Is Missional Success Dependent upon Artists?:A Critique of Keller


I like Tim Keller. I like his books. I like a lot of what he says.

I like Art. Some of my best friends are artists. My wife is an Artist.

I even think God can and does speak through Art. Simon and Garfunkel were astutely perceptive when they sang “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.”

One of my favorite artists is the street-artist ‘Banksy’ – I often find his work speaks prophetically whilst the church speaks pathetically and even embodies some of the dumbed down western values that Banksy and others have the common sense to see through and expose.

banksy cross photos

I also don’t have a problem with artistic expressions being used in Worship or Evangelism. (That’s not to say I think every attempt at this is good. Some Many Most contemporary artistic expressions of worship and mission are dire.)

I don’t just tolerate art – I’m a kinda arty person. I’ve studied English Literature; I’m a registered English Teacher; I’ve taught Poetry and Media Studies; I write poetry and I understand something of the significance of Art in history and culture.

So, that being said – why am I so opposed to the following statement that was posted by Tim Keller on Facebook? And why do I disagree with the many people who passionately responded to my critique of Keller with a multitude of conflicting and contradictory attempts to interpret and defend Keller’s statements? I’m glad you asked – but first let’s look at the Keller quote.

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

My response?

“Man, if only Jesus and the Apostles had known that.”

I posted the quote, and my response on Twitter, which automatically sends it to Facebook, and I also posted on the Tim Keller post’s comment section. I never posted it in order to get into any debate – because quite frankly I don’t have the time. However, it sparked debate on all three of those forums. Especially the Keller page.

keller replies

I’ve also had several responses on my FB page, and some private messages – so rather than get into several FB debates – here is my attempt to explain why the Keller quote is so off-course, and why those who have attempted to defend him have missed the point.

The most common response to my objection was the redefinition of the word “art”.

Keller defenders have come back saying – Jesus used parables and parables are art, therefore Jesus was an Artist. Or, the Bible includes poetry – poetry is art – therefore Keller’s point about Art is true. Or they say – God is an artist and all of life is his canvas – therefore Keller’s point is true.

Nope. Wrong. These arguments miss the point.

These arguments amount to the same thing – they redefine what Keller meant by “Artist” and Art”. (Ironically Keller himself tried to pull this off on the thread in a debate with another person who had criticized his quote.)

In effect these responses miss the point in two key ways. Firstly they redefine art to mean “communication”; “words” or “life”. In other words, the broadest definition possible is being given to the word ‘art’. Secondly, Keller did not have in mind the parables of Jesus or the poetry of the psalms when he wrote what he wrote. Keller was talking about professional artists in addition to the Word of God – not the word of God artistically expressed through scripture. The difference is significant. Here is the quote in context.

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.

The last sentence is a repetition and expansion of the first. Everything in between is an attempt to justify and illustrate the first and last sentence. But it’s a logical fallacy. Keller is basically saying:

  1. The Church needs artists because without art we cannot reach the world.
  2. Art is evidence of beauty
  3. Beauty is evidence of meaning
  4. Art captures a person’s imagination even when their will and mind is opposed
  5. Therefore, the Church needs artists and Christian art – and without these we cannot win the world.

There are three problems with Keller’s claims here. Firstly, they don’t add up. Just because Art can be used to resonate with people in the depth of their emotions or imaginations does not validate the claim that the gospel will not spread without Christian artists and Christian art. In fact. It could hinder the progression of the gospel. This is the second problem, in effect Keller is saying we should employ artistic methods to reach people because Art can get dominion over people more effectively than reason can. People are opposed in their will, and in their minds, to the “idea of God” but we can use ‘art’ (in this case music) to cut through that. However, I need to ask, how is this any different to the Arminian methods of the 18th century evangelists who used music and altar calls to move the emotions of the audiences so they would “come to the altar” and receive Christ? How many people in evangelistic crusades are moved to respond to an appeal, by the art and the emotions that are provoked? Yet the success rate of crusade evangelism reveals the true depth of these conversions – they don’t last. If you try to subvert the mind in order to reach the will using art and emotions – you won’t get true conversions (and it’s manipulative). Finally, and most importantly, it’s unscriptural.

Look at what Keller is saying, “We need Christian artists because we are never going to reach the world without great Christian art to go with great Christian talk.”

Let’s be clear, Keller is talking about professional artists and art as a supplement to “Christian talk.”

What is Christian talk? The verbal communication of the Gospel. It’s the word of God. One of my friends understood this in his defence of Keller. Writing to me, he said, “Communicating the gospel is about more than just telling people that God saves sinners (although it certainly isn’t less!).”

Let’s break this down, “Communicating the gospel is about more than just telling people that God saves sinners.” No it’s not more than that. Unless you mean it’s more in the sense that you could add a million other phrases like, “God sent his Son to reconcile lost sinners.” Or “Christ died and rose again.” – But that is not what is meant by “more”. What is meant by more is art – i.e. music, paintings, dance etc.

That’s where we have a problem – and that is where there is chasm between post-modern thinking and biblical revelation. The scriptures are absolutely clear, as are the reformed confessions, that it is the Word of God preached and read (made effective by the Holy Spirit) that are the means that God has ordained for the salvation of sinners.

This is why Paul said to the Corinthians (who were putting their missional confidence in the art of rhetoric):

1And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.a 2For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Cor 2:1—4)

This is also why Paul made clear to the church in Rome the way in which people come to faith in Christ:

13 For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”[g]

14 How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written:

“How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace,[h] Who bring glad tidings of good things!”[i]

16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?”[j] 17 So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Rom 10)

Paul is clear. It is the message of Christ, proclaimed by words that is the means of salvation – when made effective in the heart by the Holy Spirit. Of course, there are many ‘aids’ by which we season the message. A sincere tone will help whereas an arrogant tone can hinder. A lifestyle which backs up our claims will speak louder than a lifestyle which contradicts our message. Artistic expressions may help people engage with the message – and where they can do that they are welcome – but they are in no way necessary.

Again, back to Keller’s actual statement. “We need Christian artists because we are never going to reach the world without great Christian art to go with great Christian talk.” What is he saying? He is saying that something else is needed. He is saying that art is essential. He is saying if the message is not wrapped in an artistic package – we will never reach the world.

As I said at the start of this post – I’m not anti-Keller, or anti-Art. I’m also not – as some assumed, making the claim that just because Jesus or the apostles did not do something that then means it is wrong for us to do that thing (if it were we’d need to abandon a lot of things). However, when a high profile bible teacher makes a statement (twice) that contradicts a clear scriptural principle – we have a problem.

Ravi Zacharias highlights the issue with the approach that Keller is advocating in his chapter in the book Telling the Truth: Evangelising Postmoderns (Ed. D.A. Carson). Zacharias observes the fact that western culture has shifted “the power to inform through the visual and the blurring of reality and imagination”. Illustrating the point via William Blake, he says,

“Blake warned of the peril of the eye:

This life’s dim window of the soul

Distorts the heavens from pole to pole

And goads you to believe a lie

When you see with and not through the eye.”

Whilst God became incarnate – the work of Christ has been revealed to us through words. God did not reveal himself through a selfie. He did not reveal himself through a Rock band. He did not reveal himself through a wall-painting. Whilst he appeared in history in human form – most of God’s people from Eden until the Eschaton don’t have a physical Jesus that we can see with our eyes – God has revealed himself through the scriptures. We have the Words of God in Scripture so that we can hear with our ears and we have the sacrament of baptism and communion that we can observe with our eyes. The primary gospel medium is word and sacrament – and this is for a reason. Again, Zacharias says, “The medium does become the message, and this blurring between the real and the imagined is really locked into the medium itself.” In other words – whilst Keller is celebrating the imagination which is captured by art, Zacharias is warning us to be careful. With the visual comes a distortion of reality. This is because art is subjective.

Again, Art can be a good aid. It can be beneficial. It is not essential. It is certainly not essential in the spread of the gospel. Look at church history. The gospel tends to spread in contexts of persecution. Art on the other hand is a luxury for the privileged. In a western context where people are being entertained to death, the words “Christ died for sinners” meet with indifference or mockery. Under a totalitarian regime, these simple words are uttered with a price – and consequently they carry life and power. The words of scripture are sharp arrows that can pierce the heart. Just now, in the West – scripture does not seem to have that effect –often. But that is more an indication of our own spiritual blindness and apathy – and the judgement of God who has hardened the hearts of those of us who have hardened our hearts.

Missionally speaking, we don’t need artists or art. We need preachers and preaching. We don’t need the spirit of entertainment and art, we need the Spirit of God. We don’t need the words of the poet, we need the words of the prophet. We don’t need artists dancing on a stage, we need saints praying on their knees.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism makes it clear – it is the spoken word – not artistic expression – that is the essential means by which the world will be reached.

  1. 89. How is the Word made effectual to salvation?
  2. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.

Do I think Keller is a false teacher? No. Do I think he would consciously deny the sufficiency of scripture? No. But do I think he is infallible? No way. I also think Keller fans need to be careful. It was not too long ago a US Bible teacher captured the awe of audiences around the world. Mark Driscoll was the blue-eyed boy of the contemporary Calvinist club. Whilst Kellerites tend to be a bit more conservative about it – the dangers are the same. Driscollites overlooked their super star’s errors because of the high impact he was having in evangelising the culture and his amazing preaching gifts. Kellerites need to be careful they don’t fall into the same trap. Just because Keller is an outstanding communicator, and because he is “reaching the culture” does not mean he is infallible. He is not above scripture. In this instance, Keller is clearly pushing an unscriptural ideology that undermines the centrality and sufficiency of the spoken word – and Kellerites are lapping it up. Why? Probably because middle-class Christianity is more comfortable with the idea of putting on shows that unbelievers will love –  than they are speaking words that unbelievers will hate. That I believe is the crux of it.