How I evolved on Tim Keller | James R. Wood
MThe family’s beloved thirteen-year-old dog is called Keller. Every day he reminds me of how a certain Presbyterian pastor in New York influenced me early in my faith. I continue to admire him, even though I have looked elsewhere for guidance in our contemporary political moment.
If you were an evangelical in America in the 2000s, Tim Keller was a name you couldn’t avoid. After completing theological studies at Gordon-Conwell in 1975, Keller accepted a position as senior pastor in rural West Virginia. There he honed his preaching craft, delivering several sermons a week for nine years. In the late 1980s, he decided to plant a church in New York, which became Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Beginning in 1989 with just fifty members, Redeemer eventually attracted over 5,000 people on Sundays and launched a church planting network that led to over 800 new churches in cities around the world. The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus noted in these pages that impressive work was going on in Keller’s church. The city-centered church planting movement as we know it today would simply not exist without Tim Keller.
More generally, Keller helped many young people embrace Orthodox Christianity in a culture that made the faith strange. Keller served as CS Lewis for a postmodern world, through his public ministry – which began in the 1990s when ministers began circulating his essays on culture and ministry, but has really taken off. in the mid-2000s when he helped launch The Gospel Coalition and began publishing a steady stream of books. For years he has provided sociological and theological analyzes of the late modern and “secular era” city, providing insightful conceptual tools for ministry in these contexts.
In his writings and sermons, Keller modeled the skill, compassion, and conviction that helped make the claims of faith more plausible in the eyes of cultured skeptics of Christianity. This manifested itself most clearly in his best-selling book: God’s reason. And he provided a compelling view of the central message of the gospel, which he says avoids legalism on the one hand and selfish relativism on the other. This is summed up in its signature phrase: “The gospel says you are more sinful and imperfect than you ever dared to believe and more accepted and loved than you ever dared to hope.
Keller’s seductive approach led him to great success as an evangelist. But he also thinks, perhaps subconsciously, of politics through the lens of evangelism, in the sense of ensuring that political judgments do not prevent people in today’s world from coming to Christ. His approach to evangelism informs his political writings and views on how Christians should engage in politics. For years, Keller’s approach has informed my view of both evangelism and politics. When I became a Christian in college, my campus ministry and my church were strongly influenced by Keller’s “seductive,” missionary, and “gospel-centered” views. I liked Keller’s approach to engaging culture – his message that while the gospel is inevitably offensive, we need to work hard to make sure people are offended by the gospel itself rather than by our personal, cultural and political derivations. We must, Keller convinced me, constantly explain how Christianity is not tied to any particular culture or political party, instead showing how the gospel criticizes all sides. He stressed that Christianity is ‘neither left nor right’, instead promoting a ‘third way’ approach who tries to avoid tribal partisanship and toxic culture wars in hopes that more people will give the gospel a fair hearing. If we are to “play politics”, it should be in apologetic mode.
I met my wife in 2007, and we fell in love talking Reason of God and consider how to serve our non-Christian neighbors. We got married the following year, and I gave all my groomsmen a copy of Keller’s The Prodigal God. It was obvious that we named our dog after this great man whose ministry meant so much to us. And for the next several years, we followed Keller’s lead in helping plant several churches in Austin, Texas, until I decided to pursue a doctorate in political theology after the 2016 election.
At that time, I began to observe that our politics and our culture had changed. I began to feel differently about our surrounding secular culture and noticed that its attitude towards Christianity was no longer what it had been. Aaron Renn’s account well represents my thinking and the thinking of many: There was a “neutral world” roughly between 1994 and 2014 in which mainstream Christianity was neither widely supported nor opposed by the surrounding culture, but was instead seen as a quirky lifestyle option among the many. However, that time is over. We now live in the “negative world,” in which, according to Renn, Christian morality is expressly repudiated and traditional Christian views are seen as undermining the social good. As I watched the attitude of our surrounding culture change, I was no longer so confident that the evangelistic framework I had gleaned from Keller would provide sufficient direction for the cultural and political moment. Many former fanboys like me come to similar conclusions. The evangelical desire to minimize offense to gain an audience for the gospel can obscure what our political moment demands.
Keller’s apologetic model for politics was perfectly suited to the “neutral world”. But the “negative world” is a different place. Difficult choices are more and more in front of us, the attack is inevitable and it will be necessary to take sides on very important questions. Recent events have proven that being attractive right now will not guarantee a favorable audience. A prominent example came in 2017. When the Kuyper Center for Public Theology selected Keller as the recipient of the “Kuyper Award for Excellence in Reform Theology and Public Witness,” many students, faculty, and alumni of Princeton Theological Seminary (where sits the Kuyper Center is holding its annual conference) protested. Although Keller had spent decades cultivating a thoughtful and compassionate approach to public testimony, many simply couldn’t stand Princeton honoring someone who transgressed progressive orthodoxies on sex and gender. The award has been cancelled.
During the 2016 election cycle, I was still approaching politics through the seductive model, and I realized it was hardening me towards other believers. I was too concerned about how a vote might harm the “public witness” of the church, and I despised those who voted differently from me, usually in the direction of the right. “Public testimony” most often results in the appeasement of those on its left and the taking of distance from the deplorable. I didn’t like what it did to my heart and felt like it clouded my political judgment.
And I began to recognize another danger in this approach: if we assume that seduction will gain a favorable audience, when Christians constantly receive heated reactions, we will be tempted to think that our convictions are the problem. If seduction meets hostility, it’s easy to wonder, “Are we wrong? Thus the slide towards the reasoning of secular culture is greased. A “secular-friendly” policy has similar problems to a “seeker-friendly” cult. Excessive concern with pleasing unbelievers is tormented by the temptation to accommodate. This is all the more a problem in the “negative world”.
Keller’s “Third Way” philosophy also has serious limitations as a framework for moral reasoning. Too often it encourages in its adherents a pietistic impulse to keep hands clean, to stay above the fray, and away from flawed options for solving complex social and political problems.. It can also produce an aversion to conflict, and therefore it is instinctively accommodating. By always giving equal airtime to each option’s flaws, the third-way posture can also make the options appear to be equally bad, not sufficiently acknowledging ethical asymmetry. This was displayed, for example, in Keller’s recent tweet thread on Christian division and politics.
Keller was extremely effective as a minister and public theologian in the neutral world. Early in his time in New York, he spent years conducting sociological research, reading not only the best literature of the day, but also surveying the city’s residents and holding question-and-answer sessions after his sermons. . The insights he gained from this work were fundamental to his ministry. And partly because of that, he enjoyed years of extremely successful parish ministry and public writing. Is it too much to ask someone to conduct the same type of research to adapt to a new moment in later life, especially when one has been as successful as Keller?
Keller was the right man for a while. For many, like me, that moment seems to have passed. This does not diminish my admiration for the important service Keller provided to the church in America for many years. My family and I would not be the same without him.
James R. Wood is associate editor of First things.
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