What's Tony Thinking

Nick Kristof’s Easter Conversations


New York Times columnist, Nick Kristof, has been doing conversations with different well or somewhat well-known Christians at or around Easter for several years now.

His first, that I recall, was with Tim Keller, the founder of the multi-site Church of the Redeemer in New York City. Keller had built a church that appealed to young people in New York City, in part by his unabashedly orthodox approach.

This past Sunday Kristof’s conversation partner was Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary in NYC (my alma mater).

I was hopeful. I had read a couple of Jones’s books and felt they were good. But the interview was terribly disappointing.

Every time Kristof brought up some Christian doctrine that doesn’t conform to modernity’s canons, Jones seemed to be eager to repudiate it. When Kristof, in conclusion, said — I admire the teachings of Jesus but don’t buy the rest of it — (pretty much the most cliched liberal sophisticate dust-off of Christianity) Jones merely chimed in with “me too.”

If you wonder why liberal Christianity is dying, this interview would be a good illustration. There’s no there there. It’s mostly about what we don’t believe. Honestly, the number of people who find that to be of interest is vanishing.

Ross Douthat, another NYT columnist, had some choice words about the Jones default in a good column on the strange relationship between Christian faith and Western culture. Here’s Douthat:

“Consider the fascinating interview my colleague Nicholas Kristof conducted for Easter with Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary, long the flagship institution for liberal Protestantism. In a relatively brief conversation, Jones declines to affirm the resurrection, calls the Virgin birth “bizarre,” shrugs at the afterlife and generally treats most of traditional Christian theology as an embarrassment.

“But is Jones a Richard Dawkins-esque scoffer or a would-be founder of a Gnostic alternative to Christianity? Hardly: She’s a Protestant minister and a leader and teacher for would-be Protestant ministers, who regards her project as the further reformation of Christianity, to ensure the continued use of its origin story and imagery (and its institutions, and their brands, and their endowments) for modern liberal and left-wing purposes. It’s another distilled example of the combination of repudiation and co-optation, the desire to abandon and the desire to claim and tame and redefine, that so often defines the liberal relationship to Christian faith.”

I think of myself as being in recovery from that project.

In that first interview with evangelical, Tim Keller, I thought Keller did an decent job of engaging without kow-towing. I recommend the entire piece, but here’s on excerpt that seemed to me particularly lucid on some hard questions. It begins, with Kristof’s query in italics, then Keller’s response:

“What I admire most about Christianity is the amazing good work it inspires people to do around the world. But I’m troubled by the evangelical notion that people go to heaven only if they have a direct relationship with Jesus. Doesn’t that imply that billions of people — Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus — are consigned to hell because they grew up in non-Christian families around the world? That Gandhi is in hell?

“The Bible makes categorical statements that you can’t be saved except through faith in Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:11-12). I’m very sympathetic to your concerns, however, because this seems so exclusive and unfair. There are many views of this issue, so my thoughts on this cannot be considered the Christian response. But here they are:

“You imply that really good people (e.g., Gandhi) should also be saved, not just Christians. The problem is that Christians do not believe anyone can be saved by being good. If you don’t come to God through faith in what Christ has done, you would be approaching on the basis of your own goodness. This would, ironically, actually be more exclusive and unfair, since so often those that we tend to think of as “bad” — the abusers, the haters, the feckless and selfish — have themselves often had abusive and brutal backgrounds.

“Christians believe that it is those who admit their weakness and need for a savior who get salvation. If access to God is through the grace of Jesus, then anyone can receive eternal life instantly. This is why “born again” Christianity will always give hope and spread among the “wretched of the earth.”

I’m grateful that Kristof has done this series of reasonably serious conversations. That said, his format, of admirable man puzzled by Christianity’s failure to fit his world view, probably needs some re-thinking.

p.s. added later: what I liked about Keller’s remarks here is his clarity on the heart of Christianity, i.e. You don’t get saved by being good (your efforts). You/ we are saved by grace (God’s initiative).

Applying the words of Jesus in John 14: 6, to other faiths is a category mistake. The issue at hand is not other religions, but Christians thought they could by-pass the cross. It is true that subsequent preachers have made John 14: 6 into a statement of exclusivity vis a vis other faiths, but I don’t think that’s the issue at stake in the text. Ergo, a misapplication.





Categories: Uncategorized