Russell Moore. 2015. Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group. (Goto Part 1)
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
In writing about culture, we never leave it and it has changed more rapidly in the past generation than in any previous historical period. For most of human history, people have lived primarily in small, rural communities where everyone knew each other. Boomers were the first generation to grow up primarily in urban areas while many of our parents grew up on a farm or came from a small town. Other than technological changes of recent years, our cultural context is remarkably similar to that of the first century Roman empire.
In part 1 of this review, I give an overview of Moore’s book. In part 2, I will drill down into three of his arguments: the end of cultural Christianity, the attitude about human dignity, and the focus on family stability.
Bible Belt No More
Moore grew up in Biloxi, Alabama and, as a pastor, was well aware of the cultural ways of the Bible Belt. He observes:
“…cultural Christianity is herded out by natural selection. That sort of nominal religion, when bearing the burden of the embarrassment of a controversial Bible, is no more equipped to survive in a secularizing American than a declawed cat released into the wild. Who then is left behind? It will be those defined not by a Christian America but by a Christian gospel.” (24)
Here Moore is taking aim at residents of the Bible Belt, presumably conservative Evangelical Christians, but this natural selection process appears equally to weed out the sons and daughters of mainline denominations, as membership numbers attest.
But Moore’s highlights the moral turpitude of cultural Christians in a story about the two groups of kids in his church’s young group. The first group were the “churched” kids who knew “how to get drunk, have sex and smoke marijuana without their parents ever knowing about it.” (71) The second group were “mostly fatherless boys and girls, some of whom [were] gang members, all of them completely unfamiliar with the culture of the church.” and did not even try to hide their sinful activities. (70)
What attracted the attention of this later group was not the materials produced by the denomination to relate to them—they laughed at them. What attracted their attention was the gospel itself. One kid asked: “So, like, you really believe this dead guy came back to life?” (71) The fact that the gospel resonates better with the unchurched kids than the churched kids led Moore to abandon hope for cultural Christianity and the Bible Belt so closely associated with it.
One the great ironies of the postmodern era is the pervasive campaign against human dignity veiled in language suggesting something quite different. Moore writes
“Abortion, torture, euthanasia, unjust war, racial injustice, the harassment of immigrants, these things aren’t simply ‘mean’ (although they are that too). They are part of an ongoing guerilla insurgency against the image of God himself, as summed up in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus identified himself with humanity—in all of our weakness and fragility.” (120)
Abortion, for example, has limited the supply of labor in the United States and motivated immigration—teenagers used to do most of the work now done by Hispanic workers. Many immigrants are killed or raped in coming to the United States from Central America to escape economic hardship and abuse by drug gangs. Those persecuted elsewhere have also been given priority in the granting of green cards and citizenship, but Central American immigrants have been legally discriminated against and treated badly day to day in spite of being hardworking and practicing Christians. Such treatment is out of step with our American heritage and is an assault on human dignity.
Moore talks about the “culture of death” today in United States and focuses on the unborn as being the image of God most dramatically abused in America today. Unable to defend themselves, the unborn are disposed of like trash for no other reason than that they are inconvenient. When we separate humanity from nature and body from soul (121), the question of convenience increasingly motivates many assaults on human dignity affecting the weak, the infirm, and the disadvantaged.
Moore’s comments on sexuality are probably his most controversial, but his logic is unmistakably biblical. He writes:
“Throughout the cannon of Scripture, there’s a close tie between family breakdown and spiritual breakdown. That’s why idolatry and immorality are linked repeatedly in the Old Testament. The mystery of the Christ/church pattern itself was revealed, it should be remembered, to a congregation in the shadow of a fertility goddess (Acts 19:21-41)…sexual immorality has profound spiritual consequences (1 Cor 6:17-20)…the body is a temple, set apart to be a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit.” (170)
Sexual immorality, veiled in the language of liberation and personal freedom, has actually led to a culture where women are denigrated and abused, putting them under the subjugation, not of husbands and fathers, but of strangers and men in power. If abortion on demand is always available, women, not men, assume responsibility for reproduction. Moore sees the postmodern sexual ethic not as something new, but a resurgence of good old fashion paganism.
It is indeed ironic that the #MeToo movement shows the depth of this problem in that the women stepping forward as having been harassed and abused are not the poor and the defenseless, but the celebrities and powerful, who have been the primary beneficiaries of the women’s movement and who already had access to the courts and had the resources to pursue legal action.
Russell Moore’s Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel challenges us to distinguish the gospel of Jesus Christ from different manifestations of Christendom in American culture. Moore advocates engaging the culture, not simply criticizing it, to expose aspects of the culture that present opportunities for Christian witness. His narrative style facilitates this engagement and makes his writing both entertaining and accessible.
Moore Engages Secular Culture, Part 2
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