Review: Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel
The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be,
Ain’t what she used to be, ain’t what she used to be,
The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be,
Many long years ago.
If one were to nominate a campaign song for the Republican party this year, I would submit “The Old Gray Mare” as my candidate. It’s American, old-timey, and perfectly enunciates the fears of many voters: our country “ain’t what she used to be, many long years ago.” This isn’t just the fear of the politically minded, either. Christians, too, are finding themselves lost in the mire of fear, worried that America is increasingly hostile to their faith and the nation is no longer as morally anchored as it once was.
Enter Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, by Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Published last August, in the wake of the Obergefell v Hodges ruling, Onward diagnoses the health of Christianity in America, prescribing a faithful course of action for believers in a nation where being a church-goer is more and more a social liability.
Moore’s assessment is frank. He denies there was ever a golden era of America, an age where biblical Christian principles flourished in the public sphere, to which we can somehow return. By acknowledging America’s history with racism, on-going systemic racism today, and even his own denomination’s complicity with segregation, Moore demonstrates that “Make America Great Again” isn’t just wishful thinking; it’s wishful history.
Onward is prophetic in its purpose. Moore names the sins of American Christians, from racism to early support of abortion to quarrelous watch-bloggers and power-hungry charlatans at the pulpit. Residents of the Bible belt may see themselves as living in God-ordered homes, but Moore is unafraid to pull up the carpet and expose the drug abuse, sexual profligacy, and xenophobia festering beneath. There is no one righteous, no not one; not even in youth group. His criticism of Christians rallying to questionable political figures to advance their cause is so sharply prescient it feels the book was written a week ago.
Yet a prophet not only names the sins of the people; he also offers hope in God. This is the true triumph of Onward. Moore articulates a grand vision of hope rooted in the death and resurrection of Christ and the invasion of Christ’s kingdom on Earth. Moore here is reminiscent of both C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright, giving readers an awesome view of a triumphant Christ who has conquered death, who reigns in heaven, and who everyday brings more and more people into his kingdom to proclaim his name on Earth.
This cosmic, eschatological vision of the Church is what puts all of our lives into context, yet it’s so easy to forget—if one ever learns it all. Even I, a person who is often lost in the clouds contemplating how we all fit in this transcendent, epic story that is the Christian walk, lose sight of the hope that we have. It’s particularly easy to forget how God is at work in the world, restoring us and preparing us for the kingdom to come, in a bizarre, topsy-turvy election season like this. It seems that the world has gone mad when one turns on the television. Moore reminds us that the world is a mad place, and that sin pervades in the angry rallies of a casino magnate as much as it did in the Roman Coliseum. Our hope today is the same hope of those who walked in the way two millennia ago. Likewise, our duties to fulfill Christ’s command to share the Gospel and love our neighbor also remain the same.
I’ve scoffed at the genre of evangelical non-fiction more than once on this site and elsewhere. These sorts of books tend to read like decent sermons padded to torturous lengths to meet a publisher’s quota, stuffed with questionably true anecdotes and more Bible cross-references than in actual Bibles. However, Moore writes not as a pastor with a book deal, but as a logical, well-read thinker. He writes with clarity and a touch of dry humor, and he more than once displays a knack for Chestertonian aphorisms and paradox. I realize many of these books aren’t written with literary aesthetics in mind at all, but to communicate an important idea one must communicate well. A book that defies reading won’t be read. Thankfully, Onward is to the point, clear, and uses its 243 pages wisely.
In the concluding chapter, Moore points to the strangeness of the Gospel. It was strange in ancient Rome and it is strange today. It will be strange long after the United States ceases to be. No matter the time or place, a true disciple of Christ will always stick out like a sore thumb in society. It’s the very nature of who we are. We are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. We are foreigners with a lifestyle and calling that will always be unfathomably bizarre to the uninitiated. We are strangers who swear fealty to an unseen Liege and rally at his outposts every Sunday morning. Our ethics are stringent, but our joy is inexhaustible. We will always be at tension with the world. Our response is not to conform to the world’s demands, but to proclaim the good news wherever we go, no matter how unpopular we are in opinion polls.
Onward isn’t a cultural polemic or tiresome sermon that overstays its welcome. It’s a rallying cry for Christians to remember their King and carry out his commands, and it’s a manual for living in this secular century. Don’t call it post-Christian America, though. As Moore suggests, think of it as a “pre-Christian” America. For the Kingdom advances ever onward, and it is inexorable.
Photo by James Stringer.