Had Hoped to See this in Dallas while at General Assembly

But Rain Bomb 2019 meant we could only circle First Park on its side streets. Here’s why it is intriguing:

The one constant about World’s Fairs and Expositions—from Chicago’s White City to the several Expositions Universelles in Paris to the New York World’s Fair of 1939—is that you cannot in any meaningful sense go to see them. It’s not merely that the midways are empty, Buffalo Bill dead, the dancing girls clothed, and “Forbidden Tibet” forbidden. The physical imprint of almost every single exposition of the golden age from the 1870s to the 1930s has been almost completely effaced, with remnants typically constituting one or two relics and some landscaping.

There are very few exceptions. But your best bet for immersion today is in Dallas’s Fair Park, a stunning time capsule from 1936 with 26 buildings remaining from the Texas Centennial Exhibition. Fair Park has been and remains the host of the Texas State Fair since 1886, so a spectacle persists every fall for three weeks. Many decades later, the difficult problem is what to do with these stellar grounds the other 11 months of the year. And the question is how Dallas can enliven this huge urban monument today—even as there is no question that the 1936 legacy of Texas should be both celebrated and preserved.

Though Fair Park’s landmark exhibition was not technically a “World” exposition, it drew on a very considerable range of national and international talent, and lived up to Texas’s reputation for gigantism in all of the best ways. As Jim Parsons and David Bush write in their book, Fair Park Deco: “In 1936, most of the United States knew little about Texas. If Americans thought of the state at all, they probably imagined it as a vast frontier filled with cowboys and oil wells. Centennial publicists, armed with a $500,000 allocation from Austin, were perfectly happy to use those misconceptions to their advantage, spinning them into decidedly sentimental symbols of the Lone Star State.”

But what if fairs were meant to exist only during the event itself (sort of like General Assembly)?

A majority of the great fairs of yesteryear were intrinsically evanescent, built to be destroyed, with many of the most seemingly opulent sharing a material foundation of staff, a compound containing some cement, but much larger amounts of plaster of Paris, often strengthened by fibers or literal sackcloth. It wouldn’t last, and was torn down before it would decay in Paris in 1878 and 1889, Chicago in 1893, Buffalo in 1901, St. Louis in 1904, and elsewhere. This was relative material luxury; later fairs such as Chicago’s Century of Progress were built largely out of plywood—possibly not much progress!

Fair Park was an exception, building structures out of more durable materials. Some were subsequently demolished and many decayed greatly. Much of the art adorning these buildings was painted over. Despite a number of much larger threats over time, the considerable majority survived and restoration efforts beginning in the early 1980s have restored many of their original 1936 features.

Part of the trouble is that, for all of the varied urban sobriquets applied to large expositions and fairs, from Chicago’s White City to Buffalo’s Rainbow City (a common nickname for The Pan-American Exposition of 1901) and onwards, they’ve more often been a vision of fantasy urbanism than the real thing, even beyond their temporary construction. Sometimes their sites are highly central, such as Paris’s Champ de Mars, but more often they are located in fairgrounds or used as schemes to improve or create parkland on the urban periphery. Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens is not exactly well connected to its surroundings. Balboa Park in San Diego, host of the California-Pacific International Exhibition (and the most substantial surviving complex in the U.S. beyond Fair Park), consisted of a simulacrum of a dense urban core in the middle of a park.

Even better connected events, such as the World’s Columbian Exhibition, share a highly anti-urban feature: ticket gates. Walkable and visually appealing urban landscapes behind gates, poorly connected to any street grid, is the story of, well, Disneyland: it’s no surprise that Walt’s father, Elias Disney, worked as a carpenter on the World’s Columbian Exposition. Walt visited others and constructed attractions for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Is this part of a by-gone era of urban life and recreation, or will thee Holy Urbanists have a plan to be in the city, for the city?

Other examples of this type of built environment are relatively rare. Balboa Park in San Diego has a more robust set of tenant institutions, including the city’s main art museum, natural history museum, and science center (with a total of 16 museums) but struggles with some similar issues. Exposition Park in Los Angeles, which is a somewhat smaller version of the same with stronger resident institutions, houses Los Angeles’s major league soccer team, their principal Natural History Museum and Science Center, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and will soon be host to George Lucas’s Museum of Narrative Art.

More recent exposition grounds suffer from fewer preservation burdens but similar difficulties just staying tenanted and busy. Hemisfair Park in San Antonio has a number of unused pavilions and has built a hotel and is adding apartments and commercial space. At the site of the 1962 World’s Fair of Space Needle fame, the Seattle Center grounds are relatively vibrant, but some spaces sit empty and unused.

Many of these spaces are of a scale that echoes Jane Jacobs’s criticism of another megaproject, Lincoln Center, as an unnatural isolation of culture from ordinary activity of the city—though the scale of these fairgrounds can make Lincoln Center look positively modest. In any case, when cultural facilities are spread across the urban fabric, they are obviously more easily integrated with their surroundings or repurposed. There is no arguing with a fundamentally unique treasure such as Fair Park, however, and we can only hope that it devises a formula for success.

Fair Park draws widespread plaudits as an institution not merely academically but personally important to the citizens of North Texas. As Willis Winters observes, the place is “so central to our city. My first college football game, my first professional football game, my first opera, my first symphony visit, my first fair—all were at Fair Park. It’s been so important to my life and so important to many residents of this city.”

(By the way, The American Conservative excels in its reporting on new urbanism, architecture, and localism.)

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Back in the Day When Some Were Planting PCA Congregations in NYC (and others were joining the PCA)

It was not an innocent time. Robert Hughes, art critic for Time magazine, wrote a book about cultural antagonisms in the United States, The Culture of Complaint. David Denby, a movie critic for New York magazine, reviewed it for the New Republic. It doesn’t sound like much has changed (except that sensitivities have escalated):

For years liberal intellectuals in this country have sounded sickly and confused. half convinced that their privileged position has disqualified them from criticizing any less powerful group, afraid of asserting what might be seen as an advantage. Something like academic Afrocentrism may be largely nonsense, but how many have the stomach to attack it? How many have the courage to say that gay artists whose lives have become nightmarish from the fear of AIDS are not necessarily better painters or sculptors? Putting it in pragmatic terms: Is making such points worth the risk of sounding like Hilton Kramer? Even if you can avoid such a ghastly outcome, the task requires a relish for combat and a willingness to hit an open target—a sort of herculean insensitivity.

Enter the bull in the shopping mall. Hughes was born in Australia but has lived in America and written art criticism for Time since 1970. He combines the curiosity and the ambitious learning of a scholar (he has written distinguished books on Australia and Barcelona) and the ready indignation and sense of timing of a great journalist. He is a controversialist, a public intellectual. The book, written in 1992, as the political tide was turning, is implicitly addressed to liberals: You are the conscience of a great country. Why be so frightened? Hughes offers a guide for the perplexed, a moral and intellectual compass for those who want to remain liberals in this culture without giving up their standards, their education, their sense of what matters. Brandishing bis sword, be charges in, laying about on all sides. He ridicules the American touchiness, the querulous tone of grievance. He talks tough to self-pitying artists, to academics, to black intellectuals and ideologues, to politicians.

So even when today it might seem like times were better just as Bill Clinton was coming into the White House, America was divided and Americans were sensitive. In New York City, Rudy Giuliani defeated David Dinkins.

More Denby:

The widespread and unstoppable confusion of formal equality (which is obtainable through law) with equality of power and gifts (which is unobtainable) has led to a kind of Tocquevillian nightmare, a culture of self-pity and envious accusation. In the art world, for instance, the overproduction of artists caused by the runaway art market of the ’80s and the general lowering of standards leads anyone not actually celebrated by the media to designate himself an aggrieved party. “What are your ‘standards’ but further oppression?” the victim demands. The “you” that figures in so much paranoid-accusatory rhetoric is, of course, the white heterosexual male, whose “standards,” a mere construction, are assumed to be inherently corrupted by power. Second, the exacerbation of the differences among us, and the cynically calculated omission of what is held in common, leads to a grim spirit of intolerance—declarations of “cultural war” on the right and calls for separatism on the African-American left. Ideology annihilates the compromises necessary to keep the country going. . . .

Hughes fears no man or woman, but most liberals shrink from hurting anyone’s feelings. That is why James Wolcott was being disingenuous when, in the course of defending Rush Limbaugh recently in The New Yorker, he called on liberals to stop whining and “lean into the microphone.” In other words, get your own demagogues, bullies and wits. But as Wolcott surely knows. American liberals have committed themselves to abandoning the narcissism of the tribe; they are committed to respecting every group in the country. If conservatives have been making most of the jokes in recent years, that’s because it’s so much easier for them. For the liberal, everyone matters. That is the American glory and the American horror.

The point of this trip down memory lane is not to try to explain Trump, though with cultural conditions like this in the early 1990s, only a few years after Ronald Reagan helped a lot of Americans to see morning in America again, it is hard not to think that little emerged in the nation’s cultural, political, and religious institutions to offer some check on what Denby himself recognized as nonsense. The gatekeepers — universities, media, journalism — only seemed to guard the gates against those who thought it was impossible not to hurt someone’s feelings. Even Jesus did that.

Denby even received confirmation of Hughes’ observations when he returned to his alma mater, Columbia University:

The queasiness and prissy-mouthed grayness are often produced by the highest motives. During a year spent at Columbia attending classes with first- and second-year students, I saw many a promising discussion of social issues dry up at the border of genuine disagreement. As soon as a student actually said anything, he or she would be greeted with the comment (from another student), “That may be true from your point of view …,” the implication being that a point of view is not a strength but a weakness. Students quickly learn to stay away from anything that might betray a social judgment. The conservative students retreat into a grouchy silence and probably listen to Limbaugh in the dorms. The liberals take up a right-minded droning politeness; they learn that the only safe thing to do is to attack “power.”

They were, of course, only imitating their betters. The post-structuralist jargon, it turns out, serves all too well to reinforce liberal squeamishness. According to the recent academic orthodoxy (and Columbia is far less orthodox in these matters than many other schools), as soon as you write or speak you are in danger of allowing language, which encodes the structures of power, to do your thinking for you. In practice, any kind of vivid or concrete speech—any-thing personal, physical, evocative, active — “privileges” one point of view or another. (A graduate student in English upbraided me tor saying that a female student with long hair had long hair. Even though I was describing a specific student, the description was “a limiting stereotype.”)

Denby and Hughes also noticed that race-consciousness was pronounced, though an Afrocentrism that celebrated the continent seems to have found an outlet in affirmations of black pride:

After acknowledging the racism inherent in many nineteenth- and twentieth-century studies of Africa, Hughes goes through the claims of Afrocentrism and dismisses them. And so with the Afrocentrist version of slavery. After insisting that no history of slavery written before about 1960 can be quite trusted to tell the truth about black cultural history, he shreds the Afrocentrist insistence that Europe was solely responsible for the slave trade, filling in the large role played before and after the European dominated slave trade by Muslim slave traders and by African tribes themselves. And he dispels the notion of an African Eden, either of the past or the present, to which African Americans can return.

What he doesn’t acknowledge is that Afrocentrism may strive without being fully believed. At Columbia, in the wake of a rampaging, nonsensical lecture by Professor Leonard Jeffries of City College, I noticed that even some of the brightest African-American students to whom I talked were unwilling to dismiss the stuff out of hand. They half-believed in it, perhaps as a way of maintaining self-respect. They may have been heading, most of them, into mainstream academic and professional careers, but by talking Afrocentrism they were not selling out to whitey. (“The Bull in the Shopping Mall,” The New Republic, May 10, 1993)

These discussions of cultural markers, race, and history were not present in NAPARC churches in 1993. But in ways that seem to contradict the logic of cultural transformation, the church is often downstream from universities and journalists.

Church as Start-Up or Farm?

He who has eyes, let him see. She who has ears, let her hear.

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.[b] 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

24 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds[c] among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants[d] of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

31 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

In contrast:

Because if you start a ministry at a university, for example, that group will need money forever. If you start a ministry to help the homeless, it too will need money annually as long as it exists. But if you start a church, it only needs start-up capital; then it becomes self-funding.

If it’s done right, the start-up period (in America) is only about two years. So, you’re putting money into the church for two years, and then it gets to the place where it is supporting itself. And as that church grows it will start giving money to other good works. There aren’t many philanthropy projects that multiply like that. It took about $200,000 to start Redeemer Church. Now it gives away millions of dollars outside of the congregation annually. It attracts many new followers who become important volunteers and workers for the rest of their lives. There was a man in the Midwest who gave $50,000 as part of starting Redeemer. How many times have his philanthropic dollars been multiplied?

In the U.K., it takes about three years for a new church to become self-funding. It’s about three to five years in northern and western Europe, and seven to ten years in eastern and southern Europe. If the church is in China, it can be very fast. You could start a church in a village in Thailand with a few hundred American dollars, while it might cost you $500,000 to start a church in Paris. You have to be careful about all of this, though. If you simply calculate bang for your buck, what you’re really saying is that a soul in Paris is too expensive, so I only want to win souls in a village in Thailand.

But neveh eveh be conformed to this modern world:

It is a mistake to think that faithful believers in our time are not profoundly shaped by the narratives of modernity. We certainly are, and so when you unveil these narratives and interact with them in the ordinary course of preaching the Word, you help them see where they themselves may be more influenced by their society than by the Scripture, and you give them important ways of communicating their faith to others.

Transforming New York City Was Always Going to be a Slog

Kyle B. Roberts explains:

Evangelical New Yorkers did nothing less than make the city between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Their systematic strategy of aggressively building in new opening neighborhoods put them on the forward edge of urban development. . . . Asylums, bethels, book concerns, missions, and orphanages supported by lay voluntary associations and denominations expanded that presence. In time, immigrant Roman Catholics and Jews proved more formidable opponents than High Church Protestant Episcopalians, but a community is more than its churches and societies; it is, fundamentally, it’s people. Fifteen percent of the city’s adult population identified as evangelical and joined a city church by the middle of the nineteenth century. That might not sound like much, but it was five times what it had been at the close of the American Revolution. Given the high bar evangelical churches set by making conversion a criteria for membership, the number of spouses, children, cousins, and neighbors still hopefully waiting for conversion was undoutedly much higher.

This massive emotional, financial, and spiritual investment in the city came at a cost. The principles at the core of evangelical belief and practice–individual conversion and community-focused social activism–exist in continual tension. They provided the rational for aggressive interventions in the city, hope to the hopeless, friends for the friendless, and homes for the homeless, but just as easily supplied an excuse for withdrawal, into meeting-houses, parlors, and even their own spiritual selves at moments when their presences was most needed. . . . every worshiper at the John Street church had to decide for her or himself whether to join the exodus of middle-class Protestants up the island or to stay put, even as nearly every other evangelical meeting-house shuttered. These choices were not limited to the antebellum period; Evangelical Gotham always had been and always would be a profoundly ambivalent place. (255-56)

Transformationalize This

Michael Oakeshott on culture (from Alan Jacobs):

A culture, particularly one such as ours, is a continuity of feelings, perceptions, ideas, engagements, attitudes and so forth, pulling in different directions, often critical of one another and contingently related to one another so as to compose not a doctrine, but what I shall call a conversational encounter. Ours, for example, accommodates not only the lyre of Apollo but also the pipes of Pan, the call of the wild; not only the poet but also the physicist; not only the majestic metropolis of Augustinian theology but also the “greenwood“ of Franciscan Christianity. A culture comprises unfinished intellectual and emotional journeyings, expeditions now abandoned but known to us in the tattered maps left behind by the explorers; it is composed of light-hearted adventures, of relationships invented and explored in exploit or in drama, of myths and stories and poems expressing fragments of human self-understanding, of gods worshipped, of responses to the mutability of the world and of encounters with death. And it reaches us, as it reached generations before ours, neither as long-ago terminated specimens of human adventure, nor as an accumulation of human achievements we are called upon to accept, but as a manifold of invitations to look, to listen and to reflect.

And the holy urbanists actually think they are up to taking every thought captive? They may have bought that bridge in Brooklyn.

Odd What Big Cities Do To Church Life

Is Tim Keller getting cold feet about “the city”? He bears his apparent burden to the other coolest guy in the Reformedish room, Jamie Smith:

JS: As a pastor, and now increasingly a theological educator, where do you most see a need for renewal and intentionality? If you could heal churches, what would you heal in them? What do you wish was stronger, deeper, healthier, more functional in local congregations?

TK: One challenge is pastoral care, primarily because of transience. There is an indication—though it’s hard to prove—that, say, thirty years ago, the average member probably came to church four out of five weeks or five out of six weeks. Now it’s like one out of two. People are travelling more; their attention is divided. Also costs are such that it’s very expensive to have a full-time staff. Frankly, it’s seductive to have a larger church with fewer pastors where people are basically consumers. They’re not really being watched or cared for. There’s pastoral triage, which means that when your life’s falling apart the good churches will be there. They’ll be at the hospital, they’ll be at the funeral parlour, they’ll be in the counselling office. They can do triage. But when it comes to the ordinary kind of positive, proactive pastoral care and intervention where you are actually examining people, only in a nice way—How are you doing? Where are you going? How much do you know about the Christianity? Where could you grow?—that’s just not happening at all.

Keller also seems to pine for a small church. But elders? Not so much:

JS: How much is that the weakening of the priesthood of all believers, do you think? Your point makes me think of a line from Klaas Schilder, a minor twentieth-century Dutch theologian who said something like, “Don’t underestimate the significance of the wise ward elder. He is a cultural force.” By attending to families, doing household visits, the elder is a culture-shaping force because he or she is forming people. I wonder how much what’s missing is not just a lack of pastoral staff but a failure to equip lay elders to do this care.

Several years ago, I was at Whitworth University, and they do a summer program for pastoral professional development—the Whitworth Institute of Ministry. But then alongside it, they do this elder leadership initiative where pastors bring some elders with them and they dive into theology and pastoral resources. I just thought, as go elders, so go the church. What are you seeing in terms of people’s capacity to be elders?

TK: I do think there’s a breakdown. In fact, I get where you’re going and I absolutely agree. The right thing to do is to have a layer of lay leaders; maybe there is an elite group that you can call your elders, but by and large you probably have more like 10 or 15 percent of your people who are mature enough and willing enough and maybe even have the time to be regularly trained by the pastors to do every-member ministry, every-member pastoral care—including evangelism, by the way. Those are the people who bring their friends to church and reach out. But there are also people who are out there just caring for people and then letting you know. They’re your radar system; they let the pastors know.

In a small church where you have maybe eighty people coming to church, then you need about eight or ten of those folks, and you should be meeting with them at least every month. So you’re catechizing them and you’re reading great books together and that makes them feel two things: (1) It makes them feel confident to pry a little bit into people’s lives and have conversations, otherwise they’d be afraid. Most of these folks are afraid to be asked a question they can’t answer. That’s the reason they don’t reach out both in evangelism and in instructing and caring.

So you have to give them (1); but then (2) they have to know that they can get right back to you. If I’m talking to somebody and they ask me a question I can’t answer, I need to be able to get right to you and know that you will get right back to me. So if you have eighty people in your church and you’re a full-time pastor and you have, say, eight or nine people like that and maybe two or three elders as part of that group—you’re going to be fine. Nobody’s going to fall through the cracks, people will lead probably proactively, the minister will visit people and see them, and they’ll also be getting other touches from the church, not just the minister.

So the priesthood of all believers is absolutely crucial. You know, by the way, in Geneva, what Calvin did—at least I’m pretty sure; you know the experts are going to tell me I’m wrong, but I’m almost sure I remember [laughter]. In Geneva the elders were responsible for wards, and when it looked like there was somebody that needed pastoral exhortation, they were brought before the consistory, which met every Thursday, and it was Calvin and the elders. Evidently, like ninety-five times out of one hundred, there was no real discipline. There was exhortation. So people were exhorted to come to church or to love their wife better and so on.

In a small church? If you have 80 people in your church? What is Keller talking about? Why not include observations about Redeemer?

The optics!

The reticence!

When Did Philadelphia Turn into San Diego?

I was in the nation’s original capital yesterday and saw this at 22nd and Walnut:

It replaces this:

Which makes me think this has a point:

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, a generous tax abatement program—combined with flawed preservation policies—changed the landscape of Center City and its surrounding neighborhoods. During the past decade, the city experienced a demolition bonanza. In neighborhoods of historic housing like Powelton Village, developers “have discovered they can make a tidy sum simply by replacing one of these old houses with a stucco-clad apartment building and then cramming it with students,” observed the Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic, Inga Saffron.

Preservationists have protested how Philadelphia’s demolition permits are approved. In the past year, two historic structures were razed for projects that never materialized. Currently, the preservation fight is focused on Center City’s Jeweler’s Row, a charming set of commercial properties on a block laid out in 1799. The historic storefronts, slated for demolition, would be replaced by a massive condo tower. Ill-advised demolition projects continue throughout Philadelphia, its future depending on an influx, however temporary, of millennials and students.

Why does it take regulative-principle toting confessional Presbyterians, not urban hipster pastors, to notice?

TKNY Even in UK

Even while in Ireland, I could not evade Tim Keller. One morning while reading the magazine Standpoint, I read a column which contained this:

As well as being one of the great delaying mechanisms of modern times, YouTube is one of the great gifts of our age. It not only allows us to watch videos of cats and people falling over, but also serious discussions like the recent one between Tim Keller and the sociologist Jonathan Haidt at NYU. What a model discussion it was. Haidt (whose book The Righteous Mind is one of the best explanations of modern politics I know) is respectful towards religion while being an atheist. Keller is a deeply learned reader of philosophy and sociology, and a pastor. Perhaps most striking was the agreement from both speakers over not only what is broken in our culture but what might be done to fix it. Particularly interesting was the observation that our society’s rewarding of outrage (fuelled by social media) means that we are ever less-inclined to give people what we used to call “the benefit of the doubt”. Increasingly, we put the worst possible gloss on people’s words and intentions so that any discussion across boundaries (believers versus non-believers, Left versus Right) becomes almost impossible. Can the urge be resisted? Perhaps, but we would have to have the right role models. Haidt and Keller are certainly two such.

A deeply learned reader of philosophy and sociology? That does not sound like Machen’s “specialist in the Bible.” But how would the op-ed writers and journalists know whether a pastor was properly explaining God’s word?

In the same issue, though, I read a review of Rodney Stark’s book about anti-Catholic myths:

Few now believe in the teaching of Luther or Calvin on Justification, or sola scriptura, but, as we see in the case of Sir Simon Jenkins, the myths of Catholic iniquity are embedded in many a Briton’s sense of who they are. Just as the French do not like to admit that their philosophes paved the way for totalitarianism, or Americans that the founding fathers of their Land of the Free owned slaves, so no amount of historical research will persuade today’s sceptics and secularists that, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the rise of the nation state, the Catholic Church was the source of most that is best in our civilisation; and that death camps and gulags are only to be found when Christianity lost its hold on the conscience of Europeans.

Imagine if Tim Keller had spent as much time defending the imputed righteousness of Christ as making belief in God plausible. Would he be as popular as he is? One reason for asking is that all the hype about New York City has not put a dent in the Roman Catholic apologists’ argument that the future of western civilization hangs on the fortunes not of the Big Apple but The Eternal City.

In the hierarchy of cities, New York may have to get in line behind Rome. Doh!

The World Is Turning Rod and Leaving Tim Behind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember When Being Nice Would Win the Day?

How a little reminder of 1929 clears the cobwebs.

Once upon a time, the Gospel Allies scored points against Reformed confessionalists by claiming the high ground of nice. Remember when Jared Wilson wrote this?

Cold-hearted rigidity is not limited to those of the Reformed persuasion, of course. You can find it in Christian churches and traditions and cultures of all kinds. In fact, to be fair, I have found that those most enthralled with the idea of gospel-wakefulness, those who seem most prone to champion the centrality of the gospel for life and ministry, happen to be of the Reformed persuasion. So there’s that. But gracelessness is never as big a disappointment, to me anyway, as when it’s found among those who call themselves Calvinists, because it’s such a big waste of Calvinism.

Or how about when Justin Taylor chimed in?

Angry Calvinists are not like unicorns, dreamed up in some fantasy. They really do exist. And the stereotype exists for a reason. I remember (with shame) answering a question during college from a girl who was crying about the doctrine of election and what it might mean for a relative and my response was to ask everyone in the room turn to Romans 9. Right text, but it was the wrong time.

This raises an important qualifier. The “angry” adjective might apply to some folks, but it can also obscure the problem. In the example above, I wasn’t angry with that girl. I wasn’t trying to be a jerk. But I failed to recognize what is “fitting” or necessary (cf. Eph. 4:29) in the moment. This is the sort of thing that tends to be “caught” rather than “taught” and can be difficult to explain. But there’s a way to be uncompromising with truth and to be winsome, humble, meek, wise, sensitive, gracious. There’s a way of “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) such that our doctrines are “adorned” (Titus 2:10) and our words are “seasoned” with salt and grace (Col. 4:6). To repeat, the category of “anger” is often too broad and can miss the mark. As Kevin DeYoung pointed out to me, “Some Calvinists are angry, proud, belligerent people who find Calvinism to be a very good way to be angry, proud, and belligerent. Other Calvinists are immature—they don’t understand other people’s struggles, they haven’t been mellowed by life in a good way, they can only see arguments and not people. The two groups can be the same, but not always.”

So when Tim Keller advocated women’s subordination, he did so in precisely the categories that elicit New Calvinist religious affections (thanks to our southern correspondent):

We feel that there is a deep inconsistency in the phrase “evangelical feminism”. The feminists who are consistent recognize the Bible as a sexist book throughout. They reject it. The feminists who try to hold to complete Biblical authority have, really, an impossible balancing act to conduct. . . .

We know from experience that our position on women-in-ministry dissatisfies many people. Many friends from the traditional evangelical church find it far too “liberal” and “permissive”, while many other friends on the other side still feel it is oppressive. Our position is not totally unique. See J. Hurley’s book, Man and Women in Biblical Perspective or Susan Foh’s book, Women and the Word of God. They come close to where we are.

The fact remains that nearly everyone we meet is more “conservative” or else more “liberal” than we are. Thus we appeal to our friends to work with us on this. We do not to make this issue a cause of division, as we said above. We see no reason why friends with the same view of the Bible cannot work together, all the while influencing each other and refining one another’s viewpoint in order to become truly Biblical. Please be partners with us.

Balance, moderation, partnership — these were the calling cards of the New Calvinists. And for them, it was the Old Schoolers and Truly Reformed who were poorly positioned to represent Calvinism to the contemporary urban and global world. Some of us tried to explain that disagreement was not anger, and that standing in a specific tradition might cut down on “partnership.” We even thought that the medium of the World Wide Interweb thrived better on provocation than moderation. But for almost fifteen years the New Calvinists thought they had squared the circle, and Keller was proof positive at ground zero of global urban life in the United States.

What went wrong? One problem may have been living in a Gospel Coalition bubble and not engaging the concerns of “angry Calvinists.” But even more harmful was forgetting the antithesis and misreading the culture. Keller’s “success” in New York suggested (and sometimes actually asserted) that a new day had dawned for conservative evangelicalism. Modern Americans were truly willing to hear a kinder, gentler Protestantism. How could you deny that if the most secular and most urban place in the United States had received Keller the way New York City did? You certainly had to think that modern America was much more hospitable to faith if Keller was a best-selling author and the darling of religion journalists? Keller himself told lots of Presbyterians how the direction of the modern world was heading in a faith-friendly direction. I still remember the Power Point presentations I witnessed while on the faculty at WTS about the church in the city’s future.

What if while considering those trends predicted by economists and futurologists, New Calvinists had pondered the Bible more?

3 Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” 5 But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 6 By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. 7 By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. (2 Peter 3)

That may tilt more Rod Dreher than Jamie Smith. But if you’re going to minister the word and teach in a seminary, doesn’t the apostle Peter count more than Peter Drucker?