What I found difficult to fathom was the harmony between Keller’s understanding of the gospel and how it upsets worldly ambitions with his own standing not just in Presbyterian circles but in American Christianity more generally. After all, if he had been a pastor in Kalamazoo (think Kevin DeYoung in Lansing or any pastor in Birmingham, Alabama), he might have achieved a spot in the Gospel Coalition’s roster of speakers and bloggers. But without his apparent success in the most powerful and wealthiest city in the world (or at least the West), would people listen as attentively when TKNY speaks?
I followed Dr. Kloosterman’s advice (is this a two-way advice street?) and listened to Tim Keller’s sermon on politics. It strikes me that Keller’s rendering of Render unto Caesar is a way to avoid partisan politics while also keeping the flame of political engagement bright and inflaming. TKNY will not be captive to either liberals or conservatives but he won’t abandon N.T. Wright or Abraham Kuyper.
What I found difficult to fathom was the harmony between Keller’s understanding of the gospel and how it upsets worldly ambitions with his own standing not just in Presbyterian circles but in American Christianity more generally. After all, if he had been a pastor in Kalamazoo (think Kevin DeYoung in Lansing or any pastor in Birmingham, Alabama), he might have achieved a spot in the Gospel Coalition’s roster of speakers and bloggers. But without his apparent success in the most powerful and wealthiest city in the world (or at least the West), would people listen as attentively when TKNY speaks? Yes, celebrity is in view, but celebrity includes all sorts of American associations with numbers, size, success, wealth, and influence.
Think, for instance, of what Keller says about the meaning of the gospel:
Christ wins our salvation through losing, achieves power through weakness and service, and comes to wealth via giving all away. Those who receive his salvation are not the strong and accomplished but those who admit that they are weak and lost. This pattern creates an ‘alternate kingdom’ or ‘city’ (Matt.5:14-16). in which there is a complete reversal of the values of the world with regard to power, recognition, status, and wealth. When we understand that we are saved by sheer grace through Christ, we stop seeking salvation in these things. The reversal of the cross, therefore, liberates us from bondage to the power of material things and worldly status in our lives. The gospel, therefore, creates a people with a whole alternate way of being human. Racial and class superiority, accrual of money and power at the expense of others, yearning for popularity and recognition–all these things are marks of living in the world, and are the opposite of the mindset of the kingdom (Luke 6:20-26).
All of that is true. But it is not true of Keller’s or Redeemer’s reputation, status, or celebrity. In fact, my jaw dropped when I recently saw that Redeemer NYC’s expenses for 2012 were over $21 million. (In contrast, the entire budget for the OPC’s General Assembly this year — which includes foreign and home missions — is about $3.8 million.) New York is an expensive place to live and work. It, like the federal government, sure do take a bite. In Keller’s case it is a considerable part of his visibility and fame. At the same time, using NYC’s power and wealth to enhance ministerial reputation is not exactly the fruit of the gospel that Keller understands and preaches it.
A better city for cultivating a gospel sensibility, one that reverses our world’s expectations for success and wealth, is Istanbul, which Orham Pamuk describes in the following manner:
. . . in Istanbul the remains of a glorious past and civilization are everywhere visible. No matter how ill-kept they are, no matter how neglected or hemmed in they are by concrete monstrosities, the great mosques, and other monuments of the city, as well as the lesser detritus of empire in every side street and corner — the little arches, fountains and neighbourhood mosques — inflict heartache on all who live among them. . . . [F]or the city’s more sensitive and attuned residents, these ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to the same heights of wealth, power, and culture. It is no more possible to take pride in these neglected dwellings, in which dirt, dust and mud have blended into their surroundings, than it is to rejoice in the beautiful old wooden houses that as a child I watched burn down one by one. (Istanbul: Memories and the City, 91)
D. G. Hart is Visiting Professor of History at Hillsdale College in Michigan, and also serves as an elder for a new Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale. Darryl blogs, along with his partner in the venture, John Muether, at Old Life where this article first appeared. It is used with permission.