It is an odd thing to see a pastor from New York City presented as the spokesman for a movement supposedly defined by its concern with “winsomeness.” Though I do not know the city that well, my few trips to it have never given me the impression that being “winsome” would be a winning evangelistic strategy in Manhattan.
Keller’s model doesn’t seem to be about winsomeness, but rather a calm, professorial posture tied to a kind of mischievous attempt to unsettle skeptics by exposing the failures in their own belief systems and suggesting ways in which Christianity is actually a better method of laying hold of the goods they actually desire (or ought to desire).
There may still be problems with this strategy, but I do not think “winsome” is the best way of naming them. Further, there is a very real danger that, precisely because the definition of “winsome” has been so unclear and undeveloped, that this vague concept could be conflated with virtues obligatory for all Christians. Kindness and gentleness are both fruit of the spirit, after all.
So here I’d like to try and propose a better way of moving that conversation forward, as I think there’s a real problem it is trying to name but hasn’t done so with much success to this point.
Sentimentalism, Christian Community, and Evangelization
In order to try and make the conversation more helpful, let’s ditch the term “winsome” and instead use “sentimental.” Hauerwas deals with this in his chapter on kindness in The Character of Virtue in which he says that, “sentimentality names the assumption that we can be kind without being truthful.” If this is the object of criticism, then it seems manifestly clear to me that many well-intentioned people within the missional/church-planting movement of reformed evangelicalism have at times fallen into sentimentalism.
Indeed, something I have brought up on a number of podcasts as I talk about the book is that many people, including some PCA pastors, do this very thing when talking about sexuality and gender issues. The way this happens is the pastor in question gets to a sermon that deals with sex and gender and he presents the correct orthodox line, according to the PCA’s confessional standards, but he does it in an apologetic way that completely undercuts the credibility of the doctrine. What is communicated is that he really wishes he could support gay marriage or welcoming people in same-sex relationships into full church membership or whatever the issue in play might be, but, well, darn it, that old Paul just won’t let him.
With such a presentation of the doctrine, it’s impossible for anyone to hear that and come away thinking the Christian teachings on sex and gender are good news. What it says, instead, is that this is quite possibly bad news, but, well, God said it so we have to submit. But when you tell people that this teaching is bad news, many of them will believe you. And, as we have seen in recent years, many parishioners and even some pastors involved in this movement have “evolved” on the issue in such a way that they have left orthodoxy behind.
So certainly I think we can say that “sentimentalism” is a problem in certain reformed evangelical circles. But understanding how this has happened turns up some complex problems.
L’Abri and Winsomeness
If there is a source for this sort of thing within the PCA, I do not think it is Tim Keller, for the reasons listed above. I rather think it comes from the apologetics and evangelism style pioneered by Francis Schaeffer and taken up enthusiastically by former students of his who have spent time working in L’Abri before transitioning into faculty roles at reformed seminaries.
Schaeffer’s approach is to be extremely generous to the non-Christians he’s talking to, to be fairly patient in raising issues, to not push where he doesn’t need to, and so on. He once said that if he had an hour to talk to someone about the Gospel, he’d spend 45 minutes listening and asking questions.
So if you listen to certain excerpts from Schaeffer, you can sometimes come away with the impression that L’Abri workers are so concerned with gentleness and patience that there is no space left for conflict or frank confrontation of sin. To think that is to fundamentally misunderstand what they are doing, but the misunderstanding is perhaps to be expected.
Here’s the issue: When I was a student at L’Abri, one of the stories I heard was of a trio of people who came to Swiss L’Abri who were involved in a menage a trois. This simple fact created a variety of questions for the workers there, starting with how to accommodate these three guests: They didn’t want to put them all in a shared bedroom, for example.
In time, more complicated questions would follow because, as it happened, all three of these people became Christians. So now you have three people in a committed polyamorous relationship with each other who are Christian and want to know what to do. So… what do you tell them?
These are the kind of problems that routinely crop up at a place like L’Abri. So you can’t not address them. At the same time, because you’re living in community with each other, because you’re going to have a fair bit of time together, you have ample reason to move slowly, avoid unnecessary conflicts, and so on.
Here’s the tricky thing: What happens when this model, which presupposes relationships that are going to be happening in close proximity for a sustained period of time and in which certain moral boundaries are enforced, is taken out of that context and into our current cultural moment in which you can’t assume proximal relationships, you can’t assume sustained, long-term relationships, and you can’t assume the kind of community that is able to hold certain moral boundaries while also retaining a posture of hospitality and openness? That I think is where the “winsomeness” problem surfaces.
But the issue isn’t really with L’Abri, and it certainly isn’t with Keller, it is rather with an approach to evangelization and communal life that presupposes certain conditions that no longer hold. So what is to be done about this issue? Well, I think there are two distinct responses and we can and should at times avail ourselves of both.
One approach is to not shy away from conflict, but also to try and approach the necessary conflicts we have in the world in a way that can unsettle people and preemptively short circuit the typical culture war type responses. This, for example, is one of the reasons I’ve made the arguments I have regarding statism and LGBT+ issues. I made it most recently in the book, arguing that the orthodox view of marriage presupposes that the family is the most basic form of human community and so the most basic human society is bound together by love and mutual giving to the other. On the other hand, any argument for gay marriage presupposes that the state is the most basic form of human community. Whereas the natural view of marriage sees marriage arising out of necessity due to the very nature of a sexual relationship, the argument for gay marriage only works with statist assumptions because there is no natural necessity for gay marriage in the way there is for natural marriage. The only way a “gay marriage” can even exist at all is if a state entity says that it does. But as states, particularly modern states, are primarily defined by their coercive abilities and, according to many, even their “monopoly on the licit use of violence,” what we’ve just said effectively is that the most primordial form of human community is the state and the state is chiefly defined by its monopoly on the licit use of violence. And so human community becomes essentially and primordially violent.
Does this persuade everyone? No. But I know it has persuaded some. And it works by inverting the truisms that we are going to be seeing any time we go into a library or chain store in the next month about “love,” by suggesting that the whole concept of gay marriage is actually founded in a primordially violent conception of reality.
We might state the principle this way: Move toward conflict, but do so strategically. This, for what it is worth, is entirely in keeping with how L’Abri has traditionally approached evangelism. It’s just not necessarily the first thing people think of when they observe the method, I think.
Second, work to create the kinds of communities where the L’Abri-type encounters are possible. In the big picture, what we are doing today in the western world is not sustainable. Our birth rate is extremely low, our places are being assailed by climate change, and our people are beset by loneliness and struggle to form durable, intimate relationships not only with someone that might become a spouse, but even non-sexual intimate relationships. A society that persists in this way of life cannot last.
So a further task of the church and of individual Christians is to work to create and sustain Christian communities that actually create conditions for real encounter between neighbors where people can give and receive love, know and be known, and do all of these things faithfully over a long period of time. This is the odd place where the whole “Benedict Option” conversation and communities like L’Abri and the Bruderhof intersect.
Because at its best, the idea of the Benedict Option is to create communities where virtue and the good life can be practiced and sustained over time amidst the many challenges and threats posed by the late-modern west. But this version of the Benedict Option movement is going to be defined less by culture war and political obsessions and more by a quiet, patient faithfulness that seeks to follow God and love neighbor even when doing so is enormously risky and potentially quite costly.
For this sort of work to happen at all, of course, will require the existence of Christians who possess the traits and virtues that make communities like L’Abri possible. That, in turn, means it will require churches to consider what sort of spiritual postures, teaching, and communal practices go into the formation of such Christians. Where do the sorts of people that create L’Abri type communities come from?
There are lots of answers to that question, but one answer is that they don’t come from superficial liturgies, non-existent communal life, and a constant connection to social media and cable news. Which is another way of saying that the Christian communities that successfully help to form such Christians will be inherently and inextricably weird. But that probably is as it must be.