Sunday, January 20, 2013

Tim Keller's No True Christian Sermon

As I mentioned earlier I attended Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC today, and Dr. Tim Keller was actually there to give the sermon. I've always liked Keller's style, voice, manner, politeness, and tendency to tailor his sermons towards skeptics and acknowledge our existence.

But today he struck against one of my few remaining triggers: "You were never a true Christian."

I haven't told my full story before and I should do that someday, but the short version is I was heavily into apologetics, Youth for Christ, theology, worship, and really did believe what I was being taught outside of a few details.  I intentionally put myself through so many unneeded struggles because of my faith and actively sought Jesus out. I wanted him to be a part of my life. I was a believer.

So when someone explains away my entire tumultuous journey with a meaningless platitude I have a tendency to lose my shit.

I've lost count of how many times this verse and others like it have been offered as a complete explanation of my conversion.
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools -Romans 1:18-22
This is more than just a fallacy, it's a personal attack on my integrity, honesty, and intelligence. I cannot abide by someone calling me a liar so blatantly.

Usually Keller is good at making at least intellectual sounding arguments that require some thought to process and unpack, but this was not one of those days.

Keller kicked off the sermon by challenging skeptics directly. Painting with broad strokes he described skeptics as people who never really "got it" in the first place (people who claim they were Christians because they went to church, said they believed in Jesus, and such). He asked the skeptics in the audience "Were you really a Christian? Have you actually tried it? What is a real Christian?"

He describes the beliefs of Christianity (Apostles' Creed, Bible word of God, etc) to be necessary but not sufficient conditions for being a true Christian. After explaining exactly what that means, he enumerated four necessary and sufficient condition for being a Christian in his mind.

  1. "Serving God consistently, especially during suffering."
  2. "Know God deliberately (John 17:3)"
  3. "Experiencing God periodically"
  4. "Exhibiting God generously"
1."Serving God consistently, especially during suffering."
This means that when troubles get tough, a true Christian turns towards God not away from him. To prove his point, he turned to everyone's favorite out of context story of a patient suffering servant: Job.

Here follows a synopsis of Job according to Keller (paraphrased):
Job was a great guy going above and beyond the call as a Christian (though Christianity didn't exist yet). Then Satan comes along and says to God: "God, you know he's just in it for all the benefits you give him right? Make the cost higher and the rewards lower and Job will turn his back on you." God takes away everything Job has, but while Job still questions and is very upset with God he is still taking his problems to God and not turning away from him. Job passes the test and is greatly rewarded for his trouble. God vindicates Job because he went to God in his time of need.
If that was actually the story contained in Job, it would indeed help Dr. Keller's case. As Keller tells it, Job is "vindicated" for sticking with God through thick and thin. However, Keller left out some crucial details. Here's my take:
Job was an upstanding man doing everything God told him to. Then Satan comes along and says to God: "God, I bet if you kill Job's kids, family, cattle, and everything else in his lands he'll be pretty mad at you." God says "You're on! Go kill his family for me, we'll see who wins this thing." Satan goes and kills his family, gives him boils, and does all kinds of horrible stuff with God's explicit permission. Job says "WTF God? What did I ever do to you?" Job's friends alternately try to convince him to curse God or blame himself for just punishment. Job insists he's innocent and demands an explanation from God, because God must have a good reason. He's God after all. God comes down and says "Who do you think you are coming and asking me to explain myself to you? Did you make all this happen? I don't have to explain myself to you." Job is a little frustrated but gives in and stops pestering God. As compensation, God gives him a bunch of new kids (because having another kid exactly makes up for another one being killed right?).
Job is the story of God slaughtering an entire family and more over a bet with Satan and when confronted about it responding with "Why? Because I'm God. Don't ask questions, just take it like a puny little man."  If God was Job's husband, would we praise him for sticking with God through all this abuse? HEELL No.

To me, the story only serves to illustrate why I wouldn't worship God even if he did exist. According to Keller though, you're not a real Christian unless you stay with  God even after he beats you. I hope he doesn't give the same advice to women and men in abusive relationships.

2. "Know God deliberately (John 17:3)"
This segment was the embodiment of the No True Scotsman Fallacy. According to Keller, if you ever left Christianity you only ever had a 2nd hand experience of Christ. If you had only been a real Christian and had a personal relationship with Jesus and really understood that he died for you and you are washed in his blood you would still be with us today.

I agree with Keller that I never had a personal relationship with Jesus, but then again I don't think anyone has.

But if you can look at my friend Jerry DeWitt or Dan Barker or Matt Dillahunty or Seth Andrews or most of the atheists in the US and honestly say that their experience, belief, and commitment was "insufficient" then no "Christian" I have ever met in my life could possibly be a real Christian.

3. "Experiencing God periodically"
Point 3 articulated the unspoken notion in Keller's interpretation of Job that we are here to serve God and our own concerns are secondary to that. You are in it for God's sake, not yours. God NEEDS and DESERVES your praise and adoration, and if you won't give it to him you are being selfish.

Now all of this is completely Biblical. I completely agree with Keller on this point. Where we differ is that I see this demand of worship to be abhorrent, not praiseworthy.

4. "Exhibiting God Generously"
I could barely keep my jaw off the floor with how openly Keller used his final point to beg for money. I couldn't get over my shock fast enough to record the exact quote, but he was only a couple words away from saying "real Christians give generously to the church. Are YOU a real Christian?"

The impact of this shameless guilt trip was made even greater by the inclusion (and in sermon emphasis) of this chart.
The Redeemer operating fund goal is $11.4 MILLION dollars and they just exceeded their goal for 2012 by 8% (a 16% increase from 2011), and already they're asking for more money. By itself, asking for money is nothing to be ashamed of. Buildings cost money; staff costs money. Even tax free organizations need capital.

But Keller didn't ask for donations. He essentially said "thanks for all your money last year, now give us more or you aren't a real Christian" Of course not 2 minutes later the offering plates went around.

Telling me I was never a true Christian is insulting and irritating, but saying the same thing to a professing Christian who believes in eternal torture is nothing less than a veiled threat.

Coming into the service I had a great deal of respect for Keller due to his ability to make direct critiques of atheism that required some thought on my part (at least compared to some). I left this service with a much lower opinion of not only his arguments but his character.

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