Listening In: Russell Moore

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you will be listening in on my conversation with author, speaker, and the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention Dr. Russell Moore.

As president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore often speaks for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination on moral and public policy matters. As a result, he was named by Politico magazine to it’s 2017 list of the top 50 influence-makers in Washington D.C.

But a great deal of his energy is focused on matters outside the beltway. His book Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches recounted the journey he and his wife Maria went on to adopt two of his five sons. Another book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel was Christianity Today‘s 2016 Book of the Year.

Russell Moore’s new book is The Storm-tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home. He had this conversation with me from a studio in Nashville, Tennessee.

Dr. Russell Moore, welcome back to the program. I had you on the program a couple of years ago when we were in Nashville at a conference and—that you were hosting at that time and I’m real pleased to have you back to talk about The Storm-tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home and let’s just—I’ve got a lot of things I want to talk to you about, but let’s start with the book. Why did you want to write this book in and what can readers expect?

RUSSELL MOORE, GUEST: Well, first of all, thanks for having me and the reason that I wrote the book, Warren, is because so many of my conversations that I was having with people, all were related to various aspects of family and not just the sort of situations that we typically think about: a married couple or parenting, although a lot of those, but also the young man who is afraid of falling in love and getting married because he saw a really awful marriage situation with his parents. Or the young woman that I talked to who’s really afraid as she’s engaged, moving toward her wedding, to say, you know, my dad cheated on my mother constantly. How do I know he won’t do that? And the middle-aged man who is really stressed because he says I’m trying to deal with aging parents and I’m trying to deal with situations with my kids with substance abuse or whatever. And I think sometimes people think everybody else’s families are all just tranquil and peaceful—what we see on Instagram and Facebook—and my family is the one that always seems to be at the center of the storm. And so that this book is about why that’s the case and how to walk through it.

SMITH: Yeah, you know, I was very impressed at the beginning of the book, the first couple of chapters in particular, the chapter titles, The Storm-tossed Family, The Cross as Family Crisis, and The Family as Spiritual Warfare. Let’s just sort of pause on those three chapters in particular. I came away from those chapters, Dr. Moore, thinking, you know, we have sometimes on the one hand an overly sentimentalized view of marriage and family that we—I had a mentor in graduate school, a man named Marion Montgomery, who used to talk about the family as a condition of servitude, and he meant that in a kind of a beautiful way, that we are servants in a family as Christ was a servant. And so we either have a view that is overly sentimentalized that doesn’t make enough of this notion that love is about service, that love is about submission and humility, on the one hand, or on the other hand, that it’s all about me. That the culture is a disaster, I don’t want a piece of that, I’m out for myself. And both of those in some ways are—kind of ignore what you’re trying to talk about here, which is that, yeah, things are bad. We live in a broken world, but that the cross is kind of that place where both of those false views can be redeemed.

MOORE: Yeah, and I think those two views tend to loop into one another. So you think about those people out in the culture who would say, well, family’s just a social construct, we don’t really need it. Let’s just have whatever arrangements that we can put together. That’s one way of looking at things. And then you often, though, have people who seem to be on the opposite end, but who have this really sentimental idealized view of what the family ought to be, where the family ought to provide everything that I need. My spouse needs to be my perfect soulmate and constantly meet all my needs. My children need to be picture perfect, or my parents need to be picture perfect or my church needs to be picture perfect. And they tend to end in the same result because often the people who are expecting a family to meet all of their needs tend to eventually denigrate the family. That’s often what happens is when I see the person who walks out on his or her spouse, often this is not somebody who has lowered his or her view of marriage. But in one sense kind of heightened it to say marriage ought to be everything that I’ve ever expected. And this is a situation that has problems and brokenness and hard times. And even just sometimes it’s ordinary. And so I need to be looking for something else. And I think the devil works in both of those ways.

SMITH: You talk about the cross of Christ being the focal point, what should be the focal point of the family, and you go to some pains to really explain what that means, that you know, that when we imagine the cross we have from the 21st century, again, a somewhat sentimentalize view. You cite, for example, in your book a man you knew who was a businessman that said his annual inventory was his “cross to bear,” right? That we denigrate what the cross really means. And we denigrate or we underestimate Jesus’ command to take up our cross and follow him. Can you say more about that?

MOORE: Yeah. I think that what the Scripture calls us to in our family lives, whether one is a single person trying to figure out how to relate to his or her parents or to a church or whether someone is a parent trying to navigate how to be a good dad or mom or husband or wife or grandparent or whatever. I think that what we sometimes miss is that the cross calls us to pour ourselves out. And so the sorts of reactions that we’re going to have with one another in all of those kinds of relationships, Jesus says, I’m going to carry you through suffering in order that you might be glorified with me. So, that’s going to show up in our family lives as well because family’s right at the root, in many ways, of who we are. We discover who we are in terms of our relationship to our families. I even had someone tell me not long ago about dealing with an elderly parent who has dementia and saying, this person said to me, this is hard, but it’s really sweet and encouraging because I’m really seeing the core of who my mom is and said she doesn’t remember anything except when there’s a hymn playing that she knows and then she can sing it directly. And she said, so I’m kind of seeing my mom without all of her responsibilities and roles and just getting to know her. In a very real sense, I think family eventually does that for all of us. It strips away our pretensions and gets at the nub of who we are. Well, I think that’s cross work. I think that’s what the cross is doing for us.

SMITH: You know, Dr. Moore, one of the things that you do in this book, though, is that you talk about, of course, the importance of family and in modern evangelicalism we talk about family values. We have organizations that have the word family in their names. We will often, you know, even in our political conversations, we’ll hear politicians talk about faith, family, and freedom. Those are kind of buzzwords for, code words for “I share your evangelical values,” and yet you, while affirming family and lifting up family in a very meaningful way in this book, also are really clear to say that we shouldn’t idolize family. That family should not be first. Can you talk about that a little bit?

MOORE: Yes. I think that what Jesus is saying to us, some people are sometimes disturbed when they hear Jesus say things like, “Whoever does not hate mother and father for my sake is not worthy to follow me.” And you look at that and you say, well, it seems like Jesus is really negative toward the family. But in reality Jesus is negative toward everything as ultimate except for the Kingdom of God. But when we seek first, as Jesus says, the kingdom, that gives us actually the freedom to love all of those secondary attachments. And so the man, for instance, who doesn’t prize money above everything else is then freed to use money in ways that are beneficial toward the kingdom and the person who values family but doesn’t value family first is actually the person who gets what family is and is then able to really pour himself or herself out for the family because otherwise, if you put it at that top spot that you’re going to end up with disappointment and you’re going to end up with resentment. And I’ve known a lot of people who are really, really pro-family in the abstract, but were really anti-family when it came to their own family. And so having a kingdom-first understanding of family is what actually enables us to be pro-family.

SMITH: Dr. Moore, in the first segment, we sort of talked about the larger context for a proper understanding of the family, the family and the relationship to the cross, the need not—to hold the family at a very high regard, but not to idolize family, not to make it the ultimate thing. I want to drill down a little bit into some specifics that you talk about in your book. I’ve got to confess to you that I’m going to out you here a little bit. Early in your book, you confess that Halloween is your favorite holiday, which is probably a surprising confession. But after I read into that confession a little bit, I came away sort of like saying, yeah, I get it. Because you were saying that in part the reason Halloween was a favorite holiday for you is because there was no family drama in it as there often is in the other holidays. And that was partly your way of acknowledging that, you know what, family can be beautiful and it is—it’s a creation mandate. It’s something that God, you know—it’s a gift to us from God, but it can be really messy in a fallen world.

MOORE: Yeah, and because there’s so much at stake. You can have a bad day at work or you can say I don’t really like my coworkers. I don’t really like the people that I’m on this train with right now or whatever. And there’s not a lot at stake there. But if you’re in a situation of being in conflict or at least potential conflict with your family, there’s a lot at stake. And so for me with Halloween, that was part of it, is that it was one of these times when the community got together, but there wasn’t the sense of, I mean, Christmas is something that there’s a lot of pressure to have a meaningful family Christmas. And so you don’t want to disappoint anybody with that. And Thanksgiving is similar to that. Halloween there were no such expectations. Nobody’s ever going to walk away and say you’ve ruined my Halloween. But the other reason I think I liked it was because, as a kid, it was the one day when it seemed like adults recognized what I kind of intuitively knew, which was that there are scary things out there. And it was a sense of protection at that time that I think really gets at something that the Bible teaches us about the fatherhood of God.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, yeah, and the brokenness of the world and that spiritual battles are real. I mean, obviously, you know, I’m not and I know you’re not affirming all of what the culture has sort of piled onto Halloween or, for that matter, any of our other Christian holidays. But there are some lessons there and one of the lessons is that family can be broken. Family does have a lot of drama in it and part of that drama—and this is where I want to drill down a little bit into your book, come back to your book, Dr. Moore—is to talk about divorce. A lot of that family drama is just kind of not knowing how to behave in a family that has been ripped apart by divorce. The relationships are not clear and plain. You’ve got a whole chapter devoted to divorce. And since so many families, even Christian families, have been affected by divorce, can you say a little bit about that? Does God allowed divorce? What are the circumstances Biblically for divorce? What about remarriage? In some ways, these are very old questions, but I thought you had some fresh insights and I’d be grateful if you’d share some of them.

MOORE: Well, the whole conversation is a little more difficult right now because of the divorce culture in North America and in some other parts of the world where divorce is seen as the exit ramp that’s always there on this journey of marriage. And so if you don’t like one another then you just leave. And that has left wreckage everywhere with children, with the witness of the church and everything else. Having said that, I think the Bible does allow divorce in some very narrowly prescribed circumstances. And so I think there are times when divorce is allowable and sometimes even when I think divorce is advisable. And then in those cases a remarriage is permitted. But I think in order to communicate that we have to have, first of all, a really, really strong and robust view of what God thinks about marriage. Which is to say marriage is a picture of Christ and the church.

And so when you have kids, for instance, growing up in a church where they see marriage as just coming together and splitting apart and coming together and splitting apart, it’s the equivalent of putting out heretical gospel tracts. That’s what a marriage is. It’s a gospel tract. It’s a picture of Christ and the church, Ephesians 5. And so the easy, laissez faire divorce culture that we have going on right now is really communicating more than what we know. It has terrible human consequences, yes, but it also has terrible spiritual and gospel consequences.

SMITH: Well, Dr. Moore, this goes beyond somewhat the scope of your book, but one of the things that it seems to me, and I wonder if you’ll react—get your opinion about this, is that one of the reasons that this divorce culture has infiltrated even the churches because of the way we do church these days. We have churches that are targeted towards millennials, for example, or we’ve got churches that are more staid and traditional that have the old people. You walk into a big mega church and the first thing they do is break up the family and the kids go into one wing of the building and the teenagers go into another wing of the building and the adults go into another wing of the building. It makes it really difficult for kids to see the old people and to see marriages that have survived 30, 40, 50, 60 years even within their own churches. I’m wondering if you think inadvertently in our attempts to reach out to folks and address their needs, that we, like I say, inadvertently contribute to that lack of understanding about what the Bible says about marriage.

MOORE: I think we have. And now I’m all for age-specific children’s ministries and youth ministries and even a senior adult ministries and so forth. But as they are part of the larger community and family of the church. And I think that’s, as you mentioned, one of the things that we’ve lost. For a long time it was the case that in a typical church you would have the generations split up by services. So, the older people are in the traditional service and the younger people are in the contemporary service or whatever. Well now that’s not even the real issue. The issue is that churches themselves tend to be almost entirely older or almost entirely younger. And, you know, where I hear a lot of grief and lament about that, actually is from very young Christians. So Generation Z and Millennial Christians who will often say, I wish that I had someone in my church who could grandparent me spiritually. And I think sometimes older Christians think that younger Christians don’t want that, that they only want to be around people of their own generation, but that’s not been my experience. The number one question that I’m getting from young Christians is how do I find a mentor? How do I find a spiritual father or mother or grandfather or grandmother who can kind of help me navigate through life? And I think some churches are starting to get to pick up on that and to try to address that. But I think, I think more of us need to.

SMITH: Well, sort of continuing along this conversation and to come back more specifically to your book, in the chapter on divorce, you write that while divorce is permitted, that they should be very rare. They should be deeply exceptional, exceptional in the true meaning of that word exceptional. And you also say that they should not be—that the decision to divorce should not be made exclusively by the individuals in the marriage, that the church should speak into that. And if I could read a section of your book back to you, Dr. Moore. “I cannot in the middle of a marital crisis conclude on my own that, for instance, my spouse’s sexual immorality is irrevocable. Marriage is to be part of the discipline of the church.” Talk about that.

MOORE: Well and by discipline, sometimes people hear discipline and they think punishment. And by that I mean what the Bible means, which is shaping and forming and discipling. And we have kind of a vestige of that from what used to be in our marriage services. Nobody really knows why when somebody will say, if there’s anyone who has just cause why this couple should not be joined together, let him speak now or forever hold his peace. Nobody ever expects anything to happen there unless it’s in some cheesy romantic comedy where the old boyfriend stands up and says, “I still love you,” or what have you. But why was that always there? It was there because the church is a community of witnesses who are saying we’re going to stand with you, we’re going to help you in your marriage, and when you hit hard times, we’re going to be here, and we’re going to be the people who are going to remind you of these vows and hold you accountable to these vows. And so yes, the Bible has some exceptions where a marriage has broken down beyond repair, but really what we ought to have are functioning churches where the church can help and can speak in and because there are some situations where, frankly, what people need is not at all a divorce. What they need is somebody to come in and say, you need to be helped, you need to be mentored, you need some counseling, you need a thousand other things. So it’s kind of like—I had a judge tell me one time how frustrated he was with mandatory minimum sentencing because he said, a lot of the people that I get in here, I know what it is that they need and what they need is not this. I can get them help in another way. Well, the same thing often happens when it comes to marriage problems. And once divorce is sort of off the table, and I’m not talking about in those horrific, exceptional situations that I mentioned, but just in the normal sort of, we’re having difficulty getting along, once divorce is off the table and you say, okay, we don’t have an existential threat here, we’re not arguing about whether or not we’re going to nuke each other, we’re just talking about how we’re gonna make this work better, then you can have people who can step in and actually help you move forward.

SMITH: Dr. Moore, I’d like to shift gears on you just a little bit because I can’t really fully exhaust all of the rich topics that you’ve got in the book. I guess I should just stipulate for the record, everybody go grab the book The Storm-tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home and you can dive more deeply into these ideas. But, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to, like I say, shift gears on you and just talk a little bit about issues and ideas beyond the book itself. But I want to start with your writing process. You’ve written a number of books, one recently that I’m fond of called Onward, which was I guess Christianity Today’s 2016 Book of the Year. So writing is an important part of what you do have of both the way you spend your time privately and also your public ministry. Can you say a little about that? What’s your writing process like? How do you write? When do you write? Where do you write?

MOORE: I usually write at home in my study and I tell people all the time not to replicate how I write, it’s just what works for me, but it’s kind of quirky. But I have to sort of marinate on something for a long time. So, frankly, the best thing for me when it comes to writing is spending a lot of time walking in the woods. That’s how the ideas sort of come together. And the actually writing them down is at the very, very end of the process. And I’m the kind of person and I’ve talked to lots of other people who have the same experience, and the kind of person that usually about halfway through every book I’ve ever written, I thought, I’m just throwing this away and never thinking about it again. But, you know, you continue to press forward. And many people have told me that that’s the same thing, that they get to that point where it’s just, I just want to give up on this. And then things start to come together and it’s almost like for me there’s a lot that’s going on in my head and my heart or wherever that I’m not aware of and it kind of gels together when I’m writing it down. And sometimes even—I’ve heard other people say this—there are many times when I really don’t know what I think about something until I write it down. Because that sort of integrates all of these different understandings together.

SMITH: Yeah, exactly. I know Flannery O’Connor used to say that she didn’t know what she thought until she tried to write it down. And once you’re into the writing process, you know once it’s marinated, once it’s gelled, once you’re through walking in the woods or at least, you know, done a good bit of that, do you disconnect from life and write the book in a couple of months of intense effort or is it sort of a 500 words a day for a year kind of a process where just a slow steady slog for you?

MOORE: No, it’s more of the first. It’s just the way that I work. I tend to do it sort of all together because otherwise I just am unable to stop thinking about what it is I’m working on. I get distracted and then that—now that writing 500 words a day everyday, that’s a better way to do it. And I wish that I could do that because I think that’s a healthier, more commendable way to do it. But it’s not the way it works for me.

SMITH: Yeah. I also know that you’re a big fan of country music and I’ve got to confess to you, Dr. Moore, as I was reading your book, a couple of songs kept coming up for me and I’m just wondering if you know these songs. One of them is Robert Earl Keen song “Merry Christmas From the Family.” Do you know that song?

MOORE: Yeah.

SMITH: Well, when you were talking about the problems, the storm-tossed family in the beginning, and you know, just the messiness and the sloppiness just for some reason I could not get that song out of my mind. Another song that came up for me as I was reading your book was Andrew Peterson’s “Dancing in the Minefields.” I’m wondering if you know that song.

MOORE: Well, yes. I mean, Andrew is one of my best friends and he and I are—we live about a mile away from each other and are together all the time. And yeah, that song is deeply, deeply powerful. It really is. It speaks to the reality there. And I tell him often that I’m glad he wrote that because there are a lot of people, I think, who just assume that, well, the people that I listened to, whether it’s my preacher or my musician that I listen to, these are people who are just sort of—they’ve got the pattern down so they know how to do all of this. And so once they figure all that out, then their lives are nothing like mine is. And that’s just not the case. It’s a storm at some point or other for everybody.

SMITH: Well, I mention those two songs and your interest in country music in part to make the point that I find your writing both in this book and in your previous books to be elegant beyond what I often find in Christian books, which unfortunately sometimes feel like transcriptions of 12 sermons on a topic that some pastor will, you know, do a 12-part sermon series that’ll get transcribed. And each 30 minute sermon becomes a chapter of a book. Your books feel a little bit more carefully crafted than that. Is that intentional on your part or is that just kind of springs out of who you are?

MOORE: No, it’s, I think, just the way that I’m thinking through things. You know, one of the things that was really disappointing to me at some point in my life in ministry was when I realized really how few people actually write their books. And so I’ve had Christians that I respect say to me somewhere along the way now, “who writes your stuff for you?” And that’s just a horrifying thought for me to say, wait a minute. Sometimes these are people that I have read in the past and I think, well then who have I been reading? Who have I been reading? You know? For me, anyway, I’m not, you know, whatever anybody else does is their business. But for me, writing is just a really personal sort of act of disclosure. And so that sort of—usually when someone is reading anything that I’ve written, what they’re listening to is an argument that I’m having with myself. So it’s my way of thinking through, wait a minute, what’s going on here? And so we—Maria and I adopted two young boys many years ago and my book Adopted for Life came out of that, sort of talking myself through my reluctance to adopt. And a lot of this book came through my thinking through, okay, how am I going to be a good parent to two kids, in this case with some background trauma, and so forth. So, that’s kind of the process I go through.

SMITH: And so is that what you—at the end of the day, is that what you want people to come away from this book with is some guidance about how to be better parents and how to have families and more effectively nurture their children?

MOORE: Part of it. Not just parents, but also people who have been parented. Sometimes I meet Christians who may not be married, may not have children, but who are haunted by bad parenting in their own past or are kind of overshadowed by really good parenting, but they assume I’m never going to live up to who my mom or dad wanted me to be. And I think that Jesus calls us to freedom from that. To honor father and mother in every way that we can, while also realizing my identity isn’t in other people’s expectations of me. My identity is in Christ.

SMITH: That brings to a close my conversation with Russell Moore. We’ve been discussing his latest book, The Storm-tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home.

This is not the first time he’s been on Listening In. I talked with him about his book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel back in 2015. To hear that conversation, go to the WORLD News Group website and type his name into the search engine. That’s and the search engine is at the top of the page.

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The technical producer for our program is Rich Roszel. He gets strong technical support from Alan Brooks. Our executive producer is Nick Eicher. I’m your host, Warren Smith, and you’ve been listening in.


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