I have recently been wondering what a dinner that included Tim Keller, John Piper, and Woody Allen might look like. This is not a major stretch since my apologetics paper for John Frame as a junior at Westminster was a dialogue between Woody and Corny (as in Cornelius Van Til). I can imagine that Keller would prepare by watching many of Allenâ€™s movies so that he could present reasons for God. Piper might prepare by finding a way to confront Allen about his affairs with women and his current relationship with the daughter (adopted) of Allenâ€™s ex-lover.
But what is most intriguing in this scenario (to me) is the possible interaction between Keller and Piper. Would the New York pastor feel awkward acknowledging to Piper his knowledge of Allenâ€™s movies and their sexual content? Would Keller even have a glass of wine with the meal? And would Piper restrain some of his words to Allen because of Kellerâ€™s interest in reaching New Yorkers? Would Piper recommend that the three diners go to a cheaper restaurant to save money and avoid ostentation?
Piperâ€™s recent remarks about what could break the â€œGospel-Centered Movementâ€ apart are partly responsible for these wonders about â€œTheir Dinner with Woody.â€ As our New England correspondent usefully summarized the Minneapolis pastorâ€™s remarks, five behaviors could undermine the Young Calvinist revival of the awe and majesty of God. They are:
1. The movies we watch
2. Big appetites for beer
3. The lure of pornography
4. The carelessly attended, weekend, default movie
5. Hip-huggers and plunging necklines
Justin Taylor, who posted the clip at his Gospel Coaltion blog, warned about rushing to judge Piper for his implicit judgmentalism. That warning is an indication itself that the Piperâ€™s words could easily be misinterpreted and twisted, such as the idea that pornography and beer are equally threatening to holiness. But even with Taylorâ€™s warning in mind, three anomalies haunt Piperâ€™s remarks and Taylorâ€™s publicizing of them.
First, Piper is clear that the majesty of God is at the heart of genuine Christian piety. Piper says around 2:30 of the clip that he is concerned about the disconnect between the majesty of God sung about in contemporary Christian music (I suppose much of it coming from Sovereign Grace sources), â€œthat causes people to soar with an emotional euphoria about the greatness of God and the wires of the details of our practical daily lives.â€ That way of putting it implies that the problem is not simply the disconnect between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of his saints, but also the difference between an evangelical-styled beatific vision of God and human life on planet earth. Now Piper does go on to contrast holiness and wickedness. But he started that set of contrasts with one between a spiritual high of experiencing Godâ€™s majesty and the low of living with the ordinary aspects of human existence, an existence that even after the fall is not inherently wicked.
What makes this point potentially faulty â€“ that is, the contrast between â€œdesiring Godâ€ and â€œliving an earthly existenceâ€ â€“ is that the Bible itself does not necessarily cultivate an appetite for the kind of experience lauded by Piper. The saints of the Old Testament were not the most virtuous; not even the great King David could keep his hormones in the Bible. And yet God not only chose to include these strange bits of ancient near eastern culture in Scripture, but also to reveal himself and his salvation through them. Mind you, David is not an example of Christian living. But neither did the final editors of holy writ (whether Israelite redactors or the Holy Trinity) decide to remove him from the canon for fear of distracting believers from a vision and experience of the supremacy of God. Even in the New Testament, the stories of Jesus do not end with him leaving lasting impressions on people who in turn go off in search of soul-wrenching encounters with divine majesty. Instead, the gospels are filled with earthy stories about real life encounters between people who lived in ordinary circumstances under not so savory rulers and earthly powers. In which case, I wonder if Piperâ€™s desire for God cultivates an appetite that even Scripture cannot fulfill because the contents of the Bible are more like Woody Allenâ€™s movies than the worship songs Piper admires.
Second, I wonder if Piperâ€™s concerns about beer and movies make the saints at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City uncomfortable. As reported in the Nicotine Theological Journal (July 2008), Redeemer Church has sponsored an adult version of Vacation Bible School that featured courses in wine tasting, New York Yankees baseball, and even Wagnerâ€™s operas. I myself am not sure why a church needs to sponsor such forms of continuing education. But Redeemer and Keller are on record about wanting to cultivate the arts and culture, which is why Keller would likely gear up for and enjoy a dinner with Woody Allen. That also means that the saints at Redeemer church would not necessarily be comfortable with the cultural horizons of the Gospel Coalition if Piper were in charge of setting its event calendar. That also means that culture, engaging it, transforming it, and redeeming it, is a potentially divisive topic for two of the top allies in the Gospel Coalition. In which case, itâ€™s not hip huggers or plunging necklines but rival forms of experimental Calvinism that could split the Gospel Coalition portion of the Gospel-Centered movement.
Third, I wonder why beer, movies, or piety would be more divisive for gospel believers than the sacraments. I may sound like a broken record, but the Gospel Coalition is comprised at least of Baptists and Presbyterians. Some of the Coalitionâ€™s Baptists have even said that the practice of infant baptism is a sin. This reaction to differences over baptism seem to be much more honorable and honest than simply ignoring the teachings and practices of the communions from which the Co-Allies come for the sake of a gospel-centered movement. After all, Lutherans and Reformed Protestants are in different communions precisely because Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli believed that a Gospel-Centered movement like the Reformation extended to the means of grace, those very ordinances by which God confirms and seals the gospel.
Piperâ€™s remarks are several years old and so passed without breaking up the Gospel Coalition. But they do suggest that the Coalitionâ€™s unity could unravel as quickly as the Dude can mix a Caucasian or in the time it takes young Calvinists to discover the delights of the Coen Brothers.