Thursday, October 04, 2012

Cultural Blindfire

Rachel Miller has made a post critiquing Keller's discussion of homosexuality during the 2008 Veritas Forum at Columbia University:

I'm going to use this as an opportunity to write about both the specific critique and some broader issues related to Reformed bloggers analyzing the evangelistic efforts of other ministers.

The Question Beneath the Question

Miller writes:
For me, while Dr. Keller’s remarks on homosexuality are disappointing, it is his redefinition of sin and hell that I find much more troubling. Dr. Keller states that sin doesn’t send a person to hell, but rather self-righteousness does and that sin is just what is bad for “human flourishing.”

Whether this is incorrect depends on what Keller means in this context.

Recall the question Keller is addressing.  David Eisenbach wants to know if being gay by itself sends someone to hell.  His question is predicated on certain secular, liberal assumptions about identity and practice, assumptions I have yet to see any critic of Keller appreciate.  If Eisenbach is an informed liberal, and I have every reason to believe this is the case, he likely believes that the oppression of homosexuals by Christianity is due to their belief in their own superiority as the saved over against damned gay people.  This is the assumption that Keller has to untangle in answering the question.  If he just answers the question as it is stated, he falls into the trap (whether set intentionally or not) of being tarred as another oppressor.

This is one of the problems with addressing the elite university system.  Words and beliefs are often perceived as power plays.  If you answer "with Biblical truth" in the manner some are recommending, you will not be heard for saying anything other than "here are the reasons I will continue to oppress others," even if it is clearly false.  So you need to think of creative ways to defeat this linguistic challenge to show the audience that true freedom is available.

In many ways, the university is right.  Without Christ, claims of objectivity and inner/outer social demarcation based on set standards of behavior very often reduce to oppressive power claims.  In fact, this is one of the major failings of the modernist project and the impetus for so much of the diversity fillings we see across American society.

That is why, if I were answering the question, I would be more explicit that Christianity can provide objective truth about sin without being oppressive.  However, I've written about this elsewhere in my critiques of the Emergent Church, so I won't get into this here.

I understand that such defenses of Keller usual elicit some sort of joke about Bill Clinton's prevarications under oath--as if the negative association with a dishonest politician of an opposing party is useful or edifying.  Yet it is entirely appropriate to ask how someone is using terms and methods in a cultural context that is alien to your own.  Many people who critique Keller come from rural or suburban South.  Having been raised and educated in the urban North and having spent several years in the South for seminary, the cultural differences are real--people simply do not speak the same way, and this leads to all sorts of misinterpretations and clashes.

Many conservatives rightly characterize and critique the university as an ivory tower.  They need to be consistent in this application and realize that it is an unique and isolated cultural phenomenon.  This means that it requires a good deal of time--even immersion--in that culture to understand it.  Critics need to stop treating evangelism in these contexts as modernist affairs, where the truth is obvious and you just preach it--as if it were that simple!

Maybe Reading Comprehension Would Help?

Commenting on Keller's view of hell:
This annihilistic view of hell does not seem to fit with the picture of torment that the Scriptures teach and that the Westminster Standards describe
The use of "annihilistic" in this context, and the emphasis given later to eternal torments in the WCF as it to suggest Keller does not believe this, is either misinformed or approaching slanderous.  Keller has often discussed the eternal suffering of hell.  For example, he has an article where he states that it constitutes eternal suffering worse than the most painful physical sufferings on earth.  He has made similar statements in public as well.  I have not seen any indication in his writings that he believes the suffering will end in annihilation or some such thing, or even that it will diminish at all.  In fact, the material I've read seems to suggest it continues to get worse over time as a person removes himself from more and more of the relational aspects so necessary to human flourishing (or, to put it in language the watch bloggers will understanding: "righteous and holy living").  This can be seen even from the material Miller quotes to criticize Keller, where sin is an addiction that creates increasing amounts of disorder and suffering.

Her statements are born either out of an inability to read and comprehend Keller's position or a kind of malicious bias set on casting Keller as a liberal heretic out to ruin the purity of the Church.

If that seems harsh, it is.  Watch bloggers hold themselves and others to high standards.  If they fail those standards, so much the worse for them.  I think here not only of Rachel Miller but of Wes White's comments on this subject (linked by Miller in the original critique), which have been irresponsible at best and poisonous at worst, all the while lowering the discourse of the Reformed world to that of petulant children.  If the watch bloggers see fit to call others to repentance, so too should they be prepared to receive the same call in return.

As for the Westminster Standards, Miller is going to need to do a more serious job of explaining just how these contradict Keller's position.  It is not merely enough to place them side-by-side, since there is no prima facie case to be made that they are in contradiction.

Dr. Keller also gives his definition of sin in The Reason for God:
Sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from him. … 
So, according to the Bible, the primary way to define sin is not just the doing of bad things, but the making of good things into ultimate things (162, emphasis original).
This redefinition of sin also seems different from the Biblical descriptions of sin. The Westminster Standards define sin as:
Unfortunately, I think the use of the words primary and just deflate this attempt to paint Keller as redefining Biblical terms, at least as Miller seems to be using the term.

Keller's position is not without Biblical precedent either.  Recall how God describes the specific sin of Israel rejecting the words of Samuel and choosing a king to be like the other nations.  There the specific sin of rejecting the prophet's position was tied directly to an overall rejection of God.

Whether it is ultimately Biblical in all the senses Keller sees is another question entirely, one that would require a strong look at Keller's Counterfeit Gods.  But either way Miller needs to do the heavy duty exegetical work, both from Scripture and the confession, to demonstrate her position on the matter.  Simply quoting the WCF is insufficient, not the least because it's not clear how the WCF directly contradicts Keller's statements on sin.

A Central Moral Issue of Our Day

Miller also links to Robert Gagnon's critique of Keller's comments.  Gagnon's critique is useful in some respects, unhelpful in others.  Like many experts, I think because of his focus on the issue he tends toward a myopic approach, even if he offers useful statements on the subject from time to time.  Rather than address the whole of it, I'm going to focus on a larger issue:
For a pastor who has no trouble talking about greed and social justice issues, Rev. Keller’s refusal to discuss a Christian position on “gay rights and gay marriage,” one of the central moral issues of our day, is both striking and disturbing.
Whether it is one of the central moral issues of our day is questionable.  What I mean by this is of course it is a serious moral issue.  There is also a very real sense in which it is central, although this centrality is as much due to the issue being a politicized power struggle than anything else.  Rather, I question whether it should have a place as a central issue given all the many serious problems that currently attend the church.

An obvious question is to ask what Scripture considers the central issue.  But even this is incomplete and subject to simplistic, self-serving answers.  The question is complicated since the central issues of Scripture, as applied to its social milieu through the prophets and apostles, do not necessarily map onto our social issues.  This is the standard question of application, but I don't think has been addressed enough in our context and is what likely drives visceral reactions to ministers who say anything that even seems out of line on this subject.

I don't think our extended critiques of homosexuality are useful as a theological, apologetic or political emphasis.  (The emphasis is on the word emphasis.  Since people tend to misread such statements as saying we should never speak of homosexuality, or even that it is compatible with Christian life, even though that's an impossible reading of my words, I'll just state that it is appropriate, right and good to discuss it in some or even many contexts.)  Such critiques only attack the surface manifestations of a deeper problem.  When we are left writing about gay marriage, the battle has already been lost.  The metaphysical premises that fuel a defense of homosexuality are taught at the university and perpetuated by the entertainment industry and news media. Until Christians can regain a voice at the university and teach a generation or two of students who understand, hold and apply a Christian perspective to public life, we will never "win" the culture wars on this front.

The modern ethos is one which begins without a creator.  Without a creator there is no design.  Without design, there are no demands on a person's life.  Without demands, we are free to create our own identity and fulfillment.  What is true is what works for the community.  What works for the community is whatever affirms back onto it its self-identity.

This is especially true for urban New York.  How you go about effectively addressing homosexuality in this context is not entirely clear, since most attempts to speak about homosexuality will be interpreted as denying someone's very fulfillment and identity and have you silenced before you can even speak about the beauty of Christ.  For Keller to relate sin to selfishness is actually a radically precise strike at the very ethos of our pluralistic pragmatism, one that is understandable to a society steeped in the rituals of self-fulfillment and lays the foundation necessary to address homosexuality in a meaningful fashion.

This wouldn't work in the conservative South since the cultural ideals are different, and I think this is where a lot of the unwarranted alarm arises.

To address another issue raised in this context, this is also why discussions of greed have more traction and Keller can speak more easily to them, since greedy behavior has a much more tangible effect on others and a Northern audience will see greed in terms of how it destroys others' access to a self-fulfilled life.

I don't buy the sharp delineation between private behavior and public practice--the kind that asserts it does not matter at all what two consenting adults do in private, since that is demonstrably false--but I do think it has less an effect on society than either the practice of soul-withering materialism or the underlying teaching of self-fulfillment that occasionally finds its expression in homosexual practice.  Materialism--especially the American kind where we do so little to help others, give very little (just look at the PCA tithing rates), and would rather spend our evenings with our televisions and computer games than other people--is a pernicious evil that involves the exploitation of the poor.  These poor include not only many Christians in the inner cities, but also the poor around the world, often oppressed so we can enjoy cheap clothing and electronics.

Contrast this with homosexual practice, which occurs in perhaps 1-3% of the population.  Even if we ignored the overwhelming Biblical emphasis on money and material possessions, as a moral issue materialism affects far more Christians than homosexuality does, whether we speak of Christian practice alone or include the liberal agenda to normalize homosexuality.  And New York City, probably more than anywhere in the United States, struggles enormously with materialism.

Proclaiming and Applying Christ in Context: Nathan and David

Miller writes:
I understand the desire to explain Biblical concepts in new and fresh ways to gain a hearing with an especially jaded culture. However, we must be careful that our explanations are consistent with Scripture and that we aren’t simply softening the truth to make it easier to accept.
This is a common theme among critics of Keller. Somehow there exists an assumption that Keller is softening the material.  It is a reflexive assumption, one often unjustified (or "justified" in the manner Miller attempts above).  Consider that Keller himself attempts to approach hell in order to scare people into its realities:
If we really want skeptics and non-believers to be properly frightened by hell, we cannot simply repeat over and over that 'hell is a place of fire.' We must go deeper into the realities that the Biblical images represent. When we do so, we will find that even secular people can be affected.
That does not seem like someone who is trying to "soften" his message or blunt the realities of hell.

Indeed, there's a large difference between carefully thinking of ways to best present the application of Biblical narrative to an hostile, self-satisfied audience and merely watering it down so it is more palatable.  Consider Nigel Biggar on a similar issue:
The question of how best to tell it [the application of the narrative of an historical Jesus to life practice], however -- the question of how to communicate effectively what one believes to be true -- is another, distinct question. The art of successful persuasion might advise Christians against telling the whole truth at once or at first. It might advise against referring to theological premises before they have made efforts to explain what they mean and why those premises matter. It might advise an oblique approach, avoiding the use of theological cliches that incline listeners to yawn rather than startle them into reflection. Such rhetorical tactics need not be a symptom of a lack of nerve. On the contrary, they can be an expression of sensitivity to the otherness of others and of a readiness to place oneself in their shoes, in order to discern how best to walk them into one's own vision of things. Sequence matters: an assertion that makes no sense at the beginning of an argumentative journey can make good sense at the end. Rhetorical canniness need not be a sign of evasion. It can be an expression of love -- both for the neighbor and for the truth that one would have the neighbor see. (Behaving in Public: How to Do Christian Ethics [Eerdmans, 2011], 7)
Much of the breakdown here is that many critics of Keller come from the rural and suburban South while Keller is a product of the North and immersed in the elite academic environment of an urban city.  (This relationship is even more the case when we consider his talk at Columbia, where many of its journalists go on to work for organs of liberalism, such as the New York Times, which is required reading for a minister to the Upper East Side).  Just because we share the same English language does not mean we share the same manner of speaking about issues nor do we share the same cultural perspectives.  All cultural perspectives color our interpretation and application of Scripture to evangelism, often in highly complex ways.  In some ways it would be better if the North and the South spoke different languages, so that it could be apparent just how different each culture is from the other.

Once we recognize the large cultural differences, then we can appreciate and apply the fact that Christianity is expressed in different ways to different people in different times, and that this reality is present in the variation expressions of Paul's letters to a wide variety of audiences and his multiple, differing accounts of his personal story in Acts.

This is clear even in narratives that involve members born into and raised within the same covenant community.  Consider the way in which Nathan approaches David after his adultery, conspiracy and murder.  Nathan is rather creative in dealing with David.  He does not merely state the law and tell him to repent.  He traps David by his own standards of indignation, which lays the foundation necessary for Nathan to speak of the moral failings.  If this was necessary for two members of the covenant community--already deeply familiar with the law and its demands--how much more so for speaking to the sin of those outside of the covenant community?

People often pay lip-service to effective methods of evangelism.  Yet when they see them in practice in alien contexts, they assume capitulation rather than asking whether something more sophisticated is going on.  If the underlying method cannot be properly identified and its purpose understood within its social context, a critic has no business discussing whether an evangelism opportunity succeeds or not.  We hold New Atheists to the same standards when it comes to their asinine objections to Old Testament ethics.  It should be no different for uniformed Reformed critics of Reformed ministers.


  1. Outstanding article, Matthew.

  2. Matthew -- an erudite take on this whole situation (Keller's interview, and then the knee-jerk rejection of it). I think you have suitably framed the short-comings of some of the criticisms of Keller. However, I think you down-play some of the shortcomings of Keller's approach. I probably can't have a robust discussion about the gap between you opinion an mine, but you can find mine here:

    I think someplace between what I said and what you said is a reasonable, faithful approach to this issue -- and we must find one if we truly believe the Gospel and are ourselves now a people who were once not a people.

    1. Thanks, Frank. I have enjoyed your thoughts on this scenario. I recommend that readers take the time to digest the post you've linked here.

    2. I just read it, watched the Piper and Keller videos, and thought Frank's post was great as well!

      BTW, for better or for worse, California is probably closer to the East Coast than the South or Midwest or elsewhere in terms of culture or subcultures. But still I think California itself has its unique challenges in communicating the gospel. On the one hand, I don't think there's a Californian Reformed pastor or evangelist with Keller's visibility and reach, who'd be invited to speak at a place like Veritas, etc. (Although Rick Warren has said he's Reformed...) But on the other hand, while I've only seen a handful of YouTube videos of John MacArthur on Larry King and similar contexts, I think MacArthur does a pretty good job communicating the gospel to a more hostile and unbelieving audience.

  3. Thanks for your post, Matt! It helps to better situate where Keller is coming from.

  4. Having a different approach to the same thing is not "redefinition". Sin has logical relationships to such things as intent, behavior, God's justice, God's holiness, atonement, sanctification, relationship with God, etc. Sin can be defined accurately by virtue of an approach from any of these kinds of logical relationships, and each approach will require much different terms. What's the difference, for example, between asking for a definition of sin in terms of God's grace and a definition of sin in terms of our behavior? Miller either doesn't understand this rhetorical dynamic or has some malicious intent to rake Keller over the coals.