Tim Keller & The Benedict Option
Hello everybody from Malibu. I’ve been at and around Pepperdine University these past couple of days, giving a couple of lectures on politics and the Benedict Option. My trip is sponsored by Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy and its dean, Pete Peterson. I really can’t say enough good things about these folks. Everybody on this Christian campus has been incredibly welcoming to me, and the things I’ve learned about the Public Policy School here have been so encouraging. It is, as Dean Peterson said to me, “a Great Books public policy school.” From its About page:
Public policy is not limited to the study of government solutions, but is broadened to embrace a full range of community-based and free-market approaches to public policy challenges.
Effective public policy solutions are rooted in the classic literature of history, philosophy, and economics and are guided by moral and ethical principles best captured in the lives of great leaders.
The teaching of public policy goes beyond the theoretical survey of problems, highlighting policy applications that have proven to be effective.
Many policy challenges are best resolved at state and local levels. Southern California and Los Angeles provide an ideal laboratory in which to study such issues.
All of this intersects with the Benedict Option, but especially the first two principles. In my talks, I spoke of “politics” as something much broader than campaigns and legislation. Politics is the way we come together to order our life in common. In that sense, getting involved in your local community doing charitable work is a form of political engagement. It’s my belief that as America moves further into laïcité in the decades to come, this kind of politics is going to be the main one open to small-o orthodox Christians.
I keep running into the wall of people thinking that I’m arguing for Christians to turn their backs on the public square. I have yet to see a more succinct dissection of this issue than Andy Crouch delivered here:
1. Social hostility and legal restrictions will undermine the viability of many Christian institutions, and significantly limit individual Christians’ participation in many professions and aspects of public life, in the United States within a generation or so.
Portion of The Benedict Option devoted to this claim: 20%
Portion of journalistic coverage of the book devoted to this claim: 90%
Portion of social media buzz (pro and con) devoted to this claim: 98%
Likelihood of this claim being true: 50%
How much this should cause acute distress for those who believe that Jesus is Lord: 5%
2. Due to a lack of meaningful discipleship and accommodation to various features of secularized modernity and consumer culture, the collapse of Christian belief and practice is likely among members of the dominant culture (and many minority cultures) in the United States within a generation or so.
Portion of The Benedict Option devoted to this claim: 80%
Portion of journalistic coverage devoted to this claim: 10%
Portion of social media buzz (pro and con) devoted to this claim: 2%
Likelihood of this claim being true: 90%
How much this should cause acute distress for those who believe that Jesus is Lord: 100%
Yep, that’s about it. The book is addressed not to the general public, but specifically to Christians who broadly identify as theologically and morally conservative. What I’m claiming is that Western civilization has definitively cast aside the Christian faith, despite outward trappings, and that this means that the participation in the public square of Christians who do not bow down to the secular elite consensus will be restricted. I am also claiming — more importantly — that the churches are not remotely prepared for this. Our catechesis and our formation is disastrous. I’m with church historian Robert Louis Wilken on this:
Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.
I strongly encourage you to read “The Church As Culture,” the 2004 essay from which that passage is taken. Wilken is a leading historian of the early church, and discusses how believers in the first centuries of the faith created a distinctly Christian culture within which to pass down the faith. He argues that culture is necessary to forming Christians. Of course culture itself is not the same thing as Christ, but properly seen, culture is an icon through which Christ is mediated through us.
Anyway, I find that some of the strongest critics of the Ben Op idea are Christians, especially Reformed Christians, who model themselves after the well-known successful pastor Tim Keller. Here’s Keller on his ideas about Christian cultural engagement:
When Paul addresses the Areopagus, a body of the elite philosophers and aristocrats of Athens, he was, quite literally, speaking to the cultural elites. Their response to him was cool to say the least. They “mocked” him (Acts 17:32) and called him a “babbler” (v. 18), and only one member of that august body converted (v. 34). The elites laughed at him, wondering how Paul expected anyone to believe such rubbish. The irony of the situation is evident as we look back at this incident from the vantage point of the present day. We know that a couple of centuries later the older pagan consensus was falling apart and Christianity was growing rapidly. All the ideas that the philosophers thought so incredible were adopted by growing masses of people. Finally those sneering cultural elites were gone, and many Christian truths became dominant cultural ideas.
Why? Historians look back and perceive that the seemingly impregnable ancient pagan consensus had a soft underbelly. For example, the approach to suffering taken by the Stoics—its call to detach your heart from things here and thereby control your emotions—was harsh and did not work for much of the populace. The Epicureans’ call to live life for pleasure and happiness left people empty and lonely. The Stoics’ insistence that the Logos—the order of meaning behind the universe—could be perceived through philosophic contemplation was elitist, only for the highly educated. The revolutionary Christian teaching was, however, that there was indeed a meaning and moral order behind the universe that must be discovered, but this Logos was not a set of abstract principles. Rather it was a person, the Creator and Savior Jesus Christ, who could be known personally. This salvation and consolation was available to all, and it was available in a way that did not just engage the reason but also the heart and the whole person. The crazy Christian gospel, so sneered at by the cultural elites that day, eventually showed forth its spiritual power to change lives and its cultural power to shape societies. Christianity met the populace’s needs and answered their questions. The dominant culture could not. And so the gospel multiplied.
Do we have Paul’s courage, wisdom, skill, balance, and love to do the same thing today in the face of many sneering cultural leaders? It won’t be the same journey, because we live in a post-Christian Western society that has smuggled in many values gotten from the Bible but now unacknowledged as such. Late modern culture is not nearly as brutal as pagan culture. So the challenges are different, but we must still, I think, plunge into the agora as Paul did.
Does it surprise you that I agree with this? I’m still looking for ways in which Tim Keller and I substantively disagree on cultural engagement. If you know of any, please let me know — I’m serious about that. What I emphasize in The Benedict Option is that if we Christians are going to do that in a hostile, post-Christian public square, we have no choice but to take a step back from the public square to deepen our knowledge of the faith, our prayer lives, and our moral and spiritual discipline.
I also argue that Christian parents need to be a lot more aware of the malformative effects of our cultural liturgies on their children — and, of course, on themselves. Holding the correct doctrines, and having one’s heart in the right place, are not enough. Nor is participating in church, if church life is not consciously countercultural — that is, if church life doesn’t understand what post-Christian culture means and what it does, and train those in the fellowship to push back as hard against it as it pushes against us.
My concern is that many Christians are eager to “engage the culture” without a realistic understanding of how and why the broader culture is hostile to them and to the Gospel. Sometimes when I hear “engage the culture” types talk, I find myself thinking of the kind of thing Aaron Renn articulated here:
The neutral world church is very different in a number of ways. It has traditionally been much more apolitical (though many of its practitioners lean left). It’s also much more heavily urban and global city focused. It tries to avoid highlighting areas where Christianity is in conflict with the world. Instead of being antagonistic towards the culture, it is explicitly positive towards culture. In fact, you could sum up much of the model under the heading “cultural engagement.” They want to meet the culture on its own terms, and reach people as participants in a pluralistic public square. They want to be in the mainstream media, not just Christian media or their own platforms. Many of their ministries have been backed by big money donors. These are many of the people who denounced Trump to no effect during the election. In effect, they represent a version of Christianity taking its cues from the secular elite consensus.
… [Tim Keller] explicitly validated the pursuit of success at the highest echelons of American art, media, finance, etc., believing that Christianity had something to offer in those fields at all levels. He believes these secular fields, while suffering from fallenness like all human institutions, are fundamentally positive contributions to humanity and that Christianity should participate and engage with them rather than fighting against them or denouncing them.
If that’s a fair description of Keller’s vision, then I can go a long way with it, but not all the way. My fear is that this approach, taken up by sincere Christians who aren’t being properly formed and discipled, will end up with them sacrificing important Christian truths for the sake of maintaining access to the public square. For example, I’m thinking of an Evangelical woman who held an influential position in a secular media company. In a conversation two years ago about same-sex marriage, she said, with palpable frustration in her voice, “When can we quit talking about this and get back to talking about Jesus?”
The idea that you can separate sexual morality from New Testament Christianity is a novel one, to say the least. But it’s exactly what you would expect from Christians who are successful professionals working in the secular world, and who want to assuage the anxiety they feel over their non-conformity with the sacred tenets of that world. When the faith becomes primarily relational — that is, maintaining relationships — then it becomes easy to justify minimizing or turning aside the Bible’s “hard teachings” for the sake of maintaining those relationships. This is especially true in a church and a culture, like our own, where Christians have forgotten what it means to suffer as Christians.
My idea of cultural engagement sits in the space between Jeremiah 29 and Daniel 3. Here’s Jeremiah 29, 4-7; God is speaking to the Hebrews in their Babylonian exile, through the Prophet Jeremiah:
4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
And here is Daniel 3, 8-23:
At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. 9 They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “May the king live forever! 10 Your Majesty has issued a decree that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music must fall down and worship the image of gold,11 and that whoever does not fall down and worship will be thrown into a blazing furnace. 12 But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—who pay no attentionto you, Your Majesty. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.”
13 Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, 14 and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? 15 Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what godwill be able to rescue you from my hand?”
16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us[c] from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual 20 and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace.21 So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace. 22 The king’s command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, 23 and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace.
The story goes on to say that the fire did not consume the men, and that God delivered them from death. I cut the story off here, though, because at this point, the three men did not know for sure that they would not be killed in the furnace. They went to what ought to have been a horrible death with faith and confidence. In truth, countless Christian martyrs over the past 2,000 years went into the fiery furnace, so to speak, submitting to death before apostasy.
Yes, we must do what we can to serve our neighbors as Christians, and to evangelize. But we can only do this rightly if we have been living as the three Hebrew men were: serving the people, but God first. There was something about the way Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were living as faithful Jews in Babylon that gave them the strength to choose death before idol worship. For us, “cultural engagement” can only take place if we have been formed with that kind of hardcore spiritual and moral discipline. This is what I mean by strategic withdrawal: a partial withdrawal not to turn our backs entirely on the public square, but only to regain focus and clarity, and strengthen ourselves so that when we go back into the public square, we know who we are, what we stand for, and what we must endure for the sake of the true faith.
I don’t see that happening in most churches today. Over these last two days in southern California, I’ve had a few conversations with Catholics and Evangelicals both, who have talked about how feeble most (but not all) churches around here are on discipleship.
This is why I think Aaron Renn is onto something with this:
The template is Paul, who was one tough hombre. Paul was a Jewish blueblood on the fast track to high council membership who threw it all way to endure beatings, imprisonment, etc. (One of the underappreciated virtues of Paul is just how physically and mentally tough that guy was). He said he counted it all as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. He also someone who could say, “I have not shunned to declare unto you the whole counsel of God.”
[I write:] Here’s the thing, says Renn:
Paul did not focus his struggle on the world, but within the church itself. Aside from seeking converts, he doesn’t advise his followers to engage the culture, get politically active, or anything like that. Nor did he instruct his followers to run away from the world. Rather, he focused on building up the church in holiness, and exhorting believers in the new faith to overcome the world in themselves.
It can be assumed that everything after that followed. Renn concludes:
[T]he church needs the manly virtues of enduring suffering, hardship, and having values that are higher than worldly social status and success – people who stand on solid rock, not who have a finger in the air to see which direction the wind is blowing so they can conform.
So: yes, engage the culture, and be the servants of your neighbors and the common good. But you cannot do this properly if you are not God’s servant first. And you cannot be God’s servant in this post-Christian culture without deep and serious formation from a life of worship, prayer, contemplation, and Scripture study. The faith cannot be part of one’s life. It has to be one’s entire way of life. There is no alternative.
I’ve got to go down to Orange County now. If any of you readers who know Tim Keller’s work wish to help me understand better how his approach differs from mine, please weigh in, and I’ll approve your comments when I can. I think it’s true that I’m more negative towards the culture outside the church than Keller is, that I don’t share his optimism … but what else?