A recent article by James Wood, associate editor of First Things magazine, sparked heated discussion about how Christians should engage with culture. In his May 6 message, “How I evolved on Tim Keller,Wood explains that Tim Keller had a profound impact on his life, but Wood now rejects Keller’s “seductive model” of cultural engagement.
“As I watched the attitude of our surrounding culture change, I was no longer so confident that the evangelistic framework I had gleaned from Keller would provide sufficient guidance for the cultural and political moment,” said said Wood, who described his shift in thinking as happening. after the 2016 elections, when he decided to obtain a doctorate in political theology. “Many former fanboys like me come to similar conclusions. The evangelical desire to minimize offense to gain an audience for the gospel can cloud what our political moment demands.
Various church leaders and influencers — including David French, Rod Dreher, and Tim Keller himself — contributed to the ensuing conversation, which focuses on one main question: how should American Christians relate to our culture right now?
Tim Keller and the “neutral world”
Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Presbyterian Church of the Redeemer in New York City. In 2017 he stepped aside from the pulpit, but continued to minister in the area. Wood spends the beginning of his essay describing what he respects in Keller and the influence the pastor has had on his life. Wood mentions Keller’s success as a church planter and author and says, “Keller helped many young people embrace Orthodox Christianity in a culture that made faith strange. Keller served as CS Lewis for a postmodern world.
However, Wood says that while “Keller was the right person for a while…it seems like that moment has passed.” Wood disagrees with what he calls Keller’s “seductive approach” anymore, saying:
I liked Keller’s approach to engaging culture – his message that while the gospel is inevitably offensive, we need to work hard to make sure people are offended by the gospel itself rather than by our personal, cultural and political derivations. We must, Keller convinced me, constantly explain how Christianity is not tied to any particular culture or political party, instead showing how the gospel criticizes all sides.
But Wood changed his mind when he considered how increasingly hostile American culture is to Christianity. He says an article by Aaron Renn titled “The three worlds of evangelism“now” well represents my thinking and the thinking of many.” Much of the debate over Wood’s article centers on the “three worlds” described by Renn.
“In the history of American secularization there have been three distinct stages,” says Renn, who outlines these stages as follows:
-Positive world (before 1994): society as a whole retains a predominantly positive view of Christianity. Being known as a good man who goes to church is part of being an upstanding citizen. Publicly, being a Christian is a status enhancer. Christian moral standards are the fundamental moral standards of society and violating them can lead to negative consequences.
-Neutral world (1994-2014): the company adopts a neutral position towards Christianity. Christianity no longer has a privileged status but is not disadvantaged. Being publicly known as a Christian has neither a positive nor a negative impact on one’s social status. Christianity is a valid option within a pluralistic public square. Christian moral standards retain a certain residual effect.
-Negative World (2014-present): Society has come to have a negative view of Christianity. Being known as a Christian is a social negative, especially in elite areas of society. Christian morality is expressly repudiated and seen as a threat to the public good and the new public moral order. Adhering to Christian moral views or violating the secular moral order has negative consequences.