Spring Break with Tim

I did not plan it this way, but Tim Keller winds up being the subject this week. Reasons for further reflection on the oh so successful Manhattan pastor arise from the missus and my visit to Chicago, which has become a tradition. Truth be told, we are urbanists. We met in Philadelphia, knew something was going to knit us together after concluding that Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan were about two of the best American movies ever made, and then found that life in the city was simply more intriguing (for us) than the suburbs in which we had both been reared (Levittown, PA and Levittown, NY — the odds?). Even living in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia’s suburb in the city, for almost 15 years, we drew energy and — dare I say — inspiration from residing in the city. Going to Chicago is a way to recharge the urban batteries (though one-day trips to Ann Arbor have to tide us over).

I hope I’m proving my urban bona fides, and in so doing suggesting that Keller’s awareness of the city’s appeal is plausible (though I still don’t see much appreciation for Woody Allen in TKNY).

My criticisms of Keller, then, are two-fold. I object to his failure to carry out his duties as a Presbyterian church officer. He may be a good evangelical, even an urban one, but I don’t sense a minister who willingly conforms and belongs to the limits that come with belonging to a Reformed communion. Keller is not alone in that. Lot’s of Presbyterian pastors don’t conform to communion expectations. But as celebrity-Presbyterian-pastor-in-chief, Keller makes the way straight for coloring outside the lines.

The other objection is the way Keller benefits from being pro-urban New York City. As I indicated earlier this week, if you put Keller in Chicago or Seattle would his following be as large as it is? I doubt it. Along with this goes a sense that Keller doesn’t tell the whole truth about the city. Even as he seems to think he knows how to educate future urban pastors about how to do city ministry, I don’t think he acknowledges one simple reality — the city is gosh darn expensive. And that means you have trouble keeping families in cities once couples start rearing children. In Philadelphia, you may be able to commute relatively easily from the suburbs to Tenth Presbyterian Church. But once you leave New York’s five boroughs, you are a long way from Manhattan.

Now notice this: families are important to covenant religion.

Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the increase of mankind with legitimate issue, and of the church with an holy seed; and for preventing of uncleanness. (Confession of Faith, 24.2)

Families are the only good way of socializing the young. Yes, they have lots of problems. But would you rather the state through its foster system rear children or take your chances with a man and woman who don’t have the true, good, and beautiful figured out? Or how about the church? Is the church better equipped to rear children than parents? I don’t think so.

Why is it then that Keller has so little to say about families? The index to Center Church gives the family only three entries. Google searches reveal only a few sources. Here’s one right from Keller:

Why bring children into such a bleak world? Religious persons, however, have a profound assurance that in the future is final justice, or paradise, or union with God in some form. They have an over-arching hope that makes them more optimistic about bearing and raising children.

At this point you might think I would simply say “Yay for religion, it is the friend of the family!” It is not that simple. While secularism in the West tends to make an idol out of the individual and his or her needs, traditional religion has often made an idol out of the family. According to theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University, Christianity was the very first religion or world-view that held up single adulthood as a viable way of life. Jesus himself and St. Paul were single. “One…clear difference between Christianity and Judaism [and all other traditional religions] is the former’s entertainment of the idea of singleness as the paradigm way of life for its followers.” (Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character, p.174.) Nearly all religions and cultures made an absolute value of the family and of the bearing of children. There was no honor without family honor, and there was no real lasting significance or “legacy” without leaving heirs. By contrast, the early church not only did not pressure women to marry but it institutionally supported poor widows so they were not forced to remarry as they were out in the culture at large.

Notice the standard third-way positioning. I’m not for singles, nor for families, but here is the via media. Great. But tell me how families are going to afford to live in Manhattan. And also why not tell parents how important they are for rearing children, catechizing, setting examples in the home? Any reflection also on if you can afford to live in Manhattan and both parents need to work, what do you do with a hiring a Christian nanny? Family in this Keller post is an abstraction (that does not dent his larger abstraction of the city).

I also found this, the urban pastor who came around to Keller’s idea that it takes a city to raise rear a child:

[Keller] acknowledges that three factors make it a hard place to raise kids. First, because of the prohibitive cost of everything you’ve got less disposable income to invest in your family. Secondly, he talks about the ‘physical logistics on the front nine’ make it harder to get round the city with small kids. In others words transporting small kids in the city can be a real pain. But after that, the ‘back nine’ is a real joy. Thirdly, the educational terrain is complex and hard to navigate since there are so many options and so little cash!

That is the problem. The solution? Kids turn out hip, believers, and real (really!?!).

That said he then lists eight counterbalancing factors that sway the pendulum in favour of staying put and not giving flight.

1. The kids will grow up thinking that they live in the real world rather than growing up in the suburbs and straining at the leash to get to the real world. Of course everywhere is the real world but they don’t think like that. The city is where it’s at and they know that. That’s why they want to escape surburbia or the regions as soon as they can. But if they grow up in the city they know that they live in the ‘real’ world.

2. The kids grow up knowing that you have a real faith. They want to believe that their parents’ faith is disconnected to reality. It gives them permission to be disparaging about Christianity. But they can’t do that if they know that you’ve had to work out your Christian discipleship in the real world. It undermines their desire for unbelief.

3. The kids will grow up and become self reliant, independent and confident because nothing freaks them out. As a country boy who went to sixth form with mates from the city who then moved to the ‘big smoke’ in his mid twenties, I’ve got to say he’s absolutely right on that one.

4. The kids grow up being adept at handling diversity. Most surbuban white kids don’t grow up with Muslim neighbours and Afro-Caribbean mates. But you do in the city. Their breadth of cultural engagement will far outweigh the kids who grow up out of town.

5. The kids grow up being pushed into family. The city is a relationally intense environment. It ‘forces’ families to spend lots of time together. The commute is less, the house is smaller, there aren’t any fields to escape to. It all adds up to lots of ‘face time’. If you’re into relating with your kids, that’s a good thing.

6. The kids grow up with Christian role models. In the suburbs kids grow up with a peer group. But do you really want them learning about the faith from their teenage mates? On reflection, not really. In the city they get to their teenage years and they see the Christian life being modelled by credible ‘trendy twenties’ whom they respect. In the suburbs they get to see the Christian life being lived out by guys with kids. But who grows up wanting to be like their Dad! In the city they don’t have to.

7. The kids grow up facing the issues. They’ll be exposed to a whole range of ethical issues a long time before the suburban or rural kids. Because London is like a massive University Campus we get to go to College with them before they’re even old enough to apply! They’ll come across homosexuality, drugs, alcohol, crime, sex and so on and we’ll be with them when they do. Unlike the parents in the suburbs who live out there to escape from it we have to confront it and get to help them deal with it.

8. The kids grow up without the pressure to conform. The city is so accommodating of diversity that it’s hard to think of a fad, fashion or obsession that it wouldn’t tolerate. And so the kids get to grow up being themselves, without having to become a carbon copy of others.

This is frankly a bizarre recommendation of the city. Great! Let’s rear kids so they don’t want to be like their dads #6.

Great! Billy and Susie grow up surrounded by sex, drugs, and crime #7. Retreating to the suburbs is so squaresville.

Sheesh.

What about kids who grow up without a smartphone because parents can’t afford one because rents are so high? Does Redeemer have a diaconate that helps families with the costs of living in the most expensive place in the United States?

And then I also saw this from Christopher Lasch:

If conservatism is understood to imply a respect for limits, it is clearly incompatible with modern capitalism or with the liberal ideology of unlimited economic growth. Historically, economic liberalism rested on the belief that man’s insatiable appetites, formerly condemned as a source of social instability and personal unhappiness, could drive the economic machine—just as man’s insatiable curiosity drove the scientific project—and thus ensure a never-ending expansion of productive forces. For the eighteenth-century founders of political economy, the self-generating character of rising expectations, newly acquired needs and tastes, and new standards of personal comfort gave rise to a form of society capable of indefinite expansion. Their break with older ways of thinking lay in the assertion that human needs should he regarded not as natural but as historical, hence insatiable. As the supply of material comforts increased, standards of comfort increased as well, and the category of necessities came to include goods formerly regarded as luxuries. Envy, pride, and ambition made human beings want more than they needed, but these “private vices” became “public virtues” by stimulating industry and invention. Thrift and self-denial, on the other hand, meant economic stagnation. “We shall find innocence and honesty no more general,” wrote Bernard Mandeville, “than among the most illiterate, the poor silly country people.” The “pleasures of luxury and the profit of commerce,” according to David Hume, “roused men from their indolence” and led to “further improvements in every branch of domestic as well as foreign trade.” Both Hume and Adam Smith argued that a growing desire for material comforts, wrongly taken by republican critics of commerce as a sign of decadence and impending social collapse, generated new employments, new wealth, and a constantly rising level of productivity.

Does living in New York City encourage its people to think about living within limits, to regard progress as folly, to be content with less? Is Keller for the city and all its unlimited possibilities? Or does he encourage self-restraint and find ways for his hearers to resist all of the conveniences and temptations of modern urban life? Isn’t he really in favor of a suburban existence #5 — responsible parents, respectful kids, not going into debt, refusing hedonism (except when recommended by co-ally John Piper) — in an environment that as Lasch indicates pushes residents to want to see material comforts increased. Of course, all of America encourages an identification with progress (unless you live in Hillsdale, Michigan). But in NYC this outlook is on steroids (see Lena Dunham).

What if the dangers of urban life are real?

Thanks to President Lyndon Johnson’s so-called “Great Society,” a buffet of new federal programs were established that have been pouring federal dollars into Philadelphia since the mid-1960s. How have those countless billions of tax dollars been spent? In the inner city where the federal dollars were spent by our Democratic politicians, public education is far worse than it was in the mid-’60s; violent crime is far worse; more children are living in poverty; more single-mother families, more homelessness, more hard drug use, more fear, etc. There is not one single criterion under the quality-of-life rubric that has improved in Philadelphia’s inner city since all those billions were brought into the city along with politicians’ photo-ops since the mid-’60s.

But Keller remains optimistic:

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.

Keller believes serious Christians still belong in cities in general and New York in particular. But it’s a project that will take many more Tim Kellers and much more time. The results, says Keller, are “hard to see except in hindsight, with the perspective of several decades.”

Speaking of retreating into homogeneity, does Keller look at the church as a place of disagreement and diversity? Or has he led modern church planting into a homogeneous place where disagreement goes unanswered and unacknowledged? Can we have a discussion about Presbyterianism in the city? Can we talk about dying to sin and living to Christ in the city? Can we talk about family visitation and catechesis in the city? Or how about the regulative principle in the city?

I wish Tim Keller would think harder about cities and think about them in the light of critics of modernity like Lasch or Wendell Berry. That doesn’t fit with his ministry paradigm. Not reading those critics or interacting with them does not fit the pastor-who-answers-skeptics paradigm.

Postscript: I’d be glad to offer my services as an urban church consultant. I’m a trained social scientist, I like cities, and I’m even a church officer.

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More than about Mmmmmm(eeeeeEEEE)e

It’s about the cats.

Spring break is in session. Chicago is not doing a very good impersonation of Spring. But after having coffee with one of our favorite writers we took even more public transit out to Wilmette to see this:

Hard to beat a combination of a glorious city, the greatest of God’s furry creatures, and the Turks who care for Istanbul’s felines.

Not Morality but Decency

What if Christians talked more about decency than morality, about what is normal than about what is righteous or God glorifying? Sure, we have churches to talk about the demands of God’s law and how believers glorify God. But, as 2kers are wont to point out, persuading non-Christians to embrace Christian morality sans regeneration or the means of grace seems to be bass ackward.

Does that leave us without a case for those sexual and family aspects of public policy or social life that so animate religious conservatives? It certainly leaves us without a moral high ground. But it’s not as if that high ground doesn’t look to non-Christians like a moral high horse.

So why not take a page from Joseph Epstein? His first collection of short stories about Jewish life in Chicago included one that revolved around a non-observant Jewish businessman meeting his daughter, who had just had an abortion, for dinner to express his disapproval. Part of dinner conversation went like this:

“Daddy, did you really expect me not to sleep with anyone while I was in college?”

“No,” he said, “I guess I didn’t really expect that, but I wouldn’t have minded if you hadn’t. I would have minded a hell of a lot less than I do about what has happened.”

The waitress set down their food. “Enjoy,” she said.

“You still haven’t told me why this bugs you so much, Daddy. Do you think your daughter is now, somehow, damaged goods?”

“I don’t know as I would put it that way, baby, but maybe I do. But not in the way you might think.”

“How then?”

“I think it’s a goddamned damaging thing for a girl to have had an abortion at nineteen,” he said, more emphatically than he had intended. He looked across the aisle at the two old broads and the expressionless face of the senile old gent, and hoped they hadn’t heard him.

“Look, Deb,” he said, talking more softly now, “if you’ve had an abortion at nineteen, what’ve you got planned for twenty-four, or thirty-one, or forty-two?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that, for the first time, as a result of what’s happened, I can imagine a terrible life for you. A life of confusion and sadness and heartbreak. And it terrifies me.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Maybe an abortion is a solution to the problem of a pregnancy, but I suspect that it brings its own problems. It isn’t as tidy as it sounds; I suspect that it takes its toll. Once you undergo something like this, your opinion of yourself changes, maybe in small little ways, but it changes. Maybe, because of something like this, you no longer think so well of yourself. Maybe it becomes easier to do more foolish things.”

“I don’t think that’s true, Daddy.”

“I hope it isn’t, sweetheart, I really do hope it isn’t.”

“But what could I have done?”

“You probably did all that you could do, but I think you may be making a big mistake if you think you got away with it. An abortion, anyhow one of this kind, is a dreary and common and pretty crummy thing.”

“What do you want, Daddy?” She had only been picking at her food, but now she gave up even doing that. Tears were in her eyes. Harry remembered her in braces.

“What I want you can’t give me, Deborah. What I want isn’t even reasonable. I want you back the way you were before this happened.”

“What I am supposed to do?” she asked.

“I don’t know what you’re supposed to do. The world is slipping away, my sweet girl, and there’s evidently not much any of us can do about it. But I don’t have to like it. And I especially don’t have to like my kid becoming a part of it.”

If we can join with all (how many?) those people who think abortion who think not that it is a violation of the sixth commandment but “crummy,” would social standards be higher? Maybe.

Cop In the Hood

Glenn Loury had Peter Moskos on this week to talk about police shootings. Moskos is an unlikely person in the United States — a Harvard grad who worked on the Baltimore police force and now teaches sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

What is particularly valuable about Moskos’ perspective is that he knows the beats that cops work. That doesn’t excuse bad policing. It does mean he knows more about the context of police work than the ACLU or Black Lives Matter. Consider, for instance, his defense of enforcing the law against Chicago youth in a rough part of town:

But the ACLU is wrong. Dead wrong. Look, if you want to argue that these young men shouldn’t be stopped at all, fine. You agree with the ACLU (and don’t live on that block or hear the gunshots). And the ACLU is right in criticizing police who stop people for the sake of making a stop.

As a cop you don’t (or shouldn’t) harass everybody walking down the block. You harass these guys on this block. And by “harass” I mean, within the law and constitution, make it little less fun for them to hang out in public and sell drugs. Yes, you as a cop give these guys a hard time. Is that fair? Yes. Because there have been six shootings on this block this year. Is it racist? No. Because these guys are the problem.

If you’re a cop, you need to ask a bunch of questions 1) how do you do knowing these guy are slinging and shooting? 2) Should you stop these guys? 3) Are they committing a crime? 4) Are they a Broken Window? 5) What legal basis do you have to stop and frisk those guys?

[The answers are 1) get out of your damn car and talk to them, or at watch them disperse at your presence, 2) yes, 3) no, and 4) yes. 5) very little at first, but you can build it, ask for a consent search, or conduct a Terry Frisk.]

You pull up to them. See what they do. You can crack down on this group by enforcing Broken Windows quality-of-life crimes. You get to know who they are. You can use your discretion and ticket them for something — drinking, smoking joints, jaywalking, littering, truancy, spitting — whatever it takes. You can arrest them when they can’t provide ID (they can’t, trust me). You can harass these criminals legally and within the bounds of the constitution. This is what police are supposed to do. It’s how homicides are prevented. It’s how some kids stay out of gangs. But if cops do their job, then we, society, need to support police officers against inevitable accusations of harassment, racism, and even discourteous behavior in their confrontations with these criminals.

As a cop you will not win the war drugs, but as long as drugs are illegal you need to fight the fight against pubic drug dealing. But we’re telling cops not to do this. In Chicago cops are listening. And so are the criminals.

So maybe America isn’t so great (for reasons other than Michelle Higgins gives).