If one looks up the word “winsome” in a dictionary, here is a typical example of what shows up, via Merriam-Webster: “generally pleasing and engaging often because of a childlike charm and innocence.”
However, a Google search for the term “winsome,” when combined with “Tim Keller,” opens up a window into a completely different world — one closely linked to debates about the meaning of the word “evangelical” in a Donald Trump-era culture.
Frankly, I am not going to go there. What I will do is urge GetReligion readers who visit Twitter to follow the #TimKeller hashtag and check out the waves of tributes in the wake of the passing of one of the most important American evangelicals — defined in terms of doctrine — in recent decades.
Instead of looking at the tsunami of news coverage, I will simply note the obvious — Keller is receiving much, or even most, of this attention because he lived, worked, preached and wrote in New York City. If his career had unfolded in the Bible Belt, mainstream journalists would never have heard of him. Thus, here is the New York Times double-decker headline on its obituary (which ran quickly, but inside the print edition):
The Rev. Timothy Keller, Pioneering Manhattan Evangelist, Dies at 72
Shunning fire and brimstone, he became a best-selling author and founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which drew young New Yorkers.
The Gray Lady’s lede offered this:
The Rev. Timothy J. Keller, a best-selling author and theorist of Christianity who performed a modern miracle of his own — establishing a theologically orthodox church in Manhattan that attracted thousands of young professional followers — died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 72.
Yes, we can talk about the accuracy of the word “evangelist” in the headline. Once again, there are mainstream journalists who believe that is simply another way to say “evangelical.” Unless I missed something, Keller was not active in holding the kinds of public events — think Billy Graham “crusades” — normally associated with public evangelism. Were there some Central Park rallies with Keller sermons and altar calls that I missed? Please let me know.
What he was, of course, was a church builder and an “apologist” for small-o orthodox Christianity, of the Reformed form,” both in preaching and in writing — in books and a host of other forms. To draw a comparison, the Rev. John Stott was won lots of converts, but he was an “apologist,” not a large-form “evangelist.”
This reminded me of the famous essay by the sociologist Christian Smith, which inspired an early GetReligion post with this headline: “Are journalists too ignorant to cover religion news?” Here is the heart of the Smith essay:
“Evangelicals” is one of their favorites to botch. Often in our discussions, journalists refer to ordinary evangelical believers as “evangelists” — as if the roughly 70 million conservative Protestants in America were all traveling preachers like Billy Graham and Luis Palau. … Other journalists simply cannot pronounce “evangelicals” at all. They get confused and flustered, and after a few uncomfortable tries at “evangelics” and “evangelicalists” they give up and resort to referring to evangelicals simply as “them.” …
These are the knowledge-class professionals who are supposedly informing millions of readers about religion in America. … I find it hard to believe that political journalists call Washington think tanks and ask to talk with experts on background about the political strategies of the “Democrizer” or “Republication” parties, or about the most recent “Supremicist Court” ruling.
Ah, but quoting that wasn’t very “winsome” of me, was it?
Keller was known as someone who was “winsome” in terms of talking with precisely these kinds of people — while living and working in New York City. That was his skill. That won him many friends, and converts, and also made him some enemies — especially in Trump times.
GetReligion readers who want to understand these tensions can turn to this first-person New Yorker piece by journalist Michael Luo. The headline: “The Far-Seeing Faith of Tim Keller — The pastor created a new blueprint for Christian thought, showing how traditional doctrine could address the crisis of modern life.” Here is a crucial chunk of its summary material, beginning with Luo visiting a service in 2006, before actually joining Redeemer Presbyterian Church on the upper west side of Manhattan:
Keller had glasses and a bald pate and wore a dark blazer and a red tie. He stood well over six feet tall. The stage made him appear even more imposing, particularly when he raised his hand high to make a point, but his mannerisms and tone were that of an English professor. With a sheaf of notes on a music stand, he preached a thoughtful disquisition on Jesus’ healing of a paralyzed man, drawing on readings from C. S. Lewis, the Village Voice, and the George MacDonald fairy tale “ The Princess and the Goblin .”
Keller, who died, of pancreatic cancer, on Friday, at the age of seventy-two, had a résumé that resembled that of perhaps no other Christian minister in America. In 1989, he and his wife founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the heavily secular milieu of Manhattan. By the time he stepped down, in 2017, Redeemer had more than five thousand worshippers across multiple services every Sunday, making it one of the largest Protestant churches in New York City. Keller also was a best-selling author, publishing more than twenty books, including 2008’s “ The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism ,” and writing regularly for major publications such as the Times, The Atlantic, and this magazine. He was a frequent guest on MSNBC’s “ Morning Joe ” — the co-host Joe Scarborough and his family attended Redeemer — and was friendly with a remarkably broad cross-section of influential figures in media and politics, including the Times columnist David Brooks; The Atlantic’s former majority owner, David Bradley; Francis Collins, the former head of the National Institutes of Health; the actress Patricia Heaton, of “Everybody Loves Raymond”; and even Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Luo is candid, noting that he visit Redeemer while working at the Times. He expected a kind of megachurch, showy Protestantism and found, well, a surprisingly normal Presbyterian congregation — only one with wit, as well as hymns.
Keller’s goal was to get New Yorkers to listen. That affected HOW he preached, as opposed to what he addressed in his preaching (or avoided addressing). That won him a wide spectrum of listeners.
Then his goal of being an orthodox centrist became more complex. Luo writes:
Shortly after I wrote the article about Keller for the Times, I began regularly attending his church. Over the years, we became friends, and I would consult him from time to time while reporting on religion. In December, 2017, Keller wrote an essay for The New Yorker, in which he lamented the state of the evangelical movement in the Trump era. He had long eschewed the “evangelical” label because of its partisan implications, making a point of avoiding controversial political topics on the pulpit. In his essay, Keller explained that he had come of age in the early seventies, when “the word ‘evangelical’ still meant an alternative to the fortress mentality of fundamentalism.” But the meaning of the term had changed radically, no longer describing a set of historic Christian doctrines. “ ‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground,” he wrote. “Now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite.’ ” Keller sought a return to what he called “little-e evangelicalism,” which is “defined not by a political party, whether conservative, liberal, or populist, but by theological beliefs.” He expressed optimism for a future shaped not by white evangelicalism, whose core was aging and declining, but by a more diverse, global cadre of leaders who defied political categorization.
He later wrote an Op-Ed for the Times in which he warned that Christian faith should never be aligned with a single political party. “Most political positions,” Keller wrote, “are not matters of biblical command but of practical wisdom.”
The headline for that influential essay was this: “How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t.”
The problem, of course, was that debates about issues such as abortion and traditional Christian teachings on marriage led to centuries of Christian doctrines rooted in scripture and tradition. Defending Christian orthodoxy was, in and of itself, not “winsome.”
But, as Keller noted, the two-party American political binary — with all roads leading to the U.S. Supreme Court — created tensions that could not be avoided.
Thus, Keller became more controversial. “Winsome,” for some, equalled “compromise.” Some wanted Keller to be a fighter, like You Know Who.
When reading the mainstream coverage, it helps to look for signs of this tragic battle that made the final decade of Keller’s life and work much more complex and painful.
I would also recommend that readers check out this classic pre-Trump-era interview (2009 to be precise) with Keller by Sarah Pulliam Bailey of the Washington Post, back when she was working at Christianity Today. The headline: “American Idols — Tim Keller explains why money, sex, and power so easily capture our affections.”
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