taking the words of Jesus seriously

In this article, I discuss how a prominent Christian musician’s trajectory away from engagement in the world is emblematic of a growing part of moderate evangelicalism. 

In June 2008, I and several hundred others of my radical anarchist-leaning Christian friends at PAPA (People Against Poverty and Apathy) Festival camped out on a Mennonite farm in rural Illinois. Days of sessions about everything from community to living to circus tricks culminated each evening with fantastic concerts. I distinctly remember one night in particular where we all stood transfixed and transported by a silky falsetto, hip-hop-infused rhythms, and lyrics that seamlessly wove themes of God’s justice with an intimate, affective spirituality. After singing an anti-capitalist anthem called “Zion and Babylon,” the singer was called back for the only encore demanded by the crowd of PAPA Festival that year. He sat down and riffed on one word—“Hallelujah” for 3 minutes straight, to rousing applause and cheers. 

These were my people. I had just graduated from college a few weeks before and had always felt an outsider among evangelicals in my college fellowship who seemed preoccupied with private sin and faith and gave a pass to President Bush despite his war-driven presidency. Finding other Christians on and off campus who seemed to connect faith and justice gave me hope that the faith I professed wasn’t doomed to irrelevance in seeking the kind of world the Bible declares is God’s true vision. PAPA Festival was my Mecca; here were hundreds of people who loved Jesus deeply while shouting down hierarchies and capitalism and war and for a few days tried, in the words of Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin, to create a mini-society where it was easier to be good. It was the first time in my life that I felt like I had found my true kindred. 

Josh Garrels was the singer who took the crowd to a mystical place that night at PAPA. When I got home, I found his MySpace page and started telling everyone I knew about this fantastic musician who had found a way to invite listeners on a compassionate spiritual journey that involved rejecting the material violence thrust on us by a corrupt system. For years afterward, I listened to his music and invited others to do so. On one of our first dates, my now-wife and I spent the evening listening to a new album from him. Josh Garrels symbolized something important to me: there was some good left in evangelicalism. 

Fast forward to March 12, 2024: Garrels posted on social media that he had been on the Wild at Heart podcast with his “dear friend” John Eldredge to talk about his new single, “Watchman.” Eldredge’s mark on evangelicalism comes from his book on Christian masculinity, Wild at Heart, and its companion for women Captivating. Eldredge’s books and focus on “biblical manhood”— another term for palatable patriarchy— are much at odds with the spirit of PAPA Festival and its anti-hierarchy values. 

In Jesus and John Wayne, Kristin Kobes Du Mez includes Eldredge in a group of influential men who have shaped evangelical views on gender:

“[They]all preached a mutually reinforcing vision of Christian masculinity—of patriarchy and submission, sex and power. It was a vision… that worshiped power and turned a blind eye to justice, and one that transformed the Jesus of the Gospels into an image of their own making.” 

Eldredge and Garrels spoke about Garrels’s new song “Watchman,” with Eldredge declaring it an anthem for the current moment. It is a song inviting listeners to hold on to a simple faith in Jesus, to keep their “lamp burning through the night” and through Jesus, make their “garments pure and white.” It laments that “darkness is upon us” and a culture where “Truth is looking stranger than the lies.” The conversation on the podcast circles back to these themes.

The podcast illuminates that people like Eldredge—and now, sadly, once-prophetic voices like Garrels—genuinely believe that threats to true Christianity are equal from the left and the right. I have a suspicion that both men do not like Trump and the brand of Christian nationalism that his evangelical followers embrace, but I am convinced that they see the threat of liberal “woke” issues around race, gender, and sexuality as equally or more so detrimental. 

I say “suspicion” because in the entire podcast, neither speaker actually gave any concrete examples of the cultural forces at odds with Jesus-loving people, and yet the whole thing felt like a wink and a nod to the assault on “Christian” gender norms and traditional views about sexuality.  The effect of vague allusions is to give the listener the impression that what true Christians ought to be doing is getting out of culture and politics altogether so that they can focus on a pure Christian life and watching out for the second coming of Jesus. There was no discussion of the role Christians ought to have in justice or what meaningful engagement might look like. If anything, Garrels only seems to reference his earlier flirtation with his PAPA friends as an illusory time when it seemed like there was overlap between the world’s values and that of a Christian. Now, he shared with Eldredge, that illusion is shattered.

The conversation sheds light on an oft-overlooked part of the Christian evangelical demographic: moderates. I use this word for lack of a more specific term for people who are opting out of engagement with politics and secular society. These are people who read books like The Benedict Option and fear the corruption of their deeply held Christian faith by liberal forces, even while disagreeing with extremists on the right as well.

Their answer is to circle their wagons and pull back from things that might align one too closely to a political ideology by doing things like homeschooling or moving to a farm in Indiana and taking stepping away from public life almost altogether, as Garrels and his family have. My encounters with this growing demographic have been with people who would have leaned Republican previously and those who would have voted with Democrats. More and more churches that may have once been called moderate are doubling down on a faith that is primarily personal and spiritual with only secondary (if any) attention to the world’s physical needs.

This type of retreat fills me with a deep sadness, because the tragedies in the world require deeper engagement with issues of justice, not pulling back. The immigrants being bussed from the border to cities need families willing to help house and support them. The ongoing brutality of the war against Gaza needs Christian voices that reject the way the Bible is being used to enable the horror there. The prison system, gun violence, and so much more need all people of faith to join in and get a little messy, not wash their hands and rely on a pure and untouched faith as a ticket to heaven. And people like Josh Garrels have a creative voice that once helped others reject the either/or of loving Jesus or loving the world. Instead, in what can only be described as shameful cowardice, they have retreated to the safe havens of other-worldly platitudes about Jesus. By pulling away from the messiness of life that comes with being “resident aliens”—the term coined by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon for a countercultural Christian identity without abandoning the world—the very faith that they hope to preserve is in danger of becoming even more obsolete. 

In Garrels’s own poignant words from his song “Resistance:” “How do good men become a part of the regime? They don’t believe in resistance.” 

About The Author


Brian Gorman is part of the Hiding Place, a house of hospitality, urban farm, and spiritual retreat (www.hidingplace.us) on the edge of Washington, D.C.

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