David Robertson is What’s the Matter with Tim Keller

Amy Mantravadi wanted to know what’s the matter with Tim Keller around the same time that David Robertson decided to make Keller the test for loyalty to gospel ministry. Amy makes careful evaluations (charitable) of Keller. Robertson sneers at anyone who takes issue with Keller.

And that is the problem. Keller is merely one pastor whose foibles would be unknown to any outside his congregation if he had not allowed himself to be a poster-boy for urban, transformationalist, pastor-to-(some of)-the-intelligentsia ministry.

Lots of pastors in the Reformed world do not follow the rules of polity, liturgy, and confessional austerity. They likely face their own sets of critics whether from within the congregation or at presbytery. But these pastors do not pretend to have written the book for successful ministry or allow fans to crow about their success.

Keller, however, has become a brand and pastors like David Robertson have gladly wrapped themselves in it. In fact, when Keller says something that so patently needs qualification, Robertson is there to dare anyone who would question Keller’s devotion, wisdom, and truth.

Keller is too big to fail and defenders like Robertson made him so.

Here is what Keller said about art:

The Church needs artists because without art we cannot reach the world. The simple fact is that the imagination ‘gets you,’ even when your reason is completely against the idea of God. ‘Imagination communicates,’ as Arthur Danto says, ‘indefinable but inescapable truth.’ Those who read a book or listen to music expose themselves to that inescapable truth. There is a sort of schizophrenia that occurs if you are listening to Bach and you hear the glory of God and yet your mind says there is no God and there is no meaning. You are committed to believing nothing means anything and yet the music comes in and takes you over with your imagination. When you listen to great music, you can’t believe life is meaningless. Your heart knows what your mind is denying. We need Christian artists because we are never going to reach the world without great Christian art to go with great Christian talk.

If you are a minister devoted to the sufficiency of Scripture, maybe you qualify this a little? You put yourself in the situation — wouldn’t all that reading of Charles Taylor help you? — of Christ and the apostles and maybe remember that art did not seem to be high on the apostles agenda.

Instead, Robertson doubles down and does for Keller what so many Roman Catholic apologists do for Pope Francis — spin:

Now there is a narrower sense in which art is used – I guess the sense in which it is studied in art colleges. And if Keller was saying without painting we can’t communicate the Gospel then he would deserve the ridicule that comes his way. But do you think Keller is restricting ‘art’ to the narrower sense of painting only (or perhaps ballet?). Can’t you be a little more charitable and assume that a bible believing teacher such as Keller might actually know something about the bible, church history and evangelism? At least enough to prevent him accusing Paul and Jesus of not knowing how to proclaim the Gospel?

The truth is that Keller and the upcoming downgrade in the PCA is not the problem. He is not a heretic and his views on art are not heretical – they are basic Kuyperian Calvinism. No, it is the ugliness of some who profess the Reformed Faith, those macho keypboard warriors who think that putting the adjective effeminate in front of anything is enough to damn it; seeking their own niche and identity by dissing others who are the real heretics. Why? Because although they profess orthodox faith in Christ – it’s not enough. We must reflect the glory and beauty of Christ. To turn beauty into ashes is anti-Christ and the real heresy.

You mean, all that time in the city has not in the least influenced Keller and how he presents? You mean, Robertson has never studied the history of how Presbyterians are like frogs in the kettle and become used to the cultural temperature around them? You mean, that a minister in the Free Church cannot ever fathom how liberal Presbyterianism happens?

That’s a problem.

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Which Matters More, Branding or Order of Precedence?

Old Life took a wee vacation last week thanks to (all about) my trip to Belfast which included delightful discussions with a historian who must remain anonymous for the sake of his good name and sightseeing with an old (not as old as mmmmeeeeeeEEE) friend who also deserves protection from tawdry associations with this blog.

I had the privilege of speaking informally with folks from the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Those communions are not in fellowship thanks to the split in 1927 over liberalism in the PCI, a debate that has all the earmarks of the so-called fundamentalist controversy in the U.S. In fact, W. J. Grier, who studied at Princeton Seminary with J. Gresham Machen, took some inspiration from conservatives in the U.S. to oppose the teaching of J. E. Davey, who taught church history and theology at Union College (in effect the seminary for Irish Presbyterians). When the trial against Davey failed, Grier led the formation of a new Presbyterian communion.

That parallel suggests that PCI is to the EPC what the PCUSA is to the OPC. But such reading of American dynamics into Ireland misses how different American Presbyterianism is. If anything, the U.S. equivalent to the PCI is the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (the American one that had Tim Keller speak at its GA). The PCI is more evangelical than the PCUSA and does not go out of its way to be inclusive. Whether it will ever go out of its way to discipline erroneous views is another matter.

Another difference is that the PCI’s moderator is tenth in the Orders of Precedence in the United Kingdom.

I have no idea how to reconcile the Wikipedia chart with the church’s website about political status in Northern Ireland. But I do suspect the matter has something to do with the Regium Donum, a “royal gift” from Charles II to dissenting Protestants (outside the Church of Ireland — Anglican) to support their ministry. In fact, the royal recognition of the PCI’s moderator means that he receives invitations to affairs in London held by the British government. I suspect it also means some sort of royal representative at PCI General Assemblies the way that the Queen still sends a delegate to the Free Church of Scotland.

This difference with the USA is striking. The federal government or POTUS never sends representatives or invitations to moderators of Presbyterian communions in the U.S. Not even the Presbyterians in the “Protestant establishment,” the PCUSA, have the standing that Presbyterians do in the UK. American Presbyterians are pikers compared to Presbyterians in the British Isles.

But we American Presbyterians compensate with celebrity.

Which raises the question whether a brand like Tim Keller has more influence in national (or urban) life than a royal gift. I am asking because inquiring minds want to know.

Another Solution to Celebrity Pastors — Modesty

I’m betting (if I were a gambling man) that celebrity pastors are a bigger problem for God’s people than transgender bathrooms. At least, Denny Burk Jared Wilson concedes that famous ministers are a problem, though he writes at the website that would not have a following if not for — wait for it — celebrity pastors. Here’s how celebrity happens:

. . . we participate in the highest elevation of a pastor’s platform as we can manage and then load him up with all the expectation we can muster. The result, naturally, is that he is top-heavy and prone to toppling.

BurkWilson adds that “pastoral smallness and obscurity” have their own problems, but “the most prominent dangerous temptations in pastoral bigness are these idolatries — worship of the celebrity pastor by his fans and himself.”

The possible fix for the celebrity pastor include:

1. Transition your “video venue” satellite campuses to church plants or at the very least install live preaching.

2. No more book deals for gifted preachers who are not gifted writers.

3. Discerning the credibility of our experts.

4. Actual parity among elders.

What about recognizing that celebrity pastor is an oxymoron?

1. Celebrity pastors are not really celebrities. Bruce Springsteen and Scarlett Johansson are celebrities. D. A. Carson and John Piper are not. And if Protestants long for pastors with celebrity appeal, they may show a greater degree of worldliness than they should. What it says about an organization — Gospel Coalition — that thrives on celebrity is something that the celebrity pastors and professors may want to consider the next time their schedules permit them to meet.

2. Pastors are not celebrities. First, they are undershepherds. They serve their lord and master, and are mere stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1) — sort of like butlers. Unlike celebrities who avoid rubbing shoulders with the people and who hire servants to do work beneath them, pastors need to live and move and have their livelihood among smelly sheep (at least they’re not goats).

Second, real pastors serve a local congregation. That means real pastors have much more the fame footprint of a local television news show anchor than they do a Hollywood, NBA, or network star. Who outside eastern Michigan knows the NBC anchor for the 5:00 news show? I don’t. In other words, the genuine audience for a pastor is the local congregation, the one who called him. Fame outside the congregation is an indication that something is wrong.

What if the pastor writes books? Depends on whether the books are good, pretty good, or great. Great books won’t be so until they stand the test of time. Will Tim Keller’s books still be in print in fifty years? That’s one test of greatness. Simply having someone with fame write a book is no indication of merit. The bookshelves are full of promotional materials designed to feed off and enhance celebrity.

3. Celebrities can’t pastor. This may go without saying since celebrity is something that increases fame but decreases access. A pastor has to be available to his people almost 24/7. But imagine a celebrity pastor like Tim Keller paying a family visit. If he does, great. Chances are, with celebrity come handlers, schedules, and limitations to access. A celebrity is remote, a pastor is accessible.

What about recognizing that celebrity is unbecoming sanctification (where are the obedience boys now that we need them?)?

This is where the New Calvinists may want to take a little instruction from the original Calvinist (and notice the connections between 2k and piety that is modest in its affects and aspirations). Here is John Calvin’s commentary on the sons of Zebedee’s exchange with Christ about greatness (celebrity?) in the savior’s kingdom:

Their ignorance was worthy of blame on two accounts; first, because their ambition led them to desire more than was proper; and, secondly, because, instead of the heavenly kingdom of Christ, they had formed the idea of a phantom in the air. As to the first of those reasons, whoever is not satisfied with the free adoption of God, and desires to raise himself, such a person wanders beyond his limits, and, by unseasonably pressing himself forward beyond what was proper for him to do, is ungrateful to God. Now to estimate the spiritual kingdom of Christ according to the feeling of our flesh is highly perverse. And, indeed, the greater the delight which the mind of man takes in idle speculations, the more carefully ought we to guard against them; as we see that the books of the sophists are stuffed with useless notions of this sort.

Can you drink the cup which I shall drink? To correct their ambition, and to withdraw them from this wicked desire, he holds out to them the cross, and all the annoyances which the children of God must endure. As if he had said, “Does your present warfare allow you so much leisure, that you are now making arrangements for a triumphal procession?” For if they had been earnestly employed in the duties of their calling, they would never have given way to this wicked imagination. In these words, therefore, those who are desirous to obtain the prize before the proper time are enjoined by Christ to employ themselves in attending to the duties of piety. And certainly this is an excellent bridle for restraining ambition; for, so long as we are pilgrims in this world, our condition is such as ought to banish vain luxuries. We are surrounded by a thousand dangers. Sometimes the enemy assails us by ambush, and that in a variety of ways; and sometimes he attacks us by open violence. Is he not worse than stupid who, amidst so many deaths, entertains himself at his ease by drawing pictures of a triumph?

Our Lord enjoins his followers, indeed, to feel assured of victory, and to sing a triumphal song in the midst of death; for otherwise they would not have courage to fight valiantly. But it is one thing to advance manfully to the battle, in reliance on the reward which God has promised to them, and to labor with their whole might for this object; and it is another thing to forget the contest, to turn aside from the enemy, to lose sight of dangers, and to rush forward to triumph, for which they ought to wait till the proper time.

The advance of the kingdom of grace does not come from great awakenings or grand gestures or bestsellers or big conferences. It comes through Gideon’s small band, an obscure Palestinian kingdom, a suffering savior, and apostles who died as martyrs. It is time more than ever for New Calvinists to get over George Whitefield.

Winning

Unless the local priest can be just like Jesus Francis, why bother? Why not go to church with the flabby evangelicals?

After a television interview, I was talking with a young producer who told me of her experience. She had been raised Catholic, but stopped going to church in college. Now she is engaged and was encouraged by her fiancé and Francis to give the church another try. After going to church a few times, she felt called to go to the sacrament of reconciliation. It was a disaster. The priest yelled at her and told her that everything bad that had happened to her was because she had not gone to confession in 10 years.

There will be no “Francis effect” if when people return to the church they do not meet someone like Francis at their parish. Going to confession today is like playing Russian roulette. You don’t know whether you will meet the compassionate Jesus or some angry, judgmental crank who thinks it is his job to tell people how bad they are. This is a form of abuse about which the church has done nothing.

Nor should we limit our focus to the clergy. Parish staff can be tempted to clericalism, and parish communities can ignore new parishioners who can feel lost in a crowd of people.

Try this experiment. Go to a Catholic church you have never attended and see how long it takes before someone initiates a conversation with you. Then go to an Evangelical church and try the same experiment. The Evangelicals will win every time.

Papal audacity only goes so far (sort of like wishing after hearing White Horse Inn that Mike Horton and Kim Riddlebarger could be your pastors).

Speaking of Celebrity Pastors

I don’t know how many times I’ve read Roman Catholic authors complain about Pope Francis’ treatment in the press. Here‘s one of the latest:

Following Jesus without deviating will get you smeared every time.

I think it’s a rule of some sort, written by Satan a couple of thousand years ago.

It even happened to Jesus Himself when He walked this earth.

So … if somebody calls you names for following Him, say thank you. It’s always nice when someone notices your fidelity to Christ and pays it the ultimate compliment.

Pope Francis, who has been following right down the line on this Jesus thing, has drawn the usual verbal lightning down his own head by doing it. Just this morning, I read an article calling him, once again, a Communist for speaking out on behalf of the poor.

I believe this particular article accused him of “following Lenin” in response to the Holy Father’s linkage of economics and war. Because, you know, war has nothing to do with economics. By this logic President Dwight Eisenhower followed Lenin, too. . . .

At the other end of the wing nut comedian scale, we have a writer over at Salon who wastes a lot of band-width on her angst at learning that Pope Francis is Catholic. You know: pro life, pro traditional marriage and family; that kind of Catholic.

This author goes, alongside her right-wing-nut buddies, right past common sense and lands splat in a big barrel of mud. Instead of saying that the Vicar of Christ is in cahoots with Lenin, she informs us — with rageful venom that almost leaps through the screen and scorches the reader — that the pope is … ummmm … you know … a bigot, sexist, oppressor who supports pedophilia.

Nice shot, that last. And one that’s beginning to weary. I’ve been and will continue to be as outspoken as anybody about the failure of bishops to protect children from predatory priests. But there are pedophile protectors in just about every nook and cranny of this world of ours. We actually help victimize kids more by using this issue as a club to beat the Church with and ignoring everyone else.

In fact, I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that at least some of this outrage is just Catholic hating. The reason? I’ll give you two: Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. You need another reason? Go read Coreyography. Try the defense in trendy circles of egg harvesters who prey on young girls barely out of their teens. Or, consider the easy way the media pushed the baby-bodies-in-the-septic tank hoax. I could go on, but the examples rapidly get so ugly that I don’t want to talk about them.

If you want a pastor with universal jurisdiction to speak on all the problems in the world, do you really also think that he’ll get universal adoration? Not even “loyal” Roman Catholics give that kind of devotion to the pope. If Francis did not speak up so much or make himself so accessible to the press, he could avoid the cheap shots. But he would then be suspect for being too parochial or too spiritual.

Every celebrity is subject to scrutiny by the press. Look at Joe Paterno. You don’t like the limelight, get out off the stage.

Then again, in the world of Protestant celebrity pastors, the press doesn’t care and no one is asking hard questions. Rebecca Hamilton should be grateful that the pope is getting some scrutiny. Celebrity Protestant pastors hardly get any.

Christ and City, City and Celebrity

I followed Dr. Kloosterman’s advice (is this a two-way advice street?) and listened to Tim Keller’s sermon on politics. It strikes me that Keller’s rendering of Render unto Caesar is a way to avoid partisan politics while also keeping the flame of political engagement bright and inflaming. TKNY will not be captive to either liberals or conservatives but he won’t abandon N.T. Wright or Abraham Kuyper.

What I found difficult to fathom was the harmony between Keller’s understanding of the gospel and how it upsets worldly ambitions with his own standing not just in Presbyterian circles but in American Christianity more generally. After all, if he had been a pastor in Kalamazoo (think Kevin DeYoung in Lansing or any pastor in Birmingham, Alabama), he might have achieved a spot in the Gospel Coalition’s roster of speakers and bloggers. But without his apparent success in the most powerful and wealthiest city in the world (or at least the West), would people listen as attentively when TKNY speaks? Yes, celebrity is in view, but celebrity includes all sorts of American associations with numbers, size, success, wealth, and influence.

Think, for instance, of what Keller says about the meaning of the gospel:

Christ wins our salvation through losing, achieves power through weakness and service, and comes to wealth via giving all away. Those who receive his salvation are not the strong and accomplished but those who admit that they are weak and lost. This pattern creates an ‘alternate kingdom’ or ‘city’ (Matt.5:14-16). in which there is a complete reversal of the values of the world with regard to power, recognition, status, and wealth. When we understand that we are saved by sheer grace through Christ, we stop seeking salvation in these things. The reversal of the cross, therefore, liberates us from bondage to the power of material things and worldly status in our lives. The gospel, therefore, creates a people with a whole alternate way of being human. Racial and class superiority, accrual of money and power at the expense of others, yearning for popularity and recognition–all these things are marks of living in the world, and are the opposite of the mindset of the kingdom (Luke 6:20-26).

All of that is true. But it is not true of Keller’s or Redeemer’s reputation, status, or celebrity. In fact, my jaw dropped when I recently saw that Redeemer NYC’s expenses for 2012 were over $21 million. (In contrast, the entire budget for the OPC’s General Assembly this year — which includes foreign and home missions — is about $3.8 million.) New York is an expensive place to live and work. It, like the federal government, sure do take a bite. In Keller’s case it is a considerable part of his visibility and fame. At the same time, using NYC’s power and wealth to enhance ministerial reputation is not exactly the fruit of the gospel that Keller understands and preaches it.

A better city for cultivating a gospel sensibility, one that reverses our world’s expectations for success and wealth, is Istanbul, which Orham Pamuk describes in the following manner:

. . . in Istanbul the remains of a glorious past and civilization are everywhere visible. No matter how ill-kept they are, no matter how neglected or hemmed in they are by concrete monstrosities, the great mosques, and other monuments of the city, as well as the lesser detritus of empire in every side street and corner — the little arches, fountains and neighbourhood mosques — inflict heartache on all who live among them. . . . [F]or the city’s more sensitive and attuned residents, these ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to the same heights of wealth, power, and culture. It is no more possible to take pride in these neglected dwellings, in which dirt, dust and mud have blended into their surroundings, than it is to rejoice in the beautiful old wooden houses that as a child I watched burn down one by one. (Istanbul: Memories and the City, 91)

Is Carl Losing His Edge?

We had counted on Carl Trueman, the left-leaning emoticonoclastic Orthodox Presbyterian pastor, to continue to see through the hype and gauze of America’s celebrity culture and warn about its danger for the church (not to mention society). But a recent trip to the Together for the Gospel Conference has changed his tune (or at least prompted him not to sing so loud):

Yes, the men at the plenary sessions are ‘celebrities’ in our small world; but they were not on the platform simply because of that fact. There was no swagger in evidence; all, in their different ways, spoke powerfully about the gospel; nobody indulged in magnifying their own name; and my guess is that none of these men will do anything which embarrasses T4G in the next twelve months. Yes, T4G needs names to fill the venue; but just being a name with 500 000 twitter followers and a knowledge of Calvinist patois is not going to get you the chance to speak. The swaggerati were nowhere to be seen.

My general conclusion on this point is that celebrity is clearly here to stay; the key point is that those who have such celebrity cachet acknowledge it and leverage it for good. By ‘good’, I mean direct people back to their own churches and set examples themselves as those who are committed first and foremost to their own people, congregations and denominations. T4G was quite a contrast to the recent reports of an extra-ecclesiastical high-profile meeting of Christian evolutionists, where celebrity appears to be being leveraged to set the agenda and impact the doctrinal testimony of churches. Nothing I heard at T4G indicated that anyone here had that kind of ecclesiastically subversive ambition.

I am not persuaded. I do think Trueman is right to remind us that celebrities are human beings too. But I am not sure that recognizing the good intentions or basic humanity of people who use a platform capable of abuse prevents that platform from being as abusive as it really is.

The problem is that people whose appetites have been whetted by celebrity pastors will have great difficulty recognizing the worth of their pastor’s pale imitation of Lig, C.J., Al, or Mark. It would be like telling Carl, back in the 70s, to go to the local pub more and listen to Gary, Mike, and Joe croon and play instead of going to the Led Zeppelin concert and buying the band’s albums. How are the Swindon Boys ever going to compete with the Rolling Stones or the Who? The answer is, they can’t.

But the stakes of believers and their undershepherds is far weightier than any rivalry between celebrity musicians and local indie bands. Will Lig, C.J. or Mark come to the hospital to visit with Joe-wine-box who lives in Fremont, Nebraska? Will they come to Defiance, Ohio to counsel a husband and wife who need a referee for their Christian marriage?

Can conferences and speaking engagements be valuable? Sure they can. It is part and parcel of professional life. Attorneys go to conferences. So do nurses. But when so many downloads are available and so many broadcasts are a turn-of-the-dial away, using celebrity to nurture a taste for average pastors is little bit like going to Citizens Bank Park to groom fans for the Doylestown, Pennsylvania’s American Legion team.

Hello, Rob Bell

According to one news story I read, Rob Bell’s embrace of God’s love has landed the Grand Rapid’s religious entrepreneur in Desiring God Ministries hell. The ultimate kiss off in the evangelical world is for John Piper to tweet, “Farewell Rob Bell.”

But I am wondering why all the hoopla over Bell. If you do some searches over at the Gospel Coalition blogs, where the exposure of Bell’s errors have been fast and furious, the gospel co-allies didn’t seem to pay much attention to Bell prior to his recent book. I found one review of Bell’s videos, a link from 9-Marks that is now dead. But Bell was a basic no-show prior to March 2011.

The best explanation of why someone might care comes from Kevin DeYoung who has a personal account (and one that appeals to me now that I am a Michigander). He wrote:

This issue is especially pertinent to me because I grew up where Rob Bell lives (Grand Rapids) and live where Rob Bell grew up (Lansing). I know the church he grew up at (it’s a normal evangelical church with some fine people there). And I remember buying baseball cards at the mall where Mars Hill now meets. I have people at my church that used to go to his church, and people from my home church that now go to his. Small world. Over the years, I’ve known many people that have attended Mars Hill at one time or another. Rob Bell’s influence stretches across Michigan. It seems that most people I talk to have some family member or friend or second cousin that’s gone to Mars Hill or loves Rob Bell’s books. Although few, if any, in my congregation would say they are Rob Bell fans, many interact frequently with those who are. Clarity on the important issues he raises (and misunderstands) is absolutely necessary. Especially in the Mitten.

So if you’re from or live in Michigan, concerns about Bell may make sense (though how does anything hip come from Michigan?). But what kind of threat is Bell to the Gospel Coalition or my friends in the Southern Baptist Convention? I mean, American Protestantism does not lack for low hanging fruit in the orchard of bad theology and inappropriate ministry. Just turn on the Trinity Broadcasting Network and go to one of the pastor’s websites if you’re in the mood to expose pernicious teaching.

So again, why all the fuss over Bell? And why especially all the Gospel Coalition resolve to pounce on Bell? I may need to get out more and meet people who read Rob’s books and watch his movies (though I did sit through an uncomfortably fawning interview with Bell at the Calvin College Writer’s conference a few years ago). I understand he is a celebrity. And I understand he is supposed to be cool. But do the believers who go to Gospel Coalition churches really need counsel on the dangers of Rob Bell? If they are reading Piper or Keller or Carson, shouldn’t they be able to spot good theology from bad?

Or could it be the case that we are always hardest on those who are closest to us, such that to show that our position is correct we need to expose the errors of someone close to our position? But is Bell really close to the Gospel Coalition? I wouldn’t have thought so, except that the Gospel Coalition seems to be open to emerging churches (hello, Mark Driscoll). The other exception is that Bell has the kind of religious celebrity that cements the Gospel Coalition’s celebrities. But doesn’t all this exposure increase Bell’s celebrity?

As I say, hello, Rob Bell, I hadn’t thought about you much before the allies said farewell.