The Dangers of Moralism and Why We Need the Storyline of the Bible: An Interview with Trevin Wax (Part Two)

This is Part Two of an interview series with Trevin Wax (@TrevinWax). View Part One: Disciple-Making in the 21st Century: An Interview with Author Trevin Wax.

Kevin Halloran: Moralistic therapeutic deism seems to be the default setting for many Christians. How is it related to the false gods of our culture? Why is it something important for Christians (and pastors, especially) to know about?


Trevin Wax: The term “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD) is being called “moralism” for short. Moralism is now the boogieman. Nobody wants to be moralistic, but a lot of people don’t know what it means. It comes from two sociologists about a decade ago who did a survey of the religious lives of American teenagers.

Christian Smith is most known for coining the phrase. He says the default religion of our society is moralistic therapeutic deism and that it crosses denominations and crosses even religions. He has five tenets of moralistic therapeutic deism that I lay out in Gospel-Centered Teaching (read the five tenets under the second point), with more detail in his own book. The idea is that moralistic therapeutic deism means that God is distant except when you really need him to be involved in your life. And the reason we would believe in God, or cry out to him, is because we want him to fulfill us and make us happy (that’s the therapeutic part). Your purpose in life is to find your own meaning and fulfillment in becoming who it is that you are, and God comes alongside and assists you there. The moralistic side is to be good people at the end of the day; that’s the point of all religions. If a religion doesn’t teach that, they’re wrong. Good people go to heaven when they die. The whole purpose of religion is helping you fulfill yourself and be kind to people.

This is summed up really well in an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. Ray is talking to his daughter about a question she has about where babies come from. He’s totally prepared to have the discussion with her about sex. Her question is not where babies come from; instead it is, “Why are babies here? What’s the whole purpose of life?” He’s totally not prepared to answer that, so he goes downstairs to his family. What’s amazing is that everyone in the family takes a different philosophical position–the older brother is like Nietzsche’s position [for example]. At the end, the whole point of life, according to Ray and the family, is to be kind to people. It’s moralistic therapeutic deism.

If moralistic therapeutic deism is the default setting of the human heart in our society, we need to know the context that we’re presenting the gospel in to be good missionaries. I like to say that if you were to go and present the gospel in a predominately Muslim context, you would need to study up on Islam. If you were going into a Hindu context, you’d have to study up on Hinduism. If we’re going to be missionaries in the 21st century in North America, then we really need to know what it is that we are dealing with here. We need to know how the gospel challenges and confronts the dominant worldview of our day.

Kevin Halloran: Why is being grounded in Scripture’s storyline so vital to fight against moralism?

Trevin Wax: That’s a great question. I think the reason why the storyline matters so much is that apart from the storyline, we start to treat the Bible like it’s bits and pieces and then we consume the Bible from a moralistic framework. In other words, apart from the big drama of redemption that we see on the pages of Scripture, it’s easy to go to Bible stories and find little moralistic, inspirational helps that are just going to feed into the overarching me-centered understanding of reality.

The biblical storyline explodes the me-centered understanding of reality and gives us a very God-centered view of reality. The Bible is not a message primarily about us; it’s about God the Father sending His Son and now sending His Spirit to indwell His people. It is a message for us, but it’s about God. The storyline of Scripture helps us keep God front and center and helps us understand that the big drama here is not us and our individual stories, but God’s big story.

I’m reading right now a book by a theologian, J. Todd Billings, called Rejoicing in Lament, in which he receives a terrible cancer diagnosis as a young theologian with very young children, and he’s going back to the Psalms. One of the amazing parts early in his book is when he talks about a fifteen-year-old girl with Down syndrome that sent him a card that said, “God is bigger than cancer.” She’s not saying, “God will heal you of cancer or cure you,” or, “Just cheer up; cancer isn’t that bad.” But she is saying that at the end of the day, God is bigger. The story of God’s redemption is bigger than our individual stories, even when we lament and go through difficult times of suffering. In the fog of everyday life and suffering, we know there is a bigger story that we are just a small part of.

Our stories find meaning and significance not when we are at the center, but when Jesus is at the center and we are orbiting around him.

It doesn’t mean that our stories aren’t important; it places them within the bigger framework. That was very meaningful for me hearing it from someone who is wrestling in the furnace of affliction himself. I think moralistic therapeutic deism doesn’t have much to say other than little tidbits and practical advice for daily living. When you come to an experience like that, you need something more–you need something bigger. And the good news is that God is bigger and the gospel is bigger. Our stories find meaning and significance not when we are at the center, but when Jesus is at the center and we are orbiting around him.

Kevin Halloran: When we put ourselves at the center, that’s the recipe for a futile life and dissatisfaction.

Trevin Wax: We would be disillusioned if we were at the center, because we were never meant to be there.

Kevin Halloran: What’s one take away from your talk that you want everyone to learn about discipleship?

Trevin Wax: I’d say the main takeaway is that discipleship includes worldview formation–the formation of understanding who we are in the world God has put us in. Part of that formation must include the question of, “What time is it?” A lot of times we think the big worldview questions are, “Who are we?” “Where are we?” “What’s the solution?” One of the key questions that needs to be in any discipleship process we have is helping people understand their times.

One of the key questions that needs to be in any discipleship process we have is helping people understand their times.

The Chronicles talks about the sons of Issachar, who understood their times, and on account of that, they knew what Israel was supposed to do. I think discipleship, in some ways, is contextual–not that it’s relativistic, but that it’s contextual, meaning we live as disciples in a certain time and place. Part of understanding what it means to live as disciples is to understand our context and how the gospel shapes how we are to live in our particular context. And we don’t know how to answer that question unless we know what time it is. And you won’t know what time it is if you are taken in by false eschatologies, by false narratives, by false understandings of what progress is. We need to know who we are as believers and where the Scriptures say the world is going.

My takeaway for church leaders who will be at this conference is how we implement the question “What time is it?” in our discipleship process so that people are not taken in by the false eschatologies of the enlightenment, the sexual revolution, or consumerism.

Kevin Halloran: Trevin, thank you for your time and excellent work on such an important topic.

Kevin Halloran

Servant of the Word. Husband. Blogs weekly at Anchored in Christ. Content Strategist/Trainer in Latin America with Leadership Resources International.