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Write a blog for ten years and you just might be surprised what you end up saying. I have never gone out of my way to deride Tim Keller, but defending him was not my agenda either.

Tim Keller is the CS Lewis of our day. So says the essay that occasioned this response of mine. Best-selling author, founding pastor of Manhattan’s hugely-successful Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and inspiration for the young, urban, professional church-planting movement. It’s a comparison that makes sense to me. Both Lewis and Keller are intelligent, incisive, excellent communicators, gifted with the turn of phrase, the tweetable quote. But for me, it is their deeper method, their presuppositions, and their most enthusiastic fans that are problematic. 

Last May, James R. Wood, formerly of First Things and now at Ontario’s Redeemer University, published a piece titled How I Evolved on Tim Keller. Then in June, First Things posted Wood’s video follow-up. I apologize. Last May isn’t exactly “recent.” This conversation has been bubbling within certain circles for a while now. I’ll just say that I don’t pay a lot of attention to the American evangelical world and it takes a long time for the Pony Express to reach me. Plus, I stopped reading First Things decades ago.

When I was made aware of Wood’s piece my first reaction was more psychological than theological. I saw it primarily as a young scholar doing his necessary “patricide”–distancing himself, poking at, dismissing his intellectual pater, while simultaneously expressing admiration and gratitude. Basically, “Thanks for the help, but now I’ve gone beyond you and see your deficiencies.” It’s commonplace. I could tell my own such journeys. But that’s for another day.

Wood’s take on Keller is that he is too genteel, too soft and user-friendly, not fully aware of how hostile, how anti-Christian contemporary American culture is. Keller is from and for a different era. The world has passed him by. Keller’s niceness simply won’t work anymore.

No more should Evangelicals try so hard to be winsome and find a third-way that is labeled neither liberal nor conservative. Wood thinks it is time for American evangelicals to sharpen their elbows, speak candidly of enemies and evil, expect scorn, and combatively grapple in American politics.

A couple interesting little sidelights I have to note:

  1. Tangentially, Wood relies on an odd, interesting, and wooly piece, “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism” by Aaron Renn, that merits its own response. It argues that in just the past few years American culture has moved from moderately hospitable to Christianity to overtly hostile. Basically, Renn compresses the complex and still unsettled end of Christendom down to a precise and very recent time frame. My reading is that for Renn the primary indicators of society’s anti-Christian enmity are the Obama presidency and the Obergefell decision. 
  1. In his follow-up video, Wood mentions the necessity of Christians working with and making peace with “flawed political figures.” Is that code for “It’s okay for Christians to be chummy with Donald Trump”? Of course, political figures are alway flawed. I guess for Wood, philandering, narcissism, undermining democracy, and general loathsomeness are more acceptable flaws than supporting transgender people. 

At times, Wood very much reminds me of Stanley Hauerwas of the 1980s and 90s — a viewpoint that influenced me very personally and deeply. Like Hauerwas, Wood tells Christians that their views are peculiar and out of step with secular society, that they have enemies, and should expect derision. 

This, according to Wood, is what Keller doesn’t understand about post-Obama America. 

But where Hauerwas then counsels against enamorment and overreliance on politics as the primary public expression of Christianity, Wood wants to dive in. Hauerwas maintains a broad-shouldered, unflinching, sometimes even whimsical attitude about the slings and arrows of the world. In contrast, Wood slips into the currently all too common “persecuted” storyline of today’s American evangelicals.

After sounding nearly Hauerwasian, Wood then suddenly flips to become the most hardboiled of Niebuhrian realists. Christian politics is about getting your hands dirty, cutting deals, and rubbing shoulders with scoundrels. His endorsement of realpolitik reminds me of a phrase often attributed to Obama: “The perfect is the enemy of the good” (although its antecedents are actually Shakespeare, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Niebuhr himself). 

Leaving aside whether any of this is fair to Keller, I wonder how it is that anyone will want to make deals and partner with you politically if you enter that brawl so convinced you’re maligned, incompatible, and anathema to society?

To rely on the “other” Niebuhr’s tired but persistent typologies (H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture), I hear in Wood a strange and untenable combination–both a “Christ against culture” hostility and a “Christ the transformer of culture” triumphalism. 

American evangelicalism says it is waking up to the end of Christendom. What I see instead is a continuing search for public power and validation, rather than for mustard seeds and lost coins. Wood and evangelicals are unwilling to face their own diminishment, even irrelevance, to wonder if their brokenness might actually be a gift and hope, to linger at the cross rather than rush to the resurrection. Their mainline step siblings–feeble and “apostate” though they be–were alert much sooner to the end of Christendom. They have no illusions of grandeur, no claim to be players, no nostalgic desire to reclaim what is now over. Wood and American evangelicals still want to win.

Is Tim Keller a weenie? I don’t think so. But I don’t especially care. I’m sure Wood would deny it, but I think Wood believes he is. 

What I hear in Wood is preparing the ground for the beginning of acceptance by “serious and scholarly” Christians of Donald Trump Junior’s now well-known quote. “We’ve turned the other cheek, and I understand, sort of, the biblical reference—I understand the mentality—but it’s gotten us nothing. OK? It’s gotten us nothing.”

Maybe the original weenie was Jesus.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the Reformed Journal's previous iteration, Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

10 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Follow the money. It’s hard to raise money for Christian institutions and cultural-mandate universities if the Kingdom is just (what the Lord Jesus says) mustard seeds and lost coins, not to mention little children. I will bet Professor Wood draws new loonies and twoneys (i.e. cash) to dear old Redeemertje.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    The Gospel for this coming Sunday, Advent 3 (Year A) is apropos. John the Baptist sounds like Professor Wood and all the other Evangelicals. “Time for vengeance, Jesus, I mean the healings are nice and all that, but why don’t you take charge and knock some heads and fight, fight, fight, like the Messiah you are supposed to be? What happened to the ‘baptism with fire’ that I told everyone you would be bringing? C’mon, Jesus, step up, we’ve got a worldview struggle here, and we’re getting persecuted not only by the Romans but also by the Sadducees of the main-line church!”

  • Kevin Bolkema says:

    The kingdom of God and the cause of Christ are never advanced at the ballot box. When Christianity or any other religion attempts to be a political player rather than a political influence, both politics and religion suffer but it is faith that is grievously diminished.

  • I have to agree that “weenie” is a good word in lots of cases. It may apply to Wood, Keller, Lewis, and Tr*** Jr., but I cringe a little when you use it to describe. . . you know who. Afterall, he didn’t hold back when it came to paying the price and shouldering responsibility for the ongoing impact of his message. Does that set him apart from the rest?

    • Henry Baron says:

      Can there be “good weenies” and “bad weenies”, maybe?

    • David E Timmer says:

      I read Steve’s last sentence as ironic. That is, if responding to the hostility of the world with gentle, non-defensive love rather than triumphalist aggression makes one a “weenie,” maybe Jesus and his followers should claim the name. The alternative of embracing the politics of fear, cruelty, and nihilism in order to notch a few cultural wins seems like a slippery slope we’d want to stay off.

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    Well said … all of us (Christians) are pondering our place in the world now that the world has upped the rent. Contrary to what Wood asserts, I don’t, for a moment, believe the world to be intentionally hostile to Christianity; what the world is doing is a gift from God – pushing Christianity to face itself. For centuries, the Church thought in terms of conquest, and now it would seem such a dream has proven to be more nightmare than pleasant, for the Church, and certainly for the world. Evangelicals, with the Graham Bump, believed for a time that the world was their cookie jar, laughing as historic Protestantism hid the skids. Now, there’s not much laughing – some will gain perspective, others will sharpen their claws and play the martyr game. For many evangelicals, the world has to be “hostile” – they need enemies to exist. Jesus suggested that we be a wise as serpents and gentle as doves … perhaps Keller fits into that admonition; Wood certainly fails with his “all guns blazing” John Wayne mode. And so it goes …

  • Curt Day says:

    I want to make two points here. First, though I have disagreements with Keller, I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. And to use a negative label to describe him is unnecessarily divisive. It is unnecessary because such labels are inaccurate to begin with. In addition, Wood’s criticism of Keller could be nothing more than Wood complaining about some of the fruit of the Spirit he sees in Keller’s life and ministry.

    Second, when describing the outside world as being hostile toward Christianity, we need to distinguish the different reasons why the world is hostile. For it is one thing to be hostile to the Gospel and what it teaches, it is another thing to be hostile to the sins of Christendom and what it represented. For it is one thing to be hostile just to the Gospel message, it is another to be hostile to those who are seeking to impose their religious values on one’s own life. Because of the different reasons for the hostility we face, we need to make distinctions lest we turn a deaf ear to criticisms that we need to listen to.

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