This piece was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.
Over the past several weeks, the world has looked to a phenomenon many assumed was of a bygone era: revival.
For some, the Asbury revival has sparked a renewed sense of hope for the future of the church. For others, though, reports of revival are met with something else—a jaded sense of cynicism.
By cynicism, I’m not referring to the professional social media contrarians of whatever sort or tribe—for whom almost anything is an occasion to reignite old fights with whomever they deem to be “the enemy.”
I’m referring instead to those of you who are just disappointed and tired. You’ve seen so much that’s fake that it’s hard for you to believe that anything so extraordinary could be real.
A few weeks ago, my friend Yuval Levin said something in our conversation on my podcast that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind. He commented that most people think of the cynical as the opposite of the naïve—when really, it’s just another way of being naïve. The more I ponder his point, the more I think he’s right.
The apostle Paul told us to “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21, ESV). One type of person throws overboard the hard work of testing by just receiving everything—or, at least, everything preapproved by one’s tribe or ideology or movement.
That’s a lazy mindset that leads exactly where the Bible tells us it will—to inviting wolves who know how to exploit it. But cynicism exhibits the same kind of laziness. One need not do the hard work of testing the spirits if one rules everything as inauthentic from the outset.
For some people, cynicism is based on a kind of materialistic naturalism that assumes the only “real” things are quantifiable. Others may hold to a certain political ideology that assumes the only “real” things are those one can mobilize for one’s cause. Still others might be cynical due to a religious fundamentalism that eschews any mystery that seems out of step with one’s syllogisms.
For still others—many people, in fact—cynicism is the product not of a fighting spirit but of a broken heart. This is not really cynicism in the way we tend to think of it as much as it is a form of self-protection. One can’t be hurt, it’s assumed, if one doesn’t expect much. It’s less jaded than it is just numb.
That’s understandable. Some of the people I know most nervous about events such as the Asbury revival came out of church movements that were themselves the afterburn of some other revival, perhaps the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and ’70s. These Christians sometimes were exhausted by a kind of artificial emotional whipping up—the leaders’ attempts to somehow re-create what they had once known when the fires of revival seemed closer and stronger.
One friend from one such tradition told me he did not question the authenticity of the Asbury revival. As a matter of fact, he—like me—is cheered by it. Still, he said, he is not worried about the students themselves or the school’s leadership. Rather, he’s concerned about the various hangers-on who are drawn to any extraordinary spiritual moment and, ultimately, those who will be there to sell them stuff or use them to gain power.
If you feel nervous or skeptical about the Asbury revival, I would point you to one of the places I have felt the most cynical, exhausted, and disgusted: the Jordan River.
Over the years, I’ve taken groups of seminary students and others to Israel and the surrounding lands to study the Bible in the places where the events of Scripture occurred. Most people on these trips were traveling to the Middle East for the first time.
Many of them remarked about how much they loved Galilee in particular. Sitting in a field near the Sea of Tiberias can give one an imaginative sense of what it must have been like to sit on just such a hill—perhaps in the exact same spot—hearing Jesus teach. Many sites have a similar response.
But then there’s the Jordan.
We have often waited, sometimes a half hour or so, to see the river because some prosperity-gospel evangelist was there dunking busloads of people who came to “rededicate” their lives to Christ. How many of these people, do you suppose, also paid money to these preachers in exchange for some sort of “blessing” they believed they could obtain?
And, of course, one must enter and exit the Jordan River through the gift shops. There one can buy Jordan River key chains, Christmas ornaments, and “genuine Jordan River water.” The place seems so market-oriented and desacralized that I expect if Jesus were to arrive there now, he might turn over the moneychangers’ tables before seeking out his cousin John the Baptist.
Students usually walk away mumbling, “That looked nothing like the Jordan River.” Of course, by definition, it looks exactly like the Jordan River—but I know what they mean.
Do the marketers, grifters, and hangers-on at the Jordan invalidate what happened there? Do they somehow null the fact that Jesus—in that very river—identified himself with us sinners in the waters of baptism? Does the sound of merchants hawking goods drown out the voice that once thundered overhead, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17)? Not at all.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus escaped religious leaders who sought to arrest him after he spoke what they—rightly—interpreted to be a claim to deity. Where did Jesus go? Right back to the Jordan River, “to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days” (10:40). The Scriptures tell us that many found Jesus there and said, “Though John never performed a sign, all that John said about this man was true” (v. 41).
The novelist Jonathan Miles once wrote, “In the wake of any miracle come pilgrims, and behind them, inevitably, the souvenir-mongers.” If Pentecost were to happen today, people would be taking selfies in front of Simon Peter preaching. Someone would have a Worship Songs from Pentecost album out within months. And many of us would wonder whether that’s what Pentecost was all about—just more hype.
The question for us today is the same one those who found Jesus at the Jordan were asking themselves. Whether we see the signs or not—or whether we can believe our own senses when we do see them—is what we’ve heard about the Son of God true?
We can rest assured that it is.
Revivals are, by definition, fleeting things. That’s why we should be grateful when we see them, as the aftereffects of the wind of the Spirit blowing around us. But that’s true of all our encounters with God. T. S. Eliot reminded us that we perceive only flashes of those unattended moments where it seems that time intersects with something timeless.
Often, we look to some time in our lives when God was extraordinarily active and wonder, What happened back there? Sometimes, because we can’t explain it or repeat it, we wonder whether it was real at all. That’s partly because we too are souvenir mongers. We want to turn those brushes with Jesus into tangible tokens we can control.
We want the Jordan River water vial when what we really need is the One who came up out of that water. Revival—personally or corporately—can remind us that we are not in control but that we are also not abandoned to chaos.
The full effects of the Asbury revival will take years to see. What happened at the Jordan River is, infinitely more so, rippling out through the millennia. Those of us who sometimes grow cynical can make the case—compellingly—that such cynicism is well earned.
But maybe what can break through all of that is to really expect that God might just hear, as he has before, our earnest plea: “Revive us again.”
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.
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