Is it Time to Move Past Tim Keller?
Three questions for evangelicals in a changing world.
A few days ago, James Wood, an associate editor of First Things (whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting) published a fascinating web exclusive titled, “How I Evolved on Tim Keller.” You should read James’s entire piece, but the gist of it is uncomplicated. James is an admirer of Tim Keller and his ministry but believes Keller’s approach to public theology and cultural engagement is misguided today. For James, this has been a somewhat recent revelation, as he describes Keller as someone who once had a formative influence on his own theology and ecclesiology. James writes:
Keller’s winsome approach led him to great success as an evangelist. But he also, maybe subconsciously, thinks about politics through the lens of evangelism, in the sense of making sure that political judgments do not prevent people in today's world from coming to Christ. His approach to evangelism informs his political writings, and his views on how Christians should engage politics…
I liked Keller's approach to engaging the culture—his message that, though the gospel is unavoidably offensive, we must work hard to make sure people are offended by the gospel itself rather than 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 critiques all sides. He has famously emphasized that Christianity is “neither left nor right,” instead promoting a “third way” approach that attempts to avoid tribal partisanship and the toxic culture wars in hopes that more people will give the gospel a fair hearing. If we are to “do politics,” it should be in apologetic mode.
James writes that he started to doubt a few years ago whether this evangelistically oriented approach to political theology was wise or even effective. Borrowing Aaron Renn’s taxonomy of Western culture having transformed from a religiously neutral space to a religiously negative (hostile) one, James reflects: “Keller’s apologetic model for politics was perfectly suited for the ‘neutral world.’ But the ‘negative world’ is a different place. Tough choices are increasingly before us, offense is unavoidable, and sides will need to be taken on very important issues.”
James’s essay is careful and precise, and for that reason alone it stands out as exemplary in an often frustrating crowd of reactionary anti- “Big Eva” jeremiads. For one thing, James acknowledges something that is rarely acknowledged in the evangelical anti-wokeness movement: That he himself has changed over the past five years or so, that his own evaluation of the needs of the cultural moment has transformed.
This is an important point and I’m glad James went out of his way to make it, because far too often critics of folks like Keller, J.D. Greear, and Russell Moore try to sell the idea that the only wind change within conservative evangelicalism has been from right to left among the “elites.” Such a narrative is pure denial of the very real tilt toward populism and Falwell-style evangelical organization that has described segments of conservative evangelicalism since the 2016 victory of Donald Trump. My letter to the editor responding to the Renn essay alluded to my concerns about some of this. Namely, I've sensed a kind of historical revisionism that paints people like Keller and Moore as theological cowards, leveraging “winsomeness” for the favor of progressive culture makers, when in fact the issue is almost certainly a genuine and long-standing disagreement over how the church should relate to the culture.
Unlike many other critics of Keller that I’ve seen, James doesn’t claim that Keller’s motives are craven and secular. Rather, James argues that Keller genuinely believes that the church is obligated by faithfulness to adopt a strictly non-partisan posture. And here is where I believe James scores a valid point. I don’t know the mind of Tim Keller any more than James (and I probably know it less!), but I think James’s observation about a way to approach politics and public theology through a lens of evangelism makes a lot of sense and is true of many evangelicals beside Keller anyway. It was famously true of Billy Graham, whose political standoffishness caused consternation among fundamentalists and civil rights activists alike. It’s not implausible to imagine that the endurance and success of Graham’s ministry inspired a crop of Boomer and Gen-X theologians, and this influence has slowly but surely dissipated as years go by.
What about the substance of James’s critique? I want to engage it in a particular, untangled way, because I think many of these conversations tend to go askew due to one group thinking they’re talking about X when the other group believes the topic is Y. But before I do that, I should make a quick comment about David French’s response to James.
I do not know if David personally wrote the headline to his newsletter, but it was a mistake. It’s not only incorrect to ascribe all of these concerns about Keller’s Christ-transforming-culture approach to “moral devolution,” it’s precisely an example of the kind of sneering attitude that James says such third-wayism cultivated within himself. As it happens, David is correct that Renn’s neutral/negative framework is a weak, misleading one, and he’s also correct that the Christ-transforming-culture posture locates its charter in Christian history and New Testament theology, not in the sociopolitical layers of American culture. But David completely misidentifies James’s key concern. The question is not whether love of neighbor doesn’t work and should be forgotten, the question is what love of neighbor demands from us, and whether such love might look different when the presenting moral and spiritual needs of our neighbors might not be what they were a generation ago.
Setting up the conversation that way, let’s consider three key questions that James’s piece evokes.
Question 1: Does winsomeness require inoffensiveness?
James seems to write as if winsomeness and inoffensiveness are synonymous. For example, he writes:
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.
This logic makes sense if the truthfulness of Christian doctrine and an emotionally positive response from the broader culture go hand-in-hand. Thus, the urge to coddle unbelieving consciences so that the “conversation” about the gospel will be kept open may lead to a retrofitting of the gospel itself.
But I would submit that there’s an important distinction between winsomeness and inoffensiveness. Inoffensive describes the impression held by the respondent, while winsomeness describes the objective spirit of the messenger. I believe it’s better to think of winsomeness as the effect of speaking the truth with love (Eph. 4:15), empowered by the Spirit’s fruit of self-control and gentleness (Gal. 5:23). These biblical mandates impose not just the duty of truth-telling but the duty of graciousness. Since Scripture clearly teaches that the truth of Christ is folly to those who are perishing, who suppress it in unrighteousness, it simply cannot be the case that we ought to only measure our faithfulness to the duty of graciousness by the emotional response of the world.
So how do we measure our faithfulness? That’s a big question that deserves more treatment than I can give. But we would do well to start by getting our categories in order. We do not look for smiling faces, invitations to write op-eds, or even professions of faith as the ultimate metric of whether we are being faithful witnesses to Jesus. Ultimately, Scripture itself judges us. As we explain why transgender ideology is absurd and inhumane, is there genuine love in us for those who disagree? Would we, as C.S. Lewis memorably put it, view them the way we view our own sinful selves: as deeply flawed yet valuable and needful of forgiveness and patience and pursuit? To the degree that we talk to the world in this way, we are being winsome, come hell or the high water of persecution.
Question 2: Should evangelicals avoid partisanship?
The implication in James’s essay is no. He writes:
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. By always giving equal airtime to the flaws in every option, the third-way posture can also give the impression that the options are equally bad, failing to sufficiently recognize ethical asymmetry.
Three responses are in order.
First, James is correct about “ethical asymmetry.” In my own public writing I think I have often failed to apply this principle sufficiently. For example, I now regret arguing that pastors should close their churches in response to COVID. My anxiety that conservative evangelicals would recklessly and clownishly oppose secular medical institutions was not counterbalanced with anxiety that it might actually be difficult to reopen or re-vivify churches that were shuttered. The progression of the pandemic has proven that latter anxiety more salient. Mea culpa.
Second, we need to make a distinction between what these theological frameworks can do and what they actually tend to do. Whatever you want to say about Keller’s political theology, there’s no genuine evidence that it has created an evangelical culture that’s unwilling to say hard things. Perhaps TGC doesn’t do everything you think it should do. Fine! But TGC is clearly to the right of, say, Christianity Today.
Third, and most importantly, evaluating the relationship between political theology and conflict aversion is an enormously difficult task in a social media age, where the problem is certainly not that our attention spans are too undisturbed and our list of fights and controversies too refined and selective. Part of the disconnect I sense between Keller and some of his critics is that the latter are simply more likely to construct an agenda for cultural engagement from Twitter and podcasts. The sheer volume of news items and “conversations” that seem to merit a Christian response has recalibrated our expectation of what it means to speak prophetically.
The simple fact is that in the coming years the most spiritually and intellectually healthy Christians will almost certainly be the Christians who have intentionally backed away from information maximalism, and that this backing away itself will look to some like a kind of capitulation (and, depending on your definition of “winning” the culture war, it may in fact be!). It seems to me that we need a functioning theology of picking your battles, that before we infer that those whose instincts differ from ours are operating from sanctimony or indifference, we should recognize the very real challenges of being deep people in a shallow age.
Question 3: How should we as Christians define success in the public square?
I think this question gets to the heart of the tension within conservative evangelicalism. Having been raised in the Southern Baptist convention to vote straight party GOP, and having gone off to work for multiple “Big Eva” organizations, I genuinely do not believe that there is any meaningful consideration of compromising the gospel. I believe instead that the historic vortex of racial protests, Trump, transgenderism, and COVID have exposed many evangelical churches and institutions that simply were not ready in time to answer this question.
Whether Keller was the right man for a moment that has “passed,” as James writes, is an interesting question. But it’s not really the important one. The important question is what kind of moment do we have now? What does faithfulness look like right now? What do we need to see as evangelical Christians to know our witness to Jesus is befitting, our efforts to preserve life and human flourishing are strengthening, and our churches and networks and institutions are thriving? This is where the divide is.
My sense is that there are some evangelicals for whom the answer to this question involves more Supreme Court decisions, electoral results, and signed legislation than it would have a decade ago. Why? Because the world is indeed changing around them. Ideology and technology have forged an unfathomably powerful alliance of secularization and inhumanity. These evangelicals feel more each day Michael Novak’s warning that “To surrender the claims of truth upon humans is to surrender Earth to thugs.” And when they look at the church, they are not encouraged by what they see.
Here’s where I think a public theology that is eschatological makes all the difference. The question is not whether we will stop telling the truth so the culture will like us. The question is how should people feel and think and act when they know they will be reigning on the earth for eternity? How does the absolute certainty of resurrection and the life of the world to come make us different kind of culture warriors? If the answer is that it doesn’t, something has gone amiss. The church is playing the long game. Cross now and glory later wasn’t a one-off. It’s our fate. We can’t forget that.