Tim Keller Pushes the Myth of Original Christianity -- For a Reason

This popular Christian writer pushes hard on Christians' beliefs about the earliest Christians.

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Out of all the beloved myths of Christianity, one of the most beloved of all involves what I call Original Christianity. That’s the myth that the earliest Christians were bastions of perfect Jesus-osity. Yep! They Jesus-ed the best and hardest of all — before variously-identified meaniepies came in and wrecked everything (almost) forever. It turns out that a popular Christian leader named Tim Keller believes wholeheartedly in the myth of Original Christianity, as his recent Twitter blatherstorm reveals. Today, let’s check out that blathering, correct his many errors, and then marvel together that so many Christians actually think this dishonest, willfully-ignorant huckster is a great apologist.

This is apparently Saint Peter’s Church in Antioch. The lawn chairs are quite the interesting deco choice. (Dan.) Credit: Dan / Flickr

(Previous Tim Keller posts: In His Dreams He is Free Indeed; The Lies Tim Keller Tells About Death. Also, previous Original Christianity posts: The Vision of the Past that Clouds the Future; The Myth of ‘Original Christianity’ in the Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience; Gospelbound Embraces False Persecution Claims; Why Jesus-ing Harder Won’t Bring Churchless Believers Back.)

The Myth of Original Christianity

When I was Christian myself, I knew next to nothing about my religion’s own history. That’s not unusual at all. Heck, most Christians today seem to know even less than I did in the 1980s.

But I thought I knew one thing:

The earliest Christians, who were closest in time to Jesus of course, were absolutely the best Christians ever. More than any other Christians ever would, they knew exactly what Jesus wanted his followers to behave like and believe. And they had more reasons than any later Christians ever could to know that Christianity was totes-magotes based completely in reality. So they totally Jesus-ed the best and hardest and most out of all the later Christians who’ve ever lived. Yes, their Christianity was the purest of all — undiluted by centuries of infighting, power grabs, schisms, scandals, and heresies.

Not one bit of that belief is actually objectively true. But it’s what I and all of my peers and leaders believed, and what today’s Christians also still clearly believe.

In addition, we thought our god wanted us to get ourselves and our communities back to that vision of pure, undiluted Christianity. If we could get ourselves there, we thought, then we’d be safe from all the ickiness that afflicted churches that strayed too far away from that ideal. In fact, we were sure that ickiness happened precisely because those churches had strayed too far from Jesus’ vision for his followers.

And not one bit of that belief is actually objectively true, either. But taken together with the first belief, these two form the basis of the myth of Original Christianity. That myth still nestles deep in the heart of most Christians today, just as it did in my day.

My Brush With Weaponized Original Christianity.

When I was in my 20s, an honest-to-goodness cult leader used the myth of Original Christianity to recruit followers. I’ve seen this happen often since then, but at the time it was very new to me.

He claimed that his cult group — a communal farm in Waco, and yes, this was right before David Koresh’s own Waco cult hit the news in 1993 — followed Original Christianity. Because they’d rediscovered the real-deal Original Christianity, in fact, they operated truly communally and harmoniously. His cult members became absolute bastions of charity, grace, kindness, and fairness, he said. Men and women alike pursued their divinely-ordered complementarian roles to the letter, and they found fulfillment and joy thereby. And now, we mere Pentecostals could join him and find similar fulfillment and joy.

Most of my entire group at church listened to his accounts with awe and yearning. He described something we all wanted with our entire hearts. Just the idea of such a group filled us with an ache.

However, something about him freaked me out. So, at the last second I pulled out of the idea of moving to Waco. My then-husband, Biff, had to decline as well — or he’d be going without me, which he was unwilling to do.

But two of my friends went with that recruiter. They returned as gaunt, staring shells of their former selves. Their bodies bore the physical marks of their suffering under this abusive cult’s leadership.

It scared me to death to see them like that. All they’d done was try to get back to Original Christianity. That’s what I’d wanted as well, and yet all it did was make them vulnerable to a supremely abusive cult leader. At the time, I couldn’t understand how this had happened at all.

Wingnuts: Why One False Belief Becomes Many.

Buying into any false belief opens us to more false beliefs. That’s how wingnuts become wingnuts.

As we settle into that one false belief, we learn to ignore all the critical thinking skills that would immediately refute and dismantle that belief. At the same time, we adopt and become proficient in all the antiprocess defenses that keep us from engaging meaningfully with any challenges to that belief: apologetics, personal attacks, parroted party line responses, thought stopping statements, and more.

It’s really hard to keep one false belief fully compartmentalized away from our objectively-true, real-world beliefs. Eventually, we’ll be presented with another false claim from the same overall source. It’ll come from someone we trust, someone we recognize as an authority figure. It’ll come pre-loaded with the same underpinnings as our false belief, including its inability to be examined with real-world methods of identifying and rejecting false claims. And most of all, it will align with what we already believe.

So we’ll use the same faux-research methods on this new claim that we used on the last one. To everyone’s amazement, it’ll hold up under those methods. And so it gets adopted into our overall package of beliefs.

This process I describe is the Problem of Wingnuts. Wingnuttery only torques tighter. The wingnut’s throttle only really pushes up. It can’t be pulled back or loosened. Wingnuts only get worse and more disconnected from reality.

Simply put, wingnuts simply lack the apparatus needed to evaluate false claims. If the new claim fits into their belief system, it’s added. If it bends their wingnuttery into new and more extreme directions, all the better. And if it flatters them and makes them feel like part of a persecuted minority with secret knowledge, well, that’s just the bestest thing ever.

Original Christianity ticks all of those wingnut boxes. It can easily become the linchpin of a whole raft of false beliefs. And as it once did to me and my friends, it can drive its believers to worse and worse extremism without offering any hope of return.

Tim Keller: An Introduction.

Tim Keller is a pseudointellectual and unwitting postmodernist fundagelical pastor, culture warrior, and apologist. If he were an Argonian, his name would be Huffs-His-Farts. Dude loves to smear and strawman ex-Christians and atheists, and he considers any criticism of Christianity to be unfair meaniepie persecution.

Because he can present his ideas with lots of high-end jargon and a sneering veneer of soaring faux-intellectualism, fundagelicals often make the mistake of thinking he knows what he’s talking about. And because the stated targets of his virtue signaling are non-Christians, his fans often make the even more grievous mistake of thinking he totally knows how to “reach” us.

Back in 2014, Steve Shives did a great video essay series reviewing Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God. If you’re interested in seeing how this apologist thinks, I recommend it heartily.

YouTube video
Introduction and Chapter One – An Atheist Reads The Reason for God (Steve Shives; January 2, 2014)

Every so often, I’m convinced, Tim Keller starts feeling like the conversation has begun to meander away from his favorite topic (himself), so he blurts out something ridiculously fatuous to get everyone looking his way again.

How Tim Keller Used Original Christianity for His Culture-War Campaign.

This time, Tim Keller’s topic was Original Christianity. On November 28, he tweeted:

The early church was (1) multi-ethnic/against racism (2) committed to the poor (3) forgiving and reconciling (4) anti-abortion/pro-life (5) committed to sex only within marriage between a man and a woman. Then–The Five were seen as radical and out of step with the culture. [Source; archive pic.]

He continued by slamming “our secular culture” for trying to Jesus-but-without-Jesus:

Today, our secular culture has sought to maintain some ethical values from Christianity while rejecting its theology and worldview [. . .]

Yes, obvi, y’all. Wow, it’s so brave and radical for a fundagelical Christian to fight hard against human rights and compassion for others. So Jesus-y! Much Original Christian!

I laughed to see how hard he got blasted in his comments, though his followers clearly loved his false claims. One guy specifically pushed back against #4 (with a scholarly citation), because long-ago Catholic leaders forbade abortion not out of concern for pweshus widdle baybeez, since their thinking there was not at all similar to how fundagelicals perceive fetuses now, but because they thought abortions concealed sexual sin. Others accurately noted that modern racism didn’t exist in the 1st century, etc. Everything else he said represents similarly-dishonest attempts to shoehorn modern thinking onto ancient people.

In short, Keller offered no support for any of these claims, probably because none exists. And not one of them is objectively true, especially not the idea that somehow, non-Christians want to ape right-wing Christian culture but not go all-in on his flavor of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. 

The Truth About Original Christians.

Christians probably didn’t even exist until the first Christian writings appeared. These writings were not done by Judeans for Judeans, and they were certainly not first created and circulated during Jesus’ supposed lifetime (0-ish to 33-ish CE). I mean, it’s even possible that Antioch (in modern-day Syria), not Jerusalem, is the true birthplace of Christianity — since people spoke Greek there for the longest time, and the earliest Christian writings are in Greek, not Aramaic.

Whenever those first Christians materialized, we know little about what they really believed and did. But we do know a few things:

  • They were terrible hypocrites (source, esp. p. 79 regarding early Christians’ frequent divorces), requiring constant chiding (source) for their refusal to follow their own rules (source).
  • Their heroes and recruiters tended to be absolute hucksters preying upon rubes’ gullibility and eagerness for miracles. (Source)
  • They fought among themselves constantly about doctrines and practices (source), and were unable to find consensus about anything at all. (Source)
  • They had trouble finding recruits — and even more trouble with retention (source). So recruiters focused on the ignorant, gullible, poor, and lowly, who proved way more vulnerable to their claims. (Source)
  • Many of them were simply fanatics with little care for actually living as Christians. (Source)

Despite these remarkable similarities, however, the earliest Christians weren’t at all like today’s politically-maddened, power-grabby fundagelicals. It’s beyond irresponsible and dishonest to plaster modern understanding over the truth about ancient people, but I expect nothing less from Tim Keller.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the first Christians and fundagelicals today might be where they stand on the trajectory of power.

The earliest Christians lacked temporal power. They yearned for it, ached for it, but they were very far from achieving it. By contrast, today’s fundagelicals feel enraged at how it’s been snatched away from them.

As for the rest, ironically enough, that entire five-point list above fits them pretty well, just as it’s always fit Christians. So there is that.

And the Truth About Jesus.

Perhaps most devastating to Christians’ claims about Original Christianity is this:

If it was so important to Jesus that his followers believe and act in some particular way, it’s really weird that Christianity looks like the below cartoon’s diagram, though that first horizontal line should be dozens of lines winnowing to a few, then exploding outward again:

our denomination set things aright
Saji George, “Tom’s Doubts #14.” (Sept 2011)

Worse, Christianity has no hope whatsoever of scaling back on the still-proliferating quirky li’l takes on the religion. Every single one of the lines in that diagram represents a bunch of Christians convinced that their own particular quirky li’l take on Christianity is just like that line on the left. And every one of ’em has Bible  verses galore to support their opinion, and every one of ’em thinks all the other groups are Jesus-ing all wrong.

For some reason, Jesus doesn’t seem to care much about his believers splitting into more and more and more groups all devoted to their own particular quirky li’l takes on his religion.

Nor does he care if a leader from one of those groups uses false beliefs about his earliest followers’ cultural beliefs as ammunition in Christians’ cynically-engineered, increasingly-hostile moral panics and culture wars.

Honestly, it’s just the weirdest thing, y’all! I guess he’s got too many pieces of toast to appear on to find time to rein in bad-faith actors like Tim Keller.

I’m innocent. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

NEXT UP: Our old authoritarian pals at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) have come up with a new way to force their unwilling flocks to do more sales stuff. This is officially too funny — and obvious — for words. We’ll check it out next time. See you soon! <3

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An important note to history buffs: If you like using Fronto as a source, the source we all used to like at Google Books is acting up. Here’s a relevant quote from him, archived from another site. But I think the info is different. I can’t find my screenshot of the original page.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...