Monday, October 08, 2018

Carl Trueman wades into the question of whether or not Tim Keller is a 'cultural Marxist"

The question seems as ignorant and dubious as rhetorically asking whether Palestrina invented total serialism but the Christian blogosphere being what it is ... someone (of course) has claimed that Tim Keller embraces cultural Marxism.

I can't recall hearing a single Tim Keller sermon in my life where he ever name-dropped Gramsci or Adorno or Horkheimer or Walter Benjamin or Marcuse or anyone associated with the Frankfurt school or Marx, even, but it may be a sign of what an outlandish shibboleth 'cultural Marxism' has become that Tim Keller can be accused of somehow endorsing it.  Now I could see actual leftists proclaiming that Keller embraces a transformationalist neoliberal praxis of assimilation or something like that, but no actual post-Marxist thinkers I can think of would ever identify Keller as on their team.

While we should initially assume for the sake of charity that those making this accusation at him actually know what the terms means, that may not be the case for many of the readers of this post, so a few preliminary definitions-of-terms are therefore in order.

Marxism is notoriously hard to define with precision.  If there is one group in the world which can match Christians in its ability to fragment indefinitely and anathematize those who claim its label while deviating on fine points of dogma, it is the Marxists.  If we take the term in a narrow, historical sense, we could argue that it refers to those who think (1) that economic relationships are fundamentally constitutive of human identities, and (2) that capitalism as a system of economic organization is doomed at some point in the future to collapse under its own contradictions.
Over the years, many Marxists have accepted the basic idea that capitalism is a stage in history which will pass, but have articulated this in the context of philosophies which have different emphases.  Thus, postcolonial theorists have tended to develop Marx’s thought in relation to patterns of political life connected to imperialism, colonialism and the like.  For such, categories of race have come to the fore. Classic texts in this area are Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and the late Edward Said’s Orientalism.   These provide classic examples of how Marx and the Marxist tradition were placed in service of unmasking the ways and means that those with power have maintained their status through various means—cultural, economic, political. Closely related to these are the sexual liberators like Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse who fused Marx with Freud.  This approach found its logical conclusion in the pansexual political theory of a feminist like Shulamith Firestone whose 1970 book, The Dialectic of Sex, is an unabashed application of Marxist and Freudian thought to the matter of revolutionary sexual liberation.


Is Tim Keller a Marxist in how he defines these things?   While I have not had the pleasure of asking him personally, I have read statements by him that indicate he believes human beings are made in the image of God.  That presumably grounds his ethics.  It also places him outside of the Marxist camp, belief in God being somewhat problematic in that school of thought, as (incidentally) is his Christian belief that human beings have a nature which can be defined in metaphysical, rather than contingent, historical terms.
If he is not a Marxist, it does not take a postgraduate qualification in logic to deduce that he can scarcely be a cultural Marxist.  Even so, let’s indulge the critics and ask this question:  Does Tim Keller’s view of the culture have parallels with the Gramscian tradition?  Yes, it does in that he is a cultural transformationalist who believes that the world can be dramatically benefited by—schools, universities etc.   So do the Acton Institute, Marvin Olasky and the team at World Magazine and numerous friends and colleagues in First Things circles.   I hardly think they would appreciate being given the label of cultural Marxists.  To want to change the culture is a desire of anyone who is dissatisfied with the status quo, not a necessary sign of commitment to dialectical materialism or a diabolical hatred of free markets.

Let me be clear—while respecting him as a brother in Christ, I am not an acolyte of Rev. Keller.  I disagree at points with both his theology and philosophy of ministry.  Nor do I share his love of the city.  For me, cities are a necessary evil whose sole purpose is to provide country boys like me somewhere to go to the theatre once in a while.  And I am definitely not an optimistic transformationalist as he is—trust me, things are going to get worse before, well, they get even worse than that.  But he is no cultural Marxist, and to call him such is to reveal not the politics of the good doctor but the ignorance of the troll.  It is to indulge in the spirit of this age, which eschews thoughtful argument about difficult issues for moronic and often malicious soundbites.  It is not a helpful way of locating him in current debates in order to further the discussion, but rather a cheap way of pre-emptively delegitimizing him and his opinions.  It is an unwarranted slur on his character, for we all know that cultural Marxism is not intended as a morally neutral term.  And—I almost forgot—it is to break the Ninth Commandment about a Christian brother.  And that’s a sin—not so much a sin against Tim Keller as against the God he serves.

A call out from Pulpit and Pen that Keller is a Marxist is not quite enough to convince me of Keller actually being a Marxist.  I mean, come on, did not David Martyn Lloyd-Jones say in his sermon studies in the Sermon on the Mount that the communist needs Christ as much as the capitalist and that merely being anti-communist (which tends to implicitly read at an informal level as "anti-Marxist") bring no meaningful assurance that someone being anti-communist has the least bit of faith in Jesus Christ?   Go read "The Salt of the Earth" sermon from Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, pages 135-136 in ISBN 978-0-8028-0036-7. 

It's starting to reach a point where when I read socially conservative Christian bloggers talk about 'cultural Marxism' they often seem to think they have scored an epic win against what they regard as the cultural Marxism of more or less any Social Gospel whose socio-economic goals they dissent from but it ends up kind of being like the Mighty Monarch having a grand entrance attacking the wrong address like ... (this is a Venture Bros clip so be mindful of slightly inept Adult Swim level violence ... )

but instead of the Quicktime video of the minty-fresh entrance there's some kind of publicly accessible essay.

Since I'm pretty much against both Christian postmillenialism and Marxism for the same reason (my strong disagreement with their philosophy of history as implemented in real world terms) I find it baffling when people who say they're Reformed or "optimillenialists" rant about Marxists because as millenarian utopian readings of history go the theonomistic Dominionist "is" different from a Marxist but not necessarily always in ways that matter with respect to military history. 

Trueman, if anything, soft-pedaled how similar polemical Christians and Marxists can be in hair-splitting debates about points of dogma.  :)


Benjamin Smith said...

Sadly, use of the term has leaked over here into the UK. It's a black irony when I hear cries of 'we must resist the leftist fascists unlike the German church who failed to resist Hitler', given Hitler's use of 'Cultural Bolshevism' to get the church on his side. Those evil, family-hating Communists!

It's a shame because I've been reading a lot of Marx lately and I think there are some vital insights there as to the workings of Mammon. It's capitalism that's largely done the damage to families, but many just can't see it.

Apropos of nothing, a great quote from the preface to Capital:

'The English Established Church... will more readily pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 articles than on 1/39 of its income.'

Cal of Chelcice said...

The Frankfurt School saw the Prols trapped under a Capitalist cultural order that prevented their class-consciousness. Thus, taking over and redirecting cultural forces had a liberative effect, rolling downhill. How is that any different than 7 Mountains pentecostal-dominonism, Kuyperian cultural sphere dominion, or even Evangelical desire of cultural influence rolling downhill (there's that Driscoll quote). If you think society is plastic, open to reforming powers, whatever they are, you're fighting over the same battlefield with the same weapons. The people accusing people of "Cultural Marxism" (whatever that is) have a lot more in common with Frankfurt School than they even realize.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

it's been striking, as I've gotten into reading musicology and formal analysis in the last four years, to see that intra-school criticism of the Frankfurt school tends to be more stringent. Lukacs' critique that Adorno wanted Marxism without the proleteriat is probably a more damning criticism of Adorno's basic weakness (so ivory tower as to be useless in the real world) than merely calling what Adorno was doing 'cultural Marxism'.

Trueman soft pedaled the implicit observation that should be more explicit, that it sure seems the majority of the people who brandish the term `cultural Marxism' haven't even read a single primary source document of the thought they are claiming to address. I've got dozens of issues with Adorno, for instance, but I can honestly say it's because I've read him. But that doesn't mean I can't simultaneously consider him one of the more brilliant musicologists of the last hundred years. Ironically, I have conservative critics who have blasted his work without really doing anything to represent what Adorno actually said as the catalyst for my reading his work.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

and, yeah, Mark Driscoll's claim that you win people who go "upstream" and then "influence culture" ...

someone at the old City of God blog, Dan, put it well when he said that the religious right and conservatives have a Social Gospel, they just refuse to call it that. That's why a Macarthur style complaint about `social justice' rings hollow, his position more or less has to pretend his position doesn't call for a kind of social justice or a Social Gospel as well.

Cal of Chelcice said...

As a follow-up: While I agree with the basic counter-claim against accusations of "cultural marxism", Trueman is a worthless fellow. He's one of those cranky conservatives who offer no path forward but a holding pattern. And this holding position involves confessional loyalty, in which the work of catholicity and unity are sneered at, denominationalism pessimistically celebrated, and uncritical comfort with status-quo embraced. He's just dragging his feet, but there's no way out for folks like him. The legitimate frustration and outrage that fuels, say, Trump supporters is hand-waved and given empty sympathy. His brand of amillenialism is for the morally lazy.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

living as I do in Seattle, the very possibility that there could be any legitimate frustration or outrage inspiring Trump supporters is precluded as being irrational and fascist.

chris e said...

On the immediate topic I have nothing to say that Benjamin hasn't said above already, though at least in my little corner I've not witnessed such things from the pulpit

I'd like to pick up one other strand though; He no doubt means to be clever but that throw away line regarding 'cities being a necessary evil' is troubling on a different level to me - there's a history of "country boys" being parachuted into big cities and diagnosing Babylon where it doesn't exist - the cautionary tale of the US Army in Baghdad being the most recent.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

the city quip is a reminder to me how some socially conservative sorts employ some magic moving goalpost to think of themselves as 'not' living in cities or defining cities as only those things that confer indoor plumbing and artificial light and internet connections to other people. :)

Anonymous said...

Also a critique, tho' from a different angle: