Last summer a woman wrote a back-page commentary in the New York Times Magazine about her decision to abort two of her triplets, a choice she tells readers wasn't all that difficult and she's glad she made. After all, she doesn't want to have to live in Staten Island and shop at Costco for the really big tubs of mayonnaise. And her Manhattan apartment has several flights of stairs.
This ghoulish commentary was far less revealing, though, than the letters to the editor The Times received in response.
Some readers praised The Times for the "courage" and "bravery" of the piece, but several other "pro-choice" writers expressed shock, discomfort, and even moral revulsion at the calculating indifference of the writer's point of view. Particularly noteworthy was a letter from a "pro-choice" reader in Montreal who noted that the column caused her to "wrestle" with why it so disturbed her. She asks, "If the freedom to choose removes a sense of awe from the realm of human possibilities, is it freedom or a cruel burden?"
Now why does a writer committed to legal abortion think there should there be a "sense of awe" at the decision to end her pregnancy? No one thinks that most women get abortions for the vain, self-indulgent reasons offered in this column. But why does it strike such a nerve? After all, the abortion rights movement leaders ridicule the pro-life "love affair with the fetus," arguing that the fetus is no more personal than sperm or a discarded fingernail clipping.
So why would this writer feel "comfortable" with legal abortion — until she reads a story like this? If the fetus is not a "person," then one might find the story of this woman's "selective reduction" for reasons of personal convenience perhaps self-absorbed and tacky, but why would one find it so morally repugnant?
This column was provocative not only because of the unblinking sassiness with which the writer asserts her right to discard two of her three "pregnancies." It was distinctive because of its unusual directness, a directness that is so unexpected even seared consciences flinch in response.
The "pro-choice" leadership has implemented successfully in our national discourse language about abortion that cloaks abortion itself. Our politicians will say that they stand for "a woman's right to choose," without ever telling us precisely what a woman should have a right to choose. Pro-choice speech discusses the decision to "end a pregnancy" or, in moments of unusual directness, of "the decision to abort." But even then they do not say to abort what — a computer program, a space mission? Marches for legal abortion rarely highlight the abortions themselves. Instead the activists march for "women's lives" — thereby testifying that even they know that life should be something worth protecting.
In the column in question, there is no question what this woman does not want to lug up the stairs to her apartment — babies. Moreover, there is one "fetus" born among the triplets, as a couple of letter writers mentioned. The very thought of this little child walking about forces even "pro-choice" ideologues to note that he "survived" something.
The Apostle Paul tells us why some readers of The New York Times found this story so rattling. The Gentiles who do not have the Mosaic law, Paul tells the church at Rome, nonetheless show that they have a law "written on their hearts" by the witness of their consciences (Romans 2:14-16). This testimony of conscience is seen particularly, he says, in their "conflicting thoughts" (2:15, ESV). The conscience for the unbeliever is not Jiminy Cricket, offering a welcomed guide from within. Instead, it is a universal gnawing within the heart that points to a coming judgment, which men and women desperately want to deny exists at all (2:16). It is found everywhere, in all people in all places at all times — and it is always smothered by people who don't want to hear its voice.
This is the Achilles' heel of so much of our evangelical preaching. Some of us try to reach the culture by offering "life principles," twelve steps to personal peace, and so forth. Some of us try to offer rigidly organized doctrinal explanations of Christianity. Far fewer of us try to scare unbelievers into thinking about how miserable hell will be. But this is not the way the apostles preached.
Instead, Jesus said that through the gospel the Spirit "convicts the world of sin and righteousness and judgment" (John 16:8, ESV). Paul said that his preaching explicitly appealed to the consciences of his hearers (2 Corinthians 4:2). These consciences are "seared" by years of self-justification (1 Timothy 4:2), but it is the forthright proclamation of the gospel that pierces through this satanic deception.
People don't come to Christ because they fear eschatological heat or because they follow an historical argument. They come to Christ because the honest truth about judgment and sin resonates with something they already know — and the honest truth about the grace of the Father resonates with longings they already have. If we are going to be faithful in ministry, we must figure out how to stop addressing merely minds and sentiments and self-interest in our pulpits and start addressing consciences.
Somewhere in Manhattan a woman finds herself, inexplicably, in tears when she read in her New York Times about a triplet who will grow up an only child. She composed herself and wrote out her monthly check for Planned Parenthood. But, even so, the tears are there — and she just can't figure out why. Who will tell her?
Russell D. Moore is dean of the school of theology and senior vice president for academic administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of the new book, The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective, published by Crossway.