Tim Keller’s Subtle Contextualization

Someone once made the observation that anyone who gets called “Machiavellian” doesn’t deserve the title. The idea here is that if someone really was a Machiavellian then no one would realize that they were, in fact, a Machiavellian. The true Machiavellian is someone who goes unnoticed while consolidating their power. The same thing might be said of a master spy, the really master spy will never get called out as such, if so they aren’t really a master.

Now Tim Keller is no Machiavellian, but I think this same line of reasoning works with Keller and the concept of contextualization. Contextualization is one of those things that a lot of pastors get hung up on – how to be “relevant” to people these days is something that lots of pastors worry about. Mark Driscoll tries to wear hip looking clothes and models his delivery on stand-up comics. You can find a lot of pastors in this mould, trying to look hip or accessible or *shudder* relevant. Why? Well I think it’s pretty clear that they model this on Paul, and often particularly on Paul’s preaching at the Areopagus in Athens (“Mars Hill” is a sort of Romanized-Anglicized bastard translation of “Areopagus“). The argument, as I understand it, is that here we have Paul speaking to the Athenians in the place where they held rhetorical debates, quoting Greek poets and using Greek religion as a sort of sermon illustration – this is what a preacher should aspire to do, speak to a congregation in their own cultural frame of reference.

Paul uses the dominant culture, there is no serious dispute about that, in order to evangelize the Athenians as well as others in the Roman world. But what kind of culture does he use? He doesn’t use vulgar playwrights like Terence or Plautus, he doesn’t tell dirty jokes, he didn’t – in any of our records at least – write slogans on walls. In other words, Paul seems to have used poetry and rhetoric – very respectable, serious sorts of culture – to convey his message.

Tim Keller fits into this template arguably better than most well-known Reformed voices in North America today. He doesn’t try to act like he is a young man, he wears a suit and speaks like adult. But in doing so, does he not take on the aspect of a professor or some other serious professional, the sort of person you would ask for financial advice or some such thing. He speaks in what I’d call news anchor-English, i.e.: there isn’t much of a discernible regional accent to his words. His delivery is calm and thoughtful, at least in the clips I’ve seen of him. I don’t know if Keller tries to act this way or if this is just Tim Keller being Tim Keller, but it strikes me that, despite his “aw shucks, what do I know about contextualization?” demeanour, the man does owe his success to the fact that he fits with a lot of social expectations about the serious, sober adult. As much as this figure might get ridiculed in popular culture (much like the philosophers were mocked by the Greeks), he’s still the type we’d like advising us on finance, teaching university classes, helping us chart our careers and so on. In other words, Keller is the master contextualizer. Don’t worry, Tim, your secret is safe with us.