Last week I was talking with a new believer in Christ—one who came from a thoroughly secular background—and she mentioned that some family members were really worried about her. “I can’t believe you’ve become an evangelical Christian,” one of them said. “How can you be for guns?”
The family member assumed that her becoming an evangelical Christian meant she had joined a political tribe, complete with gun-culture views of assault weapons. But this new Christian happened to have the same political view on this issue as her family. Of all the things that changed in her conversion, her view on guns wasn’t one of them.
My shoulders slumped when I heard this—and it wasn’t because I agreed or didn’t agree with this family’s views on gun policy. My disappointment was because I had heard some version of this many times before—people who, when hearing about evangelical Christianity, think not of the gospel but of some extreme political identity.
It would be easy to blame that on the media portrayal of evangelical Christians in America (“All they pay attention to is the politics!”) or on this woman’s family members (“How religiously illiterate has America become that all these people see are caricatures?”).
There are ways that the outside world does unthinkingly caricature evangelical Christianity. That’s hardly a new development with secularization—note the many jokes about George Whitefield’s preaching in early American newspapers or the writings of H. L. Mencken, who didn’t mean “Bible Belt” as a compliment.
And yet, who can deny that the primary reason for this view of evangelical Christianity is due not to misunderstanding but to understanding all too well? Who can deny that the outside world defines American Christianity not by Christ and him crucified but by political tribal affiliation because of what we have shown them about ourselves?
Not long ago, I found myself re-reading Walker Percy’s essay, “Notes for a Novel About the End of the World,” on what he believed to be the double crisis facing the American church of his time. I was struck by how resonant his warnings are still.
Let’s start with the second crisis first, because it’s the one with which we’re most aware, what Percy called “the moral failure of Christendom.” Percy argued that despite all the warnings about liberalizing theology, that was not where the primary problem lay.
Percy, of course, rejected all of that too—from Paul Tillich’s “Ground of Being” to “the death of God” on the cover of TIME magazine. But, he noted, most Americans are indifferent to theology and metaphysics. He also wasn’t referencing hypocrisy in personal behavior.
“But in the one place, the place which hurt the most and where charity was most needed, they have not done right,” he wrote. “White Americans have sinned against the Negro from the beginning and continue to do so, initially with cruelty and presently with an indifference which may be even more destructive. And it is the churches which, far from fighting the good fight against man’s native inhumanity to man, have sanctified and perpetuated the indifference.”
Anyone willing can see how this crisis faces the church at the moment. That’s no doubt why the new Christian’s mother doesn’t think first of the existence of God or the historicity of the Resurrection or the idea of heaven and hell when she hears “evangelical Christian,” but instead a monolithic, tribal, political faction. Even when we have what we call theological debates, they are, when you scratch beneath the surface, often really political wars.
Perhaps even more urgent, though, is the other crisis Percy warned about—that of a worn-out vocabulary.
“The old words of grace are worn smooth as poker chips and a certain devaluation has occurred, like a poker chip after it is cashed in,” he wrote. “Even if one talks only of Christendom, leaving the heathens out of it, of Christendom where everybody is a believer, it almost seems that when everybody believes in God, it is as if everybody started the game with one poker chip, which is the same as starting with none.”
We ground our identity in culture wars because it’s much easier than bearing witness. It’s easier to find which of our neighbors are the “bad people” and to fear them than it is to actually speak to their consciences about atonement, grace, reconciliation, and newness of life.
Is it any wonder, then, that the world expects to hear from us not the words of the Bible and the announcement of the kingdom of God, but simply a more extreme version of the political warfare that’s already invaded almost every aspect of our lives?
The way we recover that lost vocabulary is not by finding new words, but by falling in love again with the old ones.
The English literature scholar Michael Edwards, in writing of his own conversion, notes that what convinced him of the truth of the Bible was not proofs or arguments but the strangeness of the text itself—a strangeness that spoke to his intuitions that there might be another way of knowing than merely that of reason and sense perception. “What I needed in order to make a step forward was what I was looking for from the beginning, a different way of knowing, which I was powerless to bring about myself.”
Not long ago, I watched the film A Glitch in the Matrix, about people who believe the world around us is illusory—that perhaps we are in a hologram or even a video game being played by our descendants with avatars of their family tree.
As you might expect, I did not find the arguments persuasive, especially since they are science-fiction versions of the old Gnosticism that the Apostle John warned us about. But the way I could actually understand their viewpoint was to “get inside” of it, to imagine what it would be like to see the world this way, to ask if it made sense of the questions we ask, if it could show us whether the questions are wrong.
I believe the gospel story does indeed speak—which is why a first-century Jewish sect of outcasts turned the world upside down. In telling that story, we invite people to consider a world in which Jesus announces, “The kingdom of God is among you” and “My kingdom is not of this world,” a story in which God rescued Israel from Egypt and raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. We can only do that if we ourselves come to the story—to our vocabulary—the way it intends us to do so: with astonishment and awe.
At our event in Houston a couple weeks ago, Beth Moore played “hymnal trivia” with me, reading the first lines from our shared childhood hymnbook, the Baptist Hymnal. I was struck once again by how many of those hymns are about astonishment. “Amazing Grace,” “I Stand Amazed in the Presence,” “And Can It Be.” The same is true, in different ways, in virtually every strand of Christian worship.
When we are bored with that, we turn to ways of knowing that are out of step with the gospel. We reduce everything down to machines or information or—even worse—we reduce our neighbors down to their positions on whatever political controversies our leaders say should differentiate “us” from “them.”
Indeed, I realized while talking with this new fellow Christian how worn my own heart had become to the vocabulary of grace. I was struck by the reaction she received—that summed up American Christianity as a political view on guns—to the point that it took me a moment to be struck by what was really momentous: The woman sitting in front of me had encountered the Person in whom the entire cosmos holds together. Her sins—and mine—are forgiven, and we stand before a reality we cannot see, united to a crucified and resurrected Christ. Jesus loves us.
It was as if I were standing in front of the Grand Canyon, complaining about the lack of adequate cell service to download a YouTube video.
Maybe if more of us were struck by just how strange and astounding these truths are, we would find the world around us startled by them too. This wouldn’t make people like us anymore—that’s not the point. The point is that people should hate us for the right reason.
When we reclaim a vocabulary of wonder, perhaps more of our neighbors will gasp when people become Christians in order to say, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
And we will respond with what he taught us to say from the beginning: “Come and see.”
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.