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New York City without a church? Updated!

Tony Carnes and Pauline Dolle imagine a city without churches, Tim Keller offers a “catechesis” for a secular age.

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The Fall issue of Comment magazine is all about the church in the city: what it is, what it isn't, and why it matters. Editor James A.K. Smith says that the Christian magazine's concern isn't just an apologetic for the public importance of the church. It raises important questions internal to the church—questions about reform and renewal. The health of society and the strength of social architecture depend on having churches that are centered on the supremacy of Christ, because to serve the Lord is to serve the world. It's not if church is for the world, but how.

Tim Keller offers a "catechesis" for a secular age, Tony Carnes and Pauline Dolle imagine a city without churches, Milton Freisen talks about cities as churches as headquarters for social cities, Mark Gornick and Maria Liu Wang (also from New York City) describe the church that we do not see, and Roberta Green Ahmanson talks about building a church for the church not built by hands.

In an interview for the magazine, Keller says, "There's a place in Calvin's Institutes where he says, "You may not think you owe your neighbour anything, but because of the image of God in your neighbour, you do. Because you see God in your neighbour, because your neighbour's made in the image of God." He even goes so far, I think, to say, "Don't look at your neighbour and say, ‘What does my neighbour deserve from me?' Say, ‘What does God deserve from me?' and then when you see the image of God in him there he is.'"

A Journey through NYC religions' Carnes recounts an encounter that he had on a Brooklyn street in front of some incredible street murals. "The boss man’s two aides-de-camp moved closer. He looked at me in a moment of hesitation, apparently wondering whether I was real. Then looking at the murals of kids reciting Bible verses, he edged toward my emotion. It was a moment of communion. I believe we both felt it.

He explained, 'Mister, any church in this area is good.' And with that he and his posse walked away into darkness." ...

The modern city tells a more complex tale than one of inevitable secularization. So are the testimonies of spiritual conversion more than simple unidirectional tales.

Very often, the salvation stories are sudden U-turns, or God is intertwined into a life that zigzags between gods, failures, and unfinished tales. The narrative may be static and then catastrophic and then put back together again. The Livonia Avenue murals are an example of such spiritual complexity. We might call this story the post-secular narrative of the city: off any preset grid, ambiguous sometimes, in between failure and triumph. Truth, hope, and salvation tangle with a lack of inevitability, no necessity, no stages of life continuous toward a certain end. The mod­ern city is much like the triumphs, failures, and wanderings of the Israelites in the desert. God is there, God speaks, God acts—but what a crowd of contradictions burden his followers.

Wang Dowling, the painter of the murals" grew up in one such off-the-grid family. Our reporter Pauline Dolle has tracked down his story. To read more from the magazine, here is a link to their Comment's website.


From Tim Keller:


Now catechisms are never just simply "what the bible teaches"; they have always been produced over against errors the catechists were trying to counter. For our catechisms, "the world" was a medieval Catholic one. So they were reading the Bible, but they weren't just saying in the abstract, here's the stuff the Bible says. They were asking questions to counter what their people might hear out there in the world. Now today, it is not medieval Catholicism we are countering. It's the narrative of secularism.

So my best way of doing this—I got some of this from reading Charles Taylor—is to intentionally catechize for our secular age. One feature to counter would be the buffered self, which comes down to this: You have to be true to yourself, and nobody can tell you who you are, and you have to look inside yourself and not base your understanding or identity on anything outside but on only what's true to you. And the buffered self is tied up with exclusive humanism—which basically means, in the end, you've got to be happy, and that happiness is defined as material happiness. So ultimately, you can't put yourself in a position where you're not doing what makes you most happy. It would be wrong to sacrifice your happiest life just to serve somebody.

Another facet of secularism that catechesis has to counter is an idolatry of reason and rationality that basically promises science and technology will solve our problems. Just yesterday the New York Times magazine called and asked me: Why can't we solve online harassment? The writer said we're so technologically advanced, you know, we've got underwater drones and all that, why can't we solve this? In other words, she seemed to think that the problem of online harassment was a technological problem and not a problem of the human heart.

In the face of this, we need to think about rewriting the catechism for a secular age.  ...


To read more from the magazine, here is a link to their Comment's website.


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