You don’t get to launch a critique like this one, designed to make a lot of good-hearted people think twice about their attraction to the Moscow Mood, and then with a flourish refuse to take questions, or to be too busy for replies. You can’t launch an attack and then call for a cease fire. This is particularly the case when your critique failed as a knock-out blow. If there were no possible answers, and we defenders of the Moscow Mood were all just sitting around shamefacedly, you could easily afford to take questions, because there wouldn’t be any. But if turns out that this was a swing and a miss, and there are consequently a host of questions, many of which would be very awkward for Kevin to try to answer, you cannot just say that this would “take a lot of time.”
So Kevin DeYoung set off a national conversation with this article. When his article dropped, I was in the middle of wrapping up my November posts, and so a response had to wait until today. But I did have enough time to tweet that I thought Kevin’s critique was a responsible critique from a reasonable man, and so I asked all those who thought of themselves as being “in my corner” to respond to him judiciously and in that spirit.
As far as I could see, this is something they largely did—but that did not mean that the responses were not pointed, telling and forceful. I am going to try to do the same. I thank Kevin for this opportunity, and look forward to meeting him as a result of all this.
This response is kind of a beast, but what are you going to do?
Our War With Crapola
Below please find the latest promo ad for Canon+. After you watch it, you might wonder if we rushed it through production over the last week in order to respond to Kevin’s piece on the Moscow Mood. But no, it was in the works already, and it summarizes our approach to all these things nicely. We are at war with crapola, and are willing to use words like crapola as the occasion demands.
Here is the video.
Come for the Mood, Stay for the Substance
As the header for this section indicates, I am willing to play with Kevin’s point that some people are being attracted by the mood, and that doctrinal concerns are not really all that front and center. But this is just a rhetorical playing around, because you can’t cover everything in a short little header. So I would also want to note that as I have interacted with many of the people who are attracted to Moscow, I find all sorts of variations on the central theme of “reasons for coming”—”come for the practical teaching, get used to the mood,” or “come for the grand kids, stay for the postmill stuff,” or “come for the community, misunderstand the mood,” “come for a classical education, stay for the worship,” and so on. In other words, I believe that Kevin’s thesis is genuinely a small part of what is going on, but is by no means the whole thing. It is accurate as far as it goes, but that is not very far, and there is a lot more going on. The word I hear mentioned in this regard, overwhelmingly, is community. This is in reference to a blessing we have been given—and do not deserve—and that gift is something the apostle Paul would have called koinonia.
So, sure. Come for the mood, stay for the substance. Come for whatever reason, and stay for the only reason that ultimately matters.
“. . . which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.”
Colossians 2:17 (NKJV)
A Quick Round Up
There were various responses to Kevin’s article from various quarters, and I appreciated a lot of what was said in them. Joe Rigney did a marvelous job in The American Reformer here, Toby Sumpter responded here, and Jared Longshore here. It is an honor to be associated with these men. Here is one, and another, and yet another. There were also some words of real encouragement. And here is another response from someone who had come to Moscow for a visit just a few weeks ago. And Tom Buck, no big fan of Moscow rhetoric, pointed out a glaring inconsistency here. And Michael Foster did some valuable work in pointing that everyone everywhere has a mood, and maybe we should have a discussion about all of them. And Brian Brown knows what time it is. So does William Wolfe, and he applies a crucial insight from John Piper to the whole situation.
Coming from another direction, Justin Taylor promoted Kevin’s article on X, and reinforced some of its main points himself. He also recommended this piece. And as much as I appreciate the proffered explanation for my behavior, this take seems to me to be an exercise in after-the-fact damage control by means of long-distance and entirely unsupported psychoanalysis.
What I think is happening here is that a discussion is ongoing about how best to distance from me, but it can’t look as though it is happening because of heat from the left. Anthony Bradley has complained pointedly about how I have been platformed in the past by Desiring God, The Gospel Coalition, etc., which is true enough, but in order for them to not look like they are caving to pressure, the line has to be that I am the one who has changed. An offered explanation for the dark turn my mind has taken in recent years is that it was Rachel Held Evans “what done me in.” Let me just say that I engaged with Rachel Held Evans quite a bit because of the damaging traction she was getting in the broader church, which shouldn’t have been happening, and because she was really quite easy to answer. But had she had gotten under my skin? Hardly.
So with my jim-jams-diagnosed-from-a-distance out of the way, let us turn to the real subject at hand.
What Kevin Did Well
Kevin offered a critique of our Moscow project, and his critique was far more effective than the standard fare that comes after us. By “standard fare,” I mean the kind of assault that appears to be afflicted with an advanced case of rabies. In other words, Kevin was being a critic, and not someone with a frothing Moscow Derangement Syndrome. In my responses below, I will get into why I believe his criticisms miss the mark—by a mile, actually—but they were in fact real-world criticisms, and not simply spleen-venting. Kevin was obviously trying to be careful, and for this I thank him.
The tell that indicated this, and what made his critique more effective than others I could mention, was the fact that Kevin was willing to give credit where credit was due. He was not attacking us for being sociopaths, or orcs, or Klingons, or pedophile-apologists. He recognized that there is something genuinely attractive about what we are doing, and that it is attractive to reasonable Christians. At the same time, he believes there is a kink in our hose somewhere, and he clearly wanted to warn these reasonable Christians about that. This was on the basis of his belief that something is seriously wrong down underneath all the good stuff.
But he does see, and was willing to talk about, the good stuff.
“I know a lot of good Christians who have been helped by Wilson . . . Wilson is to be commended for establishing an ecosystem of . . . deserves credit for being unafraid to take unpopular positions . . . He offers the world and the church an angular, muscular, forthright Christianity in an age of compromise and defection. On top of that, Wilson has a family that loves him and loves Christ . . . the cultural aesthetic and political posture that Wilson so skillfully embodies.”
KDY, The Article In Question (TAIQ)
And now, because November’s over, I hasten to qualify. I am not saying that Kevin is to be treated as a quality critic simply because he said some complimentary things about me. So long as I get a bit of flattery coming my way, I am somehow willing to flatter in return? No, that’s not it.
I am simply saying, as someone who knows how rhetoric works, that few things are more helpful to us than the unhinged critics are. For any reasonable person who has spent any time here in Moscow, or who knows anything at all about us, it is evident that many remarkable blessings are taking shape here. Kevin sees this, and is willing to say it, which means that he is not blind. And it should always be possible to profit from critics who are not blind.
And at the same time, his concerns are not trifling. They are weighty, and need to be taken seriously, and answered thoroughly. That is what I intend to do here.
I have been answering such questions about mood or “tone” for forty years now, and it is not a new subject for me.
But judging from the fact that Kevin felt the need to address it now in this way, at this level, indicates a mood shift within the rest of evangelicalism. And I believe that this article by Kevin actually presents us with a wonderful opportunity to get some things settled.
Here is the heart of his concern:
“My bigger concern is with the long-term spiritual effects of admiring and imitating the Moscow mood. For the mood that attracts people to Moscow is too often incompatible with Christian virtue, inconsiderate of other Christians, and ultimately inconsistent with the stated aims of Wilson’s Christendom project . . . what you win them with is what you win them to.”
So that is the charge, and what follows would be the basic answers that I would present in reply.
Short Term, Long Term
What is the short term fruit that Kevin sees?
“He offers the world and the church an angular, muscular, forthright Christianity in an age of compromise and defection. On top of that, Wilson has a family that loves him and loves Christ.”
But this is the very sort of thing that so many Christian families are hungry for today—a forthright Christian faith that stands against compromise, held out to the world by families that are united in their love for Christ and their love for one another. Isn’t this the very sort of thing that Jesus said to judge by (Matt. 7:20)? For Kevin to grant this made his critique much stronger, as I noted above, but only on the surface.
That is because if you take the concession seriously, you realize that it unravels the critique itself. What he conceded seems like a strong upside pitch for Moscow. So what is the downside? The downside is that imitating a mood that is incompatible with Christian virtue could have long term deleterious effects. My question here has to do with that phrase long term. Yes, you can see all this good fruit now, but what about an unspecified future time when that fruit isn’t here anymore? Well, when the good fruit turns bad, you should point that out. But in the meantime, you don’t predict bad things that could happen years from now, and go bury your one talent in a napkin because something could go wrong.
For example, there once was a time when The Gospel Coalition produced a lot more good fruit than they do now, but that was before they fell in love with Taylor Swift. Times change and so should the criticism. Well, and if a time comes when I am no longer presenting a forthright Christian faith in an age of compromise, and my family no longer loves Christ, and no longer loves me, then I would hope that somebody would point that out.
The Worldliness Snare
“I fear that much of the appeal of Moscow is an appeal to what is worldly in us.”
Hold on a sec. What is worldliness? The thing that drives it is a deep desire for the world’s respect. Does Kevin really think that this is what I have been striving for? That I am trying to get the world to like me? To respect me? The only way people like me ever become respectable is after we’re dead and deep. And if that ever happened, it wouldn’t go to my head because I will be in Heaven and have better things to think about.
“How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?”
John 5:44 (KJV)
So the world only praises Christians within a very limited range, and it is happy to blame us for all manner of. things. If someone has an itch for respectability, that means that they have placed a huge steering wheel on their back, right between their shoulder blades, and the worldly-wise are never hesitant to take the wheel.
The desire to be approved by God puts the standard in the text of Scripture (2 Tim. 2:15 ). The desire to be found winsome by the world puts the standard completely in the grasp of Old Slewfoot. He is the one who now determines whether or not you are being winsome. No, no. Scoot farther to the left.
Here is how worldliness is diagnosed in Screwtape.
“No doubt he must very soon realise that his own faith is in direct opposition to the assumptions on which all the conversation of his new friends is based. I don’t think that matters much provided that you can persuade him to postpone any open acknowledgment of the fact, and this, with the aid of shame, pride, modesty and vanity, will be easy to do. As long as the postponement lasts he will be in a false position. He will be silent when he ought to speak, and laugh when he ought to be silent.
The Screwtape Letters, p. 50
In contrast to this, my desire, when confronted by the world’s rebellious and insane folly, is to speak when I ought to speak, and to laugh when they forbid laughter.
There are ways that this can go wrong—because this is a fallen world—but our temptation here in Moscow is not that of caring too much what the respectability-mongers are selling this season. Too many Christian leaders believe that our witness and testimony depends upon buying up the world’s fall line. Next spring it will be the spring line. Our temptations here in Moscow lie elsewhere. I would tell you what those temptations are, but there are people out there who would weaponize it right off the bat.
The temptation to ache for worldly respectability is, however, rampant throughout the evangelical world. Vast sections of our evangelical establishment have gone down before this alluring temptation, like dry meadow grass before a sharpened scythe. This article by Kevin is a marvelous case in point. He is not going to lose any respectability points from the cool kids over this, is he?