Updated: Oct 25
Podcast counterpart | About Abortion with Dave Brennan
Tim Keller: Silence in the face of evil? | 21 Feb 2023 | Episode 36
If Tim Keller were living in the 1930s, he would declare that the gospel is neither pro-Nazi nor anti-Nazi, and that Christian leaders should remain politically neutral.
When I first caught sight of the launch of The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, after a few moments of "Surely that isn't what I think it is?", I realised it actually was what I thought it was (named after Tim Keller), and I felt deeply uneasy.
The fact that there are some great guys involved with this initiative, including one or two that I consider personal friends, and that the whole thing is no doubt well-intentioned and will probably produce some fantastic stuff, hasn't dispelled this sense of dis-ease.
Mine weren't the only eyebrows to be raised; Kristi Mair asked some good questions and Steve Kneale wrote a thought-provoking blog. I won't spend much ink repeating them; my main reason for dis-ease is rather different from theirs.
But before that, let me just briefly signpost what they and others have raised:
1) All eyes on...?
There's an obvious danger with naming a ministry after an individual, especially a well-known one. It easily places the spotlight on them, and leaves people thinking more about them than about Jesus.
Perhaps this is just me, but I come away from the launch page thinking more about Keller than anything else. I'm hit by a picture of him, a sales pitch for a book all about him (not by him), his name everywhere. There's just a bit of the whiff of the cult of personality here.
It's for similar reasons that I find it difficult being at Christian conferences where close-ups of the worship leader's face are shown on massive screens right next to the words. I have to look or I don't know the words, but then I just can't stop thinking about the worship leader whose face is ever before my eyes!
If names are meant to help rather than hinder focus on Jesus it seems strange to choose the name of a (still-living) Christian celebrity.
2) "Count no man happy until the end is known"
These words attributed to Solon could be lightly updated for our purposes: "Count no man worth naming a ministry after whilst he's still alive!"
It's not that I think it's always wrong to name a ministry after a living person. An itinerant evangelist or a singer-songwriter, for example, is most easily identified by their own name. But especially where the given reason for naming a broader ministry after someone is that they are considered an example worth following, is it not unwise to do so whilst they still have a bit of the race left to run?
Not only could it backfire on the ministry and therefore on Christ's reputation - as someone else has remarked, all the devil has to do is take down one man to destroy a whole ministry if it's named after him! - it could of course make Tim Keller himself more of a target and so it isn't necessarily very responsible or loving with regard to his spiritual well-being.
3) Accountability and Abuse?
Perhaps understandably some have alluded to recent scandals (e.g. Ravi) and are concerned that history is set to repeat itself. These are questions worth asking, but personally, I don't think it's warranted to leap to such conclusions.
This is just a light-touch think tank, an online library of resources. As far as I can tell, there isn't going to be any pastoral context where vulnerable people are at risk. It's just content.
But if only for the sake of optics and for not causing an unnecessary stumbling-block (à la Romans 14:16), again perhaps the name choice is unwise.
He's not the guy for the job
Controversially, though, here's my real reason for concern.
Even if allowances were made for all the above, I'd still feel uneasy about the name because I don't believe Tim Keller is the person we need leading our cultural apologetics, even if only implicitly, deeper into the 21st century.
It's not that it's wrong to have human mentors, people we seek to emulate, whether alive or not. "Imitate me, as I imitate Christ," says Paul (1 Cor. 11:1).
Nor is it the case that I think Keller is generally a bad egg. On the contrary, he's a superb preacher of the gospel, a masterful Bible teacher, and a brilliant apologist when it comes to, for example, the reasonableness and historicity of the Christian faith.
My contention is this: when it comes to cultural apologetics specifically, Keller is not the leader we need. Indeed, it's in this area that Keller is at his least cogent and compelling. In fact, it's the only area in which I've witnessed him - very uncharacteristically - failing to make even basic sense.
"Where the battle rages..."
The great issues of our day and culture are ethical and anthropological.
Of these, arguably the most significant is the mass global baby genocide (more than one million a week), of which New York City is something of an international capital.
How has Keller been responding to this, one of the most important moral issues in culture today?
In a word: not.
"Not to speak is to speak..."
When "Freedom Tower" in NYC was lit pink to celebrate "abortion" up till birth in 2019, Keller was nowhere to be seen or heard. A prolific writer and speaker who has addressed almost every issue under the sun - including racism, extensively - could not find voice to confront the violence that has often left more black babies killed than born on a yearly basis in his own city.
Accidental oversight would be troubling enough, but perhaps even more concerning is the fact that this turning a blind eye to child sacrifice is actually something that Keller defends and promotes.
In an article for Christianity Today, Keller characterises seeking to defend unborn children from violence as "pushing moral behaviors"; it's "religion" as opposed to Christianity. He then relates the following anecdote:
A woman who had been attending our church for several months came to see me. "Do you think abortion is wrong?" she asked. I said that I did. "I'm coming now to see that maybe there is something wrong with it," she replied, "now that I have become a Christian here and have started studying the faith in the classes."
As we spoke, I discovered that she was an Ivy League graduate, a lawyer, a long-time Manhattan resident, and an active member of the ACLU. She volunteered that she had experienced three abortions.
"I want you to know," she said, "that if I had seen any literature or reference to the 'pro-life' movement, I would not have stayed through the first service. But I did stay, and I found faith in Christ. If abortion is wrong, you should certainly speak out against it, but I'm glad about the order in which you do it."
The "order" to which she refers is, it seems, "only after being asked directly". Which is fine if the only important thing is not putting off individuals who have already "experienced...abortions" (notice again the use of language, the perspective that is preferred), but it's not much help to the voiceless vulnerable we are commanded to be a voice for (Prov. 31:8), nor to women and girls who stand in danger of being damaged by a future decision for lack of clear and proactive gospel teaching on the issue.
I am all for removing every possible hindrance to the gospel, but not to the point of ignoring clear biblical commands and turning a blind eye to child sacrifice. Keller, on the other hand, champions this kind of quietism as an evangelistic methodology.
While it can't all be attributed directly to Keller by any means, this problem can be observed right across the Western church. I overheard a conversation between two UCCF workers during my student days about how they were going to address sexuality in a lunchtime apologetics talk. The accepted wisdom was that they would avoid disclosing any specific conclusions, and instead speak in generalities of worship and identity. It's beyond my scope here to go into this in any more detail but suffice to say: it's not how Jesus did things. The approach is endemic in "seeker-sensitive" approaches to church. Never say anything controversial, or they won't come through the doors.
Joe Boot provides an extensive critique of Keller’s apologetics in his book Mission of God, showing that Keller’s compromise with worldly ideologies and failure to take seriously the law of God have led to weakness on all sorts of ethical issues – and where he does comment on justice issues, it is always from the (frequently unbiblical) “social justice” point of view.
Unsurprisingly, Keller carries his ethical ambiguity into the political arena.
In 2018 he wrote a tremendously influential piece in the New York Times about the role of Christians in politics. Whilst saying that Christians should not consider themselves above politics and should not withdraw from politics, he wanted to insist that parties on the left and parties on the right are morally equivalent and no-one can say which Christians should favour. Conveniently for his argument, he failed to mention the baby genocide whatsoever.
The basic point is welcome: Christianity cannot be reduced to or owned by any political party. It's more than a set of moral codes. But it's not less than a set of moral codes. Keller takes his gospel-transcends-politics argument ad insaniam.
Four years later, his "never-the-left, never-the-right" take on politics doesn't seem to have gone away. It's worth reading his whole thread here in the run-up to Roe v. Wade being overturned.
The insania surfaces most disturbingly when he implies that even taking the issue of "abortion" - one of the very few times he's ever addressed the issue publicly - in isolation (so we're not trying to weigh different multi-issue packages here), there is no biblical or Christian answer as to which party or policy will uphold the dignity of unborn children more successfully: "the Bible doesn’t tell me the best political policy to decrease or end abortion in this country, nor which political or legal policies are most effective to that end".
This is, of course, a nonsense: my seven-year-old daughter could tell you that the party working to end or at least reduce the genocide is doing more to benefit unborn children than the party looking to increase the genocide. But Keller, in zeal for his trans-political paradigm, wants to pretend that there's no answer to this very simple question. So fossilised is his philosophical commitment to political neutrality, he seems blind to the most obvious of facts right in front of him.
When these were pointed out to him, his reaction was telling. "Sigh. People are focusing on the example (abortion is physical harm) and not the principle. You can do the same object lesson about gay marriage...why codify that moral in law and not others?" Yes, sigh he may well! It is indeed tiring when facts get in the way of a nice idea!
One gets the impression of a man who wants to keep things abstract, even Gnostic, so as to avoid the hard, concrete implications. He doesn't want his paradigm shattered, even if it means unborn babies being dismembered.
The overarching point of Keller's thread here was that churches and Christians shouldn't fall out over politics. Again, the point is well taken if we are only talking about slightly different tax thresholds. But we're talking about a genocide. As one response so aptly put it, this is "Sacrificing Children to Unite the Church". Keller explicitly denounces the idea of maintaining unity at the expense of the gospel. But he seems comfortable with maintaining unity at the expense of ethics, at the expense of forming a cogent or Christlike response to the greatest moral issue of our day.
One of the greatest ironies of all this is that Keller wrote the foreword to Eric Metaxas's excellent book Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer in his day was up against the exact approach that Keller himself champions in our day. Stay out of politics, just preach the gospel, don't make a fuss about the genocide.
If Keller were living in the 1930s, one can only surmise he would declare that the gospel is neither pro-Nazi nor anti-Nazi, and that Christian leaders should remain neutral in public.
But as Bonhoeffer said, when the mainstream German Lutheran Church forsook the Jews, their evangelism became heresy. We don't get to opt out of moral integrity because we'd rather just preach the gospel. We have to be faithful on whatever front the attack comes from - including and especially when the attack is against a vulnerable people group other than ourselves.
As Bonhoeffer himself said, "Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants."
Keller refuses to cry out for the unborn, whose shed blood fills the sewers of his own city and nation in a genocide that far outweighs the Holocaust in scale and will be remembered as the defining moral issue of our day.
When a Metaxas in 100 years' time looks back and writes up a history, will Keller be remembered as a Bonhoeffer? Or as one of the mainstream German Lutheran Church?
I pray it's not too late for him to turn around, to raise his voice and be counted.
But until then, why are we naming an institute for cultural apologetics after him?