The West Wing was a fictional depiction of the doings in the West Wing of the White House. The show starred Martin Sheen and centered on a god-like president, Josiah Bartlet; a president with the courage and character of George Washington, the sensitivity and eloquence of Abraham Lincoln, and the charisma and political skills of Franklin Roosevelt. Writers of the show often placed within the mouths of the president’s men a recurring refrain: “Let Bartlet be Bartlet.”
The same sentiment could be applied to Russell Moore’s Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel. But in Moore’s case, the refrain is: “Let the Church be the Church.”
Moore has done American evangelicals a valuable service in writing this book—even if it’s tough message to hear. He calls American Christians, who have long engaged in a protracted war with the culture, to task. For too long (and too loud), the evangelical movement in the United States has focused on “winning America back” without articulating what exactly that means in a gospel context. The result of our culture warring has produced casualties on both sides. On the cultural Left, deeply embedded suspicion and downright hostility toward the claims of Christ has left many spiritually scared. And on the cultural Right, disillusionment of the gospel’s power to change the culture has left many spiritually discouraged and depressed. But as Moore points out, the problem isn’t with the gospel; it’s with those who champion the gospel without being completely transformed by the gospel. These are the people Moore calls “almost-Christians”—not that they haven’t come to saving faith in Christ, but that they are cultural warriors with a Christian façade more than Christian warriors, fighting the good fight Christianly.
At its heart, Onward is a call for Christians to act more like Christ and less like crusaders.
Moore identifies a broad strip that runs the length of American evangelicalism that is more patriotic than it is patristic. There is nothing wrong with patriotism, as long as our love of country stays within the confines of our love for Christ. But when our patriotism is no longer “a sentiment,” in the words of C. S. Lewis, “but a belief”—“a firm even prosaic belief that our own nation, has long been and still is markedly superior to all others”—then our patriotism looks a lot like idolatry. The crusader mindset that has marked the American church, particularly since 1973, after the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion on demand, is indicative of a church more in love with country than with Christ. Without a doubt, these believers argue they want to “take back the country” for Christ. But it’s an open questions whether their message and methods are Christlike.
Sadly, the Christian cultural crusader mindset, coupled with the Christian America movement, has produced a bastardized Christianity within America. Evangelicalism is now defined in political terms (white Republican) instead of theological terms (orthodox doctrine). And evangelicals are identified as a voting block and not as distinctive Christ-followers. When the culture defines and identifies us like this the problem isn’t with their perception, it’s with our practice.
Christ prayed His disciples would be in the world but not of the world. We must be in the world to influence it for Christ, but we must not be of it or we will lose all influence. The fact that we have had such little impact on the America culture in the past forty years bespeaks not to the distinctive witness of the gospel’s power to transform character and culture, but to the truth that the American church is indistinct from the character and culture of the age. Jesus’ prayer has not been answered in America.
Christian crusaders want a different world than the current decadent one in which we live. Nevertheless, they want what never was and never will be—not until Christ comes again. But they don’t want to wait that long; so they fight for utopia, employing worldly ways, losing sight that the gospel promise of paradise is yet to be—to be realized in a new world and a new age.
It is into this lost vision of what the church should be that Moore seeks to illumine the light of the gospel, arguing, “we can be Americans best if we are not Americans first.” He calls us anew to an older calling: “Seek first the kingdom of God.” In answering this call we “keep Christianity strange”—especially at this time. But it is in the strangeness of truly following Christ that makes Christianity so appealing. The church has never been more culturally relevant then when the church is countercultural. Would that we would be as revolutionary now as Christ was then. That’s the battle cry Moore is shouting: “Onward Christian strangers.”