Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Pietist Schoolman on "New York-Centric" Cultural Engagement

Greg Thornbury, president of The Kings College
James K.A. Smith, a philosopher at Calvin College, got Chris Gehrz's attention when he tweeted" "I just note an odd creeping "New York-centrism" amongst some Christians invested in "cultural engagement."  The tweet, as Gehrz rightly discerns, is related to evangelicals in New York City who are trumpeting the old evangelical mantra of "cultural engagement."

At the forefront of this new manifestation of an old evangelical idea is Greg Thornbury, the new president of The Kings College, a Christian college located in New York City.  Thornbury wants to revive the legacy of the neo-evangelicals of the 1940s and 1950s. His hero is Carl F.H. Henry.  The blueprint for his vision can be found in his book Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F.H. Henry.

Working alongside Thornbury is evangelical writer Eric Metaxas, who was recently appointed "Senior Fellow and Lecturer at Large" at Kings. (I discussed Metaxas's approach to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in my Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past).  And I am sure you could throw Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church into the mix as well.

Gerhz, aka The Pietist Schoolman (and a historian at Bethel College in St. Paul, MN), raises some very good questions about this model of "cultural engagement."  His remarks are worth considering.  Here is a taste of his post:

Thornbury goes on to position King’s as heir to an unfulfilled dream of Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry (Thornbury’s mentor), of an evangelical university in New York City. Owen Strachan affirms this vision in an American Spectator piece on “the nation’s first hipster president” that suggests that King’s “may not only survive but thrive in New York” because it can connect with a
“Manhattan evangelical network, loose as it is.”

Thornbury said as much in an interview with TKC’s student newspaper, The Empire Tribune. He spoke of building alliances with other NYC-centered theological conservatives intentionally engaging with “strategic institutions” like government, commerce, media, and the arts: author Eric Metaxas and Socrates in the City; Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church; theatrical producer Carolyn Copeland; and the journal First Things. (Perhaps he also will seek a partnership with Nyack College, the Christian & Missionary Alliance school that bills itself as “New York’s Christian College” and this fall is moving to a new campus near Battery Park.) At least one such alliance seems firmly in place:

I’d happily entertain attempts to persuade me that if Christians want “to have impact and effect on a society [they] must lead from the center of culture and not from the periphery.” I guess I’m wary of this “creeping New York-centrism” for several reasons. Just a couple:

• That — in the case of King’s and Metaxas — it’s so closely tied to a specific political and economic philosophy. In the student newspaper interview quoted above, Thornbury acknowledged the difference between Christianity and ideology, but immediately followed that statement with this: “But also, it is the genius of Christianity that has given inspiration to the animating ideals of what has been the best of the American traditions. What we regard as the key ideas of conservatism are all downstream from Christianity.”

Fine — but those waters have historically fed liberalism, socialism, and other ideologies as well. If politically progressive evangelicals come to New York looking to act as Hunter’s “faithful presence,” will their conservative neighbors seek out alliances with them?

• More importantly, privileging Christian engagement with culture at whatever serves for that blink of history’s eye as the “center of the universe” seems to have little biblical warrant. I suppose you could build such an elitist theology of cultural engagement around Paul’s conversation with the philosophers on the Areopagus or the apostles’ encounters with political and military officials, but I don’t see any indication that early Christians leaders (let alone Jesus himself, who talked about being salt and light while standing on a mountain in an obscure province) viewed such evangelism as having greater “strategic” importance than the spread of the Gospel on the “periphery” of that culture. (Or even that they believed in being “strategic,” since early evangelists were “scattered because of the persecution” that followed Stephen’s stoning or simply “sent out by the Holy Spirit.”)

(I realize that Gehrz's post is from July 2013, but I don't think it got the attention it deserved when it first appeared at The Pietist Schoolman).