Goooooooooooooooooalllll!!!!!

When John Fea gets it right, he gets it (mainly). He recently reflected on life in a small town:

Messiah is located in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Mechanicsburg is not a very cosmopolitan place. Many of my neighbors have lived in the town for multiple generations. Some young people get out of town after graduation and never come back, but many never leave. We have all the usual problems associated with small towns. Race-relations could be better. Drug deals go down in the convenience store parking lots. The wealthy members of our town cloister in their gated communities. But this is where we decided to raise our family.

When we arrived in Mechanicsburg our daughters–Allyson and Caroline– were ages four and one. They attended kindergarten through high school in Mechanicsburg Area School District. We chose to live in the Mechanicsburg School District as opposed to the larger regional Cumberland Valley School District (with more opportunities) because we wanted a smaller, more intimate community for our kids. Both of them have thrived in this district and we have never regretted our choice.

Some folks in town who know me may think it is odd that I am writing about the sense of community I feel in Mechanicsburg. As an introvert, I tend to keep to myself. I would rather watch my kids play sports seated alone than join a crowd of cheering fans. I am not very good at small talk. I coached my girls in basketball when they were in elementary school, but I got disgusted with the politics, the ambitious parents, and the way many of those parents treated the selfless staff of our town’s recreation department, so I stopped. I have not participated as much in the local life of my community largely because of the time I spend investing in the life of Messiah College. But I have tried to serve when asked. I could do better.

Then he mixes in Friday Night Lights for fathers without sons (with apologies to Texans):

I thought about my relationship with this community again as I sat in the cold last night and watched the Mechanicsburg Girls Soccer team play their final home game of the season. It was the second round of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association’s District 3 playoffs. The girls won 4-0 over a team from Berks County and advanced to the District semifinals on Monday night at Hershey Park Stadium. They are now 20-0 and ranked 21st in the nation. A great story is developing here in small-town Mechanicsburg. My daughter Caroline plays a minimum number of minutes each game, but she has been an intricate part of a team that is making local history. She has been playing soccer with many of the seniors on this team since she was eight-years-old. Some of these girls are her best friends. Mechanicsburg is Caroline’s community. This place has shaped her life in so many good ways.

Caroline had mixed emotions last night. Her team will play again next week and, if things go well, will try to make a run in the state tournament. Yet the sadness of playing her last game on her home field with her friends was palpable as she walked across the field to meet us. Her tears were a mixture of joy for the blessing of an undefeated season (so far) and sadness that it was all nearing an end. I fought them back as well.

From Hillsdale, Mechanicsburg looks like it’s on the grid. It’s a suburb of Harrisburg (the state capital for the geographically challenged) and only 40 minutes from Lancaster, and 90 from Baltimore. In Hillsdale you are 90 minutes from Ann Arbor, 2 hours from Birmingham (there is one in Michigan and it is spectacular!), and 4 hours from Chicago.

The irony is that I started my college career at Messiah. The college was about half the size that it is now. And the name of our dorm floor, for inter-mural athletics, was The American House. That sounded patriotic but was actually the name of a bar in Mechanicsburg where some of the lads went to drink PBR (on tap!!). At the time, 18-year olds could drink (Kavanaugh-like), though that was not exactly how Messiah’s dean of students understood it. But apparently no one in the administration knew the reference or they simply thought our joke was silly and ignored it. Over time I found the college so far removed from urban life that I transferred to Temple in my sophomore year (after doing one semester at Messiah’s center city campus). Now I teach at a college 2/3 the size of Messiah and am even farther from the East Coast than I was in the remote setting of south central Pennsylvania.

The Lord works in mysterious ways.

I have no regrets about Hillsdale. It is the best job of my career and a wonderful school. But sometimes I wonder what it would be like to teach somewhere like Messiah, where access to the Northeast corridor is much easier.

All of which may explain why Fea and I have different reactions to Americans and evangelicals who voted for Trump. John concedes that he was somewhat sympathetic to anti-elitism in America after hearing graduate students at a recent conference:

There was a sense of confidence in their speech as they talked about their prestigious advisers and the quality of the graduate programs where they earned their Ph.Ds. They did not seem overly worried about landing a job. Rather, their complaints focused more on the fact that so many jobs were located in rural communities in so-called “Red States” where they did not want to live. Their conversation was infused with the kind of cosmopolitan snobbishness that I often hear in academic circles. As I listened to them talk, I thought that maybe all those Trump voters and Fox News watchers are correct about the “coastal elites.”

Yet, that disdain for coastal snobbishness has not stopped Fea from sounding like the Never Trumpers who live and work on the coasts (with the exception of Austin or St. Louis thrown in). If he lived in rural Michigan would he see through Michael Gerson’s coastal elitism?

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Old Urbanism

H. L. Mencken was so much more than an iconclast:

The chief beauty of such a town as Paris lies in the harmony visible in its architecture, and particularly in the architecture of its private buildings. Look down any of the principal streets and you will note at once that most of the houses are of a height, and, what is more, that most of them are of the same general style. In the treatment of details there remains plenty of room for individual enterprise and skill. Some houses are quite commonplace. But taken together they produce an effect of order and dignity. There are no bloody wars between Doric and Gothic, Moorish and Tudor English, the pointed arch and the mansard roof, the Corinthian column and the Byzantine minaret. Huge towers do not leap indecently from squat Greek temples. The stories of one house are not twice as high as the stories of the house next door.

Even in London, a town generally hideous, an effort at harmony is still visible. True enough, you will find huge sarcophagi shouldering pretty little Georgian houses in Pall Mall, and a saturnalia of styles in Park lane, but in most other parts of the West End every separate street, beside its virtues in detail, has some virtue as a whole. It is, in fact, a street, and not a mere hodge-podge of houses. The roofline is broken, not by leaps, but by intelligible progressions. And if we cross the Channel and proceed to such streets as the Ludwigstrasse, in Munich, we find harmony become almost perfect.

Harmony, of course, does not mean sameness. Here in Baltimore, at least in our residence sections, we have plenty of sameness. One wanders for hours through endless rows of undifferentiated houses. Citizens in liquor are constantly pulling the wrong bells, swearing at the wrong keyholes. It is difficult, so I hear, even for a teetotaler to find his house on foggy nights; the wine-bibber, in despair, frankly gives it up and so stays down town. But that ugly and depressing monotony is not harmony–no more, indeed, than the beating of a tom-tom is music. Harmony means the agreeable co-ordination of distinct but related details. It is important that they have elements in common, but it is also important that they have elements not in common.

Such harmony is rare in Baltimore. South street, for example, which might well have had character and beauty, for its builders did not lack money, is unspeakably and amazingly ugly. It has beautiful details, true enough, but the general effect is cacophonous and repulsive. So with Baltimore street, Lexington street, Hopkins Place. Even Mount Vernon Place, for all its charm, is still chaotic and disturbing. The serene dignity of a London square is not in it: the war between its antagonistic details is too savage and too noisy.

Why Doesn’t Mere Orthodoxy Take Heed of Full Orthodoxy

Matthew Loftus thinks conservative Christians have more in common with immigrants from non-Christian countries because of the civilizational angle:

If globalism and liquid modernity are the problem, then immigration restriction is cutting off one of the few sources of new citizens who might possible share your views on the priority of faith and family and the importance of religion in providing some moral undercurrent (or restraint) for the state’s actions. Both Putin and Trump appear to be happy to throw a bone to religious conservatives in order for their loyal support, but neither has any respect for human life in the eyes of the state and would happily preside over a fiefdom full of people lost in drugs, alcohol, gambling, or sex as long as they stay in power. There won’t be much civilization left to defend because modernity will continue its corrosive destruction through the institutions we love and believe in– the individualistic atomism that is hollowing out our civilization is a juggernaut that cannot be stopped by an authoritarian state and closed borders.

The lesson for Trumpsters is apparently apparent, but why not for big city pastors who trumpet (see what I did there?) urban life as the kingdom coming? When oh when will the young restless sovereigntists ever see that modernity clings to very institutions that they consider to be “traditional” or conservative (like Gospel Coalition and Tim Keller New York City Inc.)?

Imagine if the head pastor at Redeemer NYC had to respond to this:

…resisting the corrosive and disenchanting forces of modernity is going to require solidarity across ethnic, national, and religious lines because there is a large bundle of assumptions about the self, the world, and God that we share. What’s more, intentionally assimilating people into otherwise racially and religiously homogeneous communities might be one of our best chances at building that solidarity and preventing these newcomers from becoming balkanized (or, God help us, Democrats). Whether you want real civilization that is communal instead of individualistic or genuine ideology that governs according to principle rather than power-grabbing, immigrants and refugees are conservatives’ allies.

Can Mr. Loftus ever imagine that Old School Presbyterians are closer to his concerns about modernity, community, and the self than New Calvinists who thrive in the oh so modern settings of the Internet, weekend conferences, and celebrity pastors and authorettes? If you want real solidarity among believers, try strong local congregations with clear lines of accountability who send commissioners to wider church assemblies to oversee the lives of officers and church members. It’s not magic and it’s often not as thick as village life in the Outer Hebrides, but Presbyterianism is as good a Christian effort as any to resist modernity. You sure won’t find it in the Big Apple unless you live in the ghetto.

Could Keller Have Saved Detroit?

I haven’t seen too many posts from the transformers about Detroit’s decline and bankruptcy. (I can’t say that I would be all that concerned with Detroit if I were not now a Michigander.) Detroit is not chic. Even when it was the Paris of the mid-West it was still in fly over country and didn’t have the ginormous buildings that made East Coast folks marvel at Chicago. Then there was the automobile industry. If Detroit had been the home of Mercedes or BMW maybe New Yorkers would have cared. Just as likely, New Yorkers (and Philadelphians) would have preferred Chevys and Fords if Detroit made Mercedes and BeeMers.

Still, the woes of Detroit do put into perspective the hyperventilation that goes on in some neo-Calvinist circles when folks talk about the power of the gospel to redeem all of life. Cases like Detroit would certainly call for a bit of qualification to follow those inspirational claims since I am not sure that even having thirty full Reformed and Presbyterian congregations could have forestalled a constellation of circumstances that calls for David Simon’s genius. In other words, if you whet people’s appetites for transforming culture, then don’t they become disappointed when Detroits come along (as Geneva did not though its ecclesial fortunes have declined while its political and economic success has soured soared).

In which case, what the gospel does is not cultural but spiritual. And what works culturally are matters, still from God, but having little to do with what he sent his only begotten son to do.

And to help with this lesson in two-kingdom distinction-making, along comes an astute post by Matt Feeney on why the suburbs overwhelmed Detroit — because Detroit was a city that resembled a suburb:

For a long time I’ve thought an underappreciated factor in Detroit’s demise was this mix of housing, or, this lack of a mix of housing. The city is a virtual monoculture, residentially speaking, 140 square miles of detached, owner-occupied, single-family homes. Being a monoculture made it vulnerable to a particular pathogen that infected many large cities, but not so thoroughly as it did Detroit, the run on real estate known as white flight. If you were renting an apartment in a dense patch of, say, Chicago, in the 1950s or early 60s, the distant sound of whites fleeing areas to the south and west perhaps foretold a change in your neighborhood, which you may or may not have welcomed, but it didn’t make you panic that your biggest investment was heading for a collapse in value, because you were just renting. And so those who did own houses on the leafy back stretches of your cross-street could take your relative equanimity, and of the whole clot of other renters you’re part of, into account. Not everyone would be reacting to the same cues. Change would be slower and less total. It might be worth it to stay put.

Homeowners in Detroit had no such break on their panic. It was all houses, almost all owned by the families inside them. Maybe they were racists, the white people who owned and sold those houses, but it wouldn’t have mattered. You didn’t have to be a racist to flee whitely. You just had to suspect that some meaningful portion of your neighbors were, or that some meaningful portion of your non-racist neighbors were engaged in a slightly more anxious calculation than you were, for your market behavior to become identical to theirs: Sell! Racial fear and the endemic anxiety of homeowning fueled each other. The ’67 riots didn’t help, but those two factors were already spinning in a feedback loop.

This suggests another convenient, Jane Jacobs- and James Scott-inspired hypothesis I’ll just throw out there: Detroit’s stunning increase in violence, which made it the Murder Capitol in ’73, was not unrelated to this housing scheme. As in arid planned cities like Brasilia that turn sketchier than anyone imagined, life in the atomized residential blocks of Detroit is carried on less visibly, more amenably to crime, than in dense urban streets with 24-hour business happening under the streetlights of busy intersections. Crime obviously happens amid urban density, but maybe it’s easier for violence and fear to invade and conquer a place where so much less other life is visibly happening. And maybe this housing scheme heightened racial suspicion by making so much black-white interaction so private, comparatively, and high-stakes, subjectively, our property lines tending to be etched in vigilance already, if not yet fear: Why is that black man walking down our all-white street? Past our homes? Where our children live?

This non-mix of housing has of course made Detroit a less attractive target for repopulation and gentrification than pretty much any city of its original size, not to mention of its cultural prominence. (And this is the real issue in this conversation, not why Detroit went downhill – virtually all eastern cities lost jobs and people and saw crime rise after WWII – but why it kept going downhill and saw no revival as even humble rivals like Cleveland did.) Indeed, some of Detroit’s closer suburbs feel more like urban neighborhoods, by the light of the current urban BoBo revival, than most of Detroit does, or did, or, probably, could. By the 1980s middle-/working-class Royal Oak was already becoming a hip quasi-urban destination, with clubs and restaurants lining Woodward Avenue. More recently this role’s been taken up by Ferndale, right across blighted Eight Mile Road to the north, a humble old working-class suburb of little houses that used to be called “Fabulous Ferndale” ironically, because of its dilapidation under the care of poor whites, but which now bears that handle unironically, or in ironically self-canceling irony about the old irony – because it’s hip now, and because it’s where the gay people live and, perforce, fabulous. Buzzing right up against Detroit as it does, anchored in a strip of Nine Mile Road that probably has more vintage clothing stores than trees, peopled by hipsters living in its low-slung houses on its highly uninteresting streets, Ferndale feels like the gentrifying BoBo impulse throwing up its hands and saying, “Look, we’re really trying, but this is the best we can do.”

City planning in the name of Christ might help though it would likely add unnecessarily to too many meetings. But how about some basic city planning with or without Christ for all those pikers living this side of glory?

The Corporate Gullibility of the Church

Call it harmonic divergence, but I couldn’t help but read the transcript Tim Keller’s remarks on “gospel ecosystems” in the light of J. Gresham Machen’s remarks about the corporate responsibility of the church. I happened to be teaching on the latter during adult Sunday school and reading the former after a holy day feast and the evening service. Maybe reading Keller and Machen in such close proximity is unfair to both men, but odd combinations like this regularly come with the turf of contemporary conservative Presbyterianism in the United States.

For those uninitiated, Keller’s notion of a gospel eco-system is an infelicitous (because it presumes scientific status just like Charles Finney’s New Measures) way of describing the sort of church planting efforts in which Redeemer Presbyterian Church is engaged (yes, by now it should go without saying) in New York City. According to Keller:

. . . an ecosystem is a dynamic balanced set of forces and energies that grow each other. Now the question I want to talk to you about today, is how do you start a gospel movement in your city, or how can you see a gospel movement develop in your city? . . . .

A gospel movement is this: a gospel movement happens in a city when across churches, across multiple denominations and networks, and beyond any one key leader or any one command center, or any one denomination, you actually have the body of Christ in the city geometrically growing, not just reconfiguring. The vast majority of what we consider, you know, “good things happening in that city,” is a reconfiguration of the body of Christ, not an actual growth of the body of Christ against the overall population. When the body of Christ is growing from 1% to 5% to 10% of the population, because its growing faster than the population, its actually growing.

Machen’s notion of corporate witness of the church refers to the obligations that everyone within a communion (especially one with presbyterian connections) has for anyone, like Keller or Machen, who preaches on the basis of the communion’s approval. He wrote:

The corporate witness-bearing of the Presbyterian church is carried on especially through the pulpit. Under Presbyterian law, no man can permanently occupy a pulpit of the church without the church’s endorsement; the preacher therefore speaks not only for himself, but for the church. That does not mean that the church seeks to impose any beliefs upon any man simply on the ground that they are beliefs of the church; it does not mean that there is the slightest interference with the right of private judgment. But it means that if a man is to speak in a Presbyterian pulpit, and obtain the endorsement which is involved in that position, he must be in agreement with the message for which the propagation of which the church, in accordance with its constitution, plainly exists.

The obvious implication for Keller’s gospel ecosystem is that all members of the PCA (along with those in churches that have fraternal relations with the PCA) are responsible for Keller’s ideas and practice. Of course, if his scheme is desirable and faithful, then everyone in the PCA gets to bask in the positive contribution of Redeemer New York. At the same, if Keller’s proposal is undesirable and unfaithful, then for starters members of the PCA have an obligation to walk Keller away from the ledge of this flawed measures.

Several reasons exist for questioning Keller’s idea of gospel ecosystem. At the level of Reformed theology and church polity, Keller’s notion of participating with non-Reformed churches in a church planting effort runs directly up against the problem of Calvinists cooperating with Arminians in evangelism and discipleship. It also conflicts with any notion of jure divino Presbyterianism, that is the idea that presbyterian polity is revealed in Scripture as the way to govern the church and oversee its ministry of word and sacrament. Nor is it entirely clear how Keller’s form of cooperation squares with the rules governing the PCA’s fraternal relations.

But while these concerns are part and parcel of an oldlife church-and-life view, Keller’s talk raises additional questions about the wisdom of those who apparently think the New York City pastor is the guy who hung the moon on contemporary Reformed ministry. His argument fails at any number of points and raises the possibility that those who find his arguments compelling have the same kind of critical skills as those who insist upon a young earth (despite the speed of light and the age of planets) or who believe in a Christian America (while still holding to liberty and justice for Jews, Mormons, and unbelievers). For when you look even in a cursory manner at Keller’s idea and supporting reflections, you wonder why the PCA would take the idea of developing gospel eco-systems sufficiently seriously to include them in a strategic plan and potentially devote human and financial resources to it.

1) Why would anyone heed a pastor with ideas about urban life if they were at all familiar with the history of cities, schools of urban planning, and the politics and economics that drive modern American urban centers? At the same time, why should anyone take my complaining about Keller’s lack of expertise on urban life seriously since I am also without street cred as an urban theorist? This is a fair question but skeptics of me would then need to be skeptical about Keller’s claims to read the tea leaves of urban life.
I would feel a whole lot better about Keller’s assertions about cities if he referred to names I do know about, like Jane Jacobs who singlehandedly saved neighborhoods in New York City from awful urban design, or Howard Kunstler who has argued repeatedly and voraciously against the suburbanization of the United States, or fellows at the Manhattan Institute who regularly comment on all sorts of aspects of New York’s public policies and institutions.

I’d feel even more comfortable if I thought that Keller had once rented and viewed the entire HBO series, The Wire, which may be bleak but offers a remarkably realistic assessment of the factors at play in modern American cities, circumstances that pose real barriers to church planting for starters and ultimately to urban redemption (if the salvation of non-human realities were possible).

2) Why use the metaphor of ecosystem when the Bible already provides an organic and less lethal metaphor? According to Keller, an ecosystem is “where you have a set of forces that sustain each other, interact with each other, stimulate each other. So organism A eats organism B, and it’s a good thing for organism C, because if organism B’s numbers weren’t tamped down, organism C wouldn’t exist because organism B eats C. And, organism A eats C, which means, if there wasn’t enough organism C there wouldn’t be any organisms A, but because they are all eating each other, because they are all, you might say, in a sense sustaining each other, you’ve got an ecosystem.” He glides pretty effortlessly from this organism-eat-organism world into a vision of churches in a city where they are cooperating to plant churches and gain new converts, and usher in a world of Protestant harmony. Keller prefers ecosystem to a denominational pattern where Christians simply circulate among different denominations depending on the stage of their spiritual life.

But an ecosystem would actually call for Presbyterians to eat Pentecostals who would eat Baptists who in turn would eat Lutherans, with these different denominational groups living with the others simply as necessary food for existence.

A better organic model, of course, is the body of Christ. I guess it would be less attractive than ecosystem because it might mean that Presbyterians are the brain and Pentecostals are the soul. But at least a body would be less Darwinian.

2a) How can an ecosystem be a movement? An ecosystem is a biological concept, a movement is a sociological category, and yet Keller has no trouble using the imagery of ecosystem as the basis for a movement. Maybe I am bound too much by academic categories, but I think church planters would have much more to learn from sociologists than from biologists when it comes to the place of congregations in a city. At the same time, I am not persuaded that describing Christianity as a movement is all that valuable. Movements, sociologically speaking, connote people who come together for certain political or economic ends. To speak of a Christian movement raises the specter – look out! – of the Religious Right.

3) Is New York City really comparable to a prison? I know many Americans would answer yes given the city’s reputation for worldliness and economic elitism. But when Keller speaks of a “city tipping point” and uses the experience of Prison Fellowship as an example, I’m not sure he thought through the potential problem:

what Chuck Colsen says, that there’s a, that when more than 10% of the population of a prison get involved in Christian ministries, get converted or get involved Christian ministries, he says that before that 10% place, obviously people’s lives are being changed, but you don’t seen much different in this prison, the prison doesn’t look any different than any other prison. But when you get to a certain spot where, there’s maybe 10%, its not a science, its not wooden, but there’s a spot at which the whole prison begins to change. The relationships between the guards and the prisoners begins to change, the culture of the prison begins to change, and even the look of the prison begins to change. And we also know it’s the same thing with neighborhoods, by the way.

Actually, I think sociologists and political scientists might be in a better position than a man who is working on sermons all week to say with certainty what happens in neighborhoods when populations change. But how will New Yorkers feel when they hear that a neighborhood in their city is like a prison population before ten percent of its residents become a Christian? The answer is probably the way they would feel if they ever talked to my fundamentalist parents about the desirability of living in the city.

3a) Will New York become like Wheaton, Illinois if Keller is succeeds?

The reason for asking is that Wheaton is actually a city – it really is a city according Illinois’ calculations – with a population of roughly 56,000. The city also has 63 churches, which ranks as one of the highest level of churches per capita in any American city. That sounds like Wheaton might qualify as a gospel ecosystem.

If so, does Keller’s vision for New York City involve turning the Big Apple into a Mid-western city of middle class and evangelical Protestant sensibilities? That would not be the worst thing. Having spent four years in the evangelical Jerusalem, I can vouch for Wheaton’s charms. At the same time, my preference is for the grit, grime, crime, and headaches of a big city because with those circumstances come the arts, universities, cultural experimentation, major league sports, and hustle and bustle.

In which case, would New York City have the hipness that makes Redeemer NYC attractive to Gen Xers in the PCA if it hosted a gospel ecosystem? Or would New York become as white-bred as a community like Wheaton, with its stability, standards, and restraint? I am not sure, though, how you hold on to urban chic while being evangelically earnest is a mystery. Maybe New York would turn into Omaha or Minneapolis. Then, would Redeemer NYC be cutting edge?

These questions do not exhaust my problems with Keller’s talk. Granted, it was only a talk and not an academic paper. But if the PCA is going to adopt the language of gospel ecosystem in its plan for missions, should Presbyterian Church in Americans ask for the fine print and supporting studies? Wouldn’t even common sense say that what works in New York City won’t fly in St. Louis or Atlanta? So if members of the PCA won’t fulfill the responsibilities that come with the corporate witness of the church, are they prepared to bear the burend of corporate gullibility?

Yet, if the PCA follows Keller, it won’t be the first time that Presbyterians have put evangelism ahead of theology and polity. New Siders did that in Keller’s region a long time ago when they believed that Presbyterian doctrines and church government had little to do with the Great Commission. So it wouldn’t be the first time in church history that a church — especially in New York City — was Presbyterian in name only. But if these guys are the smartest ones in NAPARC, they should be able to see through the holes in Keller’s strategy.