If you are a Christian struggling with how to find a way to positively engage the world around you while remaining orthodox, then Russell Moore’s book, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, is for you.
Moore has been on various news outlets over the past few years as a spokesman for conservative evangelicals, particular for the Southern Baptist Convention. If this has caused you to wonder what he is doing and why he says the things he says, then this book will be helpful for you, too.
Avoiding Twin Dangers
Moore is outlining the twin dangers of Christian engagement in the public square. On the one hand, it is easy for Christians to become like grumpy old people telling kids to get off their lawn. On the other hand, it also easy for Christians to leave unexamined many of the ills of society as long as it doesn't directly impact them. We can’t afford to fall into either one of the errors if we are going to reach the world with the good news of the gospel.
The thing that keeps us from falling into either of these errors is a proper understanding of the gospel. Moore begins by discussing the culture shift that has pushed Christians from the center of the cultural conversation to the prophetic edges. He is careful to note this reality reflects the fact that the values coalitions of previous decades sounded very Christian without actually being converted by the gospel. As the conversation shifted away from something that resembled a Christian ethic, the Christians that remained faithful to the gospel seemed to have two options: either compromise or get left out of the conversation. This is a false dichotomy.
Gospel Foundation, Contemporary Issues
Early on in the volume, Moore digs into the meaning of the gospel. He makes it clear that the gospel isn’t about either personal salvation or social justice; it’s about both. If the Christian church loses its understanding of personal conversion and individual redemption, she loses one of the cornerstones of the gospel message. Salvation is not based on redemption of the whole, but on Christ’s atonement for the individual. At the same time, if Christian individuals miss the central redemptive themes of historic Christianity, which offers a strong dose of the pursuit of justice in society, then they miss out on some of the key implications of their own gospel conversion; redeemed individuals seek to redeem society.
With both these aspects of redemption in mind, Moore addresses a number of major issues that are central to the contemporary cultural discussion: immigration, religious liberty, and family stability. These are social issues that tend to divide Americans from each other and are the topics that commonly lead to calls for compromise and accusations of a lack of compassion.
This is where Moore’s call for convictional kindness comes in. Convictional kindness is standing firm on ethical norms without shame, while confronting the angry accusations of the surrounding world with a gentle spirit. The conviction is birthed from confidence in the objective moral order in creation that is witnessed to by the special revelation found in Scripture. It requires rational, well-thought through positions that are both coherent and correspond to the truth in God’s creation. Kindness is built on the understanding of our own personal need for redemption. We, too, are growing, learning people who have pasts that we may have forgotten. Those that we disagree with, even those waving fingers and shouting in our faces, are people made in the image of God who deserve to hear the message of redemption. That’s a message they won’t be able to hear if we are shouting back. In fact, joining in the shouting will keep our “conversation partners” from hearing both our arguments on the issue and the message of the gospel.
Moore’s overall argument is hugely important as Christians seek to be salt and light in a world that (still) desperately needs the gospel. He also makes subtler points that are even more significant for Christians to hear. For example, in discussing the issue of gun control or gun rights he explains that there is no single Christian position. He has a position, which he does not articulate, but he notes more significantly that no one can speak for an official Christian position. There are certainly moral elements to the question, but at the same time the bulk of the argument is prudential and legal. It would be unethical to leave loaded guns within the reach of toddlers, but the capacity of a magazine and the process for background checks for weapons are prudential questions. This doesn’t mean that the question is not significant, but that we should be careful about promoting our preferred position as a gospel truth when it isn’t. Doing so encourages wrangling within the body of Christ and it largely discredits the message of the gospel because the faulty logic is apparent to any who care to see it. In this example, the Second Amendment is a benefit of being American, not a right imbued by the gospel.
Onward has been published at a time that conservative Christians in America feel like they are under assault because anything resembling a Christianesque ethic is being pushed farther toward the margins. Moore helps by explaining that Christianity has always been strange and that we should continue to cling to our strangeness. We have to articulate the gospel in our homes, in our churches, and in our culture if we are to have an impact. Moore’s book is an encouragement to continue to live faithfully in private and in public, but with a confidence founded on the truth of the gospel not fueled by a majority in the polls.