Renn unpacks this concept of the three worlds, associating the “positive world” with culture war Christianity, seeker sensitivity, and leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson. Christians leading during the “neutral world” did not participate in culture wars or use a seeker-sensitive model, but rather pursued a strategy of “cultural engagement,” says Renn. Church leaders who adopted this strategy “were explicitly positive toward [culture]. They did not denounce secular culture, but confidently engaged that culture on its own terms in a pluralistic public square.” In this group, Renn lists the examples of Tim Keller, Makoto Fujimura, and Andy Crouch.
Renn goes on to say, “Keller’s apologetic model for politics was perfectly suited for the ‘neutral world.’ But the ‘negative world’ is a different place. Tough choices are increasingly before us, offense is unavoidable, and sides will need to be taken on very important issues. Recent events have proven that being winsome in this moment will not guarantee a favorable hearing.”
Renn believes evangelicals have not developed an adequate strategy for engaging with the “negative world,” which we are presently in and which is overtly hostile toward believers. He does believe, however, that Rod Dreher offers some solutions in his book, “The Benedict Option.”
Wood agrees that we can no longer take Keller’s approach. “If we assume that winsomeness will gain a favorable hearing, when Christians consistently receive heated pushback, we will be tempted to think our convictions are the problem. If winsomeness is met with hostility, it is easy to wonder, ‘Are we in the wrong?’ Thus the slide toward secular culture’s reasoning is greased.”
Wood also believes that Keller’s desire to avoid political partisanship “encourages in its adherents a pietistic impulse to keep one’s hands clean, stay above the fray, and at a distance from imperfect options for addressing complex social and political issues.”
“Keller was the right man for a moment,” Wood concludes. “To many, like me, it appears that moment has passed. That does not diminish my admiration for the important service Keller provided to the church in America for many years. My family and I wouldn’t be the same without him.”
Responses to Wood’s Article on Tim Keller
Without mentioning Wood or his article directly, Tim Keller posted a tweet that appeared to address Wood’s idea that Keller did the bulk of his ministry in culture “neutral” toward Christians. Said Keller, “Respectfully, when we began Redeemer in 1989 we experienced great hostility. We were thrown out of facilities for our faith. We were mocked in the press. Anyone who thinks Manhattan culture was then ‘neutral’ toward evangelical Christianity is mistaken.”
David French, senior editor of The Dispatch (and mentioned by name in Renn’s article), takes issue with several of Wood’s points in a post titled, “A Critique of Tim Keller Reveals the Moral Devolution of the New Christian Right.” Like Keller, French does not agree that Christians were living in a “neutral” culture from 1994 to 2014.
“As someone who attended law school in the early 1990s and lived in deep blue America for most of this alleged ‘neutral’ period,” said French, “the premise seems flawed. The world didn’t feel ‘neutral’ to me when I was shouted down in class, or when I was told by classmates to ‘die’ for my pro-life views.” French goes on to list several other examples of hostility, both in New York City and elsewhere, toward Christians during this time period.
Yet even if the desperate times narrative were true, the desperate measures rationalization suffers from profound moral defects. The biblical call to Christians to love your enemies, to bless those who curse you, and to exhibit the fruit of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—does not represent a set of tactics to be abandoned when times are tough but rather a set of eternal moral principles to be applied even in the face of extreme adversity.
Moreover, Christ and the apostles issued their commands to Christians at a time when Christians faced the very definition of a “negative world.” We face tweetings. They faced beatings.