The World Is Turning Rod and Leaving Tim Behind

The piece on Rod Dreher and the Benedict Option in the New Yorker was remarkable on several levels. It was generally positive, respectful, and long. This was the case despite Dreher’s tendency to sound a tad hysterical about sexual irregularities and deviance. This quote by Andrew Sullivan, a gay man who has gone head to head with Rod over the years, was telling:

Sullivan has a long-standing disagreement with Dreher over same-sex marriage, but he believes that the religiously devout should be permitted their dissent. “There is simply no way for an orthodox Catholic to embrace same-sex marriage,” he said. “The attempt to conflate that with homophobia is a sign of the unthinking nature of some liberal responses to religion. I really don’t think that florists who don’t want to contaminate themselves with a gay wedding should in any way be compelled to do so. I think any gay person that wants them to do that is being an asshole, to be honest—an intolerant asshole. Rod forces you to understand what real pluralism is: actually accepting people with completely different world views than your own.”

In “The Benedict Option,” Dreher writes that “the angry vehemence with which many gay activists condemn Christianity” is the understandable result of a history of “rejection and hatred by the church.” Orthodox Christians need to acknowledge this history, he continues, and “repent of it.” He has assured his children that, if they are gay, he will still love them; he is almost—but not quite—apologetic about his views, which he presents as a theological obligation. He sees orthodox Christians as powerless against the forces of liquidly modern progressivism; on his blog, he argues that “the question is not really ‘What are you conservative Christians prepared to tolerate?’ but actually ‘What are LGBTs and progressive allies prepared to tolerate?’ ” He wants them to be magnanimous in victory; to refrain from pressing their advantage. Essentially, he says to progressives: You’ve won. You wouldn’t sue Orthodox Jews or observant Muslims. Please don’t sue us, either.

“What I really love about Rod is that, even as he’s insisting upon certain truths, he’s obviously completely conflicted,” Sullivan said. “And he’s a mess! I don’t think he’d disagree with that. But he’s a mess in the best possible way, because he hasn’t anesthetized himself. He’s honest about a lot of the questions that many liberal and conservative Christians aren’t really addressing.”

Notice that Dreher, who is outspokenly anti-gay marriage, did not receive the chorus of criticism that Tim Keller did at Princeton Seminary even from such mainstream organs and figures as the New Yorker and Andrew Sullivan.

To be sure, the PCUSA is not the New Yorker, but at a time when the magazine has identified President Trump and his supporters as an alien force in national life, a fair piece about Dreher is not what readers would have expected.

So why does Dreher receive more acclaim than Keller? The reason could be that the former promotes a thick (as he understands it) Christian identity, complete with communitarian obligations, while Keller stands for a Christianity that is chiefly reasonable and appeals to the mind. In other words, Dreher is appealing to a larger conception of Christianity that encompasses more of one’s identity than intellect while Keller is largely about defending the Apostles’ Creed (as he explained a while back in an interview at First Things) — or a Christian minimum. Rod is maximalist where Tim is a minimalist.

Naomi Schaeffer Riley picked up on this difference when she contrasted Dreher and Keller:

Keller sees an integral part of the church’s mission as being present in the big cities — no matter how culturally degraded they may seem. “Christians ought to be present and engaged everywhere that there are people. But across the world people are flocking to cities at the rate of millions per year.

“Christians don’t all need to live in cities, but they should at least be moving there in the same proportions as the people whom they want to serve.”

His approach may be falling out of favor among some more orthodox believers. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported on a small but growing number of Christians who, “feeling besieged by secular society . . . are taking refuge” in small, often isolated communities away from negative cultural influences and surrounded by other believers.

This “Benedict Option” was named in honor of St. Benedict, who fled the moral degradation of Rome. It’s also the title of a new book by Rod Dreher, who, writing in Christianity Today, calls it a “strategic withdrawal” by “serious Christian Conservatives [who] could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America.”

Though Dreher doesn’t say Christians should all flee to isolated enclaves, those are where such withdrawal would be easiest.

Keller believes Christians in New York cannot retreat into homogeneity. They’ll be regularly faced with people who fervently disagree with them. Keller’s church is a multi-ethnic one and even if the believers have a similar religious outlook, they hail from a variety of different backgrounds.

That fear of homogeneity and retreat also explains, by the way, while Keller is somewhat uncomfortable with going all in on Presbyterianism (from his interview at First Things):

I don’t believe you can reach New York with the gospel if you only plant Presbyterian churches. There are all kinds of people who’ll never be Presbyterians. It just doesn’t appeal to them. Some people are going to be Pentecostals, some people are going to be Catholics. I mean, I know that sounds¯I’m not talking about that certain cultures reach certain people. It’s much more complicated than that. Even though there’s something to that. We all know that certain cultures seem to have more of an affinity toward a certain kind of Christian tradition than others, but I wouldn’t want to reduce it to that at all. I would just say that I only know that God seems to use all these kinds of churches to reach the whole breadth of humanity, and so that’s why we give money to start churches of other denominations, and give free training to it. And we’ve done about a hundred in the New York area, where we’ve helped people. It’s very important to us.

For Keller, apparently, Christianity resists taking overly specific and particular forms (think ecclesiology, liturgy, even creed). His ministry can transcend different cultures and expressions of Christianity. That comes up short against those Christians that Schaeffer identifies as wanting a more than “business-as-usual” faith.

But the Allies at Gospel Coalition back Keller over Dreher when they say they want both a Christianity that is meaty and one that is mainstream:

The Benedict Option is named for Benedict of Nursia, a 4th century monk who launched a monastic movement that preserved Western civilization. Today, writers like Rod Dreher enjoin Christian​s​ to take similar steps to “develop communities based on a shared sense of orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice), for the sake of forming ourselves and the next generation in the Christian faith.”

The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has called Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, where Tim Keller serves as senior pastor, an effective example of the Benedict Option for our twenty-first century, post-Christian context. Like other TGC-inspired communities, Redeemer aims to blend countercultural biblical faithfulness with a Christ-exalting, city-embracing vision.

That dual commitment to faithfulness and cultural affirmation did work for the post-World War II world. It was precisely the vision of the Neo-Evangelicals who formed the National Association of Evangelicals, founded Christianity Today, and cheered and prayed for Billy Graham. It was and is a faith that harmonizes well with a nationalism confident of its role in the world, and generally progressive in its estimate of where history is going or at least who the good guys are in that narrative.

But at a time when that post-war internationalist order is under serious strain (think Brexit, Scottish Independence, Trumpian nationalism), the appeal of a rational, enlightened Christianity may have hit a wall. What Christians seem to understand is that they need a faith little more “deep-down diving and mud upbringing,” that can withstand a social order that is not congenial to their religious convictions. It is a faith that bears more resemblance to the politics of identity than to United Statesist Christianity. This faith does not go along but separates. It makes more claims on adherents than a faith that primarily relies on mental exercises demanded by w-w. It recognizes that the world is more hostile than previous generations supposed and that Christians need to be more intentional about their convictions.

Why someone living in New York City, the place that cultivated the boorish Donald Trump, doesn’t see that cities (from culture to economics) may be a problem for the practice of demanding Christianity is a real mystery.

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24 thoughts on “The World Is Turning Rod and Leaving Tim Behind

  1. We live in a radically changing day and too many (read: Kellerites) want to think, despite all evidence to the contrary, that post-WWII consensus middle-class country club protestant world is going to last forever.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Christians don’t all need to live in cities, but they should at least be moving there in the same proportions as the people whom they want to serve.” — What is with this math and tipping point BS? The guy is more entrepreneurial evangelical than presbyterian.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. How the celebrities of the Gospel Coalition are like — I emphasize LIKE — today’s global elites:

    And this is how things appear at this historical moment: The world is run by an international elite that lives in a rarified world of seemingly boundless power and luxury. Though the members of this elite consider their own power and luxury to be completely legitimate, it is not. It is the product of a system that’s rigged to benefit them while everybody else languishes in declining small cities and provincial towns, eking out a dreary existence, toiling away their lives in menial service-sector jobs or scraping by on disability checks while seeking out a modicum of fleeting joy in the dumbstruck haze of a painkiller high.

    Consider the difference between running a high-profile, celebrity-pastor ministered congregation and doing ministry on a shoe-string in the heartland. Do small town souls matter?

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  4. You used to worry about the big well-funded place moving in to the neighborhood. They strip-mined the incumbent congregations by woo-ing the boomers with guitars and emoting unmoored from doctrinal concerns. But even that could have an upside in that the worship war would stop. The modern form is more insidious. It doesn’t even have to be present. You find yourself arguing with gnostic ghosts, twitter feeds and podcasts. Until you are in the hospital and the podcast doesn’t visit and bring communion, messy real life just can’t compete with cherry-picked media produced “messages”. And then your bishops get the big idea that they can serve those distant communities in the same way – lots messages about revitalization, no encouragement to stop listening and go back to church.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. So Keller thinks its okay to plant non-Presbyterian churches as a Presbyterian because there are just some people who won’t become Presbyterian?

    But can’t the relatively simple worship of traditional Presbyterianism be adopted in a wide variety of contexts that allows for cultural expression, ie, in the circumstances of worship according to the Regulative Principle?

    More importantly, what is the point of being Presbyterian (or anything else) if you don’t think that is the government ordained by Scripture? Why does Keller stay PCA?

    If you believe other denominations outside your own are doing good work, isn’t there another way to help them besides funding their church plants?

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  6. I agree with Rev. Glaser. In many ways, Keller’s project is probably best construed as an effort to reconstruct the Protestant consensus of the 1950s, but centered around neoliberal financial centers instead of mid-sized manufacturing centers. For Keller, Middletown never went away: It just shifted from Muncie to Manhattan. When he has a coherent line of thought, Dreher seems to desire the same thing. But Dreher is smart enough to see that it can’t be achieved, and falls into despair.

    But as our economy shifted from places like Muncie to Manhattan, elites began to separate from the broader culture. In the 1980s, elites were still largely interspersed with the rest of the population. They may have lived in their own section of town, but they shopped at the same stores, worshiped at the same churches, and dined at the same restaurants as middle class folks. Elites were not yet a distinct culture, and had a material interest in maintaining the Protestant consensus. But that’s no longer the case. A smart kid today who grew up in Muncie is probably more likely to end up in Manhattan than back in Muncie. So, places like Manhattan can’t become the new Middletown in the sense that Muncie once was. They represent a demographic anomaly. It’s like an independent city-state that siphons off many of the best and brightest from elsewhere, and pulls them together into one place. Places like Muncie were largely representative of the nation as a whole, as their demographics were similar to that of the nation as a whole. Manhattan’s demographics, by contrast, are sharply skewed toward elites, and is therefore only representative of other elite enclaves, like Cambridge, Mass., Arlington, Virginia, Evanston, Illinois, midtown Atlanta, San Francisco, etc. And that’s where Keller fails.

    Keller forgets that elite break-off largely involves a certain forgetting of the concerns of places like Muncie. It involves a certain forsaking of the Protestant consensus for a sort of tribalism. In that sense, Keller’s “sin” is that he can’t figure out which tribe he wants to join. He wants to be welcomed into the elite tribe, but he also wants to be welcome in Muncie. He wants to give a talk at Google on one day, and then give one at Al Mohler’s seminary on the next. All the while, he neglects the fact that neither audience wants anything to do with the other. So, he comes off as a kind of charlatan. Dreher, by contrast, has chosen his tribe. He’s with Team Muncie. He may be an alarmist, but he’s no charlatan. And that’s why people from Manhattan can respect him more than Keller.

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  7. DGH–Dreher promotes a thick Christian identity, complete with communitarian obligations, while Keller stands for a Christianity that chiefly appeals to the mind…

    mcmark–But make no mistake: Dreher’s mind is all made up against faith alone, because the object of his faith is NOT the one time only death of Jesus Christ. Dreher needs a community that will distribute grace to those who continue to feel obligated to come.

    Dreher–“It’s hard to convince people who have never worshiped as Eastern Orthodox Christians, but the Eastern form of worship is much more intense-feeling than most of what you’ll find in the West. The kissing of icons, the chants the prostrations — all of it involves the body far more than Western Christian worship. And the overwhelming sense of timelessness and sanctity that comes to you through the Eastern liturgy — well, there’s nothing like it in the West. That began to pull me out of my head. Plus, looking around me on Sunday morning and seeing portraits of holy men and women from many cultures and ages, on the wall and ceiling, reminded me that I am intimately connected to the church universal, across time. Every time I walk into my own parish now, I pray most intensely before a tiny bone fragment of St. Genevieve of Paris, I ask her nothing other than to pray for me. Having the relics and the icons present trains the imagination to EXPERIENCE what we Christians believe…”
    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/resacramentalizing-my-life-christianity/

    Keller went north, Dreher went to a place in the south where you find lots of Romanists and not Baptists alone.

    DGH, when will you make your move south of Anne Tyler’s city?

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  8. Evan – your post is correct in the sense that there is a city/rural divide that is as acute as any dividing factor in the US. Interestingly, most critics of Tim Keller on this blog (DGH excepted) and other places live and/or minister in rural locales. In fact, many come from one specific geographic area of the country. Which leads me to wonder, is the criticism of Keller as much about him and his ministry as it is the same resentment and envy of elites that fueled the rise and election of Donald Trump?

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  9. I am not in small town USA, not as Metro as NYC, but not backwater by any means. My concerns over the years about TKNY have notta to do with resentment over Rural vs. City.

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  10. This;
    “This faith does not go along but separates. It makes more claims on adherents than a faith that primarily relies on mental exercises demanded by w-w.”

    Something about a philosophical undergirding that treats the historical emphasis as merely boxes to be checked off, for now, until you don’t. The problem is that there are better philosophies for navigating this life than Keller’s or Schaeffer’s or even Kuyper’s W-W, and ultimately philosophies get graded on how well they work or as Schaeffer would’ve said, explain the really real. The therapeutic model of religion is just another attempt(but squishy and feely) at the philosophy model and it sucks something terrible, why bother with the religious component, just do systems and therapy. The historical is what makes you push past systems to something else.

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  11. “I don’t believe you can reach New York with the gospel if you only plant Presbyterian churches. There are all kinds of people who’ll never be Presbyterians. It just doesn’t appeal to them. Some people are going to be Pentecostals, some people are going to be Catholics.”

    Change a few words and this would be a really nice quote from any ambitious entrepreneur. Does Keller have any convictions about his Presbyterian roots? Keller, your pragmatism is beginning to show…

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  12. I still don’t get it. Keller’s third way of church and church planting and approach to denominationalism didn’t turn out to be much of anything. It melted down to what all fads melt down to, sloganeering-In the city for the city. The gospel as urbanism. Except the RE developers and politicians and banks and PE already do that gig, but better. And, oh yeah, it leads to homogeneity but now based on socio-economic class. You haven’t seen a bubble till you’ve spent a day in a newly developed self-contained, b cycle, walkable commute urban center. Even the ‘vibe’ and ‘edge’ has been designed and planned and sanitized(remember, urbanism works at the expense of blight).

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  13. I think this article says more about the reviewer than the subjects of the review. By always casting differences of one in a negative light, D.G. shows an apriori contentious attitude toward that person.

    How is it that Dreher’s approach is meatier and Keller’s approach just appeals to the intellect so that the former is a maximalist and the latter is a minimalist? Should we apply Bonhoeffer’s comparison of monastics to Luther to Dreher’s semi-monastic approach to Keller’s full engagement with culture, we would find that while Dreher is looking for a place of at least a partial retreat for the Church, Keller remains on the front lines with his faith. What follows is that Keller is more of the maximalist that Dreher. This is despite the fact that both Dreher’s and Keller’s approach assumes that Christianity in general, and thus Christians in particular, should share society with others by securing a place privilege over others. But such is the basic fault of the transformationalists. The only difference between the two approaches is that Dreher’s phobia of sexual irregularities has caused him to flee in horror. We could ask why shouldn’t Christians before him also have fled in horror in the face of the rampant racism that was evident during the Jim Crow era? We could also ask why Keller doesn’t oppose today’s economic classism with the vigor he so correctly opposes racism.

    And why label Keller as having a phobia to homogeneity as opposed to determining whether his is simply being realistic? And if we can accuse Keller of having a fear of homogeneity, can’t we accuse the D.G. of having a fear of heterogeneity?

    But D.G. has also written something that is very important for all to read. He writes:


    That dual commitment to faithfulness and cultural affirmation did work for the post-World War II world. It was precisely the vision of the Neo-Evangelicals who formed the National Association of Evangelicals, founded Christianity Today, and cheered and prayed for Billy Graham. It was and is a faith that harmonizes well with a nationalism confident of its role in the world, and generally progressive in its estimate of where history is going or at least who the good guys are in that narrative.

    It is a shame here that neither Keller nor D.G. listen to each other enough. By themselves, these approaches have no chance of seeing their own flaws. But, with Keller’s transformationalism and D.G.’s 2KT, combining the most scriptural parts of both could benefit all, let alone Keller and D.G.

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  14. The New Yorker already had a sadistic hit-piece on Bannon in that issue, so some kind of balance was expected.

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  15. Curt, as I do the math, I’m listening to Keller and his fans more than he’s listening to me.

    Give me credit.

    And if you want to talk about my fears, obsess about mmmmeeeeEEEE at your own blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. D.G.,
    I don’t pay enough attention to Keller to know who he is listening to.

    And I really don’t care to obsess about you on any blog. You have definitely have things to contribute that people should listen to. And you have things to challenge.

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  17. You haven’t seen a bubble till you’ve spent a day in a newly developed self-contained, b cycle, walkable commute urban center. , Arlington, Virginia, Evanston, Illinois, midtown Atlanta, San Francisco, etc.

    Like

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