Listening In: Russell Moore


WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with Dr. Russell Moore.

Russell Moore may be one of the best known evangelicals in the country. He is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. That role often calls on him to be a spokesman for the denomination on a wide range of moral, ethical, and political questions. It’s a role for which he is uniquely suited. Indeed The Wall Street Journal has called him “vigorous, cheerful, and fiercely articulate.” However, his willingness to speak the truth to power has sometimes created controversy even within his own denomination. In 2016, Moore delivered the prestigious but relatively obscure Erasmus Lecture in New York City. That lecture, delivered less than two weeks before the 2016 presidential election, was entitled, “Can The Religious Right Be Saved?” and it was widely reported as a repudiation of Donald Trump. The ensuing controversy nearly cost Russell Moore his job.

That experience, and others, give Russell Moore “street cred,” you might say, to write his latest book, called The Courage To Stand: Facing Your Fear Without Losing Your Soul

Due to the Covid crisis, we had this conversation virtually. I was in my home office in Charlotte, NC, and he was in the studio of the ERLC in Nashville.

Russell Moore, welcome back to the program. You’ve been on Listening In a number of times before, and I just want to say it’s a special blessing to have you back after having read your book The Courage To Stand: Facing Your Fear Without Losing Your Soul. I found it to be very helpful and nourishing. So, thanks for the book.

RUSSELL MOORE, GUEST: Well, thank you. It’s always good to talk with you whether on or off the air. So I’m glad to be here.

SMITH: Yeah. It’s kind of strange to be talking in this way. We’re not face-to-face. I think most of the interviews I’ve done with you in the past have been face-to-face. I really miss the events that the ERLC puts on and just the chance to be together, face-to-face. And maybe before we jump into the book, I’ll just ask, how has this been affecting you, your family and the ERLC, this sort of COVID lockdown that we’ve been in? Have you been traveling?

MOORE: No, I’m not traveling. I’ve been doing a ton of virtual events from here. My wife actually just received a Christmas ornament that she ordered today that has the Grinch saying “The year 2020 stink stank stunk,” which I think everybody can identify with that. But, you know in many ways I think we’ve all learned to be adaptable at this time in ways that we might not have planned on New Year’s Eve of 2019.

SMITH: Yeah. And, you know, I think we might have learned a few things about courage in this past year that we maybe didn’t know before. Definitions of courage that don’t necessarily involve yelling and screaming and hollering and rushing into the parapet. Sometimes it just means standing at your post and doing your duty. And that’s one of the things that I took away from this book is that you kind of have a different definition of what it means to stand and a different definition of what courage is. Why don’t we just start with this definition of what it means to stand. You say, for example, in your book that submitting yourself to scrutiny, to vulnerability might be a better definition of what it means to stand than, you know, charging out into the battlefield.

MOORE: Yeah. You know, one of the things that struck me was reading the prophet Elijah saying the living God before whom I stand and then seeing the way that language shows up throughout scripture. I think of Ephesians 6, “Having done all to stand.” And I think that that language is a language of submission before God. And I think that culturally we tend to think that courage means a lack of submission to anybody. I’m in charge and I’m charging out in the direction that I set. When in reality in scripture, we are standing in Christ before the judgment seat. So we’re constantly reminded of the one to whom we give an account. And I think sometimes we miss that.

SMITH: Yeah. You say that courage is not physical bravery, which I think is what we were both getting at is kind of the way we think of it, but moral courage, which I don’t know. What does that mean? It must mean at least in part clarity. Is that fair?

MOORE: I think it partly means clarity and it partly means a willingness to have a life and a conscience that is shaped by the word and the spirit rather than by whatever crowd is around a person at the time. And it also means I think a certain kind of dependence upon God and resilience through fear. And that’s one of the things, you know, you mentioned that this past year has demonstrated a lot of courage in some unusual places and it has. And most of the people that I think are the most courageous are often the people who would never consider themselves to be that. That’s not the language that they would use for themselves at all, because they imagine that courage is someone who is not experiencing any sense of fear at all. But of course, biblically that’s not what it means. Instead it is a response to fear that is Christ-directed rather than flesh directed. And so there can be an illusion of courage that really just is another form of cowardice and kind of self protection that we can fall into easily.

SMITH: Well, our mutual friend, John Stonestreet is fond of saying that we live in a culture in which we have a common vocabulary, the same vocabulary, but we have different dictionaries. And I think our conversation up until now kind of demonstrates that. Where we have this word courage or this word stand, but the definitions that we have for those words are different from true biblical definitions. There’s another word that you talk about in your book, Dr. Moore, that I want you to say a little bit about, and that’s the word success. You mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example. His definition of success was it was not the world’s definition of success. Leading, of course, in his case to the executioners parlor, so to speak and the way of the cross. That’s not the way we define success today, is it?

MOORE: No, it’s really not. And even, I think, if Bonhoeffer were with us today, he would probably say that we could even be confused by his example. Because I think what some Christians would do is to say, if someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose name we all know and whose extraordinary courage we’ve all seen, now that’s courage. When in reality most of the acts of courage that are needed and present are happening in moments that we would consider to be very ordinary and moments that we might think no one will ever know about. And so the college student who is faithfully living a life for Christ that no one knows her name, or the woman who is caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s disease and she thinks no one’s ever going to know about this, but that takes courage that’s put there by the spirit.

SMITH: You know, a couple of years ago I had an opportunity to interview a woman named Kara Tippetts, who died of cancer. And while she was going through that journey, she started a blog called Mundane Faithfulness, which I believe comes from Martin Luther. I believe that’s an expression or a phrase that Martin Luther originated, and she used it as her blog. And I think that idea is what you just said, that being faithful in the mundane duties of life, in the everydayness of our every day is really what biblical courage and standing in a biblical sense means for a whole lot of us.

MOORE: Yeah. And, you know, I think if we notice one thing in scripture about this, it’s how seen from the perspective of eternity people are so often surprised about what actually were the key moments in their lives. And so you can think about this in terms of the rich man and Lazarus. This is someone who probably never would have thought about the beggar outside of his gates as being central to his life story. He would have had a whole list of accomplishments that probably would have filled that place. Or in Matthew 25, you have both the sheep and the goats at judgment, confused and saying, “Lord, when did we see you and care for you?” And so often I think when one looks back on his or her life, one can recognize that often the moments that were charged with meaning, and that changed everything, they really weren’t those big, huge sorts of moments that we might list on a list of life transitions. They usually were happening in those ordinary moments. And that’s certainly the case when we understand that God is looking at things differently than we do.

[BREAK]

SMITH: Welcome back. I’m Warren Smith. And today you’re listening in on my interview with Dr. Russell Moore, we’re discussing his latest book, The Courage to Stand. Let’s get right back to that conversation.

Dr. Moore, I’d like to pivot just a bit in our conversation, still focusing on the book, but we’ve kind of been wandering around in the book a little bit, and I want to go back to the beginning. And there are two things that struck me about the book and want you to comment about them both. One is a startling confession that you make very early in the book. And that is a confession that you contemplated suicide early in your life. Can you say more about that?

MOORE: Yeah. I went through a time as a 15-year-old where I went through  I suppose what some would call a dark night of the soul, where I was really in a kind of despair about whether or not Christianity was true. And a lot of that had to do with the fact that as with many people, I had seen people that I believed to be walking with the Lord and admirable people who were involved in all kinds of awful covered up scandals and just all of the things that one could see in Bible belt Christianity. I started to say what if this is all just a means to an end? And so I went through this really difficult time. And thankfully I had read The Chronicles of Narnia so many times as a kid that I recognized the name C.S. Lewis when I saw the name on the spine of Mere Christianity at the bookstore and brought it home. And that’s what the Lord used, not because of the arguments, although the arguments are good in that book, but my problem was not intellectual. It wasn’t that I couldn’t believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. It was something else. And just the way that Lewis was talking, you could tell that he wasn’t trying to sell me anything. He wasn’t trying to mobilize me for anything. He was just bearing witness to what he knew in Christ. And that’s exactly what I needed to sort of go through that moment. And that really when I look back and say, well, what are the pivotal moments of my life? That’s at the top of the list or near the top of the list, because ever since then, I’ve encountered a lot of people who are going through that same moment. And some of them aren’t 15. Some of them are 25 or 45 or 75. But they’re still going that time where they’re saying I can’t stand the thought of a universe in which Jesus is not there, but for some reason they become disillusioned or they’ve become cynical and I think the gospel can answer that and certainly did for me.

SMITH: Well, you’ve raised a whole lot of interesting questions for me, Dr. Moore, in what you just said. And I’ve tried to encapsulate a lot of these issues into a statement and get you to react to it. And that is that a lot of people reject Christianity not for intellectual reasons, not because they have carefully examined the claims of Christianity logically or scientifically and found them to be either true or false. But they often reject Christianity or fall into depression or despair because of a failure of the heart, a failure of imagination. Is that a fair assessment? Is that what you were getting at there?

MOORE: Yeah. Or a sense of a sense of disappointment that is directed in the wrong place. And so I will notice, for instance, if I’m on a college campus and there’s an atheist student, sometimes you’ll have an atheist student who just can’t see intellectually how some passage of scripture could be true, but sometimes you’ll encounter an atheist student who’s angry and who really wants to argue and even blast Christianity. And I’ve come to find that if I just spend time getting to know that person, in almost every case there is some way that that person has been hurt by someone that they thought to be a representative of Jesus. Maybe a parent, maybe a youth pastor somewhere back there, maybe a really religious aunt or uncle or someone. And they’ve grown cynical about that. I think that’s a widespread problem. And I think I would have different levels of counsel. For people who are going through that, I would point them to Jesus and how that the New Testament demonstrates that Jesus is better than his people—fallen, sinful people are. And then to the rest of us, I would say, remember how our ways of living are being overheard and overseen by people and can do great harm.

SMITH: Yeah. So, Dr. Moore, at the beginning of your book we encounter that startling confession of your own dark night of the soul. We also encounter a character that we’ve already talked about, and that’s the prophet Elijah. I would say that your book is in some ways extended meditation on the character and life of Elijah. And so I guess my question is in two parts. First of all, is that a fair characterization of your book? And second of all, why Elijah? Why did you think he would be so important for us to study and get to know in a deep way at this particular cultural moment?

MOORE: Well, that is true. It’s a meditation on Elijah. And I think the reason we should look to him is how important this figure is in the Bible. I mean, even though he’s only there in a few chapters in first and second Kings, all throughout the rest of the Bible he’s being referenced. As a matter of fact, the very last word tells us before the day of the Lord, Elijah will come. And I think the reason that I was drawn to him is because I often misunderstood Elijah because when I would think of Elijah, I would think of him in terms of that famous conflict with the prophets of Baal where he prayed to God and God sent down fire from heaven. And that’s exactly the sort of moment I think that all of us want is, you know, if you’re a Christian and you have family members that think you’re crazy, it would be really comforting in some ways to say, well, let’s just find out. God, would you send down fire from heaven? Boom. But what I came to see is that the hinge point in Elijah’s life actually was after that it’s when he encountered God in this moment of loneliness and vulnerability where Elijah said, I just don’t have the resources I need to do this. And that’s where he really sees the revelation of God. Because, I think, what God’s doing for Elijah is what he does for all of us, which is calling us to take up the cross and follow Christ and to live a life that sometimes is going to, I think sometimes we have a tendency to think, well if I’m encountering triumph and success, it means that God is happy with me. And if I’m not, then that means God’s angry with me, which is of course not at all what the Bible reveals.

SMITH: Yeah. Dr. Moore, I want to pivot a little bit in our conversation now and see if I could maybe get you to talk about some of the specific chapters in the book that I wanted to drill down on. I mean, first of all, let’s just stipulate for the record that we can’t, you know, drill down completely, but you’ve broken the book down into courage and something else—courage and anxiety, courage and shame, courage, and integrity and so on. But I wanted to get you to talk a little bit about the chapter on community. Courage and community. You use a country song, a song by Tom T. Hall called Me and Jesus to kind of make the point that Christianity is not just about me and Jesus. It’s really about that larger community. Can you say more about that?

MOORE: Well, I talked about the fact that I was wrong about the song Me and Jesus, because I used to always use that as sort of an illustration of a communityless sort of individualism. And, to say, it’s not just me and Jesus Christianity. Until I was doing ministry in a homeless shelter. And we did a service and we were helping out with that. And the person who led it said, you know, we’re going to just open up the floor where people can choose the songs that we’re going to sing tonight, which means they’re going to choose Tom T. Hall’s Me and Jesus. And I said, really? Why? But I started to see the way that they sang that song, that they really resonated with the idea of a Jesus who personally came looking for them, people who others had given up on. And that was a piece that I think I was missing. And so I think that one of the ways that we actually find community, biblically speaking, is often by going through a time of loneliness. And so some of the most effective, for instance, people that I know in ministering to those who’ve lost spouses are those who have gone through that time of great loneliness and have come out on the other side. And they’re able to—that crucible of loneliness actually is preparing them for a community they never would have ordinarily had or even known existed. And so sometimes in those moments of loneliness, God’s actually preparing us for a community later on. And the same thing would be with a case where there are teenagers I know who are following Christ and they don’t know anybody else who is. And often what’s happening is God is preparing them for a community with people whose names they don’t know yet.

SMITH: Well, I don’t mean to jump too quickly to sort of the application of that idea, but it sounds to me that what you are saying in part is that if you are going through a season of loneliness, if you find yourself in a place where you don’t have community, that’s the moment to show courage. That God is building courage in you, the courage to face that loneliness, to work through that loneliness with the promise that community is on the other side of it. I mean, is that a fair reading here?

MOORE: Yes. And I think to take heart in what God says to Elijah, there are 7,000 people that you don’t know about all around you right now, number one. And number two, God, is taking Elijah to these forms of community that he otherwise would never have had. The widow of Zarephath, for instance. Elisha later on, and then for Elisha naming the Syrian. And I think that that’s often what God does is he gives us a community of people that we ordinarily would not have even looked for. And that’s one of the reasons why often right now the sort of community that we tend to think of is really just crowds often. It’s people who would be together anyway, no matter what. But what God often does for us is to put us into situations where we find community with people we never would have looked for, or would have looked for us if it had not been for what God had done in our lives in those moments of loneliness.

SMITH: Dr. Moore, you closed the book with a chapter called Courage and the Future. And you tell a funny story, an interesting story in that chapter about sitting around a fireplace with some friends one night, and one of them posed a conversation starter. If you could have one thing past, present, or future that you could read right now, what would it be? And your answer to that question was?

MOORE: My obituary. Yeah.

SMITH: Why?

MOORE: Well, because if I had my obituary in hand for the future, it would answer all of the questions that I might have. So, I would know based upon that if my kids were okay, I would know if my wife was okay, I would know all of those pieces of it and would also know sort of here’s how the story, or at least the earthly part of the story ends and closes. And I think that often in my life, I can look back on times where I just wasted a lot of time worrying about things that never came about, or, if they did come about, that I was able to go through those things. But I think there’s a kind of pride in many of us that really would like to have everything planned out and available to us and walking by faith out into the dark that’s what’s really hard to do.

SMITH: Well, I’m sure you know, the verse. In fact, I think you may have even quoted it in your book, “Be anxious for nothing, but by prayer and supplication let your request be known to Jesus.” Well, I jokingly sometimes say—and I don’t even know how jokingly it is—that that is the easiest verse in the Bible for me to be obedient to. I am anxious for nothing. It doesn’t take anything to make me anxious. But what you’re telling me, I think, is that anxiousness—and of course, it’s hard to hear this whenever you actually are anxious, whenever you’re in the midst of anxiety—ut I think what you’re telling me is kind of a hard truth here, but no less true because it’s hard. And that is that anxiety is in some ways, pride, number one, as you just said, and a lack of courage on the other.

MOORE: Sometimes. Sometimes what we call anxiety is just that initial fear. The shepherds exhibit a fear when they see the angels and are told don’t be afraid and that’s normal. But sometimes I think we’re drawn into anxiety and paralysis for all of those reasons. We just can’t see the big picture. And what I found is that the people in my life who’ve been able to really minister to me at those times are usually not the optimists. When someone comes and says, “Oh, everything’s going to be fine.” I tend to just think, well, you don’t know what’s really going on. But the people who’ve been able to really redirect me are the ones who’ve said, “Okay, well, let’s envision the worst case scenario. Can you survive that?” And I think that’s exactly the posture that the Bible takes, which is you’ve already been through your worst case scenario. You’re crucified with Christ. And you’re already experiencing your best case scenario because you’re seated with Christ in the heavenly places. And there’s a glory that’s yet to be revealed. And so it really does take seriously both that sense of tragedy and what we’re afraid of, but also that longing for joy and the word that God will be with you.

[BREAK]

SMITH: Welcome back. You’re listening in on my interview with Dr. Russell Moore. We discuss his latest book, The Courage to Stand. His previous books have included Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel and The Storm Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home. Let’s get right back to our conversation.

Dr. Moore, I’d like to pivot one more time in our conversation in the few minutes that we have left and step back from the book a little bit and talk about what’s going on in the culture. We’ve just had an election. A lot of people for the last four or five years—and you’ve been one of them—have said that the evangelical church has not been on its best behavior in the public square these past few years. That maybe we haven’t stood in the way that the Bible says to stand, but we have stood in ways that the culture has catechized us, has taught us to stand. That we haven’t exhibited the kind of moral courage that we need to exhibit, but we have, again, turned to worldly definitions of bravery and thinking that being fighters is the right posture. First of all, is that assessment of where evangelicals stand vis-a-vis the culture, does it sound accurate to you? And secondly where are we now? Where do we go from here? What do we do?

MOORE: Well, I think that it’s part of the story of evangelicalism. It’s not the whole story, and that’s the reason why I’m largely encouraged because looking around and seeing what God is doing, for instance, on college campuses, in church plants all over all over this country, including in places that no one would expect to see God at work, much less around the world right now, really extraordinary things are happening. And so I think there’s a great future for gospel Christianity. And we need to be on guard that we’re faithful witnesses for Christ, and that we carry out that mission in the way Jesus has commanded us to do it. But we also shouldn’t grow cynical or to think, well, because we have seen maybe some bad examples that that means that nothing else can be done because God is at work right now in extraordinary ways. And Jesus tells us to be, you know, that language of yeast is used so often in the Bible, both as a metaphor for something good, and for something bad. The yeast can infect the whole loaf with something destructive. And we’ve certainly seen that, but the yeast of God’s grace and presence also tends to work underground, as it were, for a long time before we ever see it. And I see many signs of that.

SMITH: Well, Dr. Moore, I take that to be a good and encouraging word on many levels. And, of course, as my mentor Chuck Colson used to say that, you know, despair is a sin. Despair is not an option for the Christian. That that we are not necessarily to be optimists, sentimentalizing the situation, but we are to be realists and that having our eyes fixed on Christ and understanding that he wins. But I still can’t resist pushing back on you just a little bit on that answer, though, Dr. Moore and say it seems to me that evangelicals have really damaged our credibility in the last few years. We’ve been willing to — maybe we haven’t had the courage to stand against, to speak truth to power. I remember your Erasmus lecture almost exactly four years ago this week or a couple of weeks ago that said that very thing that, you know, has evangelicalism lost its soul in the pursuit of political power? And so can you say a little about that?

MOORE: Well, but the answer, though, is what do we do from here? And what I see is that there’s a younger generation of evangelicalism that really is wanting to be counter-culturally faithful to Christ, sometimes don’t know what to do, but really wanting to move in that direction. And from that, we should take hope. And also to look back in to see the places where our witness has been just badly damaged, both in terms of sort of hyper-political kinds of identifications, but also in terms of, for instance, sexual abuse within churches and all kinds of other horrific scandals. We ought to take a sense of warning from that and say, how do we go from here and build churches and build lives that are based around integrity and based around holding together in terms of what God calls us to do. And I think we have the opportunity to do that. I was sort of chastened the other day when I read a newspaper article about an archeological finding at Caesarea Philippi of a fourth century church that was built on top of an old pagan place of worship for the god Pan. And I thought, you know, I really need to be reminded of this, that Jesus’s promise at Caesarea Philippi really does stand no matter what it is that we see around us at the moment.

SMITH: Yeah. One final question before we g. Dr. Moore, I was raised in a Southern Baptist church and I have great affection for the denomination that you serve. And still are very close with many Southern Baptists. I guess if you’d asked me 15 or 20 years ago, I might’ve said that, you know, if the Southern Baptists were going to split, it would be over Calvinism, you know. But today I look at the Southern Baptist church and I say that the real controversy there seems to be about race. Critical Race Theory on the one hand, social justice warriors, some people say are infiltrating Southern Baptist church and the evangelical church generally. And yet in that pushback against these ideologies, there seems to be a bit of tone deafness about dealing with issues of race. And I guess I’m just wondering if you would share your thoughts with me about that. I mean are these issues like, you know, critical race and social justice, are they worrying to you? Should they be worrying to the evangelical church? And, if so, how do we sort of not throw the baby out with the bath water? How do we hear those concerns about race and financial and economic injustice that are being talked about in a culture? How do we respond to those in biblical ways and not ideological ways?

MOORE: Well, I’ve never seen the Loch Ness monster, and I’ve also never met a Southern Baptist who’s been influenced by critical race theory. Usually those conversations are not about critical race theory. They’re about Ephesians 3 and Galatians 3, and whether or not racism and racial injustice are sins for which people will be held accountable. And I think they are. And so I think sometimes it’s kind of like having someone warning against sexual legalism in the church at Corinth in the first century. Is there a kind of legalism and hyper-scrupulous sort of attitude that can manifest itself in Christian churches? Sure. Is that the problem in Corinth? No. It’s the opposite. It’s sexual immorality and lawlessness. And that’s exactly the case often in the church in the 21st century.

SMITH: Well, so let me interrupt you and ask you directly, so you think that some of this talk about critical race theory, for example, is a red herring? Is trying to keep people from really facing the sin of racism? And so they’re accusing any confrontation of them about that sin on some sort of an ideology that they will then label as anti-biblical. Is that fair?

MOORE: Yeah. I mean, an ideology that is anti-biblical, but the people within the churches that are calling for biblical racial reconciliation and justice don’t hold. In the same way that those pastors and leaders who were standing up for the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s and beyond were often called communists and Marxists. And you go back and you look at many of these people, and they’re just faithful Christians who are trying to apply what the Bible speaks to from Genesis to Revelation.

SMITH: Well, Dr. Russell Moore, thank you so much for being on the program today. Your new book, The Courage to Stand, I hope you were able to tell just based on my questions was very thought-provoking and nourishing for me and God bless you and I hope the book does well. Thanks for being on. 

MOORE: Thanks so much. Thanks for having me.


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