Welcome back! My husband has this hilarious way of describing really delusional people: In our dreams, we are free indeed. And when I heard about today’s story, that saying was the very first thing that popped into my head. See, Tim Keller, a venerable name in Christian leadership circles, thinks that the pandemic will lead to a bunch of conversions. Today, let me share his dream with you — and then, because I’m feeling super-helpful, I’ll reveal why people should disregard it and its dreamer.
Everyone, Meet Tim Keller.
I might be inclined to argue that when Christian fundamentalism intersects with middle class pseudo-intellectualism, Calvinism is the meme most fit to rise to the top.
Tim Keller is a pastor and apologist. For many years, he ran a large church in New York City. He boasts the usual credentials of both occupations: an education in purely religious topics and a resume consisting only of Christian-based positions. He’s a member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the bigoted evangelical culture-warrior end of Presbyterianism.
(Incidentally, the PC(USA) denomination represents the way-more-liberal end of Presbyterianism. The term Presbyterian only indicates a particular church leadership structure. It implies no specific beliefs or political stances.)
PCA pushes Reformed Theology, a variant of Calvinism. Thus, Keller believes it as well. I already have a low opinion of this doctrine.
Like many apologists, this one idolizes C.S. Lewis. A lot of evangelicals think Tim Keller is a great apologist and compare him to his idol. Disavowing that comparison might be the only thing he’s ever gotten right. C.S. Lewis was also not a great apologist, but Tim Keller’s schtick resembles a vaudevillian’s doggerel compared to him.
A lot of people seem to think that Tim Keller’s a sort of “nice fundagelical” because he tries hard not to broadcast the worst of his culture-warrior sympathies. But what he does state out loud is bad enough as it is.
The Paladin’s Wobbly Sword.
Other Christians do a great job of explaining just why Tim Keller is such a lackluster champion for Christianity. (As The Apostate observed years ago: if you want to annihilate any Christian doctrine, simply check out what its competition says about it.) Most of Keller’s critics focus on the usual stuff, like heresy. That’s normal. (Heresy is Christianese; in Christian parlance, it means doctrines that contradict my own beliefs.)
But then there’s this Christian critic of Keller’s, who calls him “a confused, bumbling man that seems to be unwilling or unable to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.” The piece does a good job of demonstrating exactly why nobody should take Tim Keller seriously:
- Constant self-serving redefinitions
- Odd, ill-fitting analogies that don’t work
- A tacit admission that apologetics relies not on facts but on emotional manipulation
These observations are spot-on. Like every other big-name apologist I’ve ever seen in action, he really lets Christians down. His tactics are childish and his accusations puerile.
Lookin’ For Strange.
Steve Shives’ review of one of Tim Keller’s books dismantles his apologetics soft-shoe routine. Officially, Keller aimed the book at atheists, but holy cow, it’s hard to imagine any atheists thinking much of it:
“Introduction and Chapter One.” January 2, 2014. Source.
Right out of the gate (at 8:00-ish in Steve’s video above), Tim Keller declares that he felt attracted to social-justice causes and liberalism because affiliating with these groups helped him do what he really wanted to do. He offers up two of those desires: “liberat[ing] the oppressed and sleep[ing] with who [he] wanted.”
The text around that statement only makes matters worse for Keller. He implies very strongly that his ideological enemies just wanna get freaky without guilt, and that people only reject Christianity for silly reasons.
Josh McDowell and William Lane Craig have very similar testimonies. The current generation of fundagelicals assign enormous value to claims of ex-atheism. Just as Keller does here, both those competing apologists reveal equally unsavory personality traits. And again just as Keller does, both imply that Jesus totally cured them of those traits. Their problem is that Jesus does not magically take away any Christian’s bad traits, any more than he cures new converts of their various addictions.
Tim Keller tells us who he really is in his testimony. And when people tell us who they really are, we should listen to them.
Tim Keller vs. Objective Reality.
Oh, but Tim Keller does love to strawman. Here’s a “Big Think” video he did in 2012 about “The New Atheists.”
In it, he claims that “The New Atheists,” who he never actually names, have some indefensible positions:
They [books by “The New Atheists”] weren’t just saying that religion is wrong. They were actually saying that even respect for religion was wrong. [*weird curl of one corner of his lip*] That we shouldn’t even be courteous and respectful to religious believers, but we really just need to get rid of it all. And boy, that’s a — I think that’s a recipe for disaster. That certainly doesn’t bring about civil discourse at all.
Weird! I don’t think I’ve ever once heard anybody I’d consider part of “The New Atheists” saying that. What old-school atheist leaders do tend to say is that we shouldn’t grant religious beliefs deference, and also that religion itself is not a net positive force in our world. I can easily see why an apologetics-addled religious leader might bristle over those notions.
Quite a few Christians get their shorts twisted into knots when their various false beliefs get put on the same shelf as those of Bigfoot Hunters, Atlantis-believers, and all those women who think they’re married to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki character.
I’ve noticed that many Christians also deliberately confuse the concepts of live-and-let-live courtesy and deference to them and their tribe. They move between those alternate meanings of “respect” without announcing any shifts. What they demand and what they offer in turn do not usually match.
Tim Keller goes in for that favorite fundagelical slur for those who embrace objective reality, “scientism.” In the Big Think video, he refers to reality as “the old Enlightenment” and “the objective view from nowhere.” He sniffs down his nose at those poor silly “The New Atheists” who “just refused to take Philosophy 101.”
They’re just so sure that if you can’t prove something, then we don’t have to believe it. [*flails his widdle fists, literally, as he scowls in toddler-like contempt*] So there’s a kind of epistemological naivete about the books.
Keller uses bigger words than most to insult his enemies, but you can still hear him fuming behind his gritted teeth about those mean ole atheists who won’t play by his rules. See, he wants people to define reality the way he defines it, because that is the only way that allows for his god to exist. Reality’s rules don’t cooperate, so he rejected it and created his own.
His attempted invocation of the Courtier’s Reply as well, fails too. It’s a red herring. Nobody needs to know high-flown philosophical concepts or obtain an advanced-degree education in fundagelicals’ weird off-brand version of epistemology to reject Tim Keller’s claims. They’re not objectively true. That’s the end of it.
When Keller slams objective reality and the tools used to arrive at a better understanding of it, that’s a big sign that he knows, deep down, that his beliefs are contradicted by reality.
In order to make his sale, then, he must first dispose of objective reality as a valid way to arrive at true beliefs. He must bring his marks around to using his redefined reality as an evaluation tool.
Tim Keller’s Big Dream.
So now that we’ve gone over exactly who this chuckleburp is, let me show you what he’s done this time.
About a week ago, he did an interview with someone from Premier Christianity. The headline represents sublimest clickbait:
Tim Keller: People will say ‘I came to Christ during the virus.’
We ask the New York based pastor and author Tim Keller why God is allowing coronavirus and what the pandemic means for the Church and the world
It’s the usual blather we expect from fundagelicals trying to square their beliefs with reality at a time when reality presses harder than ever against their fantasies. I guess we could consider this interview a sort of Problem of Evil Boogaloo: Coronavirus Edition. As much of a softball interview as this was, though, Keller still managed to make his religion look terrible and his god downright evil.
He turns questions around to blame those asking them, sidesteps the whole “did God allow this to happen” question by rephrasing it like that changes anything, and makes assertions about how the pandemic totally doesn’t mean that his god doesn’t love those suffering, even though he’s not lifting a finger to help out, and how dare anyone think so because the Crucifixion totally happened.
It’s just horrifying. He spins word-webs like a spider. This is the best apologetics can manage, as an industry? This charlatan?
But I guess we call it “The Problem of Evil” because Christians have never yet managed to create a real answer for it.
Tim Keller sure didn’t accomplish that task here.
Lots of Unsupported Claims Too!
The interview contains the sorts of false factual claims I expect out of fundagelicals right now. Here’s a few of the claims Keller made:
Poor people in New York City don’t have wifi and can’t get online, so it’s super-sad that they can’t go to church.
In 2014, an average of 20-30% of the poorest NYC residents lacked broadband access. However, in 2015, 96% of NYC residents owned cell phones, and 2/3 of the poorest New Yorkers had smartphones.
When churches of maybe 200 people live-stream services, they “realise a thousand people heard the sermon.”
Reality: That’s just wishful thinking.
Consider, for example, First Baptist Church Pasadena, a Texas megachurch. It’s HUGE. Well, their 2020 Easter service video on YouTube has about 400 views. Their channel has 232 subscribers. Also, pastors have discovered some big downsides to streaming.
Keller’s Christian friends are totally telling him that their non-Christian friends are totally watching live-streaming church sermons these days.
Reality: He can just post up some proof or retract.
Even if non-Christians check out church sermon videos, there’s no indication they’re then turning into church members. This is just a fluff claim. It doesn’t even relate to increased membership. But he doesn’t support it all the same.
ZOMG all the 9/11 conversions! A lot of people came to his church afterward!
Reality, according to Mr. Captain: “This one time at band camp…”
More Serious Reality: Mayyyybe in his church, and mayyyybe among some older Christians. Briefly.
9/11 didn’t spark revivals, especially among young adults. One 2011 paper found “no remarkable religious revival occurred among young adults after September 11th.” The Southern Baptist Convention was bleeding baptisms between 1999-2002, going from 407k to 395k in those years according to their Annual Reports. As for his church, in 2014 it had about 1760 members.
- And Christian leaders will see similar huge conversion numbers with this pandemic too!
We’re going to unspool that last one for a minute.
What does reality say about this claim?
The CORONAVIRUS REVIVAL Claim.
I’ve lost count of how many Christian leaders I’ve seen talking about this supposed massive revival about to break out in the wake of COVID-19. Tim Keller’s just the latest in a very, very long line of Christian leaders lining up to insist that yes indeed, they are waiting for a massive uptick in conversions coming their way. He told Premier Christianity:
We had about 3,000 people come into our church the Sunday before 9/11. The Sunday after 9/11 we had 5,400 people in church. There’s quite a number of folks who are Christians today because they started coming to church right after 9/11 just because they were scared. They wouldn’t have normally gone to church. Right now, that’s happening again online, and it’s less effective than when you actually show up in the body, but nevertheless, something like that is happening now and there will be fruit. People will say ‘I came to Christ during the virus’.
Will they though?
That’s not reality says.
Tim Keller’s Pipe Dreams.
It’s noteworthy that in the interview, Keller doesn’t say how many of these extra pew-warmers turned into long-term church members. That’s probably because not many did. In 2014, the church had 1760 members. So it doesn’t seem like 9/11 had much of an impact there.
Nor did he offer any evidence supporting his claim of a big uptick in viewership among non-Christians. He made that claim a couple of times, but he gave no support for it. He just likes the idea, it seems.
(Oh, you don’t remember the Great Awakenings of 2014 and 2015? Me either!)
Christian leaders can say whatever they want, and they do! But I’ve not seen a single bit of support for the idea of a Coronavirus revival. For all the people who do convert because of the pandemic, chances are many others will walk away, just as I know more people who deconverted because of 9/11 than who converted as a result of it.
Indeed, Luke Coppen over at Spectator theorizes the same thing I do. It seems way more likely to both of us that our countries will see a decline in Christian membership after Coronavirus than that there’ll be any kind of big revival.
And Then There’s This.
In 2001, we were a vastly more religious country. In 2020, with American and European Christians’ societal power whittled away more than it has ever been, Christians’ credibility strained to the dissolving point, and more freedom to reject Christians’ sales pitches than we’ve really ever had, it seems even more unlikely now than it was in 2001 that this global tragedy will result in more sales for the greedy hucksters of Christianity.
Tim Keller tickles his tribemates’ ears, yes, and they love him for it. Fundagelical leaders are worried sick about their inability to gain and keep members, especially young adults. They’re not sick enough to make the meaningful changes they’d need to make to change anything, but they’re worried! It’s no wonder at all that Tim Keller’s part of the cooing-reassurances brigade.
But for the rest of us, this silly, irrational moral scold, his snooty contempt for non-believers, and his barely-disguised authoritarian theocratic cult can go whistle up a tree for all anybody cares.
NEXT UP: Tomorrow, we check in on fundagelical married couples. It turns out the straight bigots are not all right. Monday, LSP! And Tuesday, we’ll talk more about the ongoing panic over evangelical churn. See you soon!
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“Bad Bigfoot Shows.” This is a much better use of one’s time than reading apologetics. Promise.
(Final note: I took Philosophy 101 as a Pentecostal college student. I think I got an A in it. However, nothing about it supported my religious beliefs. I really thought that it would! But it was all wedge-this and not-P that. Amusingly enough, that course did eventually help me greatly, but not in any way that Tim Keller would have liked.)