“New York-centrism” in Evangelical Cultural Engagement

Are evangelicals committed to engaging with culture too focused on New York City?

Gregory ThornburyLike the first person to respond to Jamie Smith’s tweet noting “an odd creeping ‘New York-centrism,'” I immediately thought about some of the things recently said by and written about Greg Thornbury, the new president of The King’s College, the Manhattan-based Christian school whose mission is

to transform society by preparing students for careers in which they help to shape and eventually to lead strategic public and private institutions, and by supporting faculty members as they directly engage culture through writing and speaking publicly on critical issues.

Its vision statement continues:

The King’s College educates students to lead with principle as they aspire to make America better. We prepare students for principled leadership. And nothing else.

Many selective colleges and universities, of course, have staked their claim to the word ‘leadership,’ so how does King’s differ?

We mean something surprisingly difficult. Leadership to us requires facility in complex ideas and the sophistication to guide the strategic institutions of society: government, commerce, law, the media, civil society, education, the arts and the church. With a demanding curriculum and a campus in the heart of New York City, King’s is not for the timid soul.

In his remarks at his formal introduction as president, Thornbury argued (at 8:25 of the clip below) that:

…not only do we have the right college with the right programs at the right time, but friends, we are in the right place. New York City is the financial and cultural capital of the universe… I’m reminded of the word from the University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, who has written about the fact that if you really want to have impact and effect on a society you must lead from the center of culture and not from the periphery. Now, that statement may seem something like a truism, but apparently this has not been something that, broadly speaking, Christian higher education has gotten. Because, as we all know, The King’s College is the only free-standing [evangelical] college in New York City.

Thornbury goes on to position King’s as heir to an unfulfilled dream of Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry (Thornbury’s mentor), of an evangelical university in New York City. Owen Strachan affirms this vision in an American Spectator piece on “the nation’s first hipster president” that suggests that King’s “may not only survive but thrive in New York” because it can connect with a “Manhattan evangelical network, loose as it is.”

Thornbury said as much in an interview with TKC’s student newspaper, The Empire Tribune. He spoke of building alliances with other NYC-centered theological conservatives intentionally engaging with “strategic institutions” like government, commerce, media, and the arts: author Eric Metaxas and Socrates in the City; Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church; theatrical producer Carolyn Copeland; and the journal First Things. (Perhaps he also will seek a partnership with Nyack College, the Christian & Missionary Alliance school that bills itself as “New York’s Christian College” and this fall is moving to a new campus near Battery Park.) At least one such alliance seems firmly in place:

I want to write a separate post about the relative significance of a Christian college in New York City, but for now…

Cityscape of New York
View of New York City looking south from the roof of Rockefeller Center – Creative Commons (Daniel Schwen)

I’d happily entertain attempts to persuade me that if Christians want “to have impact and effect on a society [they] must lead from the center of culture and not from the periphery.” I guess I’m wary of this “creeping New York-centrism” for several reasons. Just a couple:

• That — in the case of King’s and Metaxas — it’s so closely tied to a specific political and economic philosophy. In the student newspaper interview quoted above, Thornbury acknowledged the difference between Christianity and ideology, but immediately followed that statement with this: “But also, it is the genius of Christianity that has given inspiration to the animating ideals of what has been the best of the American traditions. What we regard as the key ideas of conservatism are all downstream from Christianity.”

Fine — but those waters have historically fed liberalism, socialism, and other ideologies as well. If politically progressive evangelicals come to New York looking to act as Hunter’s “faithful presence,” will their conservative neighbors seek out alliances with them?

• More importantly, privileging Christian engagement with culture at whatever serves for that blink of history’s eye as the “center of the universe” seems to have little biblical warrant. I suppose you could build such an elitist theology of cultural engagement around Paul’s conversation with the philosophers on the Areopagus or the apostles’ encounters with political and military officials, but I don’t see any indication that early Christians leaders (let alone Jesus himself, who talked about being salt and light while standing on a mountain in an obscure province) viewed such evangelism as having greater “strategic” importance than the spread of the Gospel on the “periphery” of that culture. (Or even that they believed in being “strategic,” since early evangelists were “scattered because of the persecution” that followed Stephen’s stoning or simply “sent out by the Holy Spirit.”)

Trajan's market
Trajan’s Market in Rome – Wikimedia

Of course, I also don’t see the New Testament proscribing such cultural engagement. But the silence seems significant: Paul wound up in what then was the center of the Western universe, but if it were so important that Christians “lead from” a city like Rome, why did the letters he wrote from (or, earlier, to) that “center of culture” not make that argument explicitly?

7 thoughts on ““New York-centrism” in Evangelical Cultural Engagement

  1. I’m with you on this one. While there are some practical reasons why mass culture change tends to occur in major cities, I’m not certain that its always best to target the popular. Plus, i would point out that Paul spent most of his time talking to the cultural elite while he was in chains — he was a prisoner explaining the reason for his unjust detention! I, for one, will be more than happy when “evangelical” no longer means “conservative republican” because the one does not necessitate the other.

  2. Thornbury and Metaxas are effusive in their rhetoric about NYC, my birthplace, and indeed, the greatest city in the world. However, NYC is NOT the world’s economic capital – London, England is. Nor is it the world’s cultural capital. Saying something like that betrays a woeful ignorance of the complexities of the definition of “culture.”

    NYC is the world’s arts capital, and the world’s media capital. But Los Angeles is the world’s entertainment capital (even though most of its product is now made outside of California). Fashion? Hard to tell, since most major world cities are vying to compete, and London has emerged as a dominant force. Sports? By sheer numbers, NYC is king, but in terms of influence, Chicago, Dallas, and any number of soccer-dominated cities across the world are probably stronger.

    Evangelicals are flocking to NYC because it can be an immensely fun and financially-rewarding place to live and work. Rhapsodizing about how spiritual that work is, and how important it is for God’s kingdom, however, is pure hubris, considering the fact that God is not a New Yorker.

    And aren’t we all glad for that!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Tim. It’s a point well taken — though I suspect Metaxas, Thornbury, et al. might agree with you to an extent and say that their theory of cultural engagement should encourage evangelical focus on the other cities you named (not just New York). While I am particularly interested in what evangelicalism looks like in post-Christian, cosmopolitan centers like London and Paris (where evangelicals have long been in the minority and are as likely to be from the Global South as anywhere else) and do think it’s valuable to have “faithful presence” in places like Los Angeles, I’m leery of privileging any such capitals.

      1. You might be interested in an essay I wrote about a similar perspective of the evangelical infatuation with NYC: http://o-l-i.blogspot.com/2013/09/urban-ministry-under-de-blasio-paradigm.html

        What I ALSO find extremely interesting is that all of these “new city evangelicals” are blatantly ignoring the churches that were slogging through NYC’s “worst of times” (when I lived there): Calvary Baptist, Trinity Baptist, and even Times Square Church. They’re not hip and white; they’re full of the “real” NYers, from every nation and culture. Coincidence? I think not.

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