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Tim Keller's How to Reach the West Again
Last year Tim Keller published a short booklet called How to Reach the West Again, about how to do evangelism in our post-Christian age. He also recently released a podcast version of it, in which he reads a section of the booklet at the beginning of each episode, followed by others pastors discussing application in their context.
I got a reader request to discuss this, so will share a few thoughts. This will not be a detailed review. I don’t claim to be an expert on evangelism. But I am good at cultural diagnostics, so will examine a few cultural themes.
Tim Keller’s Evangelistic Mindset
This booklet shows an important attribute of Tim Keller’s approach to ministry that is often overlooked. He has an evangelistic mindset; reaching people with the gospel informs much if not most of what he does.
Too often Keller’s words are interpreted by seeing them as aimed as those who are already Christian. There’s some of that, and he will surely given an account for how his words did affect them.
But seeing his ministry through that lens can easily lead to people concluding that he’s an accommodationist who is using his teachings to render Christianity compatible with the secular elite environment in which he’s operated. And if that’s how it actually affects people, again, he will give an account.
If we instead look at it as him seeking touchpoints with the culture in order to reach non-Christians in these elite secular environments, the conclusion we draw might look very different. I think his critics have very much adopted the internal vs. external perspective.
Keller’s ministry has been heavily shaped by a concern for spreading the gospel. Hundreds if not thousands of people became Christians at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York. In my experience, this is very rare for a Presbyterian church. Presbyterians aren’t exactly known for making huge number of converts. If I had to guess, I’d say the median number of new converts in the average Presbyterian church in the US in the last five years is zero.
Similar to individuals, I see the different denominations as having different gifts. Southern Baptists are really good at making converts. Pentecostals are very good at helping people with extreme life problems like drug addiction and recovery from sexual abuse. Presbyterians have been good at theology and doctrine. So I don’t expect every church to make equal numbers of new converts.
Keller has been a Presbyterian exception. Even as the number of new converts at Redeemer declined over time, Keller had an explanation and response. He says that much as young companies create the most jobs, young churches generate the most converts. So he launched Redeemer City to City to create lots of new churches. And he supported new churches in many different denominations because he thought that would maximize the number of people who could be reached.
So in general, when reading or listening to Keller, keep in mind his basically evangelistic orientation. He’s not just targeting those who are already Christian. You have to look at what he does through the lens of evangelism.
Affirming the Negative World
I was gratified to see that Tim Keller has adopted a framing of the “negative world.” He doesn’t use that term directly, but he writes:
While religion was broadly seen as a social good, or at least benign, increasing numbers of people now see the church as bad for people and a major obstacle to social progress. Traditional Christian beliefs about sexuality and gender are being viewed as dangerous and restrictive of people’s basic civil rights.
We are entering a new era in which, in many places in the West, there is not only no social benefit to being a Christian, but an actual social cost to espousing faith. Culture is becoming more actively hostile toward Christian beliefs and practices.
This is almost a direct statement of the negative world.
So I’m glad to see him pitching his arguments towards the current cultural moment. I also think his distinction between a post-Christian culture and a non-Christian culture was a good one.
Christian Critical Theory
One of the main items he highlights as necessary for a 21st century missionary encounter with the West is something he labels Christian “high theory.” He uses this term to mean, in essence, critical theory. Perhaps he chose high theory to avoid the negative associations around critical theory in some circles. He writes:
The early Christian apologists, from Justin Martyr to Augustine, did more than [apologetics]. They did not merely try to show that Christian practice and belief were just as rational as the dominant pagan culture. They developed a radical critique of the dominant culture that showed how it failed to measure up to its own standards.
Christian high theory must first expose the main flaws in our culture’s narratives, showing how they fit neither human nature nor our most profound intuitions about life—let alone its own moral ideals.
I very much agree with him about the need for a new Christian high theory. That’s something which is very overlooked by many.
There are two separate concepts here. The first is essentially an accusation of hypocrisy, that the culture doesn’t do what it says it wants to do. The second is a critique of the culture’s own stated ends.
The first, showing how the culture fails “to measure up to its own standards,” is a proven loser.
Political conservatives have attempted to do this for decades to no effect. Their impotent arguments are widely derided on the internet as the “Democrats are the real racists” approach to politics. It starts by assuming the left’s frame is correct - that racism is the worst thing there is and minority uplift is a moral imperative - then tries to argue that the left fails at that but conservatives would do a better job. They will say, for example, “Look at Chicago. Look at how horrible for blacks the Democratic leadership has been there.” Or, “If you really care about black lives, you’d adopt our policies on crime because look how many hundreds or thousands of black people were killed during the current surge in murders.”
Whatever the merits of these claims, they’ve never worked and never will work. The ideologies of modern society exist to legitimate the regime, and to ratify the already existing division of people into “good” and “bad” camps. The nominal ends and claims are not really what they are about. For example, as the socialist academic Touré Reed has pointed out, CEOs of companies love to talk about “structural racism,” but they never call for actually changing the structures of the economy in any fundamental way. Instead, they just want to send individuals to antiracism training. For the corporate CEO, these ideologies around race are basically self-serving.
So critiquing culture by claiming that it doesn’t live up to its own standards or deliver on its purported goals is not likely to work. (What might do better is pointing out how the current system has not delivered tangible goods to people personally).
The second is a more fruitful direction to look and I think is very important to take on. I do wonder if Keller would be willing to go far enough here. The critical theorists were implacably hostile to Western capitalist society, something I noted in my podcast on Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse saw that postwar capitalism had “delivered the goods” in terms of material prosperity. But rather than seeing that as a good thing, he thought it was a bad one. He felt that whatever material wealth it produced, Western capitalism was fundamentally oppressive and totalitarian in a certain sense of the term. Material prosperity did not morally legitimate that regime, but merely made overthrowing it more difficult.
An effective critical theory requires a certain fundamental opposition to the culture or regime being critiqued. This is a leap I think many Americans, particularly of a more conservative disposition, are unwilling to take. It is also at odds with the general approach of the “cultural engagement” paradigm that has been dominant in urban Christian circles in recent years.
One reason that the Dissident Right has attracted so many followers in recent years is that they are effectively deploying a form of critical theory. They constantly critique the “Globalist American Empire” as a fundamentally illegitimate “regime,” deriding its ugliness, oppressiveness, moral perversity, and growing incompetence.
For example, they use terms like “clown world” (or “bugman” or “longhouse”) to describe various aspects of our society, such as Sports Illustrated putting fat swimsuit models on the cover. Or the World Economic Forum telling us we’ll own nothing and love it. Or the odd push by the media to promote eating insects.
As they put it, “I won’t eat the bugs, I won’t live in the pod.”
This relentless critique is paired with many accounts showcasing the beauty of traditional Western society. One of the best is @MagicalEurope on Twitter.
I would not suggest adopting the Dissident Right approach. The point is that a critical theory has to actually be critical. It can’t just be about polite disagreement over whether this or that policy is best for human flourishing. It also needs to operate on the aesthetic as well as rational planes.
Keller puts his finger on something important when he correctly identifies the need for a Christian high theory. This is something I have really not seen much written about, so I’m pleased he highlighted it. While he does not say how far one should take it, I would suggest studying some of the 20th century critical theorists to get a sense of an approach that would be effective.
Relativism Is an Obsolete Concept
The one major area of disagreement I have with Keller is over his continued use of relativism as a description of our culture. For example, he writes:
Indeed, if there is a moral absolute in today’s culture, it is that we must not say that there are moral absolutes, let alone a sacred order with which all people must align.
It should show how, in an effort to free the individual self, culture has led to our current condition in which: All values are relative.
We live in a culture dominated by non-Christian thought and themes (about reason/science, individualism, relativism, materialism).
Many of these people have already focused on the problem of unchecked individualism, the problem of the late modern self, and the problem of relativism—all of which are intensified in today’s late modern culture.
Technology conveys the narratives and beliefs of secular modernity regarding identity, freedom, happiness, and relativism in an immersive way, far beyond what TV, radio, or movies could ever do.
Writing in the 1980s, Allan Bloom can be forgiven for seeing cultural relativism as the major concern. Today, while perhaps one could make a highly technical argument that our culture is still relativist, that’s not the “feel” that one experiences in our day to day life.
Instead, America and the West increasing feel like an Orwellian ideological state in which a wide range of issues are presented as moral absolutes. I would argue that they are more ideological than moral constructs, but they are presented and to some extent experienced as absolute tenets of public morality.
For example, Cisco Systems, the networking equipment giant, fired some employees who said, “All lives matter.” Is this relativism?
People like Dave Chapelle and J. K. Rowling have faced vicious attacks and calls for their cancellation because they refuse to fully embrace the new moral line on transgenderism. Is that relativism?
Indeed, on a whole host of issues today from climate change to race to sexuality, it is difficult or impossible to hold views contrary to the secular elite line in a wide range of occupations and positions. As French philosopher Chantal Delsol put it:
Our governing elite decrees morality, promotes laws to enforce them, partly through insults and ostracism. Our morality is post-evangelical, but it is no longer tied to a religion. It dominates the television sets. It inhabits all the cinematography of the age. It rules in schools and in families. When something needs to be straightened out or given a new direction, it is the governing elite that does it. The European rulers represent in this respect the tabernacle of the clericature. In short, we have returned to a typical situation of paganism: we have a state morality.
In short, relativism is an obsolete way to understand Western culture. It simply does not describe the lived experience in our society today, in which everybody understands that there’s only one socially correct position to hold on an ever expanding range of topics.
While I disagree with him on relativism, there are a number of interesting points in this short booklet that make it worth reading. I was particularly pleased to see him using the negative world framing, as it shows this view is starting become institutionalized. And I think his call for a Christian high theory is an important dimension how Christianity needs to engage with culture going forward that few people are talking about.
Will this work to create new converts? I don’t know. But I do know that’s something Keller cares about and thinks about all the time. So it’s worth considering what he has to say on the topic.
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