, "I must be the crazy one." Or people who are saying, "Well, everything's lost, abandoned everything." And I'm not in either of those positions. So I said, "I'm just going to come with my whole vulnerable self." And there were times in writing this that my wife would say to me, if she's reading along, "Are you sure you want to say that?"

Sean: Been there and done that.

Scott: Yes, we have.

Sean: Wait, hang on. So did she win out or did you win out on this one?

Russell: I won out mostly on this one. There were a couple of times where I said, "Yeah, you're right. I'll not say that that way." So, and a lot of it had to do with, I think there was somebody who said that, "Oh, are you going to have a tell all where you go through specific evangelical leaders and so forth. No, that's not what I'm trying to do. And the reason it's not is because I think the problem's a lot deeper than just this figure or this personality or that personality. And because honestly, that's all so unpredictable right now. I mean, I can look back and one of the things that I've learned and that I wrestled with in this book is that there were some people that I never would have imagined to have the grit and integrity and maturity and everything else you can imagine. And so I've often been surprised in both directions. I think that times of crisis tend to reveal that.

Scott: And Russell, I suspect many of our listeners will recognize the term losing our religion from the popular rock and roll song. But what do you mean by that term? And you're obviously encouraging us to lose our religion in some sense. So help our listeners understand what exactly you mean by that.

Russell: Well, there was a moment in which I really became worried about a woman that I knew as Roman Catholic and who posted on her (and a very devout Roman Catholic) and she posted on one of her social media feeds just that video of REM’s losing my religion, which has become kind of a shorthand for walking away from one's faith. And some people checked in on her and she said, "No, I'm not walking away from my faith. I'm just really upset and frustrated right now." And over time, as I looked at what that song actually was about, it really wasn't about losing faith, although one could credibly take it that way. It was about the application of the southern expression, "I'm gonna lose my religion." Meaning I'm about to speak and act in a way that doesn't have any grace to it because I'm about to lose my religion if I have to sit in this line at the DMV one minute longer, something like that. And the more I thought about it, the more I came to see that those actually aren't two different things right now often. That there is a crisis of faith that's happening that is rooted often in genuine anger at some awful things. And so the more I thought about it, I also thought about the way that I would always roll my eyes anytime that I heard a fellow evangelical say, "Christianity is not a religion, it's a relationship." And I would say to myself, "It's both. Religion is not a bad word. It's in James 1 and so forth." But the more I've thought about that, I've thought, "Well, what is intended when that statement is said?" And what's intended is that Christianity is not just a religion, and that often that kind of cold, dead, lifeless structure has to go in order to follow Christ. And I think that that's what's going on right now in this time of shaking. God's making a lot of things that we thought were really stable come apart and creating some new things. And that's disorienting for a lot of us.

Sean: I've been studying for years almost every study I can get my hands on why kids leave their faith. And you made a unique contribution to that. You've said it's not so much what Christianity teaches, but that they don't think we believe what Christianity teaches. And to flesh this out, you raised a certain question. You said, what if people don't leave the church because they disapprove of Jesus, but they've read the Bible and concluded that the church would disapprove of Jesus? What makes you think this is the heart of the problem, why so many people are disengaging the church?

Russell: Because if you look at the reasons that are given for people losing trust and confidence in the church as an institution, they seem to be disconnected. Some people will say it's the politicization of the church. Some people will say it's all of the scandals. Some people will say it's the sexual abuse revelations that are there. Actually, I think there's a common theme to all of those things, which is, is Christianity just a means to an end? And if so, tell us what the end is. And that's particularly heightened in a time when... There was a time in which people felt culturally hemmed in, in some places in the United States, So they couldn't walk away from their faith without just an extraordinary will to say, "I'm going to be an outlier in my community." Those days (in most of the country), those days are gone. And so you really have this sense of, "I'm having to reevaluate all of this, and it sure looks like a lot of it is just marketing or mobilization or something else. Now I don't think that's true when it comes to the gospel or to the church, but I certainly do think it's true in a lot of institutional forms. And so the people who conclude that… Several times over the past several years, I've had secular non-believing friends who said to me, "Now, have you ever come to the point of losing your faith in all of this?" And I've always said no, but I think it's because I had already worked through. The key to parenting, they say, adolescents is to give them manageable crises. They have small scale problems that you don't keep them from, but you help them to work through those, and then they can apply them to the bigger crises later on. I really had that happen as a teenager going through that. It sort of inoculated me to this confusion between Jesus and what goes by the name of Jesus. But there are a lot of people who haven't had that experience. They haven't had people in their lives to show a different way. And so one can easily understand how they would conclude, “Well, this is just a fraud.”

Scott: That's really helpful. I suspect that that's part of the claim that you are making that the evangelical church has lost its identity. What has it become in your view?

Russell: Well, there's a reason why often when I use the word evangelical, as recently as an hour ago, when I use the word evangelical, was someone say, "Well, why use that word? It has become so bound up either with one particular kind of political action, or with scandal and so forth." And what I'll always say is I don't know of an alternative, and I don't want to just surrender that word, but it is a confusing time for a lot of people who are saying, “Is this just another way to express who I am in terms of some tribe or the other, or is this transcendent, is this above all of that?” And so I think that there's a great deal of confusion coming in with that. And I think there are many reasons for that, but one of them is the loss of a kind of congregational cohesion. If you just look at the numbers and the statistics of how many people who are completely comfortable calling themselves evangelical Christians who never go to church. And indeed, when I'm talking to people, the person who says, "I don't want to use the word evangelical,” is usually someone who doesn't want to use the word evangelical because they're so committed to biblical authority and the necessity of new birth and so forth. And then I look around and I've got some people I grew up with who are posting Christian memes on Facebook all the time, who haven't been in a church since vacation Bible school sometime in the first Bush administration.

(All laughing)

Russell: So there's a kind of identity crisis here. And I think, one of the things I think that evangelical Christianity, particularly, if we define that the right way, brings to the church and to the world is this understanding of the personal aspect. You must be born again. You don't come before God group by group, tribe by tribe, nation by nation, village by village, family by family, or even church by church. You come before God one by one. And I think that emphasis can be distorted as any emphasis can and can become a kind of individualism. But when it's rightly put in its context, it really is signaling, "No, this isn't just about joining another ideology. This is about a transformation." And so that, I think, is really at the heart of a lot of our identity crisis.

Sean: Two-part question for you about Christian nationalism. First off, how big of an issue, or maybe some would say a threat, do you find it to the church? And how would you contrast it with biblical Christian faith? In other words, how big of an issue is this, and what at its core do you think Christian nationalism gets wrong? I'll take the second question first. I think that Christian nationalism is not just an aberration off of Christianity. I think it is an entirely different religion. It is a heresy. And I think what Christian nationalism does is to take the symbols, the rituals, the authority, in many cases, of Christianity and apply that as a means to an end of ethno-nationalism. This is a huge problem, to get at your first question, for a couple reasons. One of them being that you can see Christian nationalism emerging all over the world. It's happening all over the world with a lot of key common characteristics. You see that with the co-opting of the Russian Orthodox Church by Vladimir Putin. You see that in France and in Germany and in the Netherlands and in various other places where there are movements that are Christian, but what they really mean if you press the leadership, what it really means to be Christian is to be French, or to be German, or to be Dutch, or to be something other than whoever the out group is. In the United States, one of the things that people will say is, "Oh, you shouldn't even and dignify Christian nationalism by talking about it because it's such a fringe movement.” And that is not true. Yes, you've got a lot of people in congregations who would not subscribe to all the tenets of Christian nationalism, just as with other things. The prosperity gospel, for instance. The prosperity gospel was a huge problem, not because of what it was doing to one particular wing of TV evangelists or Pentecostals, but because it filters out in all kinds of ways where people don't even know where ideas have come from, but they start to believe that those things are the case. And that's exactly what's happening with Christian nationalism right now. And sometimes the way you see it is not so much in ideas as in adrenaline. What are the things that cause somebody to become afraid and anxious? And in almost every case these days… I can't tell you the last time that I've had to adjudicate a fight between two Christians over the Trinity or over Christology.

Sean: Interesting.

Russell: It's usually over some of those questions of identity that are rooted in something else. I mean, I knew of a couple where there was almost a wedding that was almost disrupted because the bride's parents were very concerned about the groom's parents because they didn't vote the same way. And this became a big sort of confrontation that you would think would be almost Matthew 18 along the lines of finding out, "Oh, my daughter's marrying into an Asherah cult," or something like that. That was what really energized. And I think that's part of the draw of a lot of these ethnic identity nationalist populist authoritarian movements is it gives this feeling of life short term. And I think that's a really dangerous illusion.

Scott: I can't even imagine the dispute over who you voted for disrupting a wedding ceremony, not to mention a marriage.

Sean: My goodness.

Scott: That's wild.

Russell: Well, I think they got it worked out before that.

(All laughing)

Scott: I hope so.

Russell: But the fact that they even had to have that conversation is a sign of something.

Scott: Russell, there's so many insightful points in the book and some things that, frankly, I hadn't thought about before. One of the things you point out is that one of the ironies of our own present moment is that our evangelical church wants to feel like a dominant majority and a beleaguered minority at the same time. And I can see we're wanting to be one or the other at different times, but I think that's a really insightful observation that we are lamenting, sort of looking back with nostalgia to the 1980s, but also, the fear element sets in, and we see ourselves as this beleaguered minority both at the same time. How do we get to this place of wanting to have this both ways at the same time?

Russell: Well, psychologists and sociologists can demonstrate that resentment and grievance are the strongest when there is this sense of a loss of status. Somebody is taking something away from you. So Amanda Ripley, who does really good work on conflict, talks about the fact that she went golfing with a friend one time and she was terrible at it And she laughed and it was no big deal. She wasn't humiliated by that or embarrassed by that. She said, "But if I had been Tiger Woods and had played that game of golf, it would have felt like an existential threat and it would have been absolutely humiliating." Because you're the best golfer in the world, arguably. And so that really has taken root for a lot of us, a sense of, we're really the real America and most people are with us, and yet we're persecuted and mistreated. And one of the reasons I think that that happens is because it's very difficult for us to see the world the way the Bible frames it to us. That's why we have so many admonitions in the New Testament to don't conform to those patterns, but renew your mind. It's very hard to see that. And so it's very hard to see that every era is an era in which there is darkness. And every era is an era in which there is grace and light. And so there aren't times when you're victorious and times when you're defeated as a church. It's the common situation from the resurrection forward. It just manifests itself in different ways. So when you have that sense of status humiliation, people don't respect me in terms of my religion. And if that's your audience and you really care about that, then you add to that this sense of, I'm going to lose everything if someone is going to come and take this away from me. That can be a really, really dangerous mix because what the frantic reaction to that usually betrays is a lack of confidence. There's a Jewish writer who said at one point, identity becomes the loudest where it's the thinnest. And I think we have seen that. Where people don't have a confidence in terms of who they are or what they believe, they tend to become more anxious, more angry, or more resentful, more filled with grievance. It's just not the way Jesus is.

Sean: Russell, I'm really curious how you'd assess this Twitter feud that I saw recently in light of your book. There were two millennial leaders, both with a significant platform: one more to the right, one more to the left. And the one to the right sent out a tweet, and this is just my recollection, something like, "Nobody can ever vote for a party that is in favor of slaughtering the most vulnerable amongst us. You don't have to vote for any other political party, but this is morally out for a follower of Christ.” That was her take. The other millennial came in, as far as I can tell, and took huge issue with that, namely because of certain political leaders. I think maybe it was on the right or more so not as sensitive to immigrants and raised one or two other issues. How do you make sense and weigh in when you see that kind of debate taking place on Twitter, which clearly caused division and certain name calling and people weighing in who are clearly both, broadly speaking, evangelical Christians?

Russell: Yeah. Well, I think the reason that we have that kind of rancor is because of the particular moment we're in right now, in which there is a sense of, "I have to be wholly identified with my party or my political movement." And so you have a sorting out of people in which they really don't have the ability, or don't feel the ability to say, "I'm with this party on these things, and with the other party on these other things, and I can affirm the things that are good and oppose the things that are bad. We're in a cultural moment where that never happens, and it creates a sense of, there has to be a longing for home and for belonging that's been transferred to politics because we've lost it elsewhere. And so I would, when I look at that sort of a debate, I would see that as more of a symptom than I would as a problem to be solved.

Scott: Russell, I wonder if that's part of what you mean by making peace with your homelessness, your own political and cultural homelessness. And if so, help us in a little bit more detail what that looks like in practice.

Russell: Well, if you look at the example of Jesus, one of the things that strikes me is the way that all throughout the gospels, you have people who are trying to figure out where he is in terms of their tribal boundaries. And what Jesus never does is to say, "I'm not with the Pharisees, so I'm with the Sadducees. I'm not with the Sadducees, so I'm with the zealots. I'm not with the zealots, so I'm with the…” He transcends those things and has a sense of belonging that is just different than that. And I think one of the things in Gospel of John: Jesus knowing where he came from and where he was going. And I think when you lose that, then you're going to have this frantic need to find a home. When in reality, one of the things that Walker Percy really insightfully talked about in his book “Message in the Bottle” back probably 50 years ago, is that the normal human condition is one of homelessness and longing. There's a reason why, and C.S. Lewis talked about this too at the end of Mere Christianity, that there are these longings that we feel and we can't satisfy them, but these are signposts to something else. You're supposed to be missing this. And so there's a kind of homelessness that is part of what it means to be in the faith. They went out, Hebrews 11, not knowing where they were going. And if they wanted to return to their homeland, they could have, but they were seeking a different city. And I think that that's the normal Christian life. But when we don't have that expectation, then we're going to become really threatened if we don't completely feel at home or completely belong. And what that ends up doing is it actually means that I can't give myself to my home and to my neighbors because I expect too much of them. And I expect them to meet needs that they can't meet. And so if you have a different kind of belonging and a different kind of rootedness, then you make peace with the fact that I'm not always going to feel completely at home. That's all right. I say that not just at the theoretical level, but at the gut, visceral, personal level. There's a lot of shaking going on right now in the world and in the church. Sometimes you have people who are saying, "Well, we need to have a seven point plan to turn this around." And I don't think that's the way that God works. I think that part of what it means for God to do a new thing is for us to come to the point of saying, "We don't know what to do. We don't know which direction to go except that it's whatever direction Jesus is going in, and our eyes are on you, but we don't know exactly what's going to happen. And that's not just in terms of the broad sweep of the church or the world, that's personally. I had a friend who'd lost his job, called me one time and said, he's trying to figure out what to do next. He said, "I think if God were speaking to me right now, he would say…” and he had a list of things. And I stopped him and I said, "What if it's the case that if God were speaking to you right now, he would say nothing?" Because that's so often what happens in scripture is it seems as though that hiddenness of God actually is doing something. God is speaking in that, in allowing somebody to come to the end of their own resources and to be able to see something different. And I really, I came to that the hard way because there was an older man in ministry who said to me at one point, I was going through a very difficult time and had a kind of dark view of the future. He said, "You know, if you look back at your life and you ask where was God most active in the sense of doing new things in my life?" He said, "I'll bet you it is not in those moments of triumph and elation." I bet it was almost always in those moments where you look back on them and you think, at the time you were thinking, “Where is God?” God was doing all of this stuff at the subterranean level, working it out like yeast. And I think that that's an understanding it's difficult for me to get to, but I think it's the right one.

Sean: One of the themes in your book is just how Christians ought to engage culture today. And there's a lot of skeptics or people who would just say that given how hostile our culture is to faith and biblical morality, winsomeness is equivalent to weakness, and along with that, it's not effective. We've moved beyond the time for that. What we need to do is fight. What say you?

Russell: Well, I will say that that's a fundamentally anti-Christ equation. Forget winsomeness, whatever that means. But when it comes to kindness, gentleness, self-control. These aspects of engaging with our neighbors, that's not a strategy, it's a way. And one of the things that Jesus is teaching us is that it's not just the ends, it's also the (as Eugene Peterson used to put it) the ways and means by which we get to those ends. And I think what difference does it make how frantically you fight if at the end of the fight, you're Barabbas? And I think that's the lure that's always out there for Christians. And so you will have… Sometimes I mentioned in the book that there was a time years ago when I was reading Wendell Berry's “Jayber Crow,” and there's this moment where Jayber, who’s a barber who’s cutting somebody's hair. And the guy's ranting and raving about all his enemies, and Jaber says, "I think turn the other cheek, love your enemies." And the guy says, "Where'd you get those communist talking points?" or something like that. And I remember thinking at the time, "Well, that's a little on the nose. That conversation wouldn't happen in just that way.” And I am stunned by how many times over and over and over again, I have pastors say to me that they're having the exact same situation where they just sort of parenthetically say, “turn the other cheek,” and they'll have somebody who'll come up after and say, "Why are you coming up with that liberal mush?" And when the pastor says, "Well, I'm just literally quoting Jesus Christ." The response, and this is the part that was surprising to me because I would have thought, "Well, that's just biblical illiteracy." The response wasn't, "Oh, well, sorry, I need to go back to Sunday school a little more." The response is, "Well, that was fine in a neutral culture, but it doesn't work in a hostile culture. It doesn't work anymore."

Scott: Yikes.

Russell: Well, Jesus did not deliver the Sermon on the Mount in Mayberry. He was speaking in a context of a Roman empire armed to the teeth, willing to say, "If you don't get in line, we will literally crucify you." And so the idea that Jesus was in this placid golden age, and so therefore taught, “the Sermon on the mount if you can afford it,” is just completely antithetical to the authority of Scripture.

Scott: Russell, this is, as we've expected, this is such a rich conversation. I so appreciate the insight and the wisdom that you have in the book, and I appreciate the fact that you're not pulling any punches, and that you told it honestly and straightforwardly and openly. I think you've done the Church a real service. And the altar call for Evangelical America, I think, is to go back to what it means to genuinely follow Jesus. And if that means losing some of the traditional religious trappings that have kept us from doing that, then so be it, and we're better off to lose those. But thank you so much. I want to commend to our listeners "Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America” by our good friend Russell Moore. It's been a really rich conversation. Thanks so much, Russell.

Russell: Oh, thanks for having me. Always good to talk to you.

Scott: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our accelerated Bible, Theology and Ministry program where students can earn a bachelor and master's degree in just five years. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. To submit comments, ask questions, make suggestions on issues you'd like us to cover or guest you'd like us to consider, you can email us at thinkbiblically, (it's all one word), thinkbiblically@biola.edu. Enjoyed our conversation with our friend Dr. Russell Moore? Give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.