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Why Everything You Do Is Wrong

Why Everything You Do Is Wrong June 20, 2021

bag headTwo-thirds of the way through a book entitled The Reason for God, Tim Keller confesses he doesn’t intend to provide you with evidence that God exists. Why not? He says it’s because you already know that God exists…all of you, atheists included. He’s just trying to make you see that you already do.

Then as if nothing more needs to be said on the matter, in a chapter entitled “The Problem of Sin” Keller shifts abruptly into preaching sermons for the remainder of the book. Evidently he feels no more argumentation is needed, so from this point forward he will be slinging around church words, firing off sweeping generalizations in rapid succession without ever stopping to support the claims he is making. C.S. Lewis would be so proud.

Related: “C.S. Lewis and the Art of Holy Deception

He begins the sermon portion of the book by trotting out the word sin and building an entire chapter around it. I wrote before that if they’re trying to appeal to people who don’t already think the same way they do, it defeats the purpose to use words that only their people would use. But evangelism, much like preaching, relies on loaded language—words that stack the deck in favor of their preferred paradigms. If discussion drifts too far afield from their proprietary terms, they won’t be able to build a persuasive case and they know it.

Outside the walls of the church, they would call this an error of equivocation—or at least a misleading sales tactic. Inside the church, it’s just the way you’re supposed to talk. Growing up evangelical, this kind of thinking is normalized, and I doubt Christian apologetics could exist without it.

No Matter What You Do, You’re Wrong

The great thing about social constructs is that they are so reliably self-referential. Once inside, everything you see there confirms that you are seeing things precisely as they are. In reality you’re living in a bubble, but that bubble has become the lens through which you see the rest of the world. To repurpose a saying attributed to Lewis, it’s not that you see your own culture/echo chamber so much as by it, you see everything else.

That’s why it feels like the ground shifts beneath your feet the moment Keller begins using the word sin. It’s a proprietary word belonging to the Christian universe, so it can mean whatever they say it means. At the beginning of the conversation, it’s just another word for doing wrong. By the end, it’s come to mean something far more specific to their religion.

True to his pastoral purpose, in this chapter Keller performs a linguistic shell game wherein he assumes we’ve all agreed on what is right and what is wrong, then he swaps definitions until only people like him are in the right, no matter what they do:

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. (p.168)

Sin is not simply doing bad things, it is putting good things in the place of God. (p.178)

In case you’re not following, Keller is telling you that according to the way his faith tradition defines sin, even doing good things can be bad if they’re done for reasons other than the honor and glory of his religion, specifically. I mean sure, moving the goalposts is great. But have you ever tried eliminating them altogether?

Tactics like these remind me that humanism and evangelical Christianity will never be able to get along. The Christian gospel depends on judging even our best deeds and our most praiseworthy traits as sinful because there has to be something to save you from. Without that need on your part, they would have nothing to offer you.

Does that scare you? Does it sound stifling? Remember this—if you don’t live for Jesus you will live for something else. (p.179)

Like any preacher worthy of his pension, Keller shoehorns all of life into a false dilemma: Either you’re living for Jesus, or you’re living in sin. There are no alternatives. He then rattles off a list of the usual suspects, rivals to the primacy of Jesus in our lives like our families, our careers, our political loyalties, our pursuit of happiness, and our hunger for personal significance and self-worth. Caring too much about any of these things qualifies as idolatry.

Our need for [any of the above] is so powerful that whatever we base our identity and value on we essentially “deify.” We will look to it with all the passion and intensity of worship and devotion, even if we think of ourselves as highly irreligious. (p.169)

This came up before when I talked about their use of the word worship. It doesn’t matter what you do, you’re always wrong. Even doing good things is bad, because you’re doing them for some motivation other than pleasing Jesus. They have to rig the game this way so that no matter how well you think you’re doing, you are really failing at life. This is the “good news” that Keller has come to share with you. Perhaps you think you are happy, or that you’re doing the best that you can. But Keller is here to tell you that you are not.

The chapters which follow will prescribe a remedy for the diagnosis you’ve just received. Perhaps you didn’t know that you were sick, but now you know you are. But fret not, Christianity possesses precisely the remedy that you need!

Yet Another Fundamentalist in Disguise

I often speak about the similarities between fundamentalist and evangelical Christianities. I maintain that these are words intended to differentiate between subcultures that in reality believe the same things. An evangelical is just a fundamentalist with a bigger vocabulary…and maybe a better haircut. Their differences are stylistic, cosmetic at best.

Just listen to what Keller says are among the consequences of human sinfulness:

We are told that as soon as we determined to serve ourselves instead of God…the entire world became broken. Human beings are so integral to the fabric of things that when human beings turned from God the entire warp and woof of the world unraveled. Disease, genetic disorders, famine, natural disasters, aging, and death itself are as much the result of sin as are oppression, war, crime, and violence. (p.177, emphasis mine)

In case you didn’t catch it, Keller is claiming that droughts and floods, tornados and hurricanes, and even aging and death itself exist only because of human beings. The last sentence could have been uttered by Pat Robertson or Ken Ham.

Think about that for just a minute. Earlier in this book he gave an obligatory nod toward accepting common ancestry, even though he did it in a weirdly noncommittal way. In so doing, Keller was attempting to distance himself from his embarrassing theological cousins, the Young Earth Creationists who believe the universe is only around 6,000 years old. But then he turns around and steals a page from their playbook by arguing that death, disease, and aging all entered the world because of human beings.

Did anyone ever explain to Keller that in the calendar of cosmic history, human beings didn’t enter the story until about 9pm on December 31st? And now he is wanting to pin the very existence of aging and death on us alone? How do human beings cause tornados? And hurricanes? At some level, Keller still buys into the notion that Nature itself owes its destructive qualities to divine punishment for human transgression.

Honestly, my patience with this has already run out. It doesn’t really matter that Keller is better at packaging fundamentalism/evangelicalism to a contemporary audience. He can dress up this discussion and make it look like it belongs in a business luncheon in Manhattan, but it really is the same old stuff all over again.

In the next couple of posts we’ll take a look at Christian exceptionalism and the church’s obsession with blood.

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About Neil Carter
Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture. You can read more about the author here.

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