Christians and the Life of the Mind

A popular perception out there is that Tim Keller is a version — maybe the most popular one — of a Protestant intellectual. Back when Nicholas Kristof interviewed Keller in the pages of the New York Times (can you believe it? A CHRISTIAN IN THE PAGES OF THE NEW YORK TIMES!!!!! No, I’ve never heard of Ross Douthat), Scot McKnight wrote a favorable piece about how Keller is defending Christianity against the skeptics and cynics of our times:

Kristof is no H.L. Mencken and Tim Keller is no Willam Lane Craig nor is he a Rob Bell. He’s a conservative, Reformed, Presbyterian pastor with a lot in his noggin’ about how to respond to Manhattan singles and marrieds and wealthy-wannabes and educated. He’s done this well. He just told Nicholas Kristof he will need to join the throng of believers in the resurrection. In a pastorally sensitive way. No doubt Kristof got the message.

Maybe his critics would do themselves a favor by looking in the mirror and asking if they are reaching with the gospel and converting skeptics and cynics and doubters. If not, maybe they could look at Tim Keller and ask Why is he? I know I do.

Maybe.

But can’t we ask if Keller has as much in his noggin’ as the promoters promote? Here’s one reason for asking: the recent piece in ByFaith magazine which indicates what Keller will be doing once he retires from regular preaching. He will be training pastors for ministry in urban settings:

When it comes to the urban environment, ministry here requires also a knowledge of urban life dynamics, urban social systems, cross-cultural communication, non-western Christianity, and many other subjects not covered in ordinary seminary programs. I also want to give more than the usual help on both expository preaching, on developing a life of prayer, on leading the church in an adverse cultural and financial environment, and on reading that provides cultural analysis and insight. The combination of the M.A. (which in two years covers all the academic material, including languages and exegesis) together with the City Ministry Year will provide much more space for these than an ordinary M.Div. can.

For one thing, this was precisely the sort of agenda that William Rainey Harper took to the University of Chicago Divinity School almost 120 years ago — the idea that modern (read urban) times need new ways of doing ministry.

For another, how does someone with at most a D. Min. have enough intellectual chops to discern which books to read on urban life dynamics, urban social systems, cross-cultural communication? And is Keller proposing for pastors what medical specialists endure — 12 years of training (9 beyond the basics of Greek, Hebrew, exegesis, systematics, church history, etc.)?

In other words, the different parts of an urban setting require specialists in academic disciplines that go way beyond the competency of a specialist in the Bible or even a Ph.D. in historical science. To suggest that a person with a D. Min. is competent to adjudicate sociology, political science, urban studies, history, economics, demographics, anthropology and communications is not intellectual but borders on middle brow if not anti-intellectual.

And not to be forgotten, once you’ve mastered planting a church in Manhattan, are you really prepared to minister to the outer boroughs — Trump country?

Gospel Coalition as Harlem Globe Trotters

One of our many southern correspondents notified me of TGC’s year-end pitch for charitable donations. At the end of Collin Hanson’s post is a link to TGC’s 2016 Annual Report. Curiously absent are the financials. The Allies encourage people to give but those people have to trust TGC staff about funds.

The similarities and differences between the Coalition and a church are striking. Since I serve on the Christian Education Committee of the OPC and am also one of the OPC’s representatives on Great Commission Publication’s board of trustees, I see strong similarities among the OPC, PCA, and TGC at least in the arena of education, curriculum development, and publication. TGC’s report on website hits, best selling books or pamphlets, and plans for 2017 titles is the sort of information I see four times a year as an OPC/GCP officer. But what I don’t see from TGC is any financial spread sheet. Since the church and parachurch both operate in a voluntary world of free-will gifts, support, and self-identification of members, you might think that giving supporters some insight into the Coalition’s funds would be not only wise but honorable.

Chalk up one for the church over the parachurch.

Another note of concern for TGC supporters may be the popularity of Jen Wilkin. According to TGC’s report:

Our all-time bestselling resource on any paid platform is Jen Wilkin’s Sermon on the Mount study with LifeWay, but it may end up topped by her 2016 TGC release, 1 Peter: A Living Hope in Christ.

Jen Wilkin may be a great lady — I’ve never heard of her though she appears to take hairstyle-advice from Ann Voskamp (not Jen Hatmaker) — but do supporters of TGC have no trouble with a non-ordained person teaching the Word of God to Christians? Maybe Ms. Wilkin is ordained. Either way, TGC’s efforts to attract support from conservative Reformed Protestants runs up against church polity that again separates the parachurch from the church (not in a good way, by the way).

But when you look at TGC’s report, you have to come away impressed with all the effort the Allies put into their labors. But what would happen if those same people put their energies into the PCA with Tim Keller or into the Southern Baptist Convention with Ms. Wilkin who goes to The Village Church (is there only one?) or into the Evangelical Free Church with D. A. Carson (does he belong to the EFC?). Where’s the efficiency? Sure, a TGC supporter could argue that the OPC or PCA or SBC are competing with TGC and these other Protestants should join forces with the Allies. But this is always what happens with “unity” projects among Christians. You form one agency to unite everyone and simply add one more organization or church to the landscape. The United Church of Canada did not unite Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. It added the United Church to the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Anglican churches.

And then there is the question of officers or pastors who hold credentials in the PCA or SBC adding their energy and resources to another Christian organization. If I play football for the Philadelphia Eagles, would the NFL allow me to play for a European football league midweek during the season (or even in the summer)? Or if I am a contributing editor to Atlantic Monthly, do I write regularly for The New Republic? These are obviously apples and oranges — publishing and sports are not ministry (though to hear some neo-Calvinists. . .). But questions about which is the primary outlet for Coalition contributors and officers is a real question that supporters of TGC should question. If I give to TGC, do I want Tim Keller spending a lot of time on committee work for his presbytery?

Chalk up another for the church.

One last observation that makes me think TGC more like an exhibition sports team (Harlem Globe Trotters) than a Major League Protestant Communion: I went to the staff page of TGC and noticed that no one works in a central office. The executive director lives in Austin, Texas (no church mentioned). The executive editor lives in Birmingham, Alabama and is part of a local community church. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of the organization, payroll, accounting, general housekeeping, again staff is scattered. The director of operations lives in Austin (no church listed). The director of program development lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (no church listed). The director of advancement lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota (no church listed). The manager of operations lives in Minneapolis (no church listed). The business manager lives in Austin (no church listed). And yet, for full-time staff’s location in places far away from the Big Apple, TGC’s major publishing project for 2017 is a print version of Keller’s New City Catechism. When terrorists band together, we call them non-state actors to distinguish them from the military personnel of nation-states. Nation-states engage use coercive force legitimately (ever since 1648). Terrorist organizations do not. Does that make the Allies spiritual terrorists who have no geographical or ecclesiastical home?

The impression TGC gives overall is doing all the stuff a church does (including solicitation of funds) without many of the rules that give accountability to churches in their work of word and sacrament ministry. The Allies produce conferences and literature and a website presence that provides much of the teaching and encouragement that churches also give. And yet, the Coalition has no mechanism for discipline or oversight or even ecumenical relations. To be in TGC’s orbit is like following an exhibition basketball team instead of the National Basketball Association. I guess, when your home team is the Sixers, the Globetrotters look pretty good. But it’s not real basketball.

Human Bodies Waste Away But Cities Abide (psshaw)

One of yesterday’s sermons has me thinking: when will the neo-Calvinists ever do justice to the physical-spiritual dualism that legitimately arises in Paul’s teaching?

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Corinthians 5:1-10 ESV)

You can’t simply point at “all things” passages and make Paul’s understanding of life in this world go away:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20 ESV)

You can affirm both. Christ is preeminent and we are not at home until we are with Christ. But to use the Lordship of Christ as the basis for transforming cities or redeeming movies and rejecting the dualism between fallen bodies and redeemed souls as fundamentalist is not Pauline. Heck, it’s not even Calvinist:

The wicked, too, groan, because they are not contented with their present condition; but afterwards an opposite disposition prevails, that is, a clinging to life, so that they view death with horror, and do not feel the long continuance of this mortal life to be a burden. The groaning of believers, on the other hand, arises from this — that they know, that they are here in a state of exile from their native land, and that they know, that they are here shut up in the body as in a prison. Hence they feel this life to be a burden, because in it they cannot enjoy true and perfect blessedness, because they cannot escape from the bondage of sin otherwise than by death, and hence they aspire to be elsewhere.

As, however, it is natural for all animals to desire existence, how can it be, that believers are willing to cease to exist? The Apostle solves this question, when he says, that believers do not desire death for the sake of losing any thing, but as having regard to a better life. At the same time, the words express more than this. For he admits, that we have naturally an aversion to the quitting of this life, considered in itself, as no one willingly allows himself to be striped of his garments. Afterwards, however, he adds, that the natural horror of death is overcome by confidence; 515 as an individual will, without any reluctance, throw away a coarse, dirty, threadbare, and, in one word, tattered garment, with the view of his being arrayed in an elegant, handsome, new, and durable one.

Farther, he explains the metaphor by saying — that what is mortal may be destroyed 516 by life. For as flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, (1 Corinthians 15:50,) it is necessary, that what is corruptible in our nature should perish, in order that we may be thoroughly renewed, and restored to a state of perfection. On this account, our body is called a prison, in which we are confined.

Ministry Inside the Bubble

Redeemer NYC has been in existence for almost twenty years and by this point it may be worth asking whether Tim Keller and company have transformed or been transformed by the bubble. Consider, for starters, that Redeemer spawned churches that cover Brooklyn — bubble central — about as well as Verizon. Notice as well that Keller speaks of the dangers of white nationalism the way many in the academy, Hollywood, Washington, and the Times do (though he also worries about secularism).

More substantive than these atmospheric impressions are the way that the Kellers promote the big city and its culture. Does anyone remember how Kathy Keller lauded the benefits of living in the city?

Lifestyle Benefits

simplicity more possible—you collect less stuff in small apartments

immediate family is closer physically, harder for kids to isolate themselves; meals together more likely

apt cleaning/care is easier, less time-consuming than a house

you don’t spend all your free time on house/yard chores

no scraping off your car in icy weather—enjoy walking in the snow instead

no school snow days—the subway is always working

sense of community, bonding, in your immediate neighborhood

for new parents, especially stay-at-home moms, you don’t experience the isolation and despair of being stuck at home all day, unable to go out or even see another adult person—just a trip to the laundry room gives you someone to talk to, and a stroll outside brings you to the world

many large American cities have something like Fresh Direct: order your groceries online and have them delivered the next day, boxed, to your kitchen; great if you are sick or time pressured

fresh fruit and cheap flowers at corner stands rival expensive shops elsewhere

great food in every restaurant—no bad meals . . .

General

airline prices are cheaper to/from larger cities; fewer transfers

closer to ministry opportunities, especially diverse groups, the poor, ethnic communities (instead of traveling many miles to reach a people group); virtually all people groups are in the city, especially Africans, Russians, and South Americans

less expensive for getaways; can travel by subway to a new neighborhood or a cultural enclave for a change of pace; so many unique experiences close at hand

wealthy people in cities are always happy to lend their vacation homes to ministry families for weekends and getaways, as long as you are flexible; since ministry happens on weekends, mid-week getaways don’t generally conflict with the owners’ desire to use it on weekends

easier to reach the suburbs from the city center than to reach the city center from the suburbs

access to the best of the best in: professional sports, cultural interests (museums, lectures), entertainment (theatre, music, improv), educational opportunities/options, shopping, influencers in every field, restaurants, medical care

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of cities for many of these reasons. But Ms. Keller doesn’t seem to understand that urbanism separates her from lots of other Americans, while signalling to urban dwellers that she and her husband’s ministry “get” — nay, love — the city (even if the big steeple PCA churches in the South or the social justice warriors in St. Louis do not: “bless their hearts for being urban, but they don’t know NYC the way we do” – read they aren’t bubblicious). How do you then challenge the bubble when you’re on the same side as the bubble?

Tim Keller himself earlier this year showed that he was not as comfortable with urban artistic life as many might assume given Redeemer’s Faith & Work Center:

Contemporary art is dominated by either critical theory or commercialism. Much art is aimed at transgressing and debunking all social norms in order to liberate the individual. Or it is designed to provoke in such a way that attracts eyeballs and income. It’s possible that gospel-changed Christians in the arts would bring far more hope and less nihilism, and could express visions of community and shared values.

Isn’t that all the more reason to wonder whether Redeemer’s ministry did anything to prepare New Yorkers for what happened on election day. Or, were they part of the constituency that Saturday Night Live mocked?

They pride themselves on being open-minded, but they actually close themselves off to contrary arguments; The Bubble is a “community of like-minded free-thinkers—and no one else.” They think they’re more thoughtful and intellectual, but they’re really just confirming each other’s biases; a “wide array of diverse viewpoints” is two people doing nothing but agreeing with each other. They think they’re well-informed and cultured, but they draw from a very narrow range of trendy lifestyle fads and “only the good websites.” They think of their lifestyle as simple and accessible, but only the well off can afford it. (“Anybody is welcome to join us,” the ad proclaims, but a one-bedroom apartment starts at $1.9 million—not far off from reality in Manhattan or San Francisco.)

They say they are above racial division, but they’re the ones obsessing over it. (“We don’t see color here—but we celebrate it.”) Then there’s the preening, condescending race-consciousness of the privileged white “progressive”—who, in this sketch, ostentatiously points to the “black power” button on his lapel and gets a subtly exasperated roll of the eyes from his black co-star.

Most important: They depend on the support and protection of blue-collar workers who don’t share their values and culture.

Can’t Presbyterians ask what happens to Presbyterian frogs in the New York City kettle? Isn’t that what Presbyterian polity is about? Or are we supposed to be awed by Redeemer exceptionalism?

Church Planters in the City Have it Rough

But is that because the city is so tough or because the folks who go into urban church planting actually believe the hype?

City people are fast paced. They adapt to change without giving too much thought to it and that’s why life becomes chaotic and out of control in the first place. When city people end up pausing to think about their overwhelming state, it’s usually too late. Ministry in the city requires a lot of reflection, prayer and, Scriptural meditation. It’s much easier to be in sync with the pace of the city than the pace of God’s heart for the city. . . .

Cities demand quality, often without compensation. Think of the talented 50 year old sax player in the subway. Get the point? Pastors in cities have to find a healthy way to deal with slow growth and even failure. Unless they do so, they will likely hit the bottle, the spoon, their wives and kids or, the x-rated sites. . . .

The city demands that you give a good reason for what you do and say. At the same time it’s always bargaining with you ideologically. It’s very hard not to compromise biblical doctrine in exchange for the approval of its inhabitants and even harder to find an honest, respectful, clear, and contextual way to communicate truth. . . .

Woody Allen would be embarrassed.

Would urban church planters have an easier time if they simply ministered to people rather than urban people? At a time when race, partisan politics, immigration, and sex balkanize people into their segregated affinity groups, do really need to add cities to the list of characteristics that isolate us from a common humanity (or nationality)? Whatever happened to neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free? But urban or suburban (don’t even think about rural) abideth.

When All Means Some

One of the favorite arguments of Neo-Calvinists is to go to Col 1 to support every-square inch Christianity:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20 ESV)

But Rick Phillips puts limits on “all”:

What are some of the things that I have through the gospel of Jesus Christ? The answer is the cornucopia of salvation theology! I have justification so as to be accepted before God’s justice. I have adoption so as to be embraced into God’s fatherly love as a beloved child. I have sanctification as the Holy Spirit graciously works within me. And I have glorification, as the return of Christ is destined to admit him into his eternal presence. Through the gospel, I have the past, where Jesus lived and died on my behalf; I have the present, in which I am kept for eternal life by God’s grace; and I have the future, which holds no fear for those who are treasured in the hand of the Almighty. Through the gospel I have heaven, where my name is enrolled forever, and I have earth, over which my Savior exercises all power and authority. I have Christian fellowship through communion with the saints and I have participation in the church with its ordinances of nurture and care. Through the gospel I have perfect liberty to live above the world and sin and I have beloved bondage as a willing slave to Jesus Christ. Through the gospel, I have a new nature that partakes of the character of God, and I have the blessing of the law of God to guide me in the way of life. I have the Word of God shining within. I have prayer, which grants access to the very throne of grace. I have the sacraments, bearing the sign and seal of the covenant of grace. I have worship, service, sacrifice, and solace. Most of all, best of all, I have Jesus Christ – the whole Jesus Christ: Lord and Savior; Prophet, Priest, and King; Master, Helper, and Friend. And in union with Jesus Christ, together with communion in the gifts and graces of his blessed kingdom, through the gospel, I truly have all things!

That sounds like the Confession of Faith on Christian liberty:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of. (20.1)

In other words, that sounds like an otherworldly faith, not one that redeems cities, plumbing, and foreign policy.

I’m okay with that.

Imagine if Tim Read Tim

Would Tim Challies tweak this post on how to lose your zeal for Christ for Tim Keller’s discomfort?

Love the world. “How can we be zealous for heaven when our hearts are wrapped up in earthly civic things? How can we lift our spirits heavenward when our minds are weighed down with the cares of this life the city? How can we be zealous for God when our love is divided between Him and this world global urbanization? Worldly mindedness will starve our zeal.” Jesus promised us that we can serve only one master; our zeal will diminish when our loyalties are torn between God and mammon the metropolis, God and this worldThe Big Apple.

Perhaps the Christian ministry in Toronto or Chattanooga is sufficiently otherworldly to escape Challies’ concern.