White Supremacy Paves the Way for Asian-Americans (go figure)

While Thabiti Anyabwile claims Bradly Mason as an authority on systemic racism, he might want to pay attention to the situation in New York City public schools (as explained by Andrew Sullivan):

If I were to put a time capsule in the ground to alert future generations what it was like to live in 2019, I think I’d include two simple documents: a video and transcript of one of Donald J. Trump’s deranged and unnerving rallies, and a chart used by the New York City schools system to train all its administrators, principals, and supervisors. The chart’s title is “White Supremacy Culture” and you can take a look at it here.

Back in the day (about five years ago, actually), if you thought of “white supremacy culture” you might have imagined, say, depictions of brutal slavery, crackpot theories of a master race, photographs of burning crosses on lawns, terrifying images of lynchings, or “whites only” signs, or a video of the Charlottesville neo-fascists. You know what I mean. And I think I’d be glad that public schools were educating employees about America’s original sin.

But that, of course, is not what “white supremacy” has come to mean among woke elites in 2019. And the chart, which is taken from a tome called Dismantling Racism: A Resource Book for Social Change Groups, explains what the term now means. Namely: “being results oriented and diminishing an otherwise-sound process which does not produce measurable results”; “seeing things in terms of good or bad, right or wrong, black or white”; “individualism”; “worship of the written word”; an overemphasis on “politeness”; “perfectionism”; “focusing only on the bottom line.” Now, if I were to give this material every benefit of the doubt, I’d note it’s perfectly reasonable to attempt to mitigate some kinds of obsessive conduct, excessive self-criticism, or distorted perspective among kids. We all know that perfectionism can lead to misery (tell me about it), that short-term thinking can be counterproductive, or that students need to have interpersonal skills as well as mastery of the written material. I’ve no doubt principals and administrators get this. But why on earth is this connected in some way to resisting “whiteness”?

But what this document clearly does is much more than that. It seems to me that it finds some essential features of success in America (or anywhere else, for that matter) as somehow racially problematic. And so a major school system is effectively telling principals and administrators not to expect the very best of their mainly minority students, not to reward individual effort, or mastery of written English, to instruct students that there are no binary choices between right or wrong, and to banish from their minds any notion of objective truth. The problem with objectivity, it seems, is that it “can lead to the belief that there is an ultimate truth, and that alternative viewpoints or emotions are bad. It’s even inherent in ‘the belief that there is an objective truth.’” This is not just bad education, it’s an assault on the very principles that buttress Western civilization.

Worse than this, the ideology equates excellence in objective tests with not just whiteness (whatever that is) but white supremacy. And it does this in a school district with enormous racial diversity. It’s hard not to infer that it is an official endorsement — by the schools chancellor no less — of the damaging canard that studying hard in school, doing your homework, and striving for excellence is “acting white.” And this is despite the fact that the ethnic group that is succeeding the most by traditional standards of excellence in New York City’s schools are Asian-Americans. (They comprise 74 percent of students at Stuyvesant High School, because Stuyvesant doesn’t admit students on any other metric than test scores.) Funny, isn’t it, how “white supremacy culture” ends up empowering nonwhites. I’m not sure real white supremacists would be down with that.

I’m often told that the social-justice left’s assault on individuality, meritocracy, and achievement is a figment of my imagination, or only true in isolated pockets of super-woke academia. But here is one of the largest school systems in the country imposing this ideology on its most important employees, mandating lessons in “whiteness,” allegedly firing women solely because they are white, and indoctrinating an entire generation into associating the virtues of objective truth, academic excellence, and reason with the worst kind of bigotry.

Notice that we have elites in Reformedish evangelical circles, those who want to do for Protestant churches what public school officials are doing in New York’s school systems.

How did it possibly happen that in the microscopic world of conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches we could have our very own elites?

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.

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)

Only Professionals Have Licenses to Conduct Historical Science

Michael Haykin seems to deny the doctrine of vocation when he argues that every believer needs to be a good historian:

history is obviously important to God, since it is the realm where God ultimately brings about the salvation of his people by entering into the very fabric of time and taking on our humanity, sin excepted, in the person of Jesus Christ. This divine activity in the realm of history should not be restricted to the Bible. Though it is impossible to trace out his footsteps across the sands of time in detail, it is blasphemous to deny that God is at work. His work may often be hidden, but it is biblical to confess that he is providentially guiding history for the glory of his Name and the good of his people. As such, to quote the seventeenth-century Puritan Richard Baxter, “The writing of Church-history is the duty of all ages, because God’s works are to be known, as well as his Word.” Reading Church history should lead therefore to the praise of God and his adoration.

This is a tad sloppy and betrays that evangelical earnestness so often eager to find in every-square-inch Neo-Calvinism that magic wand to integrate everything. Everyone, thanks to the Holy Spirit, can now see historical significance, perform algebra equations, and tie boating knots. Well, not really. All good believers, even the most gullible, won’t come to my door in hopes of finding a cure for that nagging pain in the sciatica. Maybe to be a good historian it helps to go to graduate school and obtain a license.

But, when Haykin writes this:

Without the past our lives have little or no meaning. When a community forgets its past, it is like a person suffering from dementia: they really cannot function in the world. So we must study history, and as Christians, this means Church history.

He has a point.

Imagine the pain Tim Keller might have avoided if he had known better the struggles between Machen and Old Princeton, between Old School and New School Presbyterians, or between New York and Philadelphia presbyteries. For that matter, why doesn’t the Gospel Industrial Complex have a better memory of Carl Henry, Billy Graham, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Fuller Seminary?

Selective skepticism? Heck, selective memory.

Tim Keller Plants, New York City Gives the Growth

In the ballpark of always affirming, always sunny religious journalism comes Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra’s puff piece on Tim Keller’s retirement at Redeemer NYC. I am not sure that this is the kind of analysis of context that Joe Carter had in mind for the Gospel Coalition’s journalistic forays:

The three main forms of journalism we use at TGC (opinion and advocacy journalism; reporting and narrative journalism; explanatory journalism) are all used to help the church think more clearly about the gospel and how it leads us to interact with the world.

Although, since Carter thinks journalism at TGC should promote revivals, Zylstra’s piece certainly does that. Her account shows, whether she intended or not, how much Keller’s position in New York City made him stand out in ways that no one else among the Allies could. If you do a word count on Zylstra’s story, she mentions the PCA twice, Presbyterian six times, and New York 37 times. As for the work of the Holy Spirit — nada.

If religious journalism at TGC is supposed to promote revivals, that would place Zylstra’s rendering of Keller more on the Finney than the Whitefield side of pretty good awakenings since Finney wasn’t big on the Holy Spirit either.

What I don’t understand is why Mark Dever doesn’t get more attention in the TGC world. There he is ministering in the nation’s capitol, the center of American power, the place from which the United States leads the free world. And yet, to get traction as an urban church planter you need the mojo of the nation’s biggest city, the place that nurtured and shaped Donald J. Trump.

What’s up with that?

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!

Why Didn’t Douthat Recommend Keller?

When Ross encouraged liberals to go to church on Easter, he even mentioned Marilynne Robinson:

Liberals, give mainline Protestantism another chance.

Do it for your political philosophy: More religion would make liberalism more intellectually coherent (the “created” in “created equal” is there for a reason), more politically effective, more rooted in its own history, less of a congerie of suspicious “allies” and more of an actual fraternity.

Do it for your friends and neighbors, town and cities: Thriving congregations have spillover effects that even anti-Trump marches can’t match.

Do it for your family: Church is good for health and happiness, it’s a better place to meet a mate than Tinder, and even its most modernized form is still an ark of memory, a link between the living and the dead.

I understand that there’s the minor problem of actual belief. But honestly, dear liberals, many of you do believe in the kind of open Gospel that a lot of mainline churches preach.

If pressed, most of you aren’t hard-core atheists: You pursue religious experiences, you have affinities for Unitarianism or Quakerism, you can even appreciate Christian orthodoxy when it’s woven into Marilynne Robinson novels or the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

Did Princeton Seminary spook Douthat? Shouldn’t Jonathan Merritt be outraged that Douthat snubbed Keller?

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?

Spring Break with Tim

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

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

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

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

Now notice this: families are important to covenant religion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheesh.

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

And then I also saw this from Christopher Lasch:

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

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

What if the dangers of urban life are real?

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

But Keller remains optimistic:

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

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

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

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

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

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?