Bigger is Bigger

The appeal of Roman Catholicism is size. It has 1.2 BILLION members. It has 2000 years of history. It has oh so many paintings, galleries, cathedrals, yada yada. Size matters.

Redeemer Big Apple’s appeal is also to size — but it is the big city, and being connected to churches in other big cities, in following a pastor who has enough celebrity even for New York City editors. It’s size has almost nothing to do with the past, at least if Kathy Keller is to be believed:

I’ve saved my most important value for last: carefully screening our language is the most critical thing we can do.

I can’t find enough words to stress how important this is. We must have a care for how we choose our words, our images, and our ideas when we communicate, no matter what we’re communicating — whether it’s donor updates, lectures, or emails about events that are coming up. You absolutely must comb out all of the Christian subcultural phrases that clutter up so much of the Christian church. This is vitally important, and perhaps it’s even more important today than it was 30 years ago, because the cultural moment that we’re in now loathes evangelical Christians, and we don’t need to give them any more reasons to disrespect and dislike us.

Redeemer has been pretty good at this, partly because it was actually one of the major parts of my job description to search and destroy any piousbabble. That’s the word I coined to describe the-language-that-must-not-be-spoken. You’ve heard of psychobabble? That’s pop psychology drawn from catchphrases, media, podcast pontification and other non-academic sources.

Piousbabble are those phrases and those words that creep into your prayers and into your language.. Lord, we just, we just, Lord … We want traveling mercies, we want to bathe it in prayer, and we need prayer warriors, and we need a hedge of protection. All that sounds kind of normal-ish to most Christians. But it’s like Swahili to the nonbelievers and the seekers who are coming.

Does pious babble extend to words like Presbyterian, justification, Holy Spirit (Ghost is even more alarming, I guess), eschatology, ministry, or vocation?

That may explain why Tim Keller thought he needed a catechism other than the one his own communion uses.

But isn’t this piousbabble?

Sixth, that we do not hurt, or hate, or be hostile to our neighbor, but be patient and peaceful, pursuing even our enemies with love. Seventh, that we abstain from sexual immorality and live purely and faithfully, whether in marriage or in single life, avoiding all impure actions, looks, words, thoughts, or desires, and whatever might lead to them. Eighth, that we do not take without permission that which belongs to someone else, nor withhold any good from someone we might benefit.

Even so, if I can count on Kathy Keller to renounce the use of such pious phrases as “dead orthodoxy,” I’m on board.

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Now This Would be Funny (or not)

Unlike this:

Tim Keller: (Walks outside on beautiful fall day, inhales deeply, and sighs contentedly) This is such a lovely day that you could never imagine unless you accepted that yesterday was so much more oppressive than you ever dared imagine (and then he sat on the bench at the bus stop to pose for pictures).

Rachel Held Evans: What exactly are you implying about Kathy Keller?

Keller: Umm. Nothing, really. I just am saying that this particular day is pleasant because I get to have lunch with New York Times reporter, Nick Kristof.

R. Scott Clark: You know that bus doesn’t go to Nebraska.

Keller: (Starts walking east on 83rd Street) Why would anyone want to leave the city?

Evans: You don’t know any reporters of color?

Keller: I don’t have to respond to critics. Never have, never will

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?

Do Celebrity Pastors (like TKNY) Have Authority?

Or is fame the primary aspect of aspect of celebrity? And if a celebrity actually tries to use his fame or influence to restrain someone, does he lose his celebrity?

I generated these questions when reading a response to City Church‘s (San Francisco) decision not to discriminate on the basis of sexual identity and behavior:

It’s also untenable to say that God has not made His will plain in the Word. Look at the extreme candor and clarity of the scripture about intimacy. The bible is very blunt and clear about sex. Going on to ignore all of that is kind of like saying “Not only am I not liking this air stuff, I’ve had it with gravity too.” The irrational position of this letter is another part of the growing fallout.

Someone might respond and say I’m wrong to lump City Church into Romans 1, that it’s obvious your church still believes in God. Of course they do, and there are many earnest and sincere believers in your community. That’s abundantly clear. That isn’t what I’m claiming. What I’m saying is this – in this particular letter it simply isn’t the God of our ancient writings, our ancient witnesses, and our ancient creeds anymore. This isn’t the God of Romans. And my fear is now this. Where there is a new god, there must always be a new gospel.

I think Keller put it well: a god you create, where you pick and choose what you think is “flourishing,” is just a Stepford god. Like the robot women in the old sci fi B-movie The Stepford Wives, where husbands are quietly getting rid of their wives and replacing them with obedient, pretty, and servile android spouses. It’s just a god who does what pleases you, can never offend you, and in the end can never save you.

Imagine if Tim Keller wrote that letter. Imagine even if he called on the phone pastors who either worked with or were inspired by him. Imagine if he spent some of his considerable capital. Might the Gospel Coalition then actually do something more than inspire or impress?

And then Kathy Keller’s B-S detector goes off . . .

How Did the Reformation Ever Happen . . .

without The Bible: Faith and Work Edition?

The constant and everyday relevance of the Bible is why David Kim, Executive Director of the Center for Faith & Work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and I—along with the editors of Christianity Today and Zondervan—are working on a new Bible. We want something with staying power.

The Bible: Faith and Work Edition will be a unique and engaging combination of doctrine, application, and community that can find its home not only on your nightstand at home, but also on your desktop at work. Its goal is to equip Christians to meaningfully engage various aspects of their work—even those we might not even think could be relevant—with a renewed sense of the power and relevance of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

With over 20 years of experience pastoring people in communities that wrestle with questions about faith and work, Kim says,

What you will learn in the pages of this Bible is not a list of do’s and don’ts at work, but a theology that will hopefully rewire the way you understand the gospel and how it has everything to do with your work. Once you see the connection between faith and work, the work of Christ will become more beautiful, comprehensive, and necessary. I hope this Bible will bring to you an excitement to engage not only your work, but also the world around you, with a renewed sense of purpose grounded in the unique hope of the gospel.

Well, I for one haven’t read this edition of the Bible and already recognized how the gospel does and doesn’t apply. The gospel has provoked this post of sheer disbelief that Christians can be so full of themselves. I also know that the gospel has little to do with making split pea soup in the crock pot for this evening’s meal. I double dare Bethany Jenkins to tell me how justification by faith, sanctification, union with Christ EVEN, applies to dinner.

Apparently as well, the folks responsible for this Bible don’t understand that the gospel, properly understood as good news for what’s coming on judgment day, might actually yield second thoughts about this proposed edition of holy writ. (Where is Kathy Keller’s b-s detector when we need it?) But when you are in the bubble of Redeemerland and have the TKNY brand, you really do think your ideas can “impact” the church and the world more than anyone else (which so far mainly means selling more stuff than John Piper and Desiring God). I am sure that plenty of church officers at churches in small cities and suburbia come up with ideas about how their devotional gadget or technique will change the lives of everyone in the congregation and region. The problem for the Redeemerites is that their bubble of NYC and their ties to TKNY allow them to take silly notions and sell them to business executives (like book publishers) and magazine editors who want more readers.

Would anyone at Zondervan have taken this Bible proposal seriously if it had come from church staff, say, in Montgomery, Alabama?

Celebrity Wives of Pastors

More ruminations of celebrity pastors by Tom Chantry has Carl Trueman commenting on the danger of ministers becoming too big to fail. He even thinks it plausible for a pastor in a celebrity context to do things that are otherwise unjustifiable:

It is always interesting to speculate as to why otherwise good, intelligent and thoughtful people end up doing crazy things, even breaking the law or justifying wickedness. Often it can occur in a corporate context when the needs of the whole organization are seen to outweigh and even negate the needs of the individual. Churches with powerful brand names at the helm, or churches which are simply powerful brand names (if not in the wider Christian world then at least within the chosen constituency) can prove remarkably vulnerable to such because there you do not simply have the power of corporate branding reinforced by community, you also have the rhetoric of piety and forgiveness to cover a multitude of sins.

What I continue to find remarkable about the phenomenon of celebrity pastors and the teflon they enjoy is that most of these fellows are married. And if married, where are their wives? I mean, more wives have done more good to domesticate and train husbands than any mother has. (Which reminds me of the Stan Evans’ joke: “behind every successful man is a surprised mother-in-law.”) In other words, wives generally don’t let their husbands get away with much. I know conservative Protestants believe in wifely submission and all that. But the b-s detector in most homes is the wife.

So if celebrity makes pastors unaccountable to regular ecclesiastical oversight, what happened to the accountability that should be happening at home? Could it be that celebrity is an elixir that also damages celebrity pastors’ wives? Kathy Keller’s interview with the co-allies makes me think it does:

As Redeemer has transitioned from being a church plant to being an established church, how has your role and work as co-founder changed?

At first, Tim preached, and I was the staff. I typed and made sure the bulletin was printed, bought the hospitality groceries, kept the nursery, hired the musicians, and more. As we grew and added staff, though, I gratefully let go of piece after piece, until there were no pieces left. I then had to ask, What do I want to do? What do I feel called to do? The typical (if there is such a thing) pastor’s wife role did not apply, as most people had no idea who I was. (This was a plus, especially for our kids.) Words are my best thing, so I chose to oversee Redeemer’s communications and media. When that became more digitized, though, I found myself out of my depth. So I hired a director to take my position and became the assistant director of communications and media. Unofficially, I am the Keeper of the Memory and the Quality Control Officer.

Here’s the problem. It looks like celebrity pastors’ wives become part of the ministry and therefore part of the brand. And once this happens, wives lose their capacity to detect b-s. I mean, if the missus were an editor of Old Life, a research assistant on my book on Mencken, graded papers for the courses I teach, my success and stature would be a big part of what defines Mrs. Hart’s success and stature. As it is, though, she has a life and can look on at the blog, writing, speaking, and teaching as so much background noise for trying to pay the bills, be active in the local church, feed the cat, and get her own work done. Sometimes what I do is clever or notable to the missus. But she’s hardly hanging on to every square inch of every word.

Postscript: having a person who works in the Redeemer Church network of agencies interview TKNY’s wife is not exactly Katie Couric putting Sarah Palin on the spot. Some might call it puffery, at best it belongs in the feature section of the newspaper. But it is hardly all the news that’s fit to print. Do the co-allies never see how much their alliance resembles the Chamber of Commerce? Talk about accountability.