On any given Sunday in Manhattan, before and after theater matinees, visits to museums, and walks in Central Park, some five thousand mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings gather at one of three Redeemer Presbyterian worship sites to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. More specifically, they gather to hear it from Pastor Timothy Keller, Redeemerís senior minister and the founder and life force of this nationally renowned ministry. Kellerís intellectually upscale apologetic has helped change how nonĖNew Yorkers view our so-called secular city and usher in a paradigm shift in how evangelism is done in postmodern America.
Keller is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell and Westminster Theological seminaries and ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America. Yet his appealand approach to church growthextends far beyond the walls that typically separate confessional and evangelical Protestant denominations.
In his new book, The Reason for God, currently No. 18 on the New York Times bestseller list, Keller offers what one might call his summa: the meat of his preaching, teaching, and confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior for a world of unexamined materialist presuppositions, genetic determinisms, and endless digital cross-chatter.
I sat down to talk with Pastor Keller at the Redeemer offices in Manhattan.
People must have been egging you on to write a book like this for years.
A long time, yeah.
Was there one thing that caused you to say, ďIím going to finish thisĒ? Was it the growth of the new-atheism phenomenon?
No. I started working on the book before that happened. I think the new-atheism thing was an impetus, and it was also an opportunity, because I believe that this book, say, three or four years ago, the average secular person in a Barnes & Noble wouldnít necessarilywhy would you pick up a book thatís designed to say orthodox Christianityís true? But now, as part of the cultural conversation, the bookís title immediately positions it as an answer. But I actually started writing the book about four or five years ago, because some people in our church who had come from non-Christian backgrounds and non-Christian families just felt that the stuff they were getting at Redeemer was so helpful to them and helped them justify their beliefsthey wanted it to be more available than it was at the time, which was, basically, youíve got to come to a church service at Redeemer.
And I think probably the other thing was this thing called aging. And I know that, when I was in my thirtiesIím so glad I didnít write when I was in my thirties, because by the time I was in my forties I would probably have wanted to burn the books. See, the difference between thirties and forties is huge, the difference between forties and fifties is not as big, and I felt like I was probably coming to what I was probably going to say at the end my life: This is how I see it. And I didnít want to go into print earlier because I just found myself evolving. But as I got into my fifties, I said, if Iím going to do it, the time is now. And I also did get a lot of pressure, but it was before these new-atheist books came along, but I think that was actually just one more opening.
Penguin probably was willingwhich doesnít even have a religion divisionthe reason Penguin was interested in it was because of the cultural conversation and the new atheists. I donít think they would have picked it up otherwise, frankly. But theyíve been really supportive, wonderful.
C.S. Lewisí name, obviously, pops up in this book frequently
Yeah, fourteen times.
What would you say is the greatest difference between how someone must approach apologetics today as opposed to when Lewis was doing it in the 1940s and 1950s?
First of all, Iím inspired by Lewis, and my book is inspired by his book, but Iím a preacher first of all, not a writer, and I donít even deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as a writer like C.S. Lewis. And yet everybodyís doing that, and I take it as a compliment, but itís pretty unjustified. However, heís the benchmark, so everybodyís going to be compared.
Lewis definitely lived at a time in which people were more certain across the board that empirical, straight-line rationality was the way you decided what truth was, and thereís just not as much of a certainty now. Also, when Lewis was writing, people were able to follow sustained arguments that had a number of points that built on one another. I guess I should say we actually have a kind of rationality-attention-deficit disorder now. You can make a reasonable argument, you can use logic, but it really has to be relatively transparent. You have to get to your point pretty quickly.
In New York City, these are pretty smart people, very educated people, but even by the mid-nineties I had found that the average young person found Mere Christianityit just didnít keep their attention, because they really couldnít follow the arguments. They took too long. This long chain of syllogistic reasoning wasnít something that they were trained in doing. I donít think theyíre irrational, they are as rational, but they want something of a mixture of logic and personal appeal.
I know for a fact that Lewis was just heavy sledding for even smart Ivy League American graduates by the mid-nineties. One of the reasons I started doing this was I thought I needed something that gave them shorter, simpler, more accessible arguments.
Is this the result of a kind of relativism regarding what is truth, or is it just a kind of laziness or solipsism?
I think itís a lot more complicated. Even Lewis, in his Weight of Glory series, Lewis said that, before World War One, the average educational experience was twelve or thirteen people sitting in a room listening to a paper by one person then tearing it apart till 2 a.m. in the morning. And he says, now, the quintessential educational experience is listening to a celebrity lecturer, with a hundred or two hundred other people taking notes and then taking an exam. Even he said, between the wars, he saw a diminishment in peopleís ability to really think hard and long about issues.
People want you to get to the point quickly. And they want you to tell them whatís going on quickly. And they just donít have the attention span. You can look at television, you can look at the Internet, you can look at the so-called rise of narrative and loss of trust in logicI think itís cumulative . . . I donít want to say itís all relativism or all the Internet because people donít read long articles anymore. But I just know that itís very hard to find people who can wade throughunless youíre a professional academic, youíre not going to wade through these books anymore.
Touching on Lewis and the war, people forget the role the war played in the creation of these books, and how Lewis approached apologetics. I mean, Mere Christianity came out of wartime broadcasts. Soldiering, warfare, and pacifism are subjects that come up throughout his books. Weíre at war now. Is the connection between religion and war now a more common objection, something you have to address very early on when you talk to skeptics?
It does come up, because of the connection betweenin the popular imaginationthe connection between war and religion. Are we having a clash of civilizations, you know? Did America go to war because we had this idea that Godís on our side? Are we going to war against people from the Islamic faith, the terrorists who are inspired by Islamitís all muddled up in the popular imagination that thereís war out there because of clashing religions. Yeahitís there, itís there.
I have to deal with it in a way that Lewis didnít have to deal with it. This popular idea that religion leads to divisiveness, and religion will destroy the peace of the world and the unity of the world. And I donít see Lewis talking about that at all. He never has to deal with it. But now, one of the main things is that religion is bad for world peace. It divides us. It leads to violence. It fuels warfare. And of course Lewis was facing a war that everybody supposedlythe Germans were Lutherans and the British were Anglicansit didnít seem like to him, or anybody at that time, that that was a religious clash. But today, now people see it as religious. So yeah, Iím dealing with it all the timein chapter one of the book. Itís not in Lewis like that.
You say early on in The Reason for God that a little doubt is necessary to test the integrity of your faith. Does this mean that Christians need to become amateur apologists to some extent, to be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within them?
Yeah . . . Would you like me to be more illuminating than that?
I donít mention it in [The Reason for God], but I think there are always doubts that, if you come to grips with themI think thereís doubts that you have, that you always have, that you ought to be more forthright and address them, for two reasons. One is, then youíre a better apologist. Because now people are coming shootiní stuff at you in a way they wouldnít when I was growing up.
But the other is, itís actually good for your faith to actually work it out. Hereís my illustration. I donít know what your readers will think. When I was recovering from thyroid cancer, from the surgery, I actually had time on my hands, something I never have had in years and probably never will again unless I have something else like that. And so I read every word of N.T. Wrightís The Resurrection of the Son of Godall eight hundred pages, even the indices (laughs), because I didnít have anything else to do. And it was kind of startling to me, because we do live in a less rational sort of anti-foundationalist approach, and he was just taking a nice old-fashioned approach: Thereís no historically viable alternative explanation for the birth of the Christian Church than the fact that the early Christians thought they saw Jesus Christ and touched him and that he was raised from the dead. As I was reading it, I realized I was coming to greater certainty, and that when I closed the book, I said, at a time when it was very important to me to feel this way, I said, ďHe really really really did rise from the dead.Ē And I said, ďWell, didnít I believe that before?Ē Of course I believed it beforeI defended it, and I think before I certainly would have died for that belief. But actually, there were still doubts in there, and the doubts were taken down 50 percent or something. I didnít even know they were there. And it was a wonderful experience It was both an intellectual and emotional experience: Youíre facing death, youíre not sure youíre going to get over the cancer. And the rigorous intellectual process of going through all the alternative explanations for how the Christian Church started, except the resurrectionnone of them are even tenable. It was quite an experience.
So in a way I was working on a doubt and it was a wonderful experience and I took it down. Maybe there is a deeper level of doubt that I donít even know is there yet. So itís for you and your ability to be a good apologist.
In The Reason for God, you make a very brief argument for the validity of evolution within a limited sphere. It would seem to me that apologists for the faith must address this issue at some point. But doing so can call into question the historicity of the Fall and the very need for a savior. How do you talk about evolution without confusing people?
Oh, itís a little confusing, but actually Iím just in the same place where the Catholics are, as far as I can tell. The Catholic Church has always been able to hold on to a belief in a historical Fallit really happened, itís not just representative of the fact that the human race has kind of gone bad in various ways. At the same time, if you say, ďThere is no God and everything happened by evolution,Ē naturalistic evolutionthen you have ďtheistic evolutionĒ: God just started things years ago and everything has come into being through the process of evolution. You have young-Earth six-day creationism, which is ďGod created everything in six 24-hour days.Ē To me, all three of those positions have perhaps insurmountable difficulties.
The fact is, the one that most people consider the most conservative, which is the young-Earth, six-day creation, has all kinds of problems with the text, as we know. If itís really true, then you have problems of contradictions between Genesis 1 and 2. I donít like the JEPD theory. I donít like the theory that these are two somewhat contradictory creation stories that some editor stuck togethersome pretty stupid editor stuck together. I think therefore youíve got a problem with how long are the days before the sun shows up in the fourth day. You have problems really reading the Bible in a straightforward way with a young-Earth, six 24-hour day theory. Youíve got some problems with the theistic evolution, because then you have to ask yourself, ďWas there no Adam and Eve? Was there no Fall?Ē So hereís what I likethe messy approach, which is I think there was an Adam and Eve. I think there was a real Fall. I think that happened. I also think that there also was a very long process probably, you know, that the earth probably is very old, and there was some kind of process of natural selection that God guided and used, and maybe intervened in. And thatís just the messy part. Iím not a scientist. Iím not going to go beyond that.
I do know that I say in the book, ďThis is an absolute red herringto get mired in this before you look at the certainties of the faith. Because the fact is that real orthodox believers with a high view of Scripture are all over the map on this. I can line up ten really smart people in all those different buckets, which Iíll call ďtheistic evolution,Ē ďyoung-Earth creationism,Ē and letís call it ďprogressive creationismĒ or ďsemi-theistic evolution.Ē There are all these different views. And when you see a lot of smart people disagreeing on this stuff, well . . .
How could there have been death before Adam and Eve fell? The answer is, I donít know. But all I know is, didnít animals eat bugs? Didnít bugs eat plants? There must have been death. In other words, when you realize, ďOh wait, this is really complicated,Ē then you realize, ďI donít have to figure this out before I figure out is Jesus Christ raised from the dead.Ē
Over the yearsitís not bad, but Iíve gotten sort of hit from both sides.
In the middle of The Reason for God, thereís a chapter called ďIntermissionĒ
I figured youíd be interested in that, working where you do.
You talk about significant differences between Christian denominations. In the book, youíre coy about your own affiliation, except to say that youíre a Protestant. Why didnít you come out and say, ďLook, Iím coming at this from a Reformed, Presbyterian, Calvinist perspective, because I think that best explains who Jesus is, what Jesus did for us, what the Church is.Ē
Because Iíd like to be understood, Anthony. Now I know that the average reader in a Barnes & Noble, picking up the book and reading it, will know the difference between Catholic and Protestant, but I donít think theyíre going to know what [Reformed Presbyterian, Calvinist] is. Unless I want to take a page or two to explain the differences between all the Protestant denominations, I donít want to go there.
I think the most important sentence in the book on that subject was, ďAll Christians believe all these things, but no Christian believes just these things.Ē So I said, ďHereís the Apostles Creed, and the Trinity, the deity of Christ, he died for our sins, saved by grace, youíve got to be a part of the ChurchĒright? OK. I said, ďAll Christians believe all these things. If you donít believe all these things, youíre not a Christian: Youíre in a cult, youíre a member of another religion, or youíre a secular person.Ē
All Christians believe all these things, but no Christian believes just these things is my way of saying thereís no such thing as ďmere Christianity.Ē There just isnít. Because as soon as you ask ďHow do I get the grace of God?Ēyouíre a Catholic or a Protestant. Is it the sacraments primarily, or are the sacraments just a symbol of how you get it? As soon as you start talking about how do we relate to the Church, you know, or how does God open your eyesthen youíre Arminian or a Calvinist.
This puts me in a position where I donít want to defend just one kind of Christianity. I think I want to defend the Apostles Creed. And I want you, as a nonbeliever, to buy the Apostlesí Creed, and then after that figure out where you want to go. I really think I can do that. But, at the same time, I donít believe I can possibly speak to a lot of these things without [doing so from] within my particularity. So I actually say that there are certain chapters in which Iím going to be speaking as a Protestant because thereís no way not to speak as a Protestant or a Catholic.
And there are some places where, if you look really carefully, I think I do say Iím a Presbyterian minister. And I said, if you look really carefully, you will see Iím really speaking from inside my own tradition. Because there are places where you canít talk without being in your own tradition.
Hereís what so misleading. If I say Iím speaking as a Reformed Protestant and Iím just going to defend Reformed Protestantism, 80 percent of what Iím going to say in that book will be defending a Catholic Christianís faith, too. So why not admit that? . . . It was a real dance. It was a real tightrope . . . there are certain places in which, if youíre a CatholicIíve got some really strong friends who are strong Catholics, and they love the book, but Iím sure when they get to certain places they say, ďYeah, there we go . . .Ē But they donít mind it, because theyíre really happy to have a book thatís basically defending the whole Faith. And if I was just running up the flag saying, ďIím a Protestant, Iím Reformed, Iím Presbyterian, Iím Reformed, not ArminianĒI donít know. This is my best guess, my best guess at how I can model the unity of the Church.
One of the things that non-Christians hate about us is how much we donít like each other. How am I going to overcome their prejudices unless I show a certain breadth of spirit and generosity toward people with different views? And the best way to do that is not to be always talking about the fact that Iím Reformed.
Donít you run a risk, though? If they pick up the three authors you reference most frequently in the bookLewis, Jonathan Edwards, and Flannery OíConnorand investigate their backgrounds, and start getting into limited atonement and election and a sacramental notion of the church and the Anglican broad way, donít you run the risk of someone saying, ďItís all relative: It all depends on where Iím going to be most comfortable,Ē as opposed to ďChrist founded a Churchand this is it.Ē
I know thereís a danger. I thought there were other ways of writing that book, and I decided that there were more disadvantages to those than this one. But I see huge disadvantages, and youíre pointing them out perfectlyyouíre pointing them out perfectly. Listen, I could probably do a better job than you, because youíre being nicer to me. But I could be meaner, and I could say, ďThis fits in with the spirit of the age,Ē which is, Iím coming to you as an individual. Iím asking you to make up your own mind, and then you can sort of walk around with this kind of relationship with God now, and it doesnít stress enough that youíve got to be a part of a church.
Now part of that is why I am Protestant. In other words, I think if I was Catholic Iíd probably write this differently. You canít help it.
The Church would play a much bigger role.
A much bigger role. But I know that Catholics reading the bookI also know that Catholics are right about the importance of the Church. So, there we go. In other words, I tried to write a nonsectarian book which still admits that itís got sectarian roots to it and tells people, when youíre done, youíre going to have to be a part of a particular church. Thatís the best I can do. My best job. I mean, there are a lot of judgment calls, and I just made them.
Youíve always been very careful, both in your preaching and toward the end of The Reason for God, to remind people that they should examine their motives for embracing the Faith, to make sure that Christ is not a means to an end but that God is the end. But how many times have you had someone come up to you and say, ďI tried Christianity but it didnít work. I still felt lost, I still felt depressed, it didnít make sense of the narrative of my life, and so I gave up on it.Ē What do you say to someone like that?
ďBe specific.Ē Thereís almost no good answer to that if you allow a person to stay at that level of generality: ďIt didnít work. It didnít really make sense of my life.Ē And, of course, that seems to contradict the book: The book says it will make sense of your life. Once I find out what the particular problems are, I can fix it. I mean, thereís no way even to answer your question because itís so general. I can tell you the kinds of things I usually hear when I ask, ďBe specific.Ē In many cases, itís a short-term disappointment. Which is, ďI really was sure that God was calling me to do this, and every door closed.Ē You can always go to the ďEvil and SufferingĒ chapter, chapter two, which says, ďIf you canít see any good reason why God let something happen, does that mean there canít be any good reason why God let that happen? The answer is no, so why are you acting as if there canít be any good reason? Thatís the motive problem. In other words, you got into this faith in order for God to serve you, not for you to serve God.Ē
A second area, if I say, ďPlease be specific,Ē is that they feel that Christianity is too hard. For example, a lot of times Iíll have a young man say, ďI know Iím not supposed to sleep with girls until I get married, but I donít have any prospects and I just canít do it. I just canít go without sex.Ē Or something like that. You know, Christianityís too hard. Thatís a much better argument. But then you can always say what Lewis says about ďis Christianity hard or easy,Ē in Mere Christianity . . . In some ways, Christianity is for sinners and for people who do fail, not for people who are good. And yet at the same time you are going to fall down. Everybodyís going to fall down at various points. But if youíre actually addicted, as it wereif you say, ďHereís something I shouldnít do but I just canít stop,Ē then thereís an addiction going on, thereís something going on. You need to get in touch with that. Even if you werenít a Christian, you shouldnít be violating your conscience. Thereís something else going on, thereís something thatís too important to you, you have to deal with your heart. You need counseling.
Itís not something I would imagine you heard a lot in the sixteenth century, though: ďIt didnít work for me.Ē
No. But thatís what I mean by saying, usually itís a disappointment. And thatís where I can come back and start to say, ďIf thereís a God, then you should relate to himĒand I do talk about this in the last chapterif thereís a God, you should be going to him because you ought to go to him, not because it works for you. I think, when I was a younger man, if somebody said, ďIt doesnít work for me,Ē I think the right answer, as you just alluded, is ďWhat do you mean Ďwork for youí? You should be doing this because God is God and youíre not. And heís the Lord and youíre his servant. What are you talking about Ďwork for youí? Youíre being selfish, youíre being individualistic, youíre being a consumerĒ Now, even though thatís probably true (laughs), Iíll try to find out what the specifics are, and usually the personís got some realthe individualistic cultureís created this victim mentality and this feeling like Godís gotta be there to meet my needs. Itís created that and itís the background, but many people have had real disappointments, real sadnesses, real failures, real
There are also real promises in the gospels for the healing of oneís life.
Thatís also why I donít throw the consumerist thing at people anymore . . . Donít forget Job. I think the point of the Book of Job was that the only way he could turn into somebody great was he had to be profoundly disappointed. The only way for God to use him was he had to suffer. So at a certain point you do have to counsel the sovereignty of God, but before you get there, you have to be pretty thoughtful, pretty sympathetic, because people see those promises and they want to be healed. I can tell people a lot of stories, but youíd have to give me specifics, and thereís no reason to go there . . .
At some point you have to get back to this consumerist problem that they have with it. But you have to be very very gentle on the way.
And the consumerist problem hasnít been helped by certain ministries, the health-and-wealth gospel, and other bestselling authors who shall remain nameless.
Yeah. Itís the background for peopleís legitimateI think people in the sixteenth century were asking questions like, ďIf God really loves me, why have four of my five children died of dysentery?Ē Surely they were struggling with that. But the background of ďif there is a God he ought to be meeting your needsĒour consumerist culture makes that almost unbearable. Almost unbearable. But it does irritate me to hear people say, ďI donít believe in God because bad things happened to me.Ē
Whenever people write about Redeemer, they usually refer to it as a megachurch.
Now, Iíve heard you
Have you seen Bob Newhart? Stop it!
Stop it. Go ahead.
I actually have his ďButton-Down HumorĒ stand-up album from like 1968 or something. OK: Iíve heard you refer to Redeemer as a seeker church. Do you see Redeemer as part of the emerging church phenomenon, and what does that mean?
No, no, no, no. The words ďseeker churchĒ now I think mean Willow Creek to most people, which is a service that is strictlyWillow Creek branded that term, so I probably canít use it anymore.
Yeah, well the seeker church is a church in which you have sort of low participation, thereís a talk, thereís good musicbut itís not really a worship service. Youíre not trying to get people engaged. You are targeting nonbelieving, skeptical people as the audience. Thatís considered a seeker church. And I would have always said that Redeemer is the kind of church in which weíre trying to speakitís a worship service, but weíre trying to speak in the vernacular. Weíre trying to speak in a way that doesnít confuse or turn off nonbelievers. We want nonbelievers to be there. I think that a lot of ministers would never say, ďWe expect nonbelievers to be constantly there, lots of them there, incubating in the services.Ē And we do. We do expect that. In that sense weíd be a seeker church. But now Iím afraid I donít think itís a good word to use, because when people hear ďseeker churchĒ theyíre thinking something else.
I found that if you define megachurch as anything over two thousand people, then yes, then we are. But hereís four ways in which weíre not a megachurch, or we donít do things people associate with megachurches. One is, we do no advertising or publicity of any sort, except Iím trying to get the book out there so people read it and have their lives changed by it, but Redeemerís never advertised or publicized. And the reason is, if a person walks in off the street just because theyíve heard about Redeemer through advertising, and they have questions or they want to get involved, thereís almost no way to do it unless you have all kinds of complicated programs, places where they can go. But if they come with a friend who already goes there, their questions are answered naturally, the next steps happen organically, the connections they want to make happen naturally . . . We do not want a crowd of spectators. We want a community.
Secondly, we do almost no technology. We donít have laser-light shows, we donít have Jumbotrons, we donít have overheard projectors, we donít have screens. We donít have anything like that. Thirdly, we have a lot of classical music, chamber musicwe are not hip at all. We donít go out of our way to be hip.
Thereís praise music in the evening services.
Yeah, but itís jazz. Itís toned down. Itís much more New York. Itís certainly not your typical evangelical contemporary music. We actually pound into people that weíre not here to meet your needs but to serve the city. So we pound that into them, that weíre not a consumer place, that weíre not here to meet your needs but to serve the city.
So no publicity, not at all hip, almost no use of technology, definitely consider it a worship service, do not do much in the way of pat answers and how-tos in the sermons but really have people wrestle with the issuesbut we do it in such a way that the interests and aspirations and hopes and doubts of non-Christians are constantly addressed. When a person who doesnít believe comes theyíre often surprised at how interesting, intelligible, nonoffensive the thing is. So itís relatively subtle at this point.
Do you ever see a point at which Redeemerís mission, which is transdenominational, if not nondenominational, is inhibited by being a member of a specific denomination? Would it be easier to do what you do if you were not connected to the Presbyterian Church in America?
Maybe a little. Because, when youíre part of a denomination, youíve got to have some constitution, some structure, that you hold with everybody else. The larger a church gets, the more unique it gets, and it would always be a little easier, I suppose, if we didnít have anylike, for example, how we do elections. We have to get a quorum of our members. When our constitution was built, no one was thinking about a church that held five services on a Sunday, at three locations. So the problem is to get a quorum of our congregation, we donít actually have a quorum of our congregation at any one service. So where do we hold an election for our services? And the answer is, we choose the largest one and we just hope people come. So itís a bit of a struggle to get a quorum, because our constitution is set up for a traditional church in a small town. Its not set up for multi-site churches, itís not set up for churches that donít have their own buildings. And if we were an independent church, weíd just do it our own way. But we think itís very very important to be part of the connection. We think for accountability itís important, for tradition itís important. So we just put up with it.
Even though youíre helping to plant non-Presbyterian churches?
Yes, because I donít believe you can reach New York with the gospel if you only plant Presbyterian churches. There are all kinds of people whoíll never be Presbyterians. It just doesnít appeal to them. Some people are going to be Pentecostals, some people are going to be Catholics. I mean, I know that soundsIím not talking about that certain cultures reach certain people. Itís much more complicated than that. Even though thereís something to that. We all know that certain cultures seem to have more of an affinity toward a certain kind of Christian tradition than others, but I wouldnít want to reduce it to that at all. I would just say that I only know that God seems to use all these kinds of churches to reach the whole breadth of humanity, and so thatís why we give money to start churches of other denominations, and give free training to it. And weíve done about a hundred in the New York area, where weíve helped people. Itís very important to us.
One last question: If you had to recommend one book that wasnít the Bible and wasnít The Reason for God to someone questioning Christianity, what would it be?
Iíd still say Mere Christianity. Even though I wrote this book partly because I found Mere Christianity to be not as accessible as it used to be. But itís still peerless and much better than my book. My book is Mere Christianity for Dummies.
Anthony Sacramone is managing editor of First Things.