Tim Keller – a personal favourite of mine over the years – has recently tweeted a response to a First Things article by James R. Wood entitled: How I Evolved on Tim Keller. In his article Wood makes this assertion, that while Keller’s winsome apologetic approach worked in a kinder, gentler time, things have moved on somewhat. It’s a harder secular world we inhabit.
It’s a secular world in which any pretence that Christianity can somehow be seen as good and honourable and plausible, while it holds to a biblical sexual ethic, is no longer viable. Not only no longer viable, but bad, wrong and dangerous.
Wood, as a fan of Keller’s, is not angry or angular about his evolving. It’s an evolving, right? Not an outright rejection. But he does pose a question of Keller’s winsome approach when he observes that things have changed.
We have moved, says Wood, from what Aaron Renn calls the “neutral” position in terms of the culture’s perspective on evangelical faith to the “negative” perspective. We start out being met with hostility now instead of curiosity.
Wood cites Keller’s own experience back in 2017, of the protests that greeted his announcement as the recipient of the Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness, by Princeton University, and the subsequent withdrawal of that honour due to anger around Keller’s sexual ethic. And where did the protests come from? The wider university woke campus? No, the faculty and alumni of the Princeton Theological Seminary. A Reformed theologian of Keller’s immense public witness was deemed unworthy of that award due to his convictions around sexuality, and by those who he would have once considered his peers.
Wood goes on to observe:
If we assume that winsomeness will gain a favorable hearing, when Christians consistently receive heated pushback, we will be tempted to think our convictions are the problem. If winsomeness is met with hostility, it is easy to wonder, “Are we in the wrong?” Thus the slide toward secular culture’s reasoning is greased. A “secular-friendly” politics has problems similar to “seeker-friendly” worship. An excessive concern to appeal to the unchurched is plagued by the accommodationist temptation. This is all the more a problem in the “negative world.”
You can read the full article here, but my interest is in the tweeted response from the great man himself. Here’s how Keller responds to the discussion that ensued from Wood’s article:
You have to admire this man for his self-control and gracious attitude don’t you? In the Twittersphere in which almost anything goes, he is a beacon of gracious godliness. And he’s right too. Manhattan probably was like that in 1989. It was the nerve centre of Western culture in so many ways, and in so many ways it still is. There’s never been a point that Manhattan culture has looked at the Christian faith and seen it as either the solution to what ails it. There’s probably never a point in which Redeemer found itself in a neutral zone.
But here’s the thing, and it’s the reason that, while I still love Keller and his teaching, Wood is on to something. And what is that something? Simply this: We’re all Manhattan now.
Or to put it another way, “When everywhere’s Manhattan, nowhere will be.”
We’re all Manhattan now. What was once an outlier culture because it was a city centre – the city centre – is now downtown mall-rat thinking in the backwater towns of not just the USA, but the rest of the Western world. There was a time that if Redeemer could make it in New York City, then we could make it anywhere because NOWHERE was anything like Manhattan. And now EVERYWHERE is. And that’s a huge change.
Keller’s global audience, including those of us in Australia, was built upon the reality that if Keller could do what he was doing where he was, then we could do that ourselves in our far less hostile cultural settings. We assumed that the “negative” dial had been cranked down a bit for us. I could be the Costco Keller in downtown Perth, Western Australia, and that would work. Why? Because Perth only had a Costco version of Manhattan to tackle.
And now? Manhattan’s top shelf, black-label brand culture has been universalised across every Western setting, thanks partly the rapid rise in communication technologies that enable ideas to spread as quickly as they do. We are not an “institution led” culture any longer, we are an “influencer led” culture. In fact the most radical and progressive ideas are not simply coming from Manhattan, they are coming to Manhattan from across the globe, where they are then packaged beautifully by Manhattan and sent back out.
Yet it’s not just that we are all Manhattan now, it’s clear that Manhattan itself has changed. Things have ramped up. What Manhattan was in 1989 isn’t what Manhattan is in 2022.
It’s interesting that in his tweet Keller uses the word “mocked” to describe what the press did to Redeemer back in the day. He’s probably right. The press probably did mock them. But who are the types of people towards whom “mockery” is directed? Those whose ideas are not worth paying attention to. Silly people who should not be taken very seriously.
Mockery implies scorn: “Look at those backward clowns!” it seems to imply “Still banging on about a version of the faith that is on the wrong side of history.” We don’t mock people we consider to be dangerous, we mock people we consider to be misguided.
Do you think that that most Manhattan of press organs, The New York Times, views evangelicalism as merely misguided today? Do you think that the press in New York considers orthodox theological perspectives on sin, the human condition, the human body, to be matters to laugh about? Do you think that Manhattan just blithely ignores evangelical Christianity as the harmless idea that nobody should pay any attention to?
Hardly. The press in New York, and across the Western world, sees all of this as dangerous and unsafe; ideas akin to Nazism that need to be stamped out. A whole lot of time and attention is being paid across Manhattan and beyond to the underlying evil of ideas that hide under the “special pleading” of orthodox religious groups such as evangelical Christians. The neutrality associated with mockery is long gone.
Wood’s article delves into the world of public square policies and approaches to them in our current clime, and that may not interest everyone, but it’s worth pondering these words:
Keller’s “third way” philosophy has serious limitations as a framework for moral reasoning as well. Too often it encourages in its adherents a pietistic impulse to keep one’s hands clean, stay above the fray, and at a distance from imperfect options for addressing complex social and political issues. It can also produce conflict-aversion, and thus it is instinctively accommodating.
In Australia in recent years I’ve heard it put this way when someone in the public square gets scorched for holding to orthodox teaching on sexual ethics (regardless of how winsome they are): “They just weren’t very wise.” In other words the only path to wisdom is to stay above the fray in a state of almost pure detachment. A sort of politician’s “I couldn’t possibly say” response to a doorstop question. This is a dangerous approach to take, because Christian history may end up treating that so-called wisdom as utter foolishness. Time will tell.
Now, as I’ve said, I’ve got great respect for Tim Keller, but as a nearly 55 year old speaking about a 71 year old, I am conscious that our time is finishing up and that the neutral space is getting smaller and smaller. We’re an evangelical polar bear on a rapidly shrinking apologetics ice-block. The future will require a bravery that won’t simply mean you need to find a new facility to meet as Christians; you will need to find money to fight off litigation. Public buildings won’t even be an option.
By the time the average 30 year old in ministry is my age the Manhattan Project will have sent its mushroom spores into every last nook and cranny of the Western world. The lived experience of most Christians will be far more hostile than either Tim or I could conceive. And mockery will be recounted by old timers around campfires in wistful tones to young pups who wonder how those old timers got off so lightly.