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A Christmas Conversation About Christ

This is the latest installment in my occasional series of conversations about Christianity. Previously, I’ve spoken with the Rev. Timothy Keller, Jimmy Carter, Cardinal Joseph Tobin and others. Here’s my interview with the Rev. Dr. Russell Moore, a former senior official of the Southern Baptist Convention who is now editor in chief of Christianity Today. It has been edited for length.

Nicholas Kristof: Merry Christmas! I’m full of admiration for Jesus’ teachings, which strike me as left of center — I say that just to needle you a bit! — but I do have trouble swallowing the miracles. So let’s start with the Nativity. Why insist today on Mary’s virginity?

The Rev. Dr. Russell Moore: That’s a foundational Christian belief. As to the contrast between the miracles and Jesus’ teaching, I would argue that the teachings are actually the harder of the two to reconcile with the world we know. “Love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” are really hard to comprehend. That’s why you sometimes hear Christians dismissing the Sermon on the Mount as “weakness” or “not realistic” in times like these. Some people try to accept Jesus’ ethics while dismissing his miracles, and some try to do the reverse. The Gospel says we should accept both.

Kristof: When the Gospels were written, people didn’t understand science — of conception or so much else. For example, the idea of Jesus “ascending” to heaven suggests that heaven is spatially above us, which few now believe. So why insist on inerrancy of the Bible? Why take “ascension” or people burning in hell literally?

Moore: This is what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” First-century people certainly did understand how babies are conceived. That’s why when Mary told Joseph she was pregnant, his response was not “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” but instead to start the process of breaking their betrothal. At first, he assumed (wrongly) that she had cheated on him. The miracles of Jesus were signs precisely because they seemed to contradict the way the world normally works. The Gospels themselves record people trying to find other ways to explain them away, even then.

The language of “ascension” no more implies that heaven is spatially above us than our language of “sunrise” and “sunset” means that the sun orbits the Earth. Jesus tells us that eternity is beyond our human comprehension. Without using imagery we can recognize, we would have no way to even start to understand them.

Kristof: Some of the most admirable people I know have been conservative people of faith. Charles Colson and I had nothing in common, but his work in prisons was heroic. I have a friend who is a Catholic missionary doctor risking his life in Sudan. My world of liberals is often wrongly dismissive of conservative Christians, and the liberals don’t appreciate how these Christians offer a lifeline in small towns across America, running soup kitchens and emergency shelters. All that said, I don’t see moral leadership from much of the conservative church today. Too often, I see preening blowhards who claim a moral mantle, and then use it to advance what I see as immoral positions. Nothing that ever happened in a gay bathhouse was as immoral as the way the Rev. Pat Robertson vilified gay people dying during the AIDS crisis in America and opposed AIDS funding to save lives.

Moore: Yes, that’s why some of us are so worried about the moral integrity and credibility of the church — especially in its most public-facing representatives. I do think that many secular Americans — whether left or right — tend not to see the Christians who are actually carrying out works of compassion in prisons in the United States, in AIDS facilities in Africa and in shelters for the poor and unhoused everywhere. These people tend not to put out press releases about their work and aren’t as interesting to the outside world as what television evangelist endorsed which presidential candidate.

Kristof: It’s unfair to ask you to defend all evangelicals, just as I wouldn’t defend all journalists. And you have shown great integrity in defying the white evangelical rush to embrace Donald Trump. It must have been dispiriting to then be denounced within the Southern Baptist Convention. Was your own faith rocked?

Moore: As the novelist Walker Percy once said of a scandalously roguish television evangelist of his time, “Just because Jimmy Swaggart believes in God doesn’t mean that God does not exist.”

Kristof: I teased you a moment ago, saying that Jesus seemed center-left. I was joking, but only a little. “Woe to you who are rich,” Jesus says. He advises a rich person to “sell everything you have and give to the poor” and explains that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Sounds kind of lefty, doesn’t it?

Moore: Jesus was frustrating to the people around him — sometimes his own followers — because he wouldn’t “line up” with some political or nationalistic faction or the other. When people wanted to make him king, he withdrew to the mountains. That’s why he counted both tax collectors — collaborators with the Roman Empire — and zealots — those who wanted liberation from the empire — as his followers.

Evangelical Christians around the world can be found on almost every place on the political and ideological spectrum. Most secular people, when they think of evangelicals and politics, tend to think only of white American evangelicals, while ignoring Black and Hispanic and Asian American evangelicals, not to mention the majority of evangelicals who have never set foot in North America.

Jesus sounds “left” in some cases and “right” in others. That’s why when we really pay attention to what he’s saying, all of us will be uncomfortable at some point or another. He just refuses to be a “useful” political mascot for anybody.

Kristof: Two of the main moral issues that evangelicals have been associated with in the last few decades are hostility to abortion and to gay people. Jesus never spoke directly about either, but he was explicit about being against divorce and in favor of giving away all one’s money. So why hijack faith to obsess about abortion and same-sex lovers?

Moore: The premise isn’t really true. Jesus did speak to the issue of marriage — both in terms of its definition and its permanence. I am against abortion for the same reasons I’m against separating migrant children from their mothers at the border. I just don’t think we should estimate a person’s value based on how powerful or “viable” he or she is. When told to “love your neighbor as yourself,” one questioner asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” When we find ourselves asking that question — whether about a pregnant woman, her unborn child, a refugee family, a person suffering with AIDS, or anyone else — we are already in a failure to love. We can, and ought to, love them all.

Kristof: This conversation has been a bit unfair, because I’ve been hounding you, and you haven’t been able to grill me. So here’s your chance. What do you think New York Times readers don’t get about evangelicals? What are our blind spots?

Moore: Well, I’m a New York Times reader, too, but I get what you mean. The most important blind spot is perhaps missing why so many of us are drawn to faith in the first place. We really do believe the Gospel is Good News that answers the deepest longings of the human heart. I would just recommend that people read one of the Gospels with an open mind. Jesus loves New York Times readers, too.

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Update: Many thanks to readers who have so far donated about $3.6 million to the nonprofits in my holiday giving guide column. The sum will help more than 30,000 families. To join in, visit KristofImpact.org.

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