Stalking evangelicals in the urban jungle

evangelicalsIn looking around for a story to cover for GR, I saw a lot of exciting and dynamic stories out there involving the intersection of politics and religion or science and religion -- really meaty, provocative stuff. But then I saw this New York magazine story, "Tim Keller Wants to Save Your Yuppie Soul," ostensibly about Pastor Keller and how "an Evangelical Christian megachurch is growing in the heart of Manhattan." (We learn much later that Keller's church is part of the Presbyterian Church in America.) Since I'm new here, I quickly saw this story as an opportunity to earn my GR stripes.

Yes, I'm talking about yet another evangelicals-in-the-wild story. And so it begins with a whimper masquerading as a bang:

It's a Sunday evening at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and the pews are full. Redeemer is a conservative Evangelical Christian congregation, but the parishioners don't fit the easy Bible Belt stereotypes. They are a cross-section of yuppie Manhattanites -- doctors, bankers, lawyers, artists, actors, and designers, some of them older, most of them in their twenties or thirties. The peppy Christian-pop anthems, performed by Broadway-caliber singers and working jazz professionals, seem to go by in double time, the faster the better to get to the main event, the weekly sermon, delivered by pastor Tim Keller.

We're not off to a good start are we? I suppose we have to consider New York's target reader, but really. If you have to explain that 21st century evangelicals are respectable professionals as opposed to "Bible Belt stereotypes" (read: hayseeds dribbling cerebral-spinal fluid out their slack-jawed pie-holes) the only stereotype we're trafficking in is that of the liberal New York media -- and not in way that's becoming to the author. If you think I'm being harsh, accompanying the article is a composite photo of different parishioners outside Keller's Sunday service that seems to scream, "Hey, they look just like regular New Yorkers!"

The thrust of the article is that Pastor Keller has been preaching a message that one does not find meaning or happiness in economic or career success -- and this message is resonating with a good many hard-charging New Yorkers. Obviously, this is a pretty universal Christian message and it's not surprsising to hear it resonates in New York as well as Albuquerque -- though the recent economic downturn does give it some added urgency. And yet, here's how Keller's theological approach is discussed:

His belief system is not the fundamentalist strain running through many of the Bible Belt megachurches -- the "saved" us versus the "heathen" them. Nor is it the new-school "be a winner, praise the Lord," Christian self-esteem-building ideology of Joel Osteen. Keller advocates something of a third option. He wants to call people's attention to the emptiness of a way of living that overvalues worldly achievement and to help them see the spiritual benefits of accepting Jesus Christ, and all he stands for, as their savior. But Keller wants to do that in a way that's not intellectually insulting or morally hectoring. What he refers to as "idols," he says, are the things we're so wrapped up in, it's as if we worship them as gods, in place of the one true God. Traditional vices like sex and drink can be idols, he says, but more insidious can be traditional virtues like hard work and family -- "good" things that we can mistake for "ultimate" ones.

First off, "fundamentalist" has a specific meaning in a religious context. If he means "fundamentalist" in the more loose general sense, then the writer's generalizing a good deal here about what strains of thought might be running through "Bible Belt megachurches," and it doesn't inspire confidence that he has any clear idea of what he's talking about. So what we're left with is the author trumping up Keller's pretty mainstream Christian views -- which, if you can believe it, aren't "intellectually insulting or morally hectoring." And so a guy explicating a pretty basic commandment is presented as a unique and novel alternative to the author's construct of what he thinks a southern megachurch might possibly be like and Joel Osteen. Alrighty then.

Then there's the article's overt incredulity that someone who has fairly literal take in biblical morality (e.g. supportive of traditional gender roles, disapproving of homosexuality and abortion etc.) is able to find purchase in a city full of dogmatic liberals.

The key here is that Keller doesn't believe conventional politics applies to Christianity. Early on, the writer quotes Keller sermonizing:

Keller jumps to the recession and what he sees as shameful finger-pointing by both liberals and conservatives. "The Bible doesn't let you do that," Keller intones from the pulpit. "The Bible is nowhere near as simplistic, dare I say it, as either the New York Times' or The Wall Street Journal's editorial page. You can write that down. Put it on your blog, I don't care."

That's a fairly refreshing (and true!) thing to hear, and I'm glad the author of the piece saw fit to include it. However, even with the subject of the article obviously at pains to escape the simplistic left-right political continuum reporters constantly use when writing about evangelicals, the author still returns to the political frame ad nauseum.

And if the big picture seems off-base, many of the the details still have that anthropological feel -- he's an evangelical and he reads the New Yorker! Get out! That said, it is a lengthy article and the author does quote Keller extensively and the article has a lot of good detail. While the author's religious ignorance is pretty blatant at times, you can still glean a lot reading between the lines. There's abundant evidence the author is a skilled journalist and the article reads very smoothly. I'm just afraid that the author was out of his depth and, as such, unknowingly reinforced many evangelical stereotypes as way of showing how Pastor Keller is allegedly different from other evangelicals.

Bible Belt stereotypes
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