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Over the past several weeks, I was away with a Christianity Today group, teaching through Exodus up and down the Nile River in Egypt. Along the way, I found myself in lots of temples and tombs—many of them filled with the embalmed corpses of ancient Egyptian kings and queens.

As I was there, though, I couldn’t help but think about the American church. With all the talk—some legitimate, some not—of an “exodus” away from religion, I wonder if we’ve lost the point. Maybe the American church isn’t dead. Maybe it’s not even dying. Maybe the predicament is worse than that. Maybe the American church is mummified.

Mummies are more than just a way of disposing of bodies; they represent a specifically ancient Egyptian vision of life and death. Mummification, after all, isn’t easy. Only a society as technologically advanced as ancient Egypt could accomplish embalming bodies in a way that could preserve them for thousands of years. Mummification reflects a certain stability of the powers-that-be. Pharaohs and governors, and those they choose to be with them, are those who are mummified—an assumption that in the life to come, power is defined just as power is now; the first will be first and the last will be last. Denial, as they say, is sometimes just a river in Egypt.

Christians often forget the most famous mummy in Scripture—the way the Book of Genesis ends. Joseph, the hated younger brother of the sons of Israel, was, of course, sold into slavery, reported to be dead, and then rose to power in Egypt. He was so thoroughly acclimated into the Egyptian way that his own brothers did not recognize him when they saw him. Genesis ends with Joseph, having forgiven his brothers, pleading with them to carry his bones with them on the day God returns them to the Land of Promise.

The book that starts with the words “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” ends with the words, “They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt” (50:26, ESV throughout). That seems like an anti-climax. It’s actually a cliffhanger. These words signify the Exodus that is to come—an exodus promised not with Israel in slavery in Egypt but with Israel in power there.

In describing the faith of Joseph, the Book of Hebrews does not commend all the things we might expect: his interpretation of dreams, his refusal to sin sexually, his up-from-the-dungeon comeback to power, or his saving the world from a famine through the use of grain-storage technology. It doesn’t even mention his forgiveness of those who had wronged him. Instead, it reads, “By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave direction concerning his bones” (Heb. 11:22).

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At the end of his story, Joseph was as Egyptian as he could be: an embalmed mummy in the land of Pharaoh. His faith was that he saw a different future. Joseph’s skeleton ends up being a recurring theme in the Exodus account. With everything going on—on the heels of a series of plagues, with Pharaoh’s armies on the march, with thousands of enslaved refugees needing to be evacuated—the Bible says, “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him” (Ex. 13:19). When Israel crossed the Jordan into the Land of Promise, the Book of Joshua says, “As for the bones of Joseph, which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt, they buried them at Shechem, in the piece of land that Jacob bought” (Josh. 24:32).

Joseph wasn’t the only one whose acculturation into the ways of Egypt had to be undone. The pivotal account of idolatry—the people of Israel dancing around a golden calf they named as the god who brought them out of Egypt—was because, the early Christian martyr Stephen preached, “in their hearts they turned to Egypt” (Acts 7:39). Having left a land of graven images, the people wanted one of their own—something they could see and feel, a source of solidarity and community since “this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Ex. 32:1).

The pull to Egyptianized affections is denounced by the prophet Isaiah, as the people of Israel sought protection from their enemies through the power of Egypt. Egypt as an ally was as bad as Egypt as an oppressor, perhaps even worse. “Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation” (Is. 30:3). Whether trusting in Egyptian-like statues or in Egyptian-led armies, the impulse was the same: seeking protection and a future in an idol instead of in the way of God, a way that looks, in the terms set by Pharaoh or Caesar, to be failure.

The prophets warned that the making of idols—those objects or ideas or affiliations that replace for us what should be ultimate—are destructive. At this moment, though, the idols don’t seem to be killing us. They seem to be helping us succeed. In reality, though, they are doing worse than killing us—they are deadening us.

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Idols are useful. They draw people together. They give a person a sense of meaning, a cause for which to live and die. Nothing can mobilize a nationalistic sense of identity better than the chant “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:28). Their usefulness, though, is the very reason the Bible says they are useless.

Idols have two fatal flaws: They are self-created and they are dead. The man who “falls in love” with his chatbot can have all the glandular sensations of what seems like a love affair. Ultimately, though, he has to know that what he “loves” is himself—what the algorithms repeat back to him is what he put there in the first place. Idols, the Bible warns, are dead. And what’s worse, the Bible warns, “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Ps. 115:8).

At the end of the path to idols, you end up enclosed in your own self, but a part of you knows that what’s controlling you is a construction of your making. You end up, moreover, dead—numb to the very source of your life and being. And then, seeking to answer the deadness, you construct some other idol to give a rush of what feels like life.

Several years ago, I would have agreed with those who warned that the fundamental problem in the American church was that there’s “no place for truth”—that doctrinal shallowness was hollowing us out. I wonder now if the even more perilous problem was—and is—that there’s “no place for life.”

Bored by prayerless, numb lives, believers lose a sense of adventure and try to find it in political idolatry, in public spectacle, in addiction to online visual sex or online verbal violence. Lacking the confidence that comes with genuine life in the Spirit, we fall to Pharaoh hunger—longing for strongmen of the church or of the state to deliver us from evil at the price of our saying to them, Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Without life, we seek to prove our standing through choosing the right syllogisms, hunting the right heretics, fighting the right culture wars.

We’ve never been more technologically advanced. And we’ve never seemed more personally dead. Jesus warned us about this (Rev. 3:1), and, to turn it around, he gave us no ten-point strategy. He told us to wake up, to “strengthen what remains and is about to die” (v. 2).

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Joseph’s embalming was a really Egyptian thing to do. And yet, his faith showed him all his mastery was just the keeping together of a corpse. Life would mean something else, depending on a people who could carry him back from where he was lost, and on a God who could count all his bones.

Maybe American religion needs the same. You cannot have both a Pharaoh and a Father. You cannot serve both God and mummy.

Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.

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