Art Evangelism

Is Tim Keller the Art Heretic?

downloadGood old Tim Keller has been up to his tricks again – preaching the gospel, engaging the culture, applying the Bible, growing the church.  So time for a wee take down – lest he get too big for his boots….time for the reformed world twitterati to do the Holy Spirit’s job and convict Tim of sin, righteousness and the judgement to come (and not to have ballet in church!).    What has Tim been up to?  This is the tweet that was doing the rounds –

The Church needs artists because without art we cannot reach the world.

Cue outrage, polemical essays and sarcastic tweets.

In this article rather than look at the issues that Keller actually raises, worthy as they are, I  want to examine what some of the reactions tell us about the Reformed world, the Internet and Social Media.

Let’s look first of all at what Tim said.

The Church needs artists because without art we cannot reach the world. The simple fact is that the imagination ‘gets you,’ even when your reason is completely against the idea of God. ‘Imagination communicates,’ as Arthur Danto says, ‘indefinable but inescapable truth.’ Those who read a book or listen to music expose themselves to that inescapable truth. There is a sort of schizophrenia that occurs if you are listening to Bach and you hear the glory of God and yet your mind says there is no God and there is no meaning. You are committed to believing nothing means anything and yet the music comes in and takes you over with your imagination. When you listen to great music, you can’t believe life is meaningless. Your heart knows what your mind is denying. We need Christian artists because we are never going to reach the world without great Christian art to go with great Christian talk.”

This raises all kinds of questions.   What is art?  What is the gospel?  How do we communicate the Gospel?  Is art necessary and essential in communicating the Gospel?

If only people had stuck to discussing these questions!  We could have discussed the place of ballet (for me not in worship but why not in evangelism? ) We could have seen 512oiQ3ePjL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_how Hans Rookmaakers Modern Art and the Death of a Culture is still a vital work in understanding where our culture is.  We could have followed Bill Edgar’s line of thought in his superb new book  Created and Creating;  but no, the heresy hunters were in full swing – bravely battling the forces of darkness from their keyboards.

Some meant well. I’m not going to name and shame because I came across lots of comments like these below and there is no need to necessarily personalise things – there will however be one exception below!)  They were horrified at the idea that Keller seemed to be suggesting that the Gospel wasn’t enough.  “The Church needs artists because without art we cannot reach the world. ” Tim Keller. Poor Jesus & Apostles — if only they’d known. “.  The trouble with such sarcastic witticism is that it is neither witty nor true.  To accuse Keller who has spent his lifetime devoted to proclaiming Jesus and the apostles of claiming to know better than them is to say the least ‘uncharitable’.    This is not some liberal denying the Scripture.  This is a Christian brother whose ministry has been greatly used by God.  He is part of the body of Christ and to give him a kicking based on at best a misunderstanding of what he said is not the way to go.   The prophets of Baal deserve a kicking, Barnabas doesn’t.

I read other comments from what I would call friendly fire – my favourite was ‘let him try that in North Korea’.  I assume the writer was suggesting that the only way to communicate the Gospel is by the preached word and that using art in North Korea would result in them being in trouble.  That illustration actually works against the point being made.  Go and stand on the streets in North Korea shouting verses from the Bible and see how long you last!  On the other hand art may be a way to get behind the wall.

I think a lot of the comments were unwise and a result of the curse of social media- that people like me are especially prone to fall for.  The need to comment on something instantly – without proper reflection and without thinking of the consequences and who and what we may be harming.  Also many on this side of the pond don’t understand the context in which the comments are made – and context is vital.  The bottom line is that there are some Christians in the US and in this country who are either out to get Keller or to get a name for themselves by being seen as the anti-Keller.

A few years ago I started a series engaging with a book called Engaging with Keller.  I didn’t finish it because I was gradually losing the will to live – it was so dreadful. But you can get the general gist here –  Engaging with Keller – A Review  

The trouble is that whilst there are those who have genuine concerns about some of the things Tim Keller says – (how sad it is to have to put a caveat that just because I am speaking up for him doesn’t mean I agree with everything he says nor that I really care because he’s not that important and neither are his critics!); there are others who are seeking an identity/ministry/blog/hits/infamy for themselves.   They are just looking for an opportunity to stick the boot in and so when Redeemer have dancing on the stage and Keller then defends it with a statement, that taken out of context, can be used to hammer, the nails come out!

And none more so that our old friends PulpitandPen – who can hardly wait before they flex their internet ready fingers and start their latest battle.   In the interests of due disclosure I have to admit to having been the victim of their machinations before – in one of my favourite reviews of Magnificent Obsession I got the impression that they were not over enamoured with it – nor me!

David Robertson is a pope-promoting wolf in Reformed sheep’s clothing that has crept deceptively into the midst of Reformed circles to devour the sheep……To be clear, there are some real kernels of truth in Robertson’s book, but you’d have to possess the palate of an undiscerning pig to want to eat them. Discerning sheep have no appetite for cow patty-contaminated kernels of truth, and walk right on by. Discerning and loving shepherds refuse to serve pig slop to the Lord’s sheep, instead, they lead them to green lush pastures of uncontaminated biblical truth.

Their review of Keller was the usual gleeful, illogical, unbiblical schadenfreude.

“Keller doesn’t trust God. He relies on human power and art to proclaim the Gospel rather than the Holy Spirit.   Only the Gospel has the power to save.”

The trouble with this is that it is straight out lying.   Keller does trust God.  He knows that nothing he nor his church says or does will ever convert anyone and that only the Gospel has the power to save.  To promote him as saying that the power of God is not enough is to lie. To encourage those who do so is to encourage liars and to further the cause of the Father of lies – straight from the pit of hell.

They actually sound like the liberals they profess to despise who quote the words that St Francis did not say – “preach the gospel and if you have to – use words”.  Why do we need human words?  Surely the Holy Spirit can just convict and convert on his own?  You’ve heard the nonsense.  So why are you repeating it?  Because just as we use words so everything we do in proclaiming the Gospel uses art – from the architecture of the building to the typeface on your bulletin, from the covers of your bible to the style of your clothing, from the rhythm of your preaching cadences to the articles on your website, from the strumming of your psaltery to the metrication of your psalms. Everything uses art.

God could in theory convert people without means.  But he doesn’t.  He uses the preaching of the Word (and Keller clearly recognises the primacy of that – unlike PulpitandPen who seem to work on the primacy of polemic),  the love of his people, our service to the whole community and of course art – because art is in everything we do.

Now there is a narrower sense in which art is used – I guess the sense in which it is studied in art colleges. And if Keller was saying without painting we can’t communicate the Gospel then he would deserve the ridicule that comes his way. But  do you think Keller is restricting ‘art’ to the narrower sense of painting only (or perhaps ballet?).  Can’t you be a little more charitable and assume that a bible believing teacher such as Keller might actually know something about the bible, church history and evangelism?  At least enough to prevent him accusing Paul and Jesus of not knowing how to proclaim the Gospel?

The truth is that Keller and the upcoming downgrade in the PCA is not the problem.  He is not a heretic and his views on art are not heretical – they are basic Kuyperian Calvinism.   No, it is the ugliness of some who profess the Reformed Faith, those macho keypboard warriors who think that putting the adjective effeminate in front of anything is enough to damn it;  seeking their own niche and identity by dissing others who are the real heretics.  Why?  Because although they profess orthodox faith in Christ – it’s not enough.  We must reflect the glory and beauty of Christ.  To turn beauty into ashes is anti-Christ and the real heresy.

11219109_10153326167740948_8389740802337370846_nPS.  In the interests of full disclosure I have to point out that I regard Tim as a friend and a mentor.  This doesn’t mean he gets a free pass because of that.  You just don’t know Scots if you think that that is how we operate – we tend to be a lot harder on our friends.  We love that bit about the wounds of a friend being faithful – as long as we are doing the wounding!

Just to confirm PulpitandPen in their paranoia from the pit – here is the heretic Tim surrounded by two Scottish heretics enjoying the joy of the Lord…..sweet dreams…






  1. I’m in the middle here. I think what it appears Tim Keller has said offers a hostage to fortune and reminds me of the little epithet – ‘there are no illustrations in the original Bible texts’. HOWEVER…

    We are having our hall refurbished into a church, and are having two large silk-screen printed windows added. Both have images on them, one will speak directly to those who have faith, and the other will throw question after question at those passing by who don’t. A small caveat, both will have Bible texts on them as part of the design.

    I await a hanging drawing and quartering from both sides of the argument.

  2. The trouble with social media is that we like to make our witticisms without qualification. I saw the tweet and all the nasty backlash. I understood what Keller meant, even if I thought it wasn’t said well. C.S. Lewis expressed similar sentiment to Keller’s in a couple of his writings. I actually really enjoyed his book, “Kings Cross.” I may not agree with everything he said, but the bulk of it was quite good—a bit like reading C.S. Lewis or Elisabeth Elliot. Thank you for writing this piece. I appreciate it!

  3. Some random thoughts

    1 In the image of God the Creator, we are to be creative. We have creative song writers, “Who paints the skies into glorious da
    … singing the gospel creatively in a contemporary context
    “In Christ Alone” a contemporary sung “Solas”.
    2 There is a need to define art.
    3 Psalms are a poetic art forms at times in Hebrew chiatic form.
    4 The parables of Jesus, were an art of illustrative story telling.
    5 From what I’ve read of Keller’s books what is quoted here would be only part of a historical redemptive line of thinking. He is a master of engaging interest of contemporary hearers with illustrations garnered from all aspects of modern life , including film, books and more, but it is all with a sting in the tail, bringing it all together with the good news of Jesus.
    6 For me the Key phrase quoted was the need for the use of “imagination”. We have sanctified imagination. Anyone who has read puritans, Sibbes, Gornall, Ryle, Bunyan,cannot but be amazed at the wonderful, penetrative turn of phrase. It is an imaginative art form that God used greatly for His Glory.
    7 There are too many lectures in the name of expository preaching. They certainly wouldn’t be saving Eutychus from nodding off and falling off to his death. (Acts 20)
    8 Dr WE Sangster wrote a book: the craft of Sermon illustration. But he was beyond the pale as a Methodist.
    9 Relevant art forms, including drama can be used as hooks to gain attention and audience for a gospel talk.
    10 Schaeffer engaged with art and artists, illustrating that the gospel can become a central message from any starting point.
    11 Having spent some days at Keswick, it is apparent that it is all too easy to use scripture unthinkingly, almost as an “in” language for insiders only who all know what we a talking about, with well known phrases and sayings.
    It probably say more about me than others when the idea of “worldview” seems new to many Christians. This is where the ” imaginative art” of engaging with non Christian view of life in order to engage the gospel comes into play

  4. I have found it very easy to hear about a brother or sister in Christ trying some new creative way to spread the Gospel and then to put myself in the position of the Infallible Critic. It is so easy to analyze and criticize–“that’s unsustainable,” or “that will lead to these 3 problems in the future,” or countless other ways of being negative. Sometimes I just have to force myself to stop, and say “I like the way they are doing it a lot better than the way I am not doing it…”

  5. PS,
    I don’t appreciate my imaginative misspelling either and the observation are not chiastic either.

  6. I’m glad you mentioned Abraham Kuyper whose lecture on ‘The Antithesis between Symbolism and Revelation” to the Historical Presbyterian Society (!) in Philadelphia might be considered relevant. Towards the end of the lecture he says
    “”The appreciation of the sound understanding of the Truth has ofted led to an offending narrow-mindedness, to an odious quarrelsomeness, and to a self-conceitedness of the ignorant, by which Christian love was wounded and the Holy Spirit of God grieved. Assurance of faith, resting on the dogmas of election and of the perseverance of the saints, more than once has been asserted in such a cool and outward way, as to bring down the mystical union with Christ to the freezing point. Justification by faith alone too often has become an excuse for the uncharitable and lazy to abstain from, if not to jest at, Christian works. And in our holy services both the ear and the eye were, and are still, frequently offended by such a neglect of what is beautiful and sublime, solemn and dignified, as if Christian faith and a fair and melodions utterance were antipodes. God in His Revelation always recommends the Beautiful. Even of Christ it is said: “Thou art fairer than the children of men”
    (Logos e-book

    I think the same principle could be applied to the appreciation and use of “Art” in evangelism although there is always the danger that it could actually be counter-productive if it became the object of our reflection and devotion rather than point us beyond the finite to God Himself, which was one of the points Kuyper was emphasising.

  7. Because God has intervened into human history He forms a part of the human narrative. That is, to share the Gospel we have to tell or retell stories describing His particular interventions, above all the Incarnation. Certainly we have to teach doctrine also but doctrine and story are intertwined in Christ and in the People of God. Art is, or can be, a form of storytelling. Since people are different some will be drawn into the story entirely through the medium of the spoken or printed word but many others will not. Unless we assume that being entirely satisfied by text alone is an infallible mark of predestination then it surely follows that it is necessary to turn to these other, nonverbal, forms of storytelling in order to attract such people to the Good News about Jesus Christ.

    In the interests of full disclosure I should point out that I am a Catholic so my support might not do any Reformed advocates of art much good.

  8. You’ll be aware that your mate Alistair Begg is at Keswick this week and excellent he is too.
    There is live streaming of his sermons and catch up of all Keswick on Clayton TV .
    I’ll say he’s well worth watching live and on catch up.
    Today, he quoted from Sinclair Ferguson’s “Devoted to God”. And from McCheyne speaking about ministers: the greatest gift to your congregation is not you giftedness, but your Godliness. And quoted the prayer of the Scottish farmer: keep me kept.
    Preaching from Psalm 119 : 97-112

  9. Yes!! Not sure why Tim Keller has come under attack lately. I guess it goes to show that you can literally make no one happy. He is one of my heroes and I don’t know if I would be a Christian today if I hadn’t read some of his books. I really wish Christians would stop trying to tear each other down for small theological differences. It’s so short sighted. “To turn beauty into ashes is anti-Christ and the real heresy” AMEN

  10. I went to Tim Keller’s church for nearly 20 years before I began to sense that something wasn’t quite right! I love Tim so much and it’s really hard for me to say anything negative about him. He was my wonderful pastor for almost 20 years!

    The trouble with Tim is he’s so good at saying things that if you have any qualms about it somebody can always figure out a way to make it ok… whatever he said.

    If he said, we can’t reach people without art – that does sound disturbing, but another person can reasonably say, ‘but Jesus used art, didn’t He? He used parables? Are you saying we can’t use stories?’

    Okay, fair enough! But, when you begin to see what’s going on behind the scenes at Redeemer it paints a much more disturbing story – I’m sorry to say.

    For instance, Redeemer’s Center for Faith & Work is, I guess what you might call the Arts promotion arm of Redeemer. That’s not all CFW does, but it’s a big part of what they do.

    So, let me ask you a question. Could an artist actually capture the true Gospel in her art, who can’t explain what sin is? And who can’t even bring herself to say it’s a big problem?

    Just a couple of quick examples to give you the idea – but just know there are many examples just like these.

    In 2016, Redeemer’s Center for Faith & Work sponsored a very prominent American novelist and essayist named Marilynne Robinson. Marilynne is supposedly a Christian and that’s supposedly why Redeemer chose her in 2016 to be their marquee artist.

    She was asked by Sally Quinn if she believes in sin. She answered:

    “Well, it depends how you define the word. The way I would read Genesis is a phenomenon . . . what it describes is a human predisposition to what amounts to self-defeat — to be given a wonderful planet and find yourself destroying it. Or, to have a wonderful civilization and then engage yourself aggressively in ways that destroy your civilization and another besides. If you look at human history or practically any human biography, it’s very hard to say that people don’t incline toward harmful and self-destructive acts, whether they intend to or not. So I believe in sin in the sense that people do harm. I believe in grace in the sense that we cannot make final judgments about the meaning or the effect of what we do.”

    Does that sound like a Biblical answer? Could someone with such an ambiguous and unclear definition of sin really tell the Gospel in her art?

    In 2017, Redeemer commissioned a very prominent American poet – Christian Wiman under CFW’s inaugural Artists’ Fellowship program.

    In an interview with Texas Monthly, reporter Tom Bartlett writes:

    “When asked if he believes that the son of God, the Word made flesh, was actually crucified and placed in a tomb only to rise again after three earthbound days, Wiman glances up at the ceiling of the perfectly quiet conference room in the stylish offices he will soon vacate. His eyes close behind his rectangular glasses. It’s probably unfair to ask a poet and a conflicted Christian, a man who writes carefully and slowly and wonderfully, to opine off the cuff about a topic so weighty. He does believe it, he says, though not in the same way that he believes in evolution or in the fact that the earth revolves around the sun. It is a different sort of belief, ‘I try to live toward it.‘”

    Again, could someone who has such difficulty answering the very simple Biblical question of whether or not Jesus was actually crucified, placed in a tomb and rose three days later – really contribute to a spread of the Gospel – in his art? How is it possible that a man who doesn’t believe in the historical reality that Jesus was crucified, died and raised on the thrid day – could communicate the Gospel in his poetry?

    You see, we can talk all day about what Tim Keller said and what exactly he meant by it. But when we look at what his church actually does, it really clears things up very quickly.

    I am no fan at all of JD Hall (and I hate to even mention his name here because I’m convincned he has Google alerts set to his name and he relishes all mentions of it online)! And I don’t think he could have fairly written that article only by Tim’s statement that he quoted – because that statement can be reasoned and Tim does make several great points. (Although I disagree with him when he says “we are never going to reach the world without great Christian art to go with great Christian talk.”) But he makes several good points before he says that.

    BUT… when you look at what he actually does with his church – it’s a whole other story. Then it all becomes very, very clear that he is not in fact using the arts to communicate the Gospel. He’s in fact embracing pseudo-Christian artists who have no earthly idea what the Gospel is.

    Honestly, I’m so confused by it all. It’s not at all who I thought Tim Keller was when I went to church there. And it’s really beyond me how he (and the leadership he has discipled at the church) can possibly think this is the way to communicate the Gospel.

  11. And one other quick point I wanted to make. That ballet performance they had at the end of one of their services last year – was nothing but a demonstration affirming the LGBTQ community and lifestyle. Ask anyone who knows anything about ballet. We’ve never seen three men in a ballet touching each other. In traditional ballet the men are there to support the ballerina. They touch ballerinas but never another man.

    So, in the language of ballet, and as part of a trend in the New York ballet scene, this was definitely a gay-affirming ballet. Not exactly something that communicated the Gospel. But something that rather communicated hostility to the Gospel.

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