This Is Embarrassing

The Protestants who I enjoy criticizing are clear at the same time that Roman Catholics are not. And the editors at First Things are caught.

First, a recommendation of the evangelicals who produced the Nashville Statement:

[Several] critiques have merit, and are especially significant since they come from within the evangelical movement. But in our era of theological mushiness and cultural transformation, even the most imperfect attempt at clarity and doctrinal solidarity is better than soft-spoken obfuscation. Christians committed to historic, biblical doctrine on sexuality should be disposed to approve of efforts to make orthodoxy clear, unequivocal, and pastoral.

Perhaps, as many have said, the timing of the Nashville Statement was insensitive. Waiting a couple weeks after the initial images from Houston had appeared might have muted this criticism. But can we foresee a season when such a clear statement of traditional doctrine would not offend, alienate, or divide?

I suspect that what has turned off many people to the Nashville Statement is its clarity. The document’s fourteen affirmations and denials are short, unequivocal, and to the point.

But Roman Catholics, not so much. Aside from the ongoing dilemma of marriage and divorce that Pope Francis and his synods introduced into the magisterium, individual priests, like James Martin, are signaling virtue but in a very sensitive way:

Fr. Martin notably seeks peace. He speaks reassuring phrases in soothing tones. He prefers the familiarity of a sweater vest and dad jeans to the strangeness of the soutane. In ways superficial and profound, he seeks to render Christianity inoffensive. At a certain level, I understand this desire. The Church may be a sign of contradiction, but it is also a source of consolation. Sometimes we need a Church built on sharp, gothic lines, and at other moments we seek the calm harmony of the classical.

But Fr. Martin’s proposed renovation goes beyond mere ornament, to require the restructuring of the whole Christian edifice. Fr. Martin never says this outright, but the logic of what he does say demands it. Approval of homosexuality is now considered the bare minimum of politeness in the world’s respectable precincts (where one hundred years ago, it would have been thought intolerably rude). If Christianity is to have the manners Fr. Martin values—if is to exhibit perfect “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” in the eyes of world—it must not only change its phrasing but reverse its teaching on sex.

Fr. Martin is no idle vandal of the Church, even if his critics often take him for one. Though I disagree with his conclusions, I believe that Catholics have something to learn from his argument that the Church treats homosexuality unfairly.

Catholic teaching has not changed, but at the practical level the Church today has made peace with heterosexual desire. Praise of virginity and warnings against lust in the marriage bed have given way to anxious reassurances that Catholics do not hate and fear sex. The Church has largely ceased to speak of sex as dangerous and requiring restraint, even where it is licit. We hear of the dangers of pre-marital sex, of extramarital sex, sometimes even of homosexual sex—but very rarely of sex simply.

Of course, doctrine hasn’t changed. You hear that a lot from those who have to live with modernists — those who won’t live by, defend, or recommend the doctrine that hasn’t changed. But something has.

And I suspect some converts to Rome are having trouble arguing for Rome’s superiority to Nashville.

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Rating Professors is Arbitrary

So warns Jacques Berlinerblau:

Professorial prestige, I contend, is an awfully arbitrary thing.

Among professors, where one works is a marker of status. Thus, the assistant professor employed by an Ivy League college accrues greater glory than her counterpart at a midsize regional university. The latter, in turn, is more esteemed than an assistant professor laboring at some far-flung small liberal-arts college. The same hierarchies prevail, I guess, among high-school seniors comparing their college-acceptance letters as they hotbox their parents’ Toyota Priuses.

The juveniles and, distressingly, the professors are just following the logic of popular college-ranking systems. They are assuming that the greater the renown of an institution as measured by U.S. News & World Report, the greater will be the quantity and quality of research produced by scholars in its employ. Is this assumption accurate?

If it were, it would follow that an assistant professor in anthropology at Princeton University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 1) publishes more and better work than her exact counterpart at the University of Southern California (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 23). The USC savant, in turn, outperforms the identically ranked anthropologist at Clark University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 75). The Clark ethnographer has a heftier CV than a comparable scholar employed at Oklahoma State University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 149). The better the institution, the better the research its tenure-line professors produce. Right?

Well, practice has a habit of trolling theory. Let’s imagine an experiment. All four of our hypothetical tenure-track anthropologists are asked to submit an updated CV and all of their relevant publications. Upon their arrival, these materials are scrubbed of any identifying markers. The anonymous files are then forwarded to a panel of experienced academicians, no-nonsense types who understand how the game is played. Their task: Figure out which CV corresponds to which sage employed at colleges ranked 1, 23, 75, and 149.

Our arbiters, I’m convinced, would fail this blind test. They would fail even if we asked them not to look at mere quantity of publications but quality as well. That’s because the contestants would all look puzzlingly similar. The judges might assume that the assistant professor at Clark worked at Southern California. And, yes, it is not unthinkable that they would place the Oklahoma State ethnographer in New Jersey. The problem is not that the Princeton person is a slouch. The problem is that all four are publishing a lot and all are very impressive on paper. Ergo, it would be impossible for the judges to distinguish between scholarly Coke and Pepsi.

Does this apply to New York City pastors?

What about U.S. Senators?

What about platforms makes an author more of an authority than another author?

Who Paved the Way for Trump?

It was not Jerry Falwell (or his son).

It was the gatekeepers who decided gates were simply mental constructions and who celebrated those who ran with the new freedom.

Want to know where fake news came from? Looks like it was Harvard not Liberty University (thanks to one of our many southern correspondents):

Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.

For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power.

These ideas animate the work of influential thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, and they’ve become axiomatic for many scholars in literary studies, cultural anthropology and sociology.

From these premises, philosophers and theorists have derived a number of related insights. One is that facts are socially constructed. People who produce facts — scientists, reporters, witnesses — do so from a particular social position (maybe they’re white, male and live in America) that influences how they perceive, interpret and judge the world. They rely on non-neutral methods (microscopes, cameras, eyeballs) and use non-neutral symbols (words, numbers, images) to communicate facts to people who receive, interpret and deploy them from their own social positions.

Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.

Casey Williams argues that the populist right has abused postmodernism.

The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon.

One might object that Trump’s disregard for the truth is nothing new. American presidents have always twisted facts to fit their agenda and have always dismissed truths that threatened to sink them. Even George Washington’s great claim to honesty — that he ’fessed up to felling a cherry tree — was a deception. One could also argue that Trump is more Machiavellian than Foucauldian and that he doesn’t actually believe what he says: He propagates misinformation strategically, to excite his base and smear his opponents.

Not to be missed is what happens when other celebrities flout conventions. Then it becomes art and poignant. And so Lena Dunham is prescient (while Trump is so ordinary when he is not despicable):

The romance between this newspaper and the HBO show “Girls” is somewhat legendary. Between its debut in 2012 and its finale last Sunday, according to some exhaustive data journalism from The Awl, The New York Times published 37 articles about the show, its fans, its creator and star, Lena Dunham, plus her co-stars’ clothes and paintings and workout routines and exotic pets.

Except, fact-check: I made up the exotic pets, and The Awl’s list unaccountably failed to include my own contribution to The Times’s Dunham-mania, a love letter to the show’s flirtations with cultural reaction.

Was some of this coverage excessive? Well, let’s concede that the ratio of thinkpieces (all over the web, not just in this newspaper) to actual viewers was considerably higher for “Girls” than for, say, “Game of Thrones.” Let’s concede that the media loved to talk about the show in part because it was set among young white people in Brooklyn, a demographic just possibly overrepresented among the people who write about pop culture for a living. Let’s concede that Dunham’s peculiar role in electoral politics, as one of the most visible and, um, creative millennial-generation surrogates for Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton, played some role in the press’s fascination with her show.

But now that we have the show in full, I think the scale of coverage actually holds up quite well — my own small part in it very much included. Indeed, I suspect that “Girls” will be remembered as the most interesting and important television show of the years in which it ran, to which cultural critics will inevitably return when they argue about art and society in the now-vanished era of Obama.

I know it’s hard to seem to be upholding the status quo. Baby boomers would rather have an edge, be a little deviant, and resist being part of the establishment.

But at some point you grow up, or you find no rationale for opposing a man (now president) who has been simply floating along with the decline of standards.

If Only Princeton Seminary had Read Sarah Posner on Tim Keller

They would have spared themselves a lot of grief (though one has to raise questions about Posner’s reasons for opining the way she does). Way back in 2009, the liberal journalist saw through the public relations success of New Calvinism’s favorite urban pastor/apologist:

Counterfeit Gods is an attractive, compact volume that a busy urbanite might tuck in his murse alongside his iPhone. It’s got a “there’s-an-app-for-that” sort of answer for the anxiety of contemporary city living. It’s a handy Jiminy Cricket to set you straight when you might be thinking of having sex with someone you’re not married to, contemplating a risky investment opportunity in the hopes of hitting the jackpot, or staying late at the office instead of having dinner with the family. While you’re at it, you might remind your spouse not to over-schedule the kids, because Jesus doesn’t like that, either.

Imagine: Wall Street casts its eyes upon Saint Timothy instead of Timothy Geithner! Dalton minus the uptight parents! A Manhattan nightlife free from casual sex! Coffee shops and bars purged of political ideology and discourse!

Such “counterfeit gods” ail the suburbs, too, but they are already saturated by big box mega-churches to counteract the false idols of Sam Walton-inspired strip malls and hyper-competitive Saturday morning soccer tournaments for six year-olds. Keller doesn’t bother with them. His schtick is to break into the untapped urban market for potential believers.

It’s hard to see, though, how New York’s wide swaths of spiritual diversity would take to Keller’s air of Christian superiority. For him, the Bible “comprises a single story, telling us how the human race got into its present condition, and how God through Jesus Christ has come and will come to put things right.” See? It’s that simple.

The focus isn’t eternal salvation, but rather remaking the cultural and political world. He offers a way of making sense of what Jerry Falwell-style fundamentalists might call the scourge of secular humanism. Instead of spiritual warfare against these satanic enemies, Keller asks his readers to confront them as biblical figures might have rejected false idols.

Thus, the hovering, over-protective mother might take lessons from Abraham: let God test your love for the children by letting them be free. The man who lusts for someone other than his wife might learn from Jacob’s misguided quest for the more beautiful Rachel. Jacob’s wife, Leah, provides cues for anyone looking for love and sex and transcendence in their romantic lives, rather than through God. The inevitable result of looking for everything in romantic love, Keller maintains, is “bitter disillusionment.”

One would think the Jacob-Leah story might yield some feminist deconstructions. But feminism, apparently, is also idolatry. Every such political ideology, Keller maintains, creates a sort of idolatry of its own. “An ideology,” he writes, “like an idol, is a limited, partial account of reality that is raised to the level of the final word on things.” Keller can’t see, somehow, that our body politic was designed to be secular, and that a religious prescription for its ills—itself portrayed as a final word—is one of the scourges that has, over the last four decades or so, led to the single-minded extremism he decries.

Keller is a favorite of flagship evangelical magazines like Christianity Today and World, but he receives glowing coverage in mainstream outlets as well. “While he hardly shrinks from difficult Christian truths,” observed a 2006 profile in the New York Times, “he sounds different from many of the shrill evangelical voices in the public sphere.” Keller, the piece went on, “shies away from the label evangelical, which is often used to describe theologically conservative Protestant Christians like him, because of the political and fundamentalist connotations that now come with it. He prefers the term orthodox instead, because he believes in the importance of personal conversion or being ‘born again,’ and the full authority of the Bible.”

This assertion—that biblical orthodoxy is somehow apolitical—was put to the test recently when Keller became one of over 100 original signatories to the Manhattan Declaration unveiled on November 20th. Billed as a statement of “religious conscience,” the Manhattan Declaration is something more, something unmistakably fundamentalist and quintessentially political, a regurgitation of the religious right’s assertion that sexual and gender rights are somehow a threat to good Christians’ religious liberty.

What Kind of Art Will American Greatness Leave Behind?

Talk about greatness after you watch The Great Museum, a documentary about The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna:

The museum was the creation of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary. Opened in 1891, the museum (a combination of two) holds the Habsburgs’ formidable art collection and makes many of the effects of the Holy Roman Emperor accessible to the general public. As much as the Protestant and republican in me wonders about that kind of wealth, concentration of power, and even accumulation of relics, it doesn’t take a high school diploma to understand that The Great Museum should be on my bucket list and should likely have been higher than the Louvre or London’s National Gallery. Say what you will about the Habsburgs, they acquired lots of stuff that people interested in history and art want to see.

(Although, I could not fight the impression that the art world, even as accessible as it is now compared to when it fenced in for only the aristocracy and friends to enjoy, has become one big commodity to be bought and sold. The documentary has one auction scene that took the missus and me back to The Red Violin, arguably the best historical treatment on film of the changing value of a musical instrument. Let’s just say, moderns know monetary value better than artistic achievement. I’ll confirm that by noticing that even though the Republic of Austria subsidizes the Great Museum with significant Euro’s, admission in 2013 to the Great Museum was almost 34 Euros — $37. Ouch!)

Meanwhile, back in the greatest nation on God’s green earth, the feds debate whether to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Stephen Limbaugh keeps it real when he warns about the NEA’s ideological outlook:

Be it the misuse of funds, waste, or deleterious governing philosophy, the National Endowment for the Arts has proven to be a recidivistic cultural butcher.

The NEA’s process for cultivating art is informed by standards set by universities and critical theorists. Those standards of what qualify as “acceptable” contemporary art seem to be any phenomena that offends an individual’s inherent aesthetic disposition. Preferential treatment is given to those works that 1) are able to evoke the most unpleasant reaction and 2) are created with the least amount of discernible purpose. This destructive artistic praxis is thoroughly documented, and there are few examples of NEA-backed art that does not adhere to it.

Be that as it may, so what? Even if the NEA retains their funding, will the artists they subsidize produce anything that will command attention in three centuries? Anything like Peter Brueghel’s Tower of Babel (the film’s closing image)? Can a top hat worn by President Wilson really compare with the Bratina of King Ladislaus IV of Poland?

I don’t think so.

Can Redeemer be Average (not Great)?

Mark Dever spent a lot of time defending Tim Keller’s decision to remain involved with Redeemer Presbyterian Church after his retirement as preacher. What Dever did not answer was whether he would do the same thing. Would he stay at Capital Hill Baptist after retiring?

The problem with pastors sticking around is that it potentially undermines the successor. If a church member has a problem, does he go to the new pastor? If session needs advice, do they go to the guy with whom they’ve served?

How much more is this a problem for a man who had to preach at four different locations each Sunday to keep people within the “worship site” in their part of Manhattan? And when you consider that they refused to announce where Keller was preaching so that people would not load up on the Keller preaching station that Sunday, how much more of a problem is a celebrity pastor than an average minister? And of the three “particular” churches to grow out of Redeemer, which one will Tim and Kathy attend? If they pick one, won’t the people who flocked to hear Keller preach also want to sign on for the congregation where the Kellers worship? Or will they have to move around in the same way that Keller had to preach at different locations? How settled does that sound? (Good thing the Kellers have access to people who drive them around.) Yes, Redeemer NYC may be intentionally avoiding a megachurch, but it is anything but average.

And which of these pastors — the ones to step up after Keller retires — can fill the void? Who can stand in that great day?

John Lin, Lead Pastor

A graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, John Lin grew up in Boston and came to New York City in 2002. Prior to coming to Redeemer, he worked as the English ministry pastor at a Korean-American church in Hartford, CT. Since moving to New York, John has had a deep affinity for all things downtown, including food, people and culture … and food. John and his wife, Kyoko, have been married since 2004 and have two children. When he is not doing pastoral ministry, John spends time following the Boston Red Sox, thinking about travel to far-flung locales, and taking pictures of his kids.

Abraham Cho, Lead Pastor

Abe grew up in Cheshire, Connecticut, a small New England town just north of New Haven. After attending the University of Connecticut, he went on to pursue an M.Div. and a Th.M. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary near Boston. He was previously the youth pastor at First Korean Presbyterian in Hartford, CT and the director of university ministries at Citylife Presbyterian in Boston. He has been a pastor at Redeemer since 2007 serving in a variety of capacities over the years. He is currently a Doctor of Ministry candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary with particular interests in urban ministry, leadership development, public theology and issues of race and justice. He and his wife, Jordyn, have four young children, Lydia, Ezra, Micah and Judah.

David Bisgrove | Lead Pastor

David Bisgrove grew up in New Jersey and moved to New York City for graduate school in 1986. He started attending Redeemer in 1989 and became a founding elder and trustee. David and his wife, Alice, met at a Community Group Sunday Brunch through mutual friends. They now live on the UWS with their daughters, Mary Claire and Charlotte.

David has a M.B.A. and Master’s in Public Health from Columbia University and previously worked in healthcare finance and administration. He began working at Redeemer as the director of finance and operations in 1998, while also pursuing his M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary. He was ordained in 2005 as an assistant pastor who oversaw worship and evangelism, counseling, stewardship and family ministries. Now as Lead Pastor of the WS congregation, David loves standing at the door on Sundays talking to people on their way in and out of worship. He’s a big fan of golf (when he can make it out of the city) and of going on family bike rides to Pier I along the Hudson. And you might also find him at Joe’s Coffee on Columbus Ave.

Who can compare to this?

Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, which he started in 1989 with his wife, Kathy, and three young sons. For over twenty years he has led a diverse congregation of young professionals that has grown to a weekly attendance of over 5,000.

He is also Chairman of Redeemer City to City, which starts new churches in New York and other global cities, and publishes books and resources for faith in an urban culture. In over ten years they have helped to launch over 250 churches in 48 cities. More recently, Dr. Keller’s books, including the New York Times bestselling The Reason for God and The Prodigal God, have sold over 1 million copies and been translated into 15 languages.

Christianity Today has said, “Fifty years from now, if evangelical Christians are widely known for their love of cities, their commitment to mercy and justice, and their love of their neighbors, Tim Keller will be remembered as a pioneer of the new urban Christians.”

Dr. Keller was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He previously served as the pastor of West Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Hopewell, Virginia, Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, and Director of Mercy Ministries for the Presbyterian Church in America.

Heck, Tim Keller isn’t even listed on one of Redeemer’s staff pages — he has his own webpage.

Nothing more relaxing than humility, right?

Postscript: THE OPTICS!