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Jesus In My Place: Molly Worthen & The Resurrection
No.159: May 12, 2023
Welcome to The Square Inch, a Friday newsletter on Christianity, culture, and all of the many-varied “square inches” of God’s domain. This publication is free for now, but please consider clicking on the button at the bottom to become a paid subscriber to enjoy this along with Monday’s “Off The Shelf” feature about books and Wednesday’s “The Quarter Inch,” a quick(er) commentary on current events.
I am back from last week’s little R&R trip to the mountains, and it was everything I needed. Hiking, shooting, songwriting, taking long drives down beautiful backroads I never knew existed (the locations of which I’ll never tell you—haha), and non-stop conversation with my energetic and endlessly encouraging friend.
I started this newsletter this morning commenting on some current events, but I’ve deleted all of it. I’ll save it for next week’s Quarter Inch (you can upgrade your subscription now in anticipation!) because today I want to talk about pleasanter things.
More ultimate and decisive than all our earthly cultural and political wrangling is the politics of a different order: the Kingdom of God. Oh, yes. Remember that? Well, that kingdom continues on its march and this week we are treated to a delightful and encouraging example.
Molly Worthen is a journalist and academic who has covered the evangelical world in outlets like The New York Times, Slate, and Christianity Today. She is now a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I have read a number of her essays over the years and while she clearly was not a sympathetic observer to the conservative evangelical world she was covering, she always did strike me as unusually fair to her subjects. Not a partisan hack, in other words.
But she definitely was not a fellow traveler. She grew up in an entirely secular home and, while she herself had no religious orientation or affiliation, she somehow had an interest in religious people. So she pursued a career in religious journalism and got her Ph.D. in religious history from Yale along the way.
This week she sat down over Zoom with Collin Hansen of the The Gospel Coalition for an hour-and-a-half conversation about her life and journey. I found the entire thing completely riveting, and I cannot encourage you enough to carve out the time to watch or listen to it. You will find the video at this link. You can find the audio podcast version anywhere you listen to podcasts: just search for “GospelBound” and “Collin Hansen.” Here is the Apple iTunes link.
There’s no point in not giving you spoilers. Last August Molly Worthen gave her life to Jesus Christ and got baptized. And there is nothing ordinary about it. It is full of ironies and God’s particular sense of humor. She did not do the “respectable” thing and become an Anglican or Roman Catholic. She was baptized in one of the largest Southern Baptist Megachurches in the country—the one pastored by former Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear.
As she tells it, she once covered an Easter baptism service at that church and cringed at all the people lined up with the cheesy T-shirt that said, “Jesus In My Place.” How gauche, she thought. And then last August she stood in the tank with that very same T-shirt, now thinking: Jesus in my place. That’s it! That’s what it’s all about!
How did she get there? Well, watch or listen to the interview to find out. But I’d like to comment on a few things that struck me.
Books matter. She’s right that few people are converted by reading books. But some are. She marvels at the vast number of resources there are to explain and defend the historical claims of Christianity—she particularly was challenged by N.T. Wright’s big resurrection book, as well as Richard Bauckham’s Jesus & The Eyewitnesses—but laments at how little they are known or used. She was chagrined that here she was, a Ph.D. in religious studies, and she had never taken the time to read these resources!
Those resources helped challenge her to see her own “chronological snobbery,” to use C.S. Lewis’s term. She was brought under a sense of conviction that maybe she wasn’t as open-minded as she had thought. It reminds me very much of novelist Anne Rice’s “Afterword” in her book Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. If you’ve never read that you are missing out: Rice explains the exact same phenomenon. For the first time she actually read the scholarship and was blown away.
But it wasn’t just the academic books. I was fascinated to hear how the first stirrings of the Holy Spirit came from reading C.S. Lewis’s … space trilogy. She was haunted by that series and it caught her entirely unaware. She thought she was reading a fun science fiction series and had no idea she was actually being evangelized. Don’t we need more Christians writing and creating more kinds of things? Not just academic books or pulp devotionals?
Friendship matters. This all started with an interview she gave J.D. Greear and he established enough of a rapport with her that she felt comfortable emailing him with some questions about Christianity. She gradually understood that she was, in fact, being evangelized, but she didn’t feel like a “project.”
Always be ready to give an answer. As their email exchange went on she had the realization: this guy is going to try to answer every single question. And he did, sometimes with footnotes. And he didn’t do it all by his own prowess. Sometimes he said, “I need to look a few things up,” or “I need to consult some other people.” But he always followed up as best he could. Now, I should add that it is not exactly normative that every single Christian have this ability: J.D. Greear is a pastor well-equipped for this sort of thing. But if you’re a layperson you can still learn plenty from this: it’s okay to say, “I don’t know the answer to that. Let me talk to someone (my pastor?) who might know.” But the takeaway here is that Greear never shied away from a question and sought to answer them all. Worthen was impressed by this. It also didn’t hurt that Greear had the help of Tim Keller, so admittedly not everyone gets that kind of white glove service.
The resurrection changes everything. She says that once she’d come to the conclusion that the best explanation for the historical evidence was that Jesus actually rose from the dead, “I have to change my working hypothesis of the universe.” I love that line and it is so profoundly true. In a way it is the entire New Testament gospel message, which Peter aptly sums up in his Pentecost sermon. God has raised this Jesus, whom you crucified, from the dead and now commands everyone everywhere to repent— i.e., change your working hypothesis of the universe.
And it changes everything. With regard to her relationships with friends and family she says,
To go from being epistemologically aligned and occupying the same framework for deciding what’s important, deciding where you find evidence and how you interpret that evidence to being in quite radical disagreement on these fundamental metaphysical questions is a startling thing […] I have have said to my husband, like, I wonder if, if part of what’s going on is that it is easier to stay focused on the kind of culture wars context than to focus on what has actually happened, which is that, you know, this person that you’ve spent your life with, that you know really well, with whom you have always occupied the same epistemological framework, has suddenly decided that this guy rose from the dead and is the son of God.
Blind But Now I See. Molly couldn’t quite see her own biases and snobbery and blindness. But stepping into the light things became clear. I love the section near the end when she talks about John Owen, the great Puritan. She’s a university professor who teaches the Puritans and suddenly she has the epiphany: These guys are talking about Jesus all the time. Like, when did Jesus come into all this!? This particularly resonated with me because one of my undergraduate university professors was like that: he taught the Puritans in the most hackneyed caricatures and I remember marveling at his uncanny ability to miss the point. He just could not (would not?) comprehend the marvelous “logic” of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Despite my many fruitless attempts to set him straight, he never could grasp what Molly, standing at the baptismal font, finally grasped:
Jesus In My Place.
That’s it, indeed. Welcome home, Molly.
Thanks for reading The Square Inch Newsletter! Have a wonderful weekend, and I’ll be back next week.
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