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A Refutation of the ‘Theology of the City’ (Part I)


As men dressed like dancing sugar plum fairies took to the stage at Redeemer Presbyterian Church to do choreographed ballet, it finally became apparent to many evangelicals that Tim Keller’s theology was a tad different than most. But if you’ve been watching Keller’s twitter feed for any period of time, you knew that already.

There are few men so dualistically admired by both pagans and evangelicals alike as Tim Keller, who has been called by troublesome theologian, N.T. Wright, his “favorite evangelical theologian” and has been called “the C.S. Lewis of his generation.”

No doubt, there are similarities between Tim Keller and C.S. Lewis. Both are fashionably quoted among the evangelical intelligentsia. Like Lewis, Keller denies that the creation account of Genesis is literal and holds to evolution. Both appeal to intellectual reason above Scriptural inspiration and could rightly be characterized as Socinians. And both men seem to espouse, from time to time, Universalism. But there are differences; unlike C.S. Lewis, Keller has maintained his credentials as a Presbyterian minister by not yet denying substitutionary atonement (give it time).

Beyond his theology on most matters, which seems driven by an appeal to intellectualism that uses the Bible only as an occasional allegorical supplement (volumes have been written on this by many scholars), it is his stylistic differences as presented in his fixation on the city that is my interest here.

Observers of Tim Keller’s theology in the discernment community can not help but notice that what he calls “the theology of the city” is pervasive in his thoughts. Perhaps there is no other quirk in his thinking that drives his theology as much as “the city” except, perhaps, for the influence of the Frankfurt School of Marxism which he credits with his early doctrinal development.

Of Keller’s Marxist influence, volumes have also been written, but again I digress. It’s of his infatuation with the city that concerns me in this article.

First, I will have to admit that as a proud citizen in the Last, Best Place, Keller’s constant urbanizing of Christian thought is instinctively repulsive. This I will happily admit is a preexistent personal bias. I do not now, and never have been, a fan of the city and it’s not from a lack of exposure. I have visited Time Square and roamed Manhattan by both foot and limousine. And I have served as a missionary in Sao Paulo, the second-largest city in the world with a metro area of 24 million people, eclipsing New York and whose sprawling geographical borders can be seen for hours from the air, compared to the brief few minutes one gets a glimpse of the Big Apple when flying into JFK or LaGuardia.

There’s something about cities that are unsettling to me, not the least of which is the condescension of those who live there. Upon finding out I was from Fly-Over U.S.A, one New Yorker asked with genuine interest what I thought “of all the buildings” when visiting Manhattan, as though I have only seen the inside of caves and teepees. My brother-in-law is a surgeon at a busy New York hospital, and I’ll forever remember his mistress asking my children if they “ever dreamed about seeing culture,” as though Montana doesn’t have a culture. Thankfully my eldest child looked at her with all the repugnance the question deserved. I’ll forever remember a taxi driver in New York telling me he would like to visit the Big Sky State but would not want to live there because he likes “civilization,” while a homeless man was urinating on a stop sign near my window.

“If this is civilization,” I said, “I prefer the alternative.” Recognizing his offense I added, “We pee off the back porch in privacy like God intended,” to which I received a polite chuckle (but it was not a joke).

Living through the Summer of 2020 has only further made me detest the city as I experience both pity and loathing for those who live there, depending upon which end of the arson they are on. Not only do I see the news reports of mobs burning down police stations as an indictment upon the lawless criminals who are so easily incited to violence, but I remain indignant at those who retreat from mobs when they burn city blocks, churches, and businesses instead of righteously mowing down the rats with .40 caliber pesticide (this is the Biblical response to unmitigated violence in keeping with Christian ethics). I simply do not understand the ethos, the values, the mindset, or the moral ambiguity of the urbanized denizens of the city sprawls who do not grasp the concept of maintaining order in the face of barbarian hordes.

The solutions presented by cities for their problems are as inexplicable to me as the problems themselves. Where I live, everyone has a firearm and probably one (or three) in their pickup. And despite this reality, I have only once heard of an incident of gun-related homicide in my community. And yet the city is full of urban legends, no more believable than that crocodiles regularly roam the New York sewers with the Ninja Turtles, that guns cause violence. People are extraordinarily polite in Montana, I presume because – in part – you just kind of assume the man you might otherwise flip-off in traffic has a .357 under his steering wheel.

I was once pulled over by the North Dakota police with nearly a half-dozen hunting weapons and handguns within clear view of the officer (it was hunting season and different varmints call for different calibers), who asked how many firearms I had in the vehicle. My answer was honest, “I have no idea.” His response was, “just curious, none of my business.” The only time my family has ever been targeted by the police for an unnecessary traffic stop was when my wife was pulled over so the officer could compliment her on the “Black Guns Matter” bumper sticker that graces the back of her vehicle (he was an Indigenous officer on an Indian Reservation, so clearly it was a case of “systemic prejudice”). On another occasion, I was pulled over on the Interstate for speeding and a Trooper complimented my beanie with the Glock logo emblazoned across it, at which point a conversation on Glocks versus Sigs commenced as we traded each other our firearms to respectively check out our preferred brands. I suppose being handed a policeman’s loaded firearm is considered White Privilege to some, but it has far more to do with life in rural America than white America.

But it’s not just gun-toting redneckism that makes me detest the city’s paternalistic Nanny State. I also feel a sense of moral unease when seeing the city’s homeless. Where I am from, in rural America, we take care of people; if they’re sick we treat them, if they’re crazy we evaluate them, and if they’re villains we make them disappear because “even the coyotes got to eat” (just kidding; they go to jail). But we sure don’t let a man sit in the rain and sleep in the elements.

I don’t mean to impugn all Urbanites for the logistical problems of taking care of people whose homelessness is subsidized by the welfare state and who are attracted to cities like cats to the sound of an opening tuna can. But I can’t help but think that the city as an ethos is fundamentally broken. It certainly is not the epitome of human achievement, but rather of human brokenness.

I understand that there are things about the city that speak to human achievement. “All the buildings,” for example, seem impressive to one who is easily impressed by the skill required to place one brick upon another. Conveniences like a Starbucks on every corner and not living 559.2 miles from the nearest Chick-fil-A (that’s literally how far I am) sounds appealing although let’s be honest, Tim Keller has likely never been to a Chick-fil-A.

But the city also has other things that accompany the Broadway lights and rent-a-bike racks the gentrifiers like so much. When preaching in Palo Alto several years ago, a local guide was speaking highly of the extreme wealth of the area (the average income is double that the rest of America) as we walked down a glamorous night-life street full of Big Tech employees and start-up millionaires. But under the lanterns strung across the picturesque and busy street filled with Louboutin shoes and Prada bags was a homeless man squatting to release his bowels. Double-the-income isn’t worth it to me to live in such squalor. On another occasion, I was visited in my home by an extremely wealthy New Yorker on his first trip out of the city who later asked someone discreetly what I did to become so wealthy. In New York (his frame of reference) my home would be a sprawling million-dollar estate; in Fly-Over America, my home costs a third of that and makes his Brooklyn home look like a garbage dumpster in comparison.

The point is, I have never seen anything about city-dwelling of which to be envious. The instructions to my children have been clear; “live anywhere you so wish, in whatever state of this great country you want to go…but do not live in the city ever.” I tell them this often, usually accompanied by different truisms like, “If you live where you can’t leave your keys in the ignition, it’s time to move.”

And what is it with homeless people and the lack of bathrooms in the city? When I recently visited San Francisco, I saw that the locals have an app for residents to mark where the poop is (it’s called SnapCrap, I kid you not) so people can step around it, like a scatological version of Pokemon Go where the prize is not getting a prize. The potty problems of the city are not only a recurring theme; it’s a metaphor.

The city is, from my perspective, one big toilet where the rest of civilization, spread across the plains and prairies in rural America, flush their problems. No thanks.

But Tim Keller’s infatuation with the city holds a different opinion than mine. And you know what they say about opinions; they’re like a shoe with poop on it in the city; everybody has one.

In his article for Cru, Keller explains his “theology of the city.” He writes…

‘The city is not to be regarded as an evil invention of ungodly fallen man…The ultimate goal set before humanity at the very beginning was that human-culture should take city-form…there should be an urban structuring of human historical existence…The cultural mandate given at creation was a mandate to build the city. 

Immediately, Keller’s urbanized eisegesis of Scripture should become apparent. I call foul. This is not the message of the Bible at all, and no appeal to the Genesis account (which Keller believes is allegorical anyway) can change this.

One needs to look no further than Genesis 1:28 to see that Keller’s reading is untrue. The Scripture reads, “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it.

The word is מָלָא and means “to expand” or “to stretch out” or “to saturate” which is why some translations render it “to spread out.” Clearly, God’s design for human flourishing was not city-life, but pioneerism and Manifest Destiny over the expanse of Earth.

This command is reiterated to Noah in Genesis 9:7.

But from the beginning, the city was first associated with evil, not good. It was Cain who built the first city in the Land of Nod (meaning “wandering”) while on his punitive exile from the presence of God. He named the city Enoch, after his son (not be confused with the godly Enoch who was snatched into Heaven).

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch…

Please note, it was the first murderer and most famous criminal in the history of mankind who built the first city. One would be hard pressed to logically argue that God’s perfect will for human flourishing be done through the hands of a man only famous for being outside of his holy will.

As Ligonier Ministries points out, “In Cain’s line we see the flourishing of a civilization in the building of cities.” This is not, for the record, the line of the Seed of Promise.

Lamech, in the urbanite lineage of Cain, then went on to become the first polygamist, beginning a long history of the city’s close association with sexual taboos that stand apart from God’s perfect will for human flourishing.

This city (verse 22) was also known for its technological feats, as domesticated farming, music, and tools were invented. And yet, the Biblical narrative presents that city as wicked and outside of the will of God, no matter how many In-And-Out Burgers they might have had.

The next city we see in the Genesis account was built by Nimrod, who is characterized as a “mighty man.” Apparently, he was a good hunter and built himself a kingdom. He then founded Babel and Ninevah. The latter was an especially wicked city and is referred to often as ‘the Original Sin City’ because of its decadence and depravity.

After the account of Jonah, extra-biblical history tells us how Ninevah was ultimately destroyed. The King, Sardanapalus, rebelled against traditional gender roles (perhaps he employed dancing sugar plum fairies, I do not know) and engaged in a combination of “transgenderism” and crossdressing. The citizens eventually got tired of the queerness of it all and revolted, at which point Sardanapalus climbed to the top of a mountain with his eunuchs and lady-boy concubines and set the city on fire.

Human flourishing, city-style.

But then, there’s Babel. Nimrod’s founding of this city led to a massive, ever-growing collection of humans who in their collective accomplishments got the bright idea to build a tower tall enough they could scale into Heaven (most suggest in an attempted coup against God Almighty). “The Lord came down to see it” [this has got be Moses’ dry wit] and subsequently destroyed the tower, confused their language, and scattered them all over the Earth like they should have already been doing had they been following the mandates of Genesis 1 and Genesis 9.

The event at Babel was the culminating and crowing accomplishment of sin, escalating from Genesis 1 through Genesis 12. The city led to the final curse of mankind, which was our hostility toward one another, a clash of competing cultures, and a confusion of tongues (this curse is symbolically lifted by the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 in the speaking of γλωσσολαλία).

Babel, in particular, stands out as the result of human hubris when throngs of people live together in sin, insulated from the immediate consequence of their transgressions, and grow prideful in their meager accomplishments of playing flutes and making mortar. I would submit to you that the spirit of the city has always been a corrupt one, full of perversions and steeped in pride; the reason why urbanites even in 2020 America are far less religious than their rural counterparts is that the city is breeding ground for hostilities against God (more on that in Part 2 of this series) and amidst their many buildings they see little of God’s creation and therefore, see little evidence of God himself.

But we are not yet through with our systematic theology of the city from the Book of Genesis. We must arrive finally at the twin(k) cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Abraham’s nephew, Lot, famously “pitched his tent toward Sodom” (Genesis 13:12). Cannan (God’s “promised land”) where Abraham settled, on the other hand, had no cities, but only small communities that could best be characterized as militarized trading posts scattered intermittently throughout the relative wilderness. Canaan was the countryside, flowing with milk and honey. But Lot’s home in the plain is described as having “cities” that drew his attention. And as a cautionary tale on multiple levels, once Lot pitched his tent toward Sodom, we next find him living in Sodom.

There’s a sermon illustration for you.

Sodom and Gomorrah’s chief sin that most angered God was its debauchery, as best seen the proclivity of the sin that bears its name, sodomy. Genesis 19 explains their depravity, as angels who were sent on a rescue mission to retrieve Lot were accosted by a gaggle of story-time drag queens (just kidding, that’s a 21st Century thing) homosexual men. Lot attempts to satiate them by offering his daughters, but as sodomites are prone to do, rejected the women and wanted themselves some man-flesh. I suspect Lot’s willingness to sacrifice his daughters was the influence of living among effeminacy, which in turn makes a man physically weak and morally pathetic.

The rest of the story is well-known. Lot escaped with his daughters by the skin of his teeth and his wife, looking back – perhaps in gentle longing for Sodom’s sprawling shopping centers – was turned into a condiment. Lot’s daughters, having been raised in Sodom and having been corrupted by its wicked influences, got the bright idea to get their dad drunk and commit some incest so as to continue on the human race during what they thought, was the end of the world by the cosmic light show in the distance and having just seen their mother become a cow-lick.

While today’s “gay Christians” argue that Sodom was destroyed because of a lack of Social Justice (taken from Ezekiel 16:49), it’s sufficient enough to point out that the sin of using one’s fecal exit as a phallic entrance is named after the place. But apparently, as Ezekiel points out, they also had other problems that amounted to pride and laziness (it is unknown if they had parades for their pride or months set aside to celebrate it, but it was probably of fabulous proportions).

Although I have just barely touched Keller’s “theology of the city,” it should not go unnoticed that I have not neglected to touch the Scripture. For my purpose here, it is enough to demonstrate in my first volley that Keller’s presupposition that “the cultural mandate given from creation was a mandate to build the city” is Scripturally destitute. It is Biblically illiterate. It is sad, inept, and pitiful.

If Keller’s assertion that the city is God’s best design for human flourishing is true, the Biblical account would not be replete with roughly two-thousand years of human history in which cities were built exclusively by ne’er-do-wells, divine insurrectionists, and notorious scalawags and filled with murderers, sodomites, swindlers, idolaters, and riotously debauched God-haters.

Honestly, that sounds like I’m describing Minneapolis, Ferguson, and Kenosha but these are the Biblical descriptions of early city life on planet earth.

Nowhere in the Scriptural record from Adam to Abraham do we see a godly man even venture near the city, let alone build one. On the contrary, we see from the Biblical accounts that cities were a desert of holiness and the pastures and mountains were where God’s people dwelled in rural seclusion but in close intimacy with Yahweh.

As with most of what Tim Keller contributes in his post-pastoral social religion, his arguments sound plausible to the undiscerning. And yet, I am convinced of this truism that will be repeated throughout this series on Keller’s theology of the city:

Christians who want to sound savvy quote Tim Keller, but Christians who are savvy, do not.