Christians and the Life of the Mind

A popular perception out there is that Tim Keller is a version — maybe the most popular one — of a Protestant intellectual. Back when Nicholas Kristof interviewed Keller in the pages of the New York Times (can you believe it? A CHRISTIAN IN THE PAGES OF THE NEW YORK TIMES!!!!! No, I’ve never heard of Ross Douthat), Scot McKnight wrote a favorable piece about how Keller is defending Christianity against the skeptics and cynics of our times:

Kristof is no H.L. Mencken and Tim Keller is no Willam Lane Craig nor is he a Rob Bell. He’s a conservative, Reformed, Presbyterian pastor with a lot in his noggin’ about how to respond to Manhattan singles and marrieds and wealthy-wannabes and educated. He’s done this well. He just told Nicholas Kristof he will need to join the throng of believers in the resurrection. In a pastorally sensitive way. No doubt Kristof got the message.

Maybe his critics would do themselves a favor by looking in the mirror and asking if they are reaching with the gospel and converting skeptics and cynics and doubters. If not, maybe they could look at Tim Keller and ask Why is he? I know I do.

Maybe.

But can’t we ask if Keller has as much in his noggin’ as the promoters promote? Here’s one reason for asking: the recent piece in ByFaith magazine which indicates what Keller will be doing once he retires from regular preaching. He will be training pastors for ministry in urban settings:

When it comes to the urban environment, ministry here requires also a knowledge of urban life dynamics, urban social systems, cross-cultural communication, non-western Christianity, and many other subjects not covered in ordinary seminary programs. I also want to give more than the usual help on both expository preaching, on developing a life of prayer, on leading the church in an adverse cultural and financial environment, and on reading that provides cultural analysis and insight. The combination of the M.A. (which in two years covers all the academic material, including languages and exegesis) together with the City Ministry Year will provide much more space for these than an ordinary M.Div. can.

For one thing, this was precisely the sort of agenda that William Rainey Harper took to the University of Chicago Divinity School almost 120 years ago — the idea that modern (read urban) times need new ways of doing ministry.

For another, how does someone with at most a D. Min. have enough intellectual chops to discern which books to read on urban life dynamics, urban social systems, cross-cultural communication? And is Keller proposing for pastors what medical specialists endure — 12 years of training (9 beyond the basics of Greek, Hebrew, exegesis, systematics, church history, etc.)?

In other words, the different parts of an urban setting require specialists in academic disciplines that go way beyond the competency of a specialist in the Bible or even a Ph.D. in historical science. To suggest that a person with a D. Min. is competent to adjudicate sociology, political science, urban studies, history, economics, demographics, anthropology and communications is not intellectual but borders on middle brow if not anti-intellectual.

And not to be forgotten, once you’ve mastered planting a church in Manhattan, are you really prepared to minister to the outer boroughs — Trump country?

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17 thoughts on “Christians and the Life of the Mind

  1. The William Rainey Harper comparison is spot on. Another guy who spent way too much time reading and re-reading his positive press coverage.

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  2. I though for sure that Keller would be swept off his feet for a plum homiletic professorship at one of his alma maters. Shows how much I know! Why do that when you can run your own program and not have to move out of Gotham? I guess RTS thinks assigning an Academic Dean with two Ph.D.s will make up for Keller’s lack of one.
    https://www.rts.edu/seminary/faculty/bio.aspx?id=485

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  3. Two attributes consistently present in insightful “thinkers” are (1) a reflexive interest in ideas, not their sources (e.g., famously, Herman Kahn) and (2) a reflexive awareness of how much they don’t know.

    For comparison, watch the Mark Dever’s TGC interview of Keller on Lloyd-Jones: patronizing talk at the start about how little formal training Lloyd-Jones had and how apparent that was, though he got better over time; and a coy reference by Mark that the characteristics that make Lloyd-Jones revered are, in fact, exactly what Keller now is. This kind of condescension and seeing oneself in past venerables is rarely the stuff of intellectuals.

    Finally, listening to Keller sermons (vs books, which are edited) one finds larded through them like raisins in a loaf throw-aways like “especially New Yorkers” and its variants. There is a sense in this church’s ministry that New York has its own unique set of challenges on the front line of sophisticated challenges to the Christian life and, somehow, IQ and education and secular sophistication are key components equipping the Pilgrim, not faith and character.

    To invoke the prole Lloyd-Jones’ and his presentation at Oxford Union: when asked after his talk at the Union what, in addition to the plain stuff in his presentation, he had to say in particular to the students and graduates of Oxford (can’t you see Keller rising to this bait??), he answers that scripture informed him that students of Oxford were made from the same dust of the earth as the plowman and were offered exactly the same gospel offered to all.

    This secular IQ taxonomy showing up, however implicitly, in more and more reformed circles is toxic — it substitutes IQ test scores and CVs for the hard work of sanctification of the heart. The idea that New Yorkers or any other supposed socially elite cadre of believers somehow deal with harder challenges be dint of their elevated status in the secular culture isn’t healthy for them or for the rest of Christendom.

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  4. Keller surely has his faults, as do we all. But loving his mission field is not a fault. If the rest of us see that field differently, that is to be expected, but we are all subject to the temptation to see our own fields as unique, most important, or something like that. Maybe Keller could not reach cultured despisers with the gospel if he did not err in this way. But he does appear, on the whole, to be presenting the substantially whole and true gospel. And he is in fact the means of converting many of those cultured despisers. He does not throw out the baby with the bathwater as did Schleiermacher. We don’t have to imitate Keller or approve of all his ideas or act sin order to thank God for him.

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  5. I agree with Dan. I don’t think anyone would suggest that we should go about church-planting in Argentina the same that we go about it in South Dakota. After all, there’s no singularly orthodox way of worshipping on the Lord’s Day.

    I attended a PCA church in Arlington, Virginia. I never joined because I didn’t sense that the pastors understood the world that I inhabited every day. In fact, we fought like crazy to get the pastors to allow us to have a small group that met at 8 p.m. on Friday evening. We never succeeded. We eventually started our own unofficial small group. Within a number of months, there were multiple groups wanting to form small groups at 8 p.m. on Friday. Several other groups went “unofficial” because they wanted to meet at the unapproved time. Why did we want to meet then? Because most of us worked until 9-10 p.m. (or later) on other evenings. But we could usually break free of the office by 6-7 p.m. on Friday, and make it to a small group by 8 p.m. We explained this repeatedly to the pastors. But the pastors–groomed for ministry at suburban PCA churches in the South–never got it. Despite its immense possibilities, that church remains stagnant. It’s stagnant because it’s led by two suburban Southerners who don’t have a clue about how to connect to the kinds of people who inhabit Arlington.

    I don’t always agree with Keller. But I do sense that he understands the world that I inhabit. If I spent 60 minutes chatting with him, I suspect that we’d have a productive and meaningful discussion. One of the faster growing PCA churches is Grace Toronto Church. Is it any surprise that it’s pastored by a former large-firm attorney who well understands the lives of those who attend his church?

    We don’t begrudge a church in Wheaton, Illinois, for electing to hire a pastor who’s a confirmed suburbanite. Nor do we begrudge a church in rural Wisconsin from hiring a Dutch-American guy who went to Dordt and spent much of his life in rural communities. Why is it a sin for urban congregations to seek out pastors who know something about life in an urban context?

    Sometimes I think y’all just invent things over which to be outraged. You’re like the Rod Dreher of Presbyterianism.

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  6. Dan, “But he does appear, on the whole, to be presenting the substantially whole and true gospel. And he is in fact the means of converting many of those cultured despisers.”

    what about TKNY on homosexuality as “not flourishing”?

    Many? Who?

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  7. evan/bobby, I don’t sense that TKNY has ever watched a Woody Allen movie or that if he has it has made a dent on him. Who is more New York than Allen?

    Act like you don’t come from the mid-west.

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  8. I see no problem with what has been quoted from Keller above. That we need to be able to speak to different audiences has New Testament precedents. And if the training supplied helps a pastor be able to speak to specific audiences, that doesn’t contradict any Christian truth. Does one necessarily need Keller to train them? No. But that Keller can help some speak to specific audiences should be obvious just as some of us are able to speak to specific audiences. After all, the issue here isn’t what we understand what the Gospel say, but how to translate it.

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  9. When TKNY starts observing Festivus I might listen to him. Or when he begins exegeting Larry David.

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  10. I’m quite proud of Midwestern roots, and my Dutch ethnicity. Nothing says “home” to me like a trip to Timmy’s for a coffee and an iced maple doughnut. Truth be told, most elites in NY and DC are from somewhere further west. But what does that say for people who grew up in the East, and were forced by circumstance to move west? I’d rather be a Michigander in New York than a Philadelphian in Michigan.

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  11. evan/bobby, so you agree. Keller can’t do Woody.

    And you implicitly concede that Keller is winning among transplanted mid-westerners who are cowed by the tall buildings and bright lights.

    So if Keller were ministering in Houston (move over Joel Osteen), would anyone pay attention?

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