Are evangelicals committed to engaging with culture too focused on New York City?
Like 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…
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.”)
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?