Onward by Russell Moore
What Onward is About
Onward by Russell Moore is a call for American evangelicals to engage the culture in a way that is faithful to the Gospel. American culture has changed. It is no longer allied with Christian values. The Bible Belt is collapsing. In Moore’s view, this is not necessarily a bad thing. For too long American culture has embraced Christian values while simultaneously rejecting the Christian Gospel. This has created a cultural Christianity that is a perversion of the true faith, a moralism that exalts Jesus as right or correct, without submitting to him as Lord. “We ought to see the ongoing cultural shake-up in America as a liberation of sorts from a captivity we never even knew we were in. The closeness of American culture with the church caused many sectors of the American church to read the Bible as though the Bible were pointing us to America itself.” (p. 7)
The demise of the Bible Belt and American Christianity is an opportunity too good for the Church to miss. This allows for a sort of purification of the Church in America, a disentanglement from partisan politics and ethnic nationalism. The end of American Christianity ought to open the eyes of Christians in America that our country is not, and really never was, Christian. Rather than clinging to the last vestiges of political influence, we ought to turn our attention to true Gospel influence, which is far bigger than any political party’s platform. In a particularly prescient passage, Moore writes, “If politics drives the gospel, rather than the other way around, we end up with a public witness in which Mormon talk-show hosts and serially-monogamous casino magnates and prosperity-gospel preachers are welcomed into our ranks, regardless of what violence they do the gospel. They are, after all, ‘right on the issues.'” (p.32) In the wake of the election of President Trump, and the strong evangelical support that helped get him into office, this passage cuts to the core of what is wrong with American Christianity.
The thematic thrust of Onward is made clear in a pithy statement, written in bold letters, on the back cover of the book: Keep Christianity Strange. Calling to mind bumper stickers like “Keep Austin Weird,” Moore urges us to recover the peculiarity of the Gospel. When culture faith become entangled, it is always faith that suffers. The Christian faith lost its peculiar power in America precisely because it became normal. As Moore writes, “The church of Jesus Christ is never a majority – in any fallen culture – even if we happen to outnumber everyone else around us. The Scripture speaks of a world system that is at odds with the kingdom, a world to which we are constantly tempted to pattern our own intellects and affections after, until we are interrupted by the ongoing transformation of the kingdom.” (p. 29) The systems of the world are always antichrist; they are always inimical to the Gospel and the transformative work of the Spirit. This was as true in ancient Rome as it is in modern America.
The bulk of Onward is taken up by Moore’s outline of a “Gospel Counter-Revolution.” He tackles issues of life, mercy, family, and justice. Onward is more than just a chronicle of the problems with American Christianity; it is a manifesto for Gospel faithfulness in a culture that has rejected the “God and Country” Christianity of the Bible Belt. For example, Moore calls the Church to be “pro-life for the whole life.” It is not enough to be, as some critics say, pro-birth. We must embrace a prophetic position that is consistently and thoroughly pro-life. This means that the Church must stand against the world’s culture of death on issues like abortion and euthanasia, but also against the systemic injustices of racism, xenophobia, torture, and ethnic nationalism. We fight, however, not with outrage or verbal attacks, but with what Moore calls convictional kindness. Our message is one of grace, and our aim is always in the direction of reconciliation. This is the ministry that Jesus has given his people – the ministry of reconciliation – and we can be sure that he will accomplish his mission with or without us.
What I Learned
In Onward, Russell Moore articulates what many post-political evangelicals like myself have been thinking. Wearied by political gamesmanship, we are looking for a new way of engaging our culture that is both free from partisanship and faithful to the Gospel. We are longing to extricate ourselves from political platforms that, on the one hand endorse the use of torture and ignore racial injustice, but on the other hand embrace a culture of death and advance the doctrine of the Sexual Revolution. There must be a better way.
The message of the Church to every political party ought to be, “Don’t count on us.” There is no political party, in America or elsewhere, that fully and faithfully represents the mission of Jesus and the values of his kingdom. We are, in a sense, always voting against our consciences at the ballot box. Just because a candidate shares our convictions on one issue does not mean that we must fall into line with his or her position on every issue. Moore offers us a radical perspective on voting: “Our vote for President is less important than our vote to receive new members for baptism into our churches.” (p. 63) In other words, the faithfulness of the Church is of greater significance – eternally, so – than the ideology of our elected officials.
Recovering a prophetic voice in our culture means divorcing ourselves from our political parties. Our ideology cannot drive our theology. Gospel faithfulness demands that our politics be the politics of the kingdom, that we see the world as the fallen but soon-to-be-restored creation. We receive our prophetic voice again when we submit ourselves to the only King whose executive orders have destroyed the power of death and removed the stain of sin. In a world where political ideology and outrage are normal, we have to keep Christianity strange.
If you’re tired of American politics like I am, Onward is a breath of fresh air and an encouragement in the way forward. Russell Moore invites American evangelicals to a greater Gospel consistency on the issues of the day, giving us permission to extricate ourselves from political ideology and fully embrace the politics of Jesus. If you are open to the idea that sometimes the Gospel is to the “left” of your ideology, and other times it is to the “right,” then I encourage you to read Onward and soak in Russell Moore’s manifesto for American evangelical cultural engagement.
My only problem with Onward is the abundance of editorial errors. Rife with typos, this is the most poorly edited book I’ve come across in quite some time. Do not let that detract, however, from the power of its message.