Grabbing A Brother By The Throat
No.107: May 13, 2022
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Warning. This one’s unusually long. Grab a beverage and pull up a chair. You’ll be here awhile.
There is a very heated debate going on in evangelical world about the best way to engage with our increasingly hostile culture. And, if I am honest, I would have to say that I am dismayed by the whole thing. People I like and admire are devouring each other. Needlessly devouring each other, as I see it.
It is not an illegitimate question and, as we shall see, there is no “easy button” we can press to give us the easy answer. Should we be more confrontational, more forthright, and stop trying to get people to like us? Or should we seek to be nuanced and “winsome” and persuasive?
I suspect you didn’t notice that I just framed that as a false dichotomy, but don’t feel bad. Few do notice, these days.
Believe it or not, it is possible (if difficult) to be confrontational in a nuanced and winsome and persuasive way, forthright in a nuanced and winsome and persuasive way, and to be nuanced and winsome and persuasive without naïvely thinking the person is going to like you. These are not two opposing options. To think they are is to confuse subject matter and communicative manner.
The denizens of Twitter and other online outlets seem very confused by this.
Let me back up and fill you in. The lightning rod for all this is Tim Keller, the now-retired founder and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Keller planted a church from scratch in the middle of Manhattan and it grew it to something like 5,000 members with a number of other church plants around the city. He wrote several New York Times bestselling books, including two directed to skeptics. He knows a thing or thousands about, well, engaging with culture. Recently James R. Wood published an article in First Things entitled, “How I Evolved on Tim Keller,” and it provoked a firestorm of controversy. Some people cheered; others thought it was unfair. For my part, I think James* wrote a very thoughtful, generous, and well-intended essay—even if I think he’s wrong on some things. He is clearly what you’d call “critically appreciative” of Tim Keller.
*Fun note: I think I met James in 2008 at a conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan and then promptly lost track of him. I do remember citing an excellent journal article of his in my doctoral dissertation. He’s a very thoughtful person and not a flame-thrower.
On the other hand, some people really, deeply despise Tim Keller. And, no, I don’t mean the atheists and skeptics; I mean Christians. They think he’s a squishy, above-it-all milquetoast afraid to take a real stand against the evils of our society. That might strike you as a bit strange for a guy who wrote whole books on Christian apologetics and biblical justice. But there is an explanation. Whether it’s a good one you can decide.
Tim Keller insists on carving a “third way” between our binary, polarized intellectual and cultural options. He thinks that many of our dichotomies, our “us versus thems” are false or at least distorted dichotomies. Habitually thinking in strict “either/or” binary fashion is to succumb to one of modernism’s great lies. Life is more complicated than that. He maintains—and on this I believe he is absolutely correct—that the Bible and its worldview is transcendent and independent of our creaturely attempts to freeze it or “box it in” to our categories. This is important because if it isn’t, then the Bible and its worldview will cease to critique and shape our own categories. We must conform to it, not the other way around.
I am certain that you can think of somebody who uses the Bible to ratify or justify their every single opinion. The Bible just miraculously agrees with everything they think! Isn’t it more likely that the Bible is actually just a projection screen for such a person? It doesn’t really shape him or her; he or she shapes it. Tim Keller is not imagining this problem, and he sees it when people, without much thought or work, “discover” that the Bible “teaches” exactly what they happen to think about immigration policy or vaccines or the war in Ukraine. Easy peasy, right? And even worse, that person then, on this basis, accuses everyone else who sees it a bit differently as a “Woke” progressive sellout who doesn’t believe the Bible. As we will see shortly, this is not the only problem; but it is a real one, nevertheless.
At any rate, Keller’s attempts to explain his “Third Way” invariably excite the Twitter hive and the stingers come out. People think that this kind of “nuance” is wishy-washy and borne of an insecurity: the desire for cultural influence and being liked. They think it softens blows that need to be made, hard. They think that maybe this all “worked” twenty or thirty years ago, but times have changed. And they think that the way it always works is that Keller is more critical of his fellow Christians than he is of our cultured despisers, which raises sharp feelings of betrayal. Whose side are you on?
If all of this sounds like the intra-church version of what happened to politics on the right over the past six years between the MAGA crowd and the Never Trumpers, that’s because it is. Substitute “David French” for “Tim Keller” and you’ve got essentially the same dynamic. And that should alert you to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, this isn’t really, at bottom, about differences in theology. Maybe our politics really is infiltrating and poisoning the pews.
Untangling all of this is a chore, and I’m not sure I can do it in this newsletter. But I’ll give it the old college try. There’s a matter of principle (the “Third Way” itself); there’s a matter of sociology (the alleged desire to be socially accepted in elite classes + changes in cultural temperature), and the emotional matter (betrayal). Well, would you look at that? It’s John Frame’s famous triangle; Normative (Principle), Situational (Sociology), and Existential (Emotional reaction). And boy, oh boy, are people confusing and conflating these perspectives.
So here’s an attempt to give you my point of view.*
*I should note that I have purposely not read all of the various responses and “think pieces” surrounding Wood’s essay, because I wanted to write you what I really think. And so I wanted, at this stage of things at least, to avoid undue outside influences.
The Principle. As I’ve already indicated, I think that Keller is exactly right in his principle of “Third Wayism,” even though I think that is a terrible term for it and would never personally use it. It sounds like splitting the difference between two opposing views, and that’s not really what it is. That said, we simply must allow the Bible to define our terms and set our agenda—not a political ideology or, much less, a party—and it is a fact that in any particular controversy it is likely that Scripture will have a critique of both “sides” of a given issue. This is simply a recognition that we all have blind spots, and none of us are yet perfected in knowledge.
However, there are pitfalls, and it seems to me that Keller falls into them from time to time. And when he does, his opponents don’t charitably view it as a lack of consistency with the principle, they see it as a problem with the principle itself. “See? That’s what happens when you look for a third way!”
What are the pitfalls? Here are two that I perceive: False symmetry and missing priorities. When Keller wants to show that the Bible critiques the shortcomings of both sides of an issue, he sometimes gives the impression that there is moral symmetry in the errors of both sides. That, somehow, if the Bible is going to speak to two sides of a controversy it is a maxim that it must do so with equal force: “You’re both equally wrong!” Now, Keller will deny doing this and when he is at his best I don’t think he does; but I think at his worst he sometimes does. When he writes things like his famous New York Times Op-Ed claiming that Christianity doesn’t fit with either political party, he seems to imply that each party is equally far from biblical ethics and, therefore, on balance, it doesn’t matter which you choose. I don’t think he’d say that last part out loud, but it is an impression he leaves. As though the Republican Party platform (back in the pre-Trump days when it had a platform), which calls for legal protection for the unborn, is no better than the Democrat platform, which calls for the right to kill unborn children right up to the moment of birth, because the latter has equally good intentions in other matters. It’s as if his analysis requires that the scales have to equally balance, when they simply don’t. Not by a long shot. Sometimes there are good guys and bad guys. And the Bible tells us which is which—wasn’t that the point of the “Third Way”?
Bringing up abortion just now was intentional because that leads me to the second pitfall: missing priorities. Not “misplaced” priorities, but an absence of priorities. In his political analysis, perhaps because of the fallacy of false symmetry, Keller seems to equalize the moral weight of matters of public concern. Yes, the Democratic Party may have a dim view of pre-born humans, but they care for humanity in other ways. They want to do something about human extinction with their concern over the environment, and they want a large welfare state to take care of the sick and the poor! That’s the rhetoric, and it’s terrible as a logical and moral matter. There is a very wide difference between a question of tax policy and the scope of the welfare state and the killing of actual humans. No amount of good intentions regarding the former cancels out the moral problem of the latter. There are, as Jesus says, weightier matters of the law. And it seems to me that people have a legitimate beef that Keller falls short of appreciating the weightiness of the law on that issue. In biblical law, murder brings the severest sanction. Theft (which is, in my view, what redistribution is) brings lesser sanctions. Why? Because stolen goods can be returned and restitution can be made. Not so, on a matter of life and death.
This kind of moral symmetry and absent priorities is—as Doug Wilson once pointed out—like a person in an eye examination who can confidently read the tiny little letters at the bottom but, for the life of him, cannot read the big, gigantic “E” at the top. The big “E” represents “first things,” the “life and death” things, like, say, a legal regime of abortion. If you can’t say anything about that, but you can nevertheless tease out all the various implications of climate change policy or a social welfare system, then we have a major eyesight problem.
In a Tweet going around, Keller absolutely affirms that abortion is a great evil—he is a conservative Presbyterian pastor, after all. But then he follows up with the idea that the best way to reduce abortion isn’t exactly clear, and maybe the left has ideas as good as those on the right. This is where the missing priorities problem is at its greatest. If it is a great evil, if it is the unjust taking of human life, at the very least it should be illegal. At the least. That is the baseline conclusion. Indeed, it is the starting point. It is a “first thing,” life or death thing. This seems like a Christian in 1st century Rome suggesting that the best way to save all the unwanted children left for dead in the trash heaps was to move the trash heaps further away from the city to disincentivize abandonment, and then “tsk-tsking” those who maintained it should be illegal.
It is his seeming unwillingness to unequivocally oppose the legal abortion regime that gets his detractors lighting their hair on fire. They think: if your “third way” cannot bring itself to say something unequivocal on this issue of life and death, then to hell with your third way! But, in fact, it has little to do with the third way. It has to do with Keller’s unwillingness to consistently have the Bible critique one side as strongly as it does. It’s an inconsistent application of the principle. In a genuine “third way” analysis, we would be forced to acknowledge that the Bible has nothing but wrath for legal regimes that oppress and kill the most helpless of society. You know who says that, all the time? Tim Keller. So, yes. This is frustrating, but doesn’t have much to do with the principle of how to evaluate these things.
Sociology. There is much to say about this, and I am already running long. In short: I think there is a class divide going on between urban/elite and suburban/rural/middle class. I won’t expand too much, but if you’re a Christian and an urban elite you probably live, move, and have your being amongst the woke progressive left. And you view them as your mission field. Of course you want to be “winsome” and “persuasive.” If you’re a Christian not in a city and not living, moving, and having your being amongst the woke progressive left, you feel like they are mauling you and shoving their pagan religion down your throat and trying to steal the minds and bodies and souls of your children. Your reaction is not likely to be, “I just need to be nicer to these people!” In fact, you’ll likely get very irritated by people like Tim Keller telling you that you just need to be nicer to these people. So there’s one issue.
Moreover, there is a subtext in this whole debate that needs revisiting. Last year a fellow by the name of Aaron Renn wrote a very influential article in First Things outlining how culture has shifted and changed over the past half century or so. And everybody in this debate seems to be taking his view for granted: that we have moved from a society “welcoming” of Christianity, to a society “neutral” toward Christianity (that’s when Keller was successful, Renn asserts), but we are now in a society “hostile” to Christianity—and therefore our posture and strategy for cultural engagement must change.
Renn should not be taken for granted. It’s an insightful essay, but in my view it is based on very little other than his own intuitions. His timeline with its various “divisions” is more or less arbitrary, and as a whole it is a gross generalization. Keller himself demonstrated how applying the pressure of just a little scrutiny collapses the entire thesis. Renn would have you believe that Keller found his success in New York City because he was living in a “neutral” world. This was news to Keller, since his actual experience was incredibly hostile. Redeemer was mocked and pilloried and, even more, kicked out of its facilities by the government. Some “neutral” world!
We are too big a nation—geographically, culturally, politically, religiously—to paint with such a wide brush; and far too variegated to make sweeping conclusions about how “we” (who? where? when?) must change our posture and strategy because “they” (who? where? when?) have shifted gears from neutral to hostile. You know what? It depends. It depends on a lot. And this “one-size-fits-all” approach is futile. We should all read more John Frame to understand that the Situational perspective is not the same thing as the Normative perspective, and that is what is getting muddled, in my view.
Existential. There is, however, a “one-size-fits all.” The Bible clearly tells us how we are to conduct ourselves. We are to bear the fruits of the Spirit and we are to speak with gentleness and respect. These are not suggestions; they are imperatives. And the Bible does not say, “Do this only when you live in a welcoming or neutral world.” In fact, it said this to people living in a very much hostile world. To simplify and explain this point, I’ll turn it over to Alan Jacobs.
So what about all the suspicion and feelings of betrayal? Here’s where I do my best Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along?” Humanly speaking, I suspect that will work about as well as Rodney King’s appeal worked. Not one bit. I opened this newsletter saying that this whole thing has left me dismayed, and I meant it. The lack of charity, the lack of love and appreciation, the lack of humility on both sides is tragic. It is a carbon copy of the conflict over politics we’ve had over the years. The whataboutism, the “nut-picking,” and the mudslinging. There is such bitterness and resentment among God’s people and it is shameful. Everyone—including me—needs to take the log out of our own eye, repent of our own feelings of superiority, and remember that God’s kingdom advances through a body with many members. And we should remind ourselves that of those members, we are probably the least.
God has given each of us grace undeserved, but we are like the forgiven servant who then meets his brother on the road and grabs him by the throat (Matt. 18:21-35). Lord, have mercy on us.
By all means, let’s debate all this—it isn’t unimportant. I just spent 3,000 words on it. Our principles, our cultural situation, our posture and conduct need to be discussed and debated. But let’s try doing it in the “Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor.13:14).
That may sound naïve, but that is how grace has always sounded.