Why Do Celebrity Pastors Stumble Over “Thus Saith the Lord”?

I am not sure why Eugene Peterson’s flip-flop on gay marriage is such a big deal. But (all about mmmmmeeeeEEE) I’m not in the habit of taking my cues any more from popular Christian authors or personalities. That could be age, temperament (naysayer), or wisdom — and in the right combination separating those traits may be redundant. But I continue to be surprised by what catches on among evangelicals who fret (even if I don’t want to come across as being above it all).

While following some of the reactions, I came across responses from Tim Keller, John Stott, and Sam Allberry. Since Stott is deceased, I should have known that these would not be direct reactions to Peterson. What caught my eye was the link to a review by Keller — can you believe it? There on display is the same affliction that got Peterson into trouble in the first place — namely, failing to minister God’s word and telling us instead about thoughts and reflections based on a lot of stuff you’ve read.

What is especially noteworthy about Keller’s handling of such a controversial subject as homosexuality if he is going to maintain his New York City profile is his ability to quote authors (other than the prophets and apostles).

First some of the debate about homosexuality in church history and antiquity:

These arguments were first asserted in the 1980s by John Boswell and Robin Scroggs. Vines, Wilson and others are essentially repopularizing them. However, they do not seem to be aware that the great preponderance of the best historical scholarship since the 1980s — by the full spectrum of secular, liberal and conservative researchers — has rejected that assertion. Here are two examples.

Bernadette Brooten and William Loader have presented strong evidence that homosexual orientation was known in antiquity. Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, for example, tells a story about how Zeus split the original human beings in half, creating both heterosexual and homosexual humans, each of which were seeking to be reunited to their “lost halves” — heterosexuals seeking the opposite sex and homosexuals the same sex. Whether Aristophanes believed this myth literally is not the point. It was an explanation of a phenomenon the ancients could definitely see — that some people are inherently attracted to the same sex rather than the opposite sex.

For comparisons of homosexuality to slavery Keller can take you to more scholarly literature:

But historians such as Mark Noll (America’s God, 2005 and The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 2006) have shown the 19th century position some people took that the Bible condoned race-based chattel slavery was highly controversial and never a consensus. Most Protestants in Canada and Britain (and many in the northern U.S. states) condemned it as being wholly against the Scripture. Rodney Stark (For the Glory of God, 2003) points out that the Catholic church also came out early against the African slave trade. David L. Chappell in his history of the Civil Rights Movement (A Stone of Hope, 2003) went further. He proves that even before the Supreme Court decisions of the mid-50s, almost no one was promoting the slender and forced biblical justifications for racial superiority and segregation. Even otherwise racist theologians and ministers could not find a basis for white supremacy in the Bible.

He even uses awareness of 19th century debates about slavery to take a swipe at Southern Presbyterians:

During the Civil War, British Presbyterian biblical scholars told their southern American colleagues who supported slavery that they were reading the Scriptural texts through cultural blinders. They wanted to find evidence for their views in the Bible and voila — they found it. If no Christian reading the Bible — across diverse cultures and times — ever previously discovered support for same-sex relationships in the Bible until today, it is hard not to wonder if many now have new cultural spectacles on, having a strong predisposition to find in these texts evidence for the views they already hold.

What are those cultural spectacles? The reason that homosexual relationships make so much more sense to people today than in previous times is because they have absorbed late modern western culture’s narratives about the human life. Our society presses its members to believe “you have to be yourself,” that sexual desires are crucial to personal identity, that any curbing of strong sexual desires leads to psychological damage, and that individuals should be free to live as they alone see fit.

As if the Bible supported abolitionists or anti-slavery arguments were immune to “modern western culture’s narratives about the human life.” Sometimes Keller wades into scholarly material superficially so that it agrees with him, but I digress. (Funny how when I bring the Bible into the history seminar it doesn’t gain me any credibility.)

Then you have Keller appealing to more academics to critique these modern “narratives”:

These narratives have been well analyzed by scholars such as Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor. They are beliefs about the nature of reality that are not self-evident to most societies and they carry no more empirical proof than any other religious beliefs. They are also filled with inconsistencies and problems. Both Vines and Wilson largely assume these cultural narratives. It is these faith assumptions about identity and freedom that make the straightforward reading of the biblical texts seem so wrong to them. They are the underlying reason for their views, but they are never identified or discussed.

Maybe this is impressive to David Brooks and other columnists and reporters at the Times, but wasn’t Keller called to minister God’s word? Where is Moses, Jesus, or Paul? Nothing wrong inherently with being aware of some of the scholarly and public intellectual literature. But can’t you give us a “thus saith the Lord” pastor Tim?

When he finally gets around to the Bible, Keller accentuates the positive (the way Mr. Rogers did):

The saddest thing for me as a reader was how, in books on the Bible and sex, Vines and Wilson concentrated almost wholly on the biblical negatives, the prohibitions against homosexual practice, instead of giving sustained attention to the high, (yes) glorious Scriptural vision of sexuality. Both authors rightly say that the Bible calls for mutual loving relationships in marriage, but it points to far more than that.

In Genesis 1 you see pairs of different but complementary things made to work together: heaven and earth, sea and land, even God and humanity. It is part of the brilliance of God’s creation that diverse, unlike things are made to unite and create dynamic wholes which generate more and more life and beauty through their relationships. As N.T. Wright points out, the creation and uniting of male and female at the end of Genesis 2 is the climax of all this.

That means that male and female have unique, non-interchangeable glories — they each see and do things that the other cannot. Sex was created by God to be a way to mingle these strengths and glories within a life-long covenant of marriage. Marriage is the most intense (though not the only) place where this reunion of male and female takes place in human life. Male and female reshape, learn from, and work together.

Gee golly williker. Marriage is just one stroll down the trail of delight (or maybe through Homer Simpson’s Land of Chocolate). Where is the grit of NYC? Where is the complicated character of life in the modern world where we have to make tough choices, or recognize the good and less attractive in all people we meet, and the institutions in which moderns operate? Where is the edge that attracts at least some people like Brother Mouzone or Woody Allen to the Big Apple? The view from Keller’s study is awfully pleasant (and crowded with books other than the Bible).

Meanwhile, Russell Moore made a decent point about Peterson when he compared the evangelical celebrity to Wendell Berry’s own flip-flop on gay marriage:

And now Peterson says he’s willing to walk away from what the Scriptures and 2,000 years of unbroken Christian teaching affirm on the conjugal nature of marriage as the one-flesh union of a man and a woman reflecting the mystery of Christ and the church. I can’t un-highlight or un-flag my Peterson books. I can’t erase from my mind all the things he has taught me. Should I stop reading him, since he has shown a completely contrary view on an important issue of biblical interpretation—and, beyond that, of the very definition of what it means to repent of sin?

This is the same sort of conversation had a few years ago among those of us who’ve been taught much by novelist and poet Wendell Berry when he, too, embraced the zeitgeist on marriage and sexuality. Some said we should throw out our Berry books and never read him again. Others, I’m sure, seeing how much they’d benefited from Berry on place and memory, probably decided to follow him right into this viewpoint. Maybe the same will happen with Peterson now.

True enough, but when Moore says we should not throw Peterson’s books away (who am I to adopt such a move since H. L. Mencken sets on my shelf of worthies right next to Machen — alphabetically anyway), I wonder why Mr. Southern Baptist doesn’t distinguish Peterson as a would-be pastor and theologian from Berry who simply is a writer and farmer. Berry makes no pretension to issue “thus saith the Lord’s” based on his reading of Scripture. Peterson, however, operates in the world of Scripture and theology (and all you usually get — my impression — is “the Lord would be really happy if you might ever consider this and you may also flourish forever and ever”).

Speaking of New York City Circa When Harry Met Sally

Sam Desocio thinks the shelf life of Tim Keller and urban ministry may have expired. For one thing, the reasons for doing urban ministry that motivated Keller in the 1990s are now mainstream, tired and maybe even trite:

As a church planter I often have the opportunity to spend time with other ministry leaders and church planters. Among most of them I don’t see the assumed disgust for the city which Dr. Keller uses as a sparring partner. While many of them are in rural or suburban locations, almost all see urban ministry as vital. In fact, When I talk to current or hopeful church planters, urban ministry is undeniably given preeminence. I was once meeting with a church planter making plans for a move to a new city. He shared with me that he had a small scattering of people interested in working alongside him. Some of these folks were in the suburbs on one side of town, while others, were in the suburbs on the other side of the town. So, I asked him what area he was considering, (someplace close to one of those two areas I assumed). He answered that he was “called to the city”, and so the folks in both areas would have to be willing to move or come closer to him. I really liked this guy, but he had recently moved to his city, and –from what I could tell–expected longstanding residents to move away from existing relationships to pursue his vision of relevancy (maybe it was Christianity’s relevancy, but maybe it was his own).

Of course this is a subjective estimate of the prioritization of urban planting. So lets look at the stats coming from within the PCA. Six of the ten churches organized in the PCA in 2012(the most recent stats) were in cities with populations over 100,000. Of the over 40 church planters placed on the field by the PCA in that same year: 21 were in cities of over 100,000. Nine were in cities between 100,000 and 50,000. Only 12 were in cities below 50,000. A glance at the Acts 29 Network (also admittedly influenced by Dr. Keller) shows that only one of the last ten churches in that network where planted in cities with populations less than 100,000.

For another, Keller’s call to urban ministry may distort Scripture:

Dr. Keller’s argument for cities pushes too much of the Bible through an artificial urban rubric. This rubric down plays Paul’s ministry in the country side of Lycaonia. It tables Jesus’s pursuit of the one at the expense of the 99. I don’t bring this up to argue that Jesus didn’t care about Jerusalem, of course he wept over that city. Its clear that Paul care about major cities in the Roman empire, but it is impossible to boil down the locations of Paul’s ministry to one easy framework. We could ask: if Paul’s strategy was to go “into the largest cities of the region”, then why did he travel to Lystra several times, while there is no mention of any time spent in Smyrna (Population 90,000) or the even larger Sardis (Population 100,000).

Dr. Keller’s prioritization of important places, potential swells beyond population and ends up reinforcing a view of the world which esteems significance as the highest good.

Instead of challenging the cultures views of importance, Dr. Keller seems to be reinforcing them.

Good thing Sam doesn’t blog at Gospel Coalition.

Didn't God Want the Israelites to be Tribal?

It’s a bit stale now, but Jonathan Merritt’s post about New Calvinism made the rounds and seemed to reassure those outside the New Calvinist world that they were fine if they weren’t following John Piper’s tweets. I for one needed no persuasion about the New Calvinists’ ordinariness, but I was curious to see Merritt fault the young restless sovereigntists for being tribal. He also believes they are isolationists. Merritt thinks of tribalism as being unwilling to criticize members of the group publicly (well, there is Matthew 18, hello). Isolationism afflicts the New Calvinists when they fail to interact with other ideas:

One of the markers of the neo-Calvinist movement is isolationism. My Reformed friends consume Calvinist blogs and Calvinist books, attend Calvinist conferences, and join Calvinist churches with Calvinist preachers. They rarely learn from or engage with those outside their tradition. (My feeling is that this trend is less prevalent among leaders than the average followers.)

The most sustainable religious movements, however, are those which are willing to ask hard, full-blooded questions while interacting with more than caricatures of other traditions. When neo-Calvinists insulate and isolate, they hyper-focus on those doctrines their tradition emphasizes and relegate other aspects to the status of afterthought. The Christian faith is meant to be lived and not merely intellectually appropriated. This requires mingling with others who follow Jesus, are rooted in Scripture, and are working toward a restored creation.

Gregory Thornbury, a Calvinist and president of The King’s College in New York City, told me, “I think the ‘young, restless, and reformed” are different than the Dutch stream in that they tend to stay with authors and leaders that they know. It does run the risk of being provincial, but I don’t think it is intentional. There are universes where people stay, and they read the things they know.”

In other words, Merritt does not appear to approve of separatism (thus identifying himself squarely with the neo-evangelicals who did not like the limits that fundamentalists set for Christian fellowship).

The idea that Christians need to interact with alien ideas and people is also what drew Merritt from Atlanta to New York City:

New York is also a place where cultures and ethnicities and ideas collide. One cannot afford to self-segregate and self-insulate in comfortable cultural or religious echo-chambers like other places.

As White once remarked,

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.”

There are also spiritual impulses behind my decision. Christians have formed a felt presence in New York City for as long as its existence, but in recent years, the city’s evangelical community has quietly flourished. In some ways, New York City represents the fringes of the Kingdom. The faithful there are asking questions that others are not yet asking and attempting to discern what following Jesus might look like in a pluralistic, postmodern context.

This excites me because my work as a writer—particularly my column at Religion News Service—is devoted to exploring those spaces where the Christian faith intersects culture. In New York City, religion collides with music, art, politics, public opinion, and current events with regularity. Rooting myself in this richly diverse context will enable me to better probe the questions of faith others may be afraid to ask.

We may conclude, apparently, that Merritt favors cosmopolitanism to sectarianism.

But what sense does this make of biblical calls for God’s people to isolate themselves. The Israelites weren’t exactly interested — or weren’t supposed to be — in a Jerusalem that featured the best pork barbecue in the Middle East or that encouraged Plato to relocate his academy there. The New Testament threw out the older ethnic hostilities between Jew and Greek, but Paul’s instruction that believers should be separate and distinct from non-believers (2 Cor 6:17) is not necessarily a call to go cosmopolitan. Some believers like Merritt may be strong enough for the collisions with a spectrum of ideas and artistic expressions. But is he a pastor looking out for the good of his flock?

After all, even politicians know that tribalism is what makes groups tick. As Nick Clegg, the British deputy Prime Minister, recently admitted, “at the end of the day, you’ve also got to look after your own side, your own tribe, your own values.” Merritt should not fault New Calvinists for doing something so basically human, not to mention something so obviously important to the integrity of the church, unless he expects Christians to live like writers who reside in New York City.