The Gospel Cancelation

Woke Mobs, Innocence Signaling, and Cultural Apologetics

Inspired by the legacy of Tim Keller, the Gospel Coalition recently announced the creation of the Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. The goal of the Center is to facilitate a new missionary encounter with Post-Christendom by combining cultural critique and theological depth. The tenor of the Center is one of hope: while secularization and polarization have weakened the Church, there is an opportunity to represent the Christian faith in a world desperate for meaning. In other words, demonstrating the beauty and goodness of true Christian beliefs will save the West.

By God’s grace, we can close the back door and stem the tide of dechurching. We can open the front door so skeptics will enter the foyer on the path to saving faith. Once equipped, we can depart together through the front door to show unbelievers the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel as the only hope that fulfills our deepest longings.

This week, the Keller Center faced its first trial when it released a now-deleted article promoting Josh Butler’s book on Christian sexual ethics. I want to suggest that the current backlash against Butler is instructive in how cultural apologetics, ignorant of the dynamics of the “negative world”, are destined to become impotent.

First, does Butler’s article, when shorn of its admittedly crude language, convey anything objectionable in substance about the marriage relationship? The central claim is that “Sex is an icon of Christ and the church.” By “icon,” he means that the sexual act itself points to something beyond it, which is the union of Christ and the church. Ephesians 5:31-32 certainly states this about marriage, though Butler’s specificity about the sexual act itself was awkward. Butler turns to the categories of giving and receiving to describe the act and how it parallels Christ’s relationship with the Church. The heart of sex is communication and the reception of two selves, and the fruit of this union is generative, which is at the root of Jesus’ teaching on marriage. When he is questioned about divorce (Matt 19, Mark 10) he quotes from both Genesis 1 and 2, reiterating the generative and unitive goods of the institution.

The point is this: One may take issue with Butler’s presentation–his graphic lingering on the sex act itself–but fundamentally, Butler is not conceptually aberrant in noting the patterns of male initiation and female reception in marriage reflects Christ’s relationship with the Church. So while Butler’s rhetoric might be unfortunate, he is not heretical on that point. 

However, the backlash against Butler has been not just to take issue with his rhetoric, but to malign his theology as not only incorrect but dangerous and harmful. In Dennae Pierre’s retraction, she labels his theology as male-centric, enforcing a harmful gender dynamic. Others will say Butler’s thought creates the conditions for sexual harm and “harms women.” None of these things are actually true of Butler’s writing but they are indicative that Butler is being singled out as a scapegoat for the abuses of complementarian theology. 

Consequently, when pressured by activists to pull his endorsement, Rich Villodas, issued a retraction, in under 24 hours, agreeing with these points. Villodas says, “Josh’s exegesis and commentary of Ephesians 5 is not just problematic, it’s dangerous.” What makes Villodas’ retraction instructive for demonstrating the dynamics of the negative world is that Villodas and Butler share virtually identical positions on sex. Villodas has also written a book on cultural apologetics (The Deeply Formed Life), in which he has a chapter on sex. There he describes sex, among other things, as a sacrament: “lovemaking in and outside the bedroom is a revelation. What does it reveal? Well, without overstating it, it reveals God. It is sacramental. Our lovemaking is to manifest our union with each other and, in so doing, manifest God’s union with the world.” (DFL, p.168). In fact, the sexual act for Villodas is not just any type of sacrament, it is eucharistic! Here I quote him at length: 

As we love each other, naked and unashamed, we enact the vulnerable, free, faithful, and fruitful qualities of love demonstrated in Jesus. He would lay down his life for us, give his body for us, pronounce forgiveness and grace, and renew us through this self-giving love. This too is what deeply formed sex is. (DFL p. 168)

Though Villodas is not as graphic as Butler, the same concepts are present and working. Butler uses icon, and Villodas uses sacrament. Both want to capture that sex reveals something about the Divine. Jesus initiates by giving his body to the Church in self-giving love. Per Ephesians 5, the man is the head of the marriage who gives himself to his wife and this love is self-giving and generative. To be clear, Butler and Villodas believe the same things about how the sexual act reveals God and mirrors the pattern of initiation and reception between Christ and the Church.

In fact, Villodas goes even further than Butler because lovemaking is not only revelatory but also missional:

Moreover, lovemaking is an act of mission. When a couple is in love—giving and receiving each other in bodily, emotional, and spiritual communion—they can’t help but overflow in love to the world around them.  (DFL, pp.168-169)

If Butler, discussing how the sex act points to God’s relationship with us, is labeled as harmful, how much more harmful would it be to say the sex act is missional? Are uninvited missionaries engaged in cultural rape? The standard required for him to uphold pulling his endorsement is untenable.

But these are not harmful views. Neither Butler or Villodas desire to enable abuse, nor believe these positions actually harm women. It just happens to be the case that Butler is the one singled out for scrutiny, and Villodas is in the position of his ministry and reputation being on the line if he does not engage in distancing himself from Butler (Joshua Mitchell has the perfect phrase for this: “innocence signaling”). Villodas, like the Keller Center, wants to engage in cultural apologetics and present a vision for a holistic Christianity for a broken world. But when attacked by a world that has become hostile to Christian belief, Villodas quickly capitulates, throwing Butler under the bus to preserve his own reputation. 

Likewise, the Keller Center faces the same impasse. If they have Butler resign from the Keller Center, they too would be making a similar move of distancing themselves from someone who believes in the same exact theology that they do, so that they can preserve their own status and credibility. The point of the negative world thesis is precisely to make this point: the culture is not just indifferent to Christianity, but is actively hostile to historic Christian belief. Christian organizations must stand firm so as to be resilient when fellow Christians are singled out and scapegoated. In fact, they need to be focused on building resilience. Resilience requires prudence as well as loyalty and, as Colin Redemer has written in these pages, courage. We need the will to stand by a brother when the world comes for him. It is not just that your friend’s life and livelihood is at risk. Rather, the truth of the gospel is at risk too. On that truth, we must never compromise. And compromise is precisely the point of this exercise. 

Butler’s writing on this topic was admittedly painful to read. But that is not what has set the progressive mob on him. They are attacking him simply because he argues for a form of traditional gender roles within marriage. His language could be corrected so as faithfully to reflect the biblical portrait of human marriage as a reflection of the church’s relationship with God. That would in no way satisfy those most loudly baying for his blood. Capitulating to the progressives attacking Butler, in order to avoid the ire of the negative world, merely paves the way to concede the basics of the Christian sexual ethic wholesale.

Living in light of the negative world does not mean eschewing thoughtfulness or persuasion, but rather that we must understand the ways in which today’s cultured despisers attempt to attack Christianity with the levers of cultural power, and that we must act accordingly. These cultured despisers want nothing less than a reinvention of Christian categories to serve the ends of sexual liberation. Notice that the backlash against Sam Smith’s performance at the Grammys, infinitely more graphic and explicit, does not match the backlash against Butler. Our ‘concern’ is for Butler, not with Smith, because the problem is not with discussing sexuality, but only the vision of sexuality and gender roles patterned in Scripture. His reputation and livelihood are being stripped from him as we speak. Christian brothers and sisters are distancing from him for the sake of maintaining influence in a culture radically opposed to Christian truth. But this only lets the cultured despisers dictate the terms of discourse. By engaging in the cancellation ritual we are joining with those most opposed to the Gospel. The Keller Center can argue for Christian positions as thoughtfully as they want, but they too will be canceled or rendered impotent by the same people set against Butler.

The reality of the negative world is this: We are all already canceled, we just don’t know it yet. Better to come to terms with this fact sooner, rather than later.

Update: the original version of this article stated that the Keller Center had Butler resign. It has been updated to remove this information.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

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Stiven Peter

Stiven Peter is an M.A. student at Reformed Theological Seminary-NYC. Previously, he graduated from the University of Chicago with a double major in economics and religious studies. He currently lives in NYC.