At the turning of the year, religion writers and pundits reflect on the stories and conversations that shaped us and look forward to the conversations ahead. So far, Baptist News Global has shared a piece about how content creators shaped these conversations across a variety of platforms, as well as another piece about how one writer experienced religious celebrations throughout the year and articles on favorite things, on the year’s top 10 analysis pieces and most-read opinion pieces.
Last week, Christianity Today offered a podcast conversation between host Mike Cosper and Editor in Chief Russell Moore, in which they reflected on the conversations of 2022 and shared some desires for conversations of 2023. The ways Christian media outlets frame theological narratives are quite revealing. And the conversation between Cosper and Moore is a microcosm that encapsulates how closely many evangelicals come to the heart of the conversation without being willing to go far enough.
Our year of collective anger
Cosper and Moore begin their conversation by referencing an article in the New York Times that frames 2022 as “The Year We Lost It.” In this piece, Todd Kashdan says our regular reaction of anger “suggests that there’s a societal fascination — equal parts envious and despising — with unfettered expressions of rage.”
Moore suggests there is a “sense of powerlessness in the culture right now of people who just feel as though there is no option but to freak out. … There’s a great deal of fear and I think a great deal of self-protection. … We seem to be kind of stuck in the dark.”
It’s interesting to note the unnamed hierarchies in their language. Envy is a discontentment or a resentment of others who are perceived to have acquired or achieved a higher status than you have, while despising looks down on those perceived as below you. Powerlessness felt by people who feel fear and a need to self-protect based on having no options is the experience of those on the bottom of hierarchical power structures. If these people had power to have other options, they would feel more freedom in their pursuit of happiness.
Emperors aren’t stuck. Those at the bottom of hierarchies with no power are stuck. And so, a major part of our conversation needs to be about the societal and institutional power structures that control and limit others into feeling powerless in life.
Anger as a secondary emotion
Later in the conversation, they discuss how anger can be expressed in healthy and legitimate ways. But Cosper explains that as a general reaction: “In psychology, they often talk about anger as a secondary emotion. And it’s an emotion that feels safe as compared to expressing things like sadness, depression, disappointment, grief.”
Cosper is correct in framing anger as a secondary emotion. Often, conservative evangelicals set up a false dichotomy where “God is love, but God is also holy and angry” as if love and anger are side by side. A more consistent psychological and theological understanding of love and anger would say because God is love, God gets angry when those whom God loves are harmed. To see anger as a primary character trait of God alongside love would be a denial of the idea that “his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime.”
Regarding social issues of hierarchical power, it is important to examine how our political, economic and religious institutions all have created power dynamics based on gender, race, class and sexual orientation. Because we love women, non-white people, poor people and LGBTQ people, it is legitimate to be angry when they are oppressed in systems set up by straight white wealthy men. But while our anger is legitimate, it needs to be held within a more holistic emotional context of sorrow and grief.
The contrast between endless anger and creative grief
Cosper names many of the causes for anger or grief we feel: “You think about all the loss with this COVID season. Everybody knows people who’ve died. Oftentimes you’re seeing the polarization get so extreme. Family relationships are broken up. Church communities are broken up. The learning loss with your kids. The loss of milestones of families who didn’t get to have graduations, didn’t get to have their first dance, the list could go on and on. And to me, it strikes me that we have this culture of pent-up grief. But because America doesn’t do grief well, we look for these more sort of aggressive kinds of expressions of emotion that often do turn up in anger, oftentimes in American culture it turns into innovation, it turns into creativity.”
While Cosper and Moore have been naming specific causes of anger and grief to this point, they have yet to analyze what theologies of anger and grief tell us about God. But Cosper indicates there is a difference between aggressive anger that leads to nowhere but the perpetuation of itself and anger amidst grief that leads to innovation and creativity.
But what does that look like when we consider the wrath of God?
Evangelicals often point to Revelation 20:11-15 as proof that God’s wrath will one day be poured out through eternal conscious torment. After all, Revelation 19 is a celebration of the nations being struck down in smoke that ascends forever.
Of course, the wrath in Revelation is written in first century apocalyptic language that shouldn’t be taken literally. But even if it were, the narrative is not one where anger lasts forever, but where anger is a secondary dealing with sin so that the greater work of new creation can happen.
Revelation 21:5 says, “I am making everything new!” And while those who refuse the way of love are exiled as long as they remain in rebellion, verse 26 says the gates never will be shut. Verse 27 says the very nations who were struck down will eventually have their glory and honor brought into it. Then Revelation 22:2 says there is a tree of life “for the healing of the nations.”
“The wrath of God in Revelation is not about an endless expression of anger toward people but is part of a healing process for making everything new.”
In other words, the wrath of God in Revelation is not about an endless expression of anger toward people but is part of a healing process for making everything new.
Moore says “hyper self-protectiveness” is what is often behind modern-day anger: “People are at an exhaustion point of just feeding themselves with the adrenaline and the anger. It can’t go on this way. It has to end in something else.”
But isn’t the self-protectiveness of God’s glory the very reason evangelicals think God angrily burns people endlessly?
Instead, Moore’s hope is that “we’ll see a shift toward vulnerability and sincerity in 2023.” But again, where is the vulnerability of God in expressing wrath through eternal conscious torment? There are theologies of atonement and justice that explore the creative vulnerability of God. But those aren’t found in conservative evangelical theology.
What if God’s anger really does reflect the healthy grief Cosper describes as overflowing into creativity, rather than the unhealthy anger Cosper describes as an end in itself?
The anger of Jesus
To see God as immediately reacting in holy anger would be to see a God who doesn’t experience sorrow or grief. Cosper says: “I think it reflects a lack of spiritual leadership and even political leadership in the country, that we don’t know how to respond to the moment with expressions of grief and sorrow.”
But Christians claim to believe in Jesus as a Man of Sorrows acquainted with grief. Wouldn’t that imply Jesus knew how to sorrow and grieve rather than getting trapped in anger?
Moore adds: “The startling thing about Jesus is not those few moments when we see flashes of anger, but the way that he is tranquil, especially when it comes to his own hurt,” noting how Jesus responded to his arrest and trial. “He exposes the fact that a lot of this, especially the more theatrical and adrenal kinds of anger, really are a lack of confidence in God, in other people, in one’s self.”
Again, let’s contrast Moore’s explanation of Jesus’ anger from the conservative evangelical theological script about God’s wrath. While Moore points out that Jesus’ anger was in a few moments, the conservative evangelical script says God’s wrath will endure forever. While Moore says theatrical, adrenal anger comes from a lack of confidence in God, the conservative evangelical view of penal substitutionary atonement glorifies the Father satisfying his wrath on the Son. While Moore promotes a contrast of confidence in self, neighbor and God, the conservative evangelical Calvinist script undermines self and neighbor confidence by saying we can’t trust our totally depraved and desperately wicked hearts.
“At every point, conservative evangelical theologies of human identity, atonement and justice undermine what Cosper and Moore are saying.”
The anger of Jesus is not only creative — as Cosper points out — it is also confident and affirming of self, neighbor and God, as Moore points out. Yet, at every point, conservative evangelical theologies of human identity, atonement and justice undermine what Cosper and Moore are saying.
Cosper quotes Dallas Willard: “‘The difference between Jesus’ anger and ours is that we can trust Jesus with his anger, where we need much more suspicion of our own.’” But due to the fact that conservative evangelicals believe we image God and live out the gospel, the way we talk about and celebrate God and the gospel will shape the ethics we live out.
Living out the theology of anger
Cosper asks Moore: “There’s this sort of Christian line of justification for a lot of anger. … How do you think about the role of anger in terms of what is often sort of baptized in the language of holy anger, righteous anger?”
Moore replies: “When you don’t have any understanding of anger, then what happens is you tend to redirect it. And a lot of people redirect anger toward themselves. A lot of what depression is in many cases is redirected, self-directed anger.”
But isn’t penal substitutionary atonement God’s redirected anger toward himself?
Then he continues: “Whenever you have people sort of referencing Jesus overturning the tables in the temple courts, it’s almost always the case that you should walk backward out of the room slowly because this is usually somebody with some deep psychological sorts of problems trying to find a justification for attacking.”
Given Moore’s shared concern about the number of sexual abuse coverups in the Southern Baptist Convention, Presbyterian Church in America, and Anglican Church in North America, it would have been helpful to hear him mention here that sometimes tables need to be overturned.
“The problem of retributive anger exists far more on the right than it does on the left.”
But he is right to question the psychological causes of our anger. To do so, we’d need to admit that the problem of retributive anger exists far more on the right than it does on the left. And given the way the right talks about the theology of an angry God, wouldn’t it be worth questioning whether the psychology of that angry God is healthy, or if its unhealthiness is being reflected in our institutions and relationships?
Theologies of anger and institutional Christianity
Moore says one of the contexts where we see the effects of anger is in church institutions due to sexual abuse or due to differences in sexual ethics. He says institutions have embodied the anger-fueling self-protection, which leads to abuse coverups.
Where does Moore see the cause of this self-protection?
“One of the reasons that we’re in this time of demagogues and authoritarians is because we don’t have political party structures. FDR and Ronald Reagan came about largely because there were grownups who were able to say these were the kind of people who can win and who can lead, and we don’t have a lot of that,” he explains. “So I think being able to see institutions that are accountable and don’t have their own perpetuation as their primary goal and yet are actually working, that’s what I would like to see in 2023.”
Notice how he shifts from a theological root to a political one. Based on his words, he seems to think the problem is not due to theology, but due to not having political grownups choosing politicians like FDR and Reagan. If that’s the case, then wouldn’t the solution be political rather than theological?
Theologies of anger and complementarianism
In one of the boldest parts of their conversation, Moore makes a stunning admission. Cosper asks, “2022 was the end of an era for …”
Then Moore replies: “complementarianism as we know it.”
He continues: “I say that as somebody who is a complementarian of a type. But what we saw was that the divisions between a complementarianism as a party — where we’re not for women in pastoral ministry — and egalitarianism as a party — we are for women in pastoral ministry — aren’t actually where the divisions are. So you ended up seeing people who were egalitarians who are saying, ‘I’m an egalitarian and I believe that Father, Son, Holy Spirit are categories we ought to keep and I believe that there are differences between men and women that are important.’”
Moore seems willing to evolve his relationships with people who differ in views about biblical roles as long as their theology remains trinitarian and maintains traditionally evangelical views of marriage and gender.
He also is willing to name some of the abusive ethics that have run unchecked in complementarian institutions.
“You have a lot of us who are complementarians looking around and saying, ‘Wait a minute. There actually is a lot of misogyny and hurting of women here. There actually is a price that is being paid for the fact that women are not at a lot of these tables,’” he admits. “And so I think all of those old coalitions are being remixed in some interesting ways for the years ahead.”
But could there be something present in the theology about marriage and gender that Moore is unwilling to question that could be fueling the abusive ethics Moore wants to expose?
Facing the theological roots that fuel our anger
What is the theological story of 2022?
“I think the theological story is how little theology there actually was, even among the people who are the most theologically inclined. … Many of these things, theology is almost a covering of things that are much more primal and fallen,” Moore says. “I think we’re accustomed to seeing that in the populist masses of church life. … The so-called theologians are often adapting themselves to that as well. And so we don’t see very much careful reflection or theology at all.”
Cosper adds: “Theological conversations have been supplanted by cultural issues, political issues in amongst people who normally would be talking about those things. Even inside denominations, the splits aren’t necessarily being defined by theological issues as much as sort of being driven the other direction, from the cultural direction.”
Cosper’s dismissal of the theological roots and sidestepping toward a cultural cause is exactly what he did with the “Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast in 2021.
“Cosper and Moore blame the problems of institutional Christianity on politics and the problems of complementarian institutions on abusive ethics without reflecting on the hierarchical theologies of power underlying both.”
It’s ironic given how Cosper and Moore blame the problems of institutional Christianity on politics and the problems of complementarian institutions on abusive ethics without reflecting on the hierarchical theologies of power underlying both that they would lament the lack of theological reflection.
Examining the underlying theology is exactly the conversation Baptist News Global has been having all year. I have written dozens of analysis articles this year examining the theological roots of the most pressing stories of 2022. I’m well aware that Moore and Cosper would disagree with my theological analysis given my denial of doctrines they are unwilling to question. But the conversations are there to have if they’re willing to engage.
Moore says, “I would like to hear more about institution building in the right way in 2023.” But how can we do that if we’re not willing to face the theology of institution building?
Regarding our political conversations, Moore adds: “I would love to hear less about Donald Trump in 2023. I don’t expect that will happen. I have many friends who are saying, ‘Well, now is the time that the country’s moving on from this.’ I don’t buy it just because I’ve lived through that before with Access Hollywood, with January 6th, and so forth. And a lot of the people who seem to be moving on, it’s out of a really cynical sense of, ‘Well, this person isn’t winning anymore. And therefore we’re just going to retroactively have this idea that we never were really with this.”
Moving toward theologies of healing
As Cosper and Moore look forward to 2023, Moore says, “I look forward to churches healing.”
Cosper adds: “His mercies are new each morning. I think that goes for the new year as well. There’s a new mercy for what’s ahead. And my hope and prayer is that the church comes into this new year and seizes the opportunity to build something better and more beautiful.”
I agree with both of them on this vision.
But for churches to heal, we need to move from justice and atonement theologies of retribution to justice and atonement theologies of restorative healing.
If we’re going to celebrate new mercies that build something better and more beautiful, then we need to face how our theology we have been living out has been worse and offensive. We need to take our theological questioning farther than we were willing to in 2022. And we need to begin exploring how our theology of creation shapes our ethics of creativity until our gospel truly is good news and all are made new.
Rick Pidcock is a 2004 graduate of Bob Jones University, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Bible. He’s a freelance writer based in South Carolina and a former Clemons Fellow with BNG. He recently completed a Master of Arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary. He is a stay-at-home father of five children and produces music under the artist name Provoke Wonder. Follow his blog at www.rickpidcock.com.