What makes Tim Keller uncomfortable…
Courage is primary
I admire Pastor Timothy Keller of Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church. He writes good books and delivers good sermons. When I am in New York, I attend one of the churches in the mini-denomination he has created within the PCA. But he’s the perfect illustration of two flaws which pervade Reformed churches today: snobbery, and cowardice.
Is my language too strong? I said “pervade”; my criticism is of a movement, not just a man, and it’s a movement I am part of. I’m quite cowardly and snobbish myself, and I bet you’re even more cowardly, though probably less snobbish. I’m a Yale man, after all (Class of 1980), and you’re not, so you simply aren’t in a position to be properly snobbish. You’d just look silly. On the other hand, while I am cowardly, most men are even more cowardly than me. Cowardice is a typical feature of people in a bourgeois country like ours. Properly trained, we make the best soldiers in the world. Untrained, we’re afraid to tell people at work we’re going to a Bible study because they might think we’re weird.
“Courage is the first of the virtues, for without it, none of the others can do any good.” The Web attributes this to Aristotle, and though he didn’t really say it, I like it anyway. Plato and Aristotle proposed the four “cardinal virtues”—Courage, Wisdom, Moderation, and Fairness—to which Augustine and Aquinas added the “theological virtues” of Love, Faith, and Hope that come through God’s grace. “You need at least a little courage or your other virtues go to waste.”Aristotle starts with Courage. Courage is so basic to a man’s virtue that the Greek word is for it is andreia (ἀνδρεία, fortitudo in Latin, fortitude), derived from the words for “man” and “pertaining to a man” (aner and andreios, ἀνήρ and ἀνδρεῖος). Consider someone facing a risky task. Without Courage, he won’t even start. It doesn’t matter if he’s Wise (ϕρονησιϛ, phronesis, prudentia, prudence) if fear stops him before he has any decisions to make. It doesn’t matter if he’s Moderate (σωφροσύνη, sōphrosynē, temperantia in Latin, temperance), since “zero” is already as far as you can be from “too much.” It doesn’t matter if he’s Fair (δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosynē, justitia, justice) if he never fights and thus faces no temptation to be underhanded. It isn’t that courage plays the biggest role or can finish the task all by itself, but you need courage to get off the ground. Courage is primary because you need at least a little courage or your other virtues go to waste. We all like to work on improving what we already do well, but it’s no use working on your wisdom, moderation, and fairness if you’re weak in courage.
Evangelicals are just fundamentalists in disguise
That said, let’s get back to Pastor Keller. Six days before Christmas 2017, he wrote the article, “Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore?” On the surface, it’s about how the word “evangelical” has changed over time. Not very far underneath, though, it’s about Snobbery, and a little deeper you will find Cowardice.
The article appeared in The New Yorker, a magazine famously founded “not for the old lady from Dubuque.” Rather, it’s for the middle-aged man in Midtown Manhattan. Here is the photo and caption that the article ran under.
“Evangelical” used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with “hypocrite.”
Photograph by Brynn Anderson/AP.
(Photo and caption from Timothy Keller, “Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore?” The New Yorker, December 19, 2017.)
Together with the above photo and caption, the following sentences are the key to Pastor Keller’s article:
When I became a Christian in college, in the early nineteen-seventies, the word “evangelical” still meant an alternative to the fortress mentality of fundamentalism. …
When I used the word to describe myself in the nineteen-seventies, it meant I was not a fundamentalist. If I use the name today, however, it means to hearers that I am.
The word “fundamentalist” is an insult. It means an uneducated southern Bible-believer who is mean-spirited, intolerant, and simple-minded. Fundamentalists do not read The New Yorker. A good comparison is with the word “Christian” in the Roman empire—female, servile, and eccentric converts to an outlandish southeastern sect noteworthy chiefly for their extreme unwillingness to be polite to other people’s gods.
The original meaning of “fundamentalist” was different, though (see Roger Olson’s blog write-up). It meant a traditional Christian pastor, as opposed to the liberals who rejected the doctrines held in common by the Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Protestants. From the 1910-1911 booklets, The Fundamentals, came “The Five Fundamentals,” a list of five doctrines useful for diagnosing what someone means when they say they’re a Christian.
- God’s inspiration of the Bible and its resulting infallibility.
- Jesus’ virgin birth.
- Jesus’ death as a substitute punishment for our sins (substitutionary atonement).
- Jesus’ bodily resurrection.
- The historical reality of Jesus’ miracles.
No one ever claimed that the Five Fundamentals are the most important five doctrines. The virgin birth is not as important as the creation of the world, for example. But they’re helpful in pinning down whether a supposed Christian believes what real Christians believe.
How about Tim Keller? Is he an old-style Fundamentalist?
Yes! He accepts all five of the Fundamentals. His denomination, the PCA, requires him to. Moreover, he’s sincere. I don’t think he lied when he agreed to them at ordination and I don’t think he’s repudiated them now. The reason Tim Keller doesn’t want to be called a fundamentalist isn’t that he thinks rednecks are misrepresenting God like the mainline denominations do, it’s that he doesn’t want to be associated with rednecks. “They’re different. I’m not like them. I come from Pennsylvania, and I live in New York!”
“Evangelical” doesn’t offer an effective disguise anymore
What Pastor Keller hates is that in 2017 “evangelical” has come to mean the same bunch of rednecks as “fundamentalist.” Back in the 1970’s, being “evangelical” was hip among Christians and safe among the secular. It meant you believed Jesus rose from the dead, unlike the deluded mainline people, but you went to college and knew about the Nicene Creed, unlike the fundamentalists. Also, you didn’t have the fundamentalists’ “fortress mentality.” Translated, that means you were willing to attend cocktail parties with charming, intelligent people and keep quiet about the fact that you thought they were all Hell-bound. You were a respectable Presbyterian, the golden mean between the social-climbing Episcopalian and the unwashed Baptist. “At parties you were safe in telling someone you were evangelical, because they didn’t know whether that was a religion or a medical condition.”At parties you were safe in telling someone you were evangelical, because they didn’t know whether that was a religion or a medical condition. Remember in Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, how the Jewish assistant D.A. muses about people in New York? He says they’re basically divided into his own people (the normal ones); the Irish, who were mules; and the Italians, who were pigs. In addition, there were the semi-mythical “Protestants,” but they lived in such fabulous wealth that you would never actually meet one of them. As for “evangelicals,” they didn’t exist, even in mythology; back then, Pastor Keller tells us,
Most people I met found the church and its ministry to be a curiosity in secular New York but not a threat. And, if they heard the word “evangelical” around the congregation, a name we seldom used, they usually asked what it meant.
For those who were clued in, “evangelical” had a doctrinal meaning. Here it is, with boldfacing added by me:
Evangelicals have generally believed in the authority of the whole Bible, in contrast to mainline Protestants, who regard many parts as obsolete … In addition, the ancient creedal formulations of the church, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, as well as others, are taken at face value, without reservation. And, again, unlike many in mainline Protestantism, evangelicals believe that Jesus truly did exist as the divine Son before he was born, that he actually was born of a virgin, and that he really was raised bodily from the dead…. A lyric from Charles Wesley’s famous hymn captures the evangelical experience of conversion through saving faith in Christ alone: “My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”
Does that sound familiar? What’s boldfaced are four of the five fundamentals and I’m sure Pastor Keller wouldn’t have minded including Christ’s miracles, the remaining one. It seems an evangelical is just a fundamentalist travelling incognito. Indeed, it looks like Pastor Keller is a crypto-fundamentalist using this article to infiltrate The New Yorker, pretending to dislike his own people just to sneak ideas like the five fundamentals into the reader’s mind. (Whether that is a sound and godly strategy is a central issue in both modern church planting and traditional overseas missions, but we won’t discuss it here.)
Pastor Keller’s complaint is that by now the word “evangelical” has penetrated even as far as deepest Central Park. No longer is he safe from the secular: they have some idea of what evangelical means and they don’t like it. It’s no longer a secret shibboleth, a codeword the hip Christian can use to link hands with J. I. Packer and turn his back on Pat Robertson while maintaining deep cover in the crowd outside the Sanhedrin. It’s like how pale ale has now penetrated into Walgreen’s liquor section. The beer is the same, but it doesn’t taste quite the same now that Joe Sixpack drinks it too.
Evangelical morals: not something to be ashamed of
In surveys, Pastor Keller complains, “there is no discussion of any theological beliefs.” The pollster just asks “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?” This complaint is very Reformed. Ask your average Christian, “What are your theological beliefs?” and his answer will be, “Huh?” The average Christian is an average man, not a reader except maybe for the Bible. He’s been poorly taught, by a pastor who’s pretty weak on theology himself, who is worrying mostly about keeping him from downloading dirty pictures, sleeping Sunday mornings, and neglecting his kids. That’s why the pollster puts “born-again” into his question: a lot of people don’t know what a five-syllable word like “evangelical” means.
Pastor Keller doesn’t like the kind of people who just answer “Yes” to the pollster, proclaiming themselves “born-again or evangelical Christians” without being examined for proper beliefs. Moreover, these people’s voting habits are unspeakably filthy:
More than eighty percent of such people voted for Donald Trump, and, last week, a similar percentage cast their ballots for Roy Moore, in the Alabama Senate race. So, in common parlance, evangelicals have become people with two qualities: they are both self-professed Christians and doggedly conservative politically.
Notice his choice of words. Evangelicals are not Christians, they are “self-professed Christians.” Evangelicals are not conservatives, they’re “doggedly conservative politically.” And the implication is that the two things are unconnected. “It’s almost as if self-professed Christians don’t have the same beliefs about right and wrong as people who deny the authority of God.”We’re supposed to be surprised by how many Christians are opposed to homosexuality, marijuana, feminism, and abortion. It’s almost as if self-professed Christians don’t have the same beliefs about right and wrong as people who deny the authority of God. But it’s worse than that. These so-called evangelicals are actually the immoral ones:
People who once called themselves the “Moral Majority” are now seemingly willing to vote for anyone, however immoral, who supports their political positions.
There’s an inner Wesleyan Holiness elder hidden inside even us self-proclaimed Calvinists, even inside Pastor Keller. Donald Trump is a reprobate. He lies. He talks dirty. He humiliates people in public (think of poor Jeb Bush: “You’re weak, Jeb. You’re weak!”). He’s divorced—twice. His hotels sell pornography. How could anyone stand to vote for him? Barack Obama, on the other hand, was exemplary in his personal life. It’s hard to imagine him doing anything crude. Sure, he has no faith in God, but he’s so polite! As a state senator, senator, and president, Obama encouraged all manner of debauchery, to be sure. But it’s okay to vote for him, because his mass pimping was at arms length. It’s like Trump’s hotel porn and divorces. I don’t think Pastor Keller really minds those particular Trump failings much—he’s less the Holiness elder than I am. After all, Romney was heavily into hotel pornography too as a Marriott director. It’s the vulgarity Pastor Keller detests, not the white-collar sin. Let me hasten to add that I’m all in favor of respectability myself, and Trump is no more genuine a Christian than Obama at present. But there’s more hope for the despised creep than for the admired atheist.
In defense of evangelical politics
Mention of Trump and Obama has taken us into deeper waters. We’re getting beyond mere snobbery. The evangelicals are blowing Tim Keller’s cover, and that’s bad enough. But they’re also getting him mixed up with something he very much wants to avoid: the political.
In many parts of the country, Evangelicalism serves as the civil or folk religion accepted by default as part of one’s social and political identity. So, in many cases, it means that the political is more defining than theological beliefs, which has not been the case historically….
Yet there exists a far larger evangelicalism, both here and around the world, which is not politically aligned….
Here in New York City, even within Manhattan, I have seen scores of churches begun over the last fifteen years that are fully evangelical by our definition, only a minority of which are white, and which are not aligned with any political party…
In my view, these churches tend to be much more committed to racial justice and care for the poor than is commonly seen in white Evangelicalism. In this way, they might be called liberal. On the other hand, these multicultural churches remain avowedly conservative on issues like sex outside of marriage….
They resist the contemporary ethical package deals that today’s progressivism and conservatism seek to impose on adherents, insisting that true believers must toe the line on every one of a host of issues. But these younger evangelical churches simply won’t play by those rules.
We should rejoice rather than mourn that in some places Christianity is a “civil or folk religion accepted by default.” Wouldn’t it be nice if we all lived in places where believing the truth about the world is the default? But Pastor Keller is right that civil religion easily falls into the hands of civil leaders who don’t like being criticized and divert religion away from talk about sin and towards safer topics. Indeed, that’s what happened with the mainline churches. Their pastors have a deal with the rich people who hold the pursestrings: don’t criticize our personal habits, and we’ll pay you a salary and let you preach all you want about immigration and global warming. The same thing happens in evangelical churches, though the safe topics (the love of God, improving your relationships, how to take care of your children) aren’t about public policy. And it’s also true, though less so than in the past, that Christianity becomes confused with supporting the troops and saluting the Emperor (oops, “saluting the flag”).
Sex is the political third rail
But I don’t think flag worship is what worries Pastor Keller. No, I think it’s sex. In particular, it’s an issue so hot to the touch that he doesn’t even want to name it: homosexuality. Snobbery isn’t really that bad. It’s funny, except to a snob slightly lower in the pecking order who feels slighted. Nietzsche said, “A man’s stomach is the reason he does not easily take himself for a God.” The snob is funny because when we see him in his pride, we know that if he’d only look down he’d see his stomach—but he never will. Pastor Keller’s fear of being confused with fundamentalists is funny. But it’s a mild fear. When we get to homosexuality, that’s different. It isn’t a matter of losing party invitations; it’s a matter of being hated. It’s a matter of people cancelling your lease so you can’t use their building any more for church services. There are real consequences and real threats. Courage is required, not just a willingness to rub shoulders with the unwashed.“I don’t think flag worship is what worries Pastor Keller. No, I think it’s sex.”
This has serious consequences for someone who has the talents and position to serve God in the pulpit. The word “political” comes from the Greek word polis, for “city.” When religion gets political, that means it is getting out of church and into the public square, escaping from Sunday and spilling over into weekly activities; notably into other people’s weekly activities. The political Christian is one who engages with fellow-citizens who aren’t Christian, who admits he is part of of the city too and should have some say in how it’s run. He doesn’t take refuge in the Christian suburb or the secret enclave. On the other hand, he doesn’t pretend to believe the same things as his fellow-citizens, and they don’t necessarily appreciate his concern for their welfare. In fact, they find him a great bother, because he calls them very unpleasant names and tries to stop them from enjoying their favorite vices.
Jesus is the best example. He condemned the scribes and Pharisees, resorting even to insult, on occasion. He intervened directly, with violence, when the Temple was profaned by the moneychangers. He inserted himself into the criminal case of the woman charged with adultery. All in all, he was active enough in the city that his fellow-citizens took notice and went to extraordinary lengths to eliminate him.
Non-conformist Christian snobbery isn’t enough
It’s hard for those of us in the intellectual world to admit to our Christianity. It isn’t that we’d be persecuted, really; it’s that we don’t want to look weird and to break with the group. We like to conform. Our willingness to obey authority—God’s authority—is one reason we’re Christians. This temperament gives us an instinctive respect for all authorities, including the authority of Informed Opinion. For someone ambitious to do good who lives in New York this is a particular challenge, since that city has for a hundred and fifty years been known for its many levels of Society, from the City Universal to Mrs Astor’s Four Hundred. Intellectual New Yorkers should make a regular practice of rereading C. S. Lewis’s novel about the temptation of “the inner circle,” That Hideous Strength. So the first step is not to shrink from proclaiming our servitude to God.
Tim Keller has done this very well. You do it by being willing to look like an oddball. You assert the five fundamentals. You proclaim the Resurrection and tell everyone of God’s reality and grace. You explain what Christians really believe, and how we are all sinners and God freely gives pardon for sin. You can even do this and come out ahead in the snobbery game, if you’re clever. Roman Catholics are particularly good at this.“So as long as you don’t have any rednecks around to ruin it, you can pretend that Christians are actually more sophisticated than people who graduated from NYU.” You just have to spin the situation so people see it as it really is: you are part of a group that includes ninety percent of intellectuals and artists over the past two thousand years; you dip into ancient classics on a daily basis; you hold a sophisticated and systematic philosophy. Your non-Christian friends, on the other hand, don’t know any history; they read lots of books but none more than ten years old; they believe things that would universally have been considered lunatic before a century ago; they hold an incoherent set of beliefs defined by the latest fad in the Times. So as not to be rude, you convey all this gently, with wry amusement at how little your supposedly sophisticated friends know, but with tender condescension. So as long as you don’t have any rednecks around to ruin it, you can pretend that Christians are actually more sophisticated than people who graduated from NYU.
The second step is harder, and where considerably more courage is needed. This second step is to say not only that we’re all sinners and need God’s grace, but to say what sin is, why we need grace, and what happens to people who lack it. That is, we have to criticize other people’s behavior and tell them they’re going to Hell.
The pressure to be silent about sex
That’s where sex comes in. Modern Americans think they’re easygoing about sex, but they’re not. If they were, you could call a woman a slut and she’d laugh and offer to sleep with you. You could call a man a faggot and he’d do the same. Such was the the devil-may-care attitude of prerevolutionary France and the 1890’s decadence movement, of indulgent aristocrats and bohemians. Today’s immoralists, though, actually want to be considered moral. They want to have both promiscuity and marriage vows, debauchery and respectability. This requires them to silence their critics, who might point out the contradiction. And they must silence all their critics, not just some of them. No little boy must dare say the emperor has no clothes.
Pastor Keller knows that sodomy is a grievous sin. He can’t say otherwise without selling his soul. But he can keep quiet, and preach about more important things like predestination or the historical accuracy of the Gospels. There are enough good preaching topics that he can run out the clock and reach his blessed reward before getting to homosexuality.
He can keep quiet, that is, unless somebody asks him a question. And if those blessed fundamentalists and evangelicals keep bringing up the subject, that’s what some troublemaker is going to do. The more sophisticated LGBT activists won’t bring it up because they understand that he’s doing his best to stay miles away from it and they are clever enough to know exactly how hard to press each person without backing them into a corner where they’d have to fight. But someone who’s not so smart—some campus newspaper reporter or Bernie Sanders activist—will think it clever to put poor Pastor Keller on the spot. Then he’ll have to pretend to have an epileptic seizure or a heart attack to get out of answering.
Glorious potential. Pathetic reality.
Yet if Pastor Keller would address homosexuality, what a wonderful thing it would be! It would shake the City. He could be dangerous. He could glory in his notoriety as the assembled forces of Satan used their every tool to try to utterly crush him and his church. They might outlaw his church (it’s easy to think up legal strategies that would get past the First Amendment as interpreted by New York City judges), scatter his flock, and send him to prison on trumped-up charges. That would be glorious too. But they might even fail, since Redeemer is a big and wealthy church now; one which could lose 90% of its membership and still bounce back and taunt an enfeebled attacker.
What we see now isn’t glorious. Look back at the photo we started with. The caption reads,
“Evangelical” used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with “hypocrite.”
That’s the bottom line of the article. Fake news in the respectable press normally doesn’t take the form of false statements. Rather, it consists of making true statements but arranging them artfully to give a false impression. My guess is that Pastor Keller did not choose the picture or the caption for his article, because usually magazine editors handle that kind of thing. But he gave the editor ammunition. He gave the editor the opportunity to convey the impression that the famous Pastor Keller has admitted that Christians are homely-looking middle-aged people who get emotional about imaginary things, raising their hands in homage to the invisible, and that they are hypocrites practically by definition.
There’s an Aggie joke about bravery. “Aggies” are graduates of Texas A & M University, an ag and engineering school that is the subject of innumerable idiot jokes by U. of Texas (Austin) grads. The joke is so brutal in its original version that I couldn’t find it on the web. The brutality is essential to its message, so I will tell you the original.
An Aggie and his wife were cornered by a bunch of hippies. One of them took out some chalk and drew a big circle around the Aggie. Then he said, “If you step outside of that circle, I’ll cut you into little pieces.” Then the hippies carried his wife off into the woods.
An hour later, she dragged herself back and said to her husband, “Did you see what they did?”
“Did you see what I did?” he replied. “I stepped right out of the circle three times—and they didn’t even notice!”
We must protect the Bride of Christ. As a start, we must realize that we are not as brave as we think. Mea culpa, etiam. And we must summon up the courage to fight Her enemies.
I’ve written at greater length than I intended, but this is important. I want it to sting. I want it to sting because I want Pastor Keller to change. He’s smart enough and sensitive enough that we can hope he will, if he reads enough criticism like this. It matters a lot because he is a shepherd of sheeplike subshepherds. They will follow his lead, even if the World attacks him—indeed, follow it more if the World attacks him. God doesn’t ask us just for 90% courage, the kind you need to plant a church in Manhattan, He asks for 100%. We can’t achieve 100%, but He wants us to try. It’s good for us, too. It’s good to feel brave instead of cowardly, manly instead of henpecked.
So what does Pastor Keller need to do?
First, he needs to embrace the term “fundamentalist” and the people who are called “fundamentalist.” Sure, it conveys the image of a redneck, not of a Tim Keller, so maybe it’s not all that accurate, but embracing it is thus all the more important. By calling himself a fundamentalist, Tim Keller can make the point that what Christians have in common, Christ, is more important than their cultural differences, more important than their social class, more important than their doctrinal sophistication. Joining rednecks will witness to the World and will humble himself. It will burn every time somebody calls him a fundamentalist and he says, “Yes, I pretty much am, with minor differences,” but that is why he needs to do it. I know this because I am in much the same position, and, indeed, most of us Christian intellectuals are in that position. Maybe we don’t believe quite the same things as most fundamentalists do, but we shouldn’t use excuses to deny our brothers, even if they err sometimes.
Second, he needs to address the problem of courage. This is much tougher. It’s easy to tell someone, “Be brave,” but that’s like saying “Work hard” or “Stop drinking” or “Don’t get angry any more,” easier said than done. I am not a pastor or a counsellor, but I do have a suggestion. Write one bold article condemning homosexuality. Throw a bomb. Embarrass yourself. Appall your wife. Do it in a way that you can’t retract it, and don’t even comment on it for two months after it’s published, so you don’t face the temptation to pull back on what you said. It will take one giant moment of courage to pull the trigger, but your life will change.
“My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”