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, Redeemer’s senior minister and the founder and life force of this nationally renowned ministry. Keller’s intellectually upscale apologetic has helped change how non–New 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 appeal—and approach to church growth—extends 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, “I’m going to finish this”? 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 wouldn’t necessarily—why would you pick up a book that’s designed to say orthodox Christianity’s true? But now, as part of the cultural conversation, the book’s 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 beliefs—they wanted it to be more available than it was at the time, which was, basically, you’ve 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 thirties—I’m so glad I didn’t 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 didn’t want to go into print earlier because I just found myself evolving. But as I got into my fifties, I said, if I’m 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 willing—which doesn’t even have a religion division—the reason Penguin was interested in it was because of the cultural conversation and the new atheists. I don’t think they would have picked it up otherwise, frankly. But they’ve been really supportive, wonderful.
C.S. Lewis’ 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, I’m inspired by Lewis, and my book is inspired by his book, but I’m a preacher first of all, not a writer, and I don’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as a writer like C.S. Lewis. And yet everybody’s doing that, and I take it as a compliment, but it’s pretty unjustified. However, he’s the benchmark, so everybody’s 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 there’s 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 Christianity—it just didn’t keep their attention, because they really couldn’t follow the arguments. They took too long. This long chain of syllogistic reasoning wasn’t something that they were trained in doing. I don’t think they’re 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 it’s 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 people’s 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 what’s going on quickly. And they just don’t 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 logic—I think it’s cumulative . . . I don’t want to say it’s all relativism or all the Internet because people don’t read long articles anymore. But I just know that it’s very hard to find people who can wade through—unless you’re a professional academic, you’re 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. We’re 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 between—in the popular imagination—the 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 God’s on our side? Are we going to war against people from the Islamic faith, the terrorists who are inspired by Islam—it’s all muddled up in the popular imagination that there’s war out there because of clashing religions. Yeah—it’s there, it’s there.
I have to deal with it in a way that Lewis didn’t 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 don’t 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 supposedly—the Germans were Lutherans and the British were Anglicans—it didn’t 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, I’m dealing with it all the time—in chapter one of the book. It’s 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 don’t mention it in [The Reason for God], but I think there are always doubts that, if you come to grips with them—I think there’s doubts that you have, that you always have, that you ought to be more forthright and address them, for two reasons. One is, then you’re a better apologist. Because now people are coming shootin’ stuff at you in a way they wouldn’t when I was growing up.
But the other is, it’s actually good for your faith to actually work it out. Here’s my illustration. I don’t 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. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God—all eight hundred pages, even the indices (laughs), because I didn’t 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: There’s 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, “He really really really did rise from the dead.” And I said, “Well, didn’t I believe that before?” Of course I believed it before—I 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 didn’t even know they were there. And it was a wonderful experience It was both an intellectual and emotional experience: You’re facing death, you’re not sure you’re 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 resurrection—none 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 don’t even know is there yet. So it’s 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, it’s a little confusing, but actually I’m 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 Fall—it really happened, it’s 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, “There is no God and everything happened by evolution,” naturalistic evolution—then you have “theistic evolution”: 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 “God created everything in six 24-hour days.” 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 it’s really true, then you have problems of contradictions between Genesis 1 and 2. I don’t like the JEPD theory. I don’t like the theory that these are two somewhat contradictory creation stories that some editor stuck together—some pretty stupid editor stuck together. I think therefore you’ve 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. You’ve got some problems with the theistic evolution, because then you have to ask yourself, “Was there no Adam and Eve? Was there no Fall?” So here’s what I like—the 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 that’s just the messy part. I’m not a scientist. I’m not going to go beyond that.
I do know that I say in the book, “This is an absolute red herring—to 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 I’ll call “theistic evolution,” “young-Earth creationism,” and let’s call it “progressive creationism” or “semi-theistic evolution.” 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 don’t know. But all I know is, didn’t animals eat bugs? Didn’t bugs eat plants? There must have been death. In other words, when you realize, “Oh wait, this is really complicated,” then you realize, “I don’t have to figure this out before I figure out is Jesus Christ raised from the dead.”
Over the years—it’s not bad, but I’ve gotten sort of hit from both sides.
In the middle of The Reason for God, there’s a chapter called “Intermission”—
I figured you’d be interested in that, working where you do.
You talk about significant differences between Christian denominations. In the book, you’re coy about your own affiliation, except to say that you’re a Protestant. Why didn’t you come out and say, “Look, I’m 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.”
Because I’d 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 don’t think they’re 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 don’t want to go there.
I think the most important sentence in the book on that subject was, “All Christians believe all these things, but no Christian believes just these things.” So I said, “Here’s the Apostles Creed, and the Trinity, the deity of Christ, he died for our sins, saved by grace, you’ve got to be a part of the Church”—right? OK. I said, “All Christians believe all these things. If you don’t believe all these things, you’re not a Christian: You’re in a cult, you’re a member of another religion, or you’re a secular person.”
All Christians believe all these things, but no Christian believes just these things is my way of saying there’s no such thing as “mere Christianity.” There just isn’t. Because as soon as you ask “How do I get the grace of God?”—you’re 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 eyes—then you’re Arminian or a Calvinist.
This puts me in a position where I don’t 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 Apostles’ 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 don’t 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 I’m going to be speaking as a Protestant because there’s 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 I’m a Presbyterian minister. And I said, if you look really carefully, you will see I’m really speaking from inside my own tradition. Because there are places where you can’t talk without being in your own tradition.
Here’s what so misleading. If I say I’m speaking as a Reformed Protestant and I’m just going to defend Reformed Protestantism, 80 percent of what I’m going to say in that book will be defending a Catholic Christian’s faith, too. So why not admit that? . . . It was a real dance. It was a real tightrope . . . there are certain places in which, if you’re a Catholic—I’ve got some really strong friends who are strong Catholics, and they love the book, but I’m sure when they get to certain places they say, “Yeah, there we go . . . ” But they don’t mind it, because they’re really happy to have a book that’s basically defending the whole Faith. And if I was just running up the flag saying, “I’m a Protestant, I’m Reformed, I’m Presbyterian, I’m Reformed, not Arminian”—I don’t 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 don’t 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 I’m Reformed.
Don’t you run a risk, though? If they pick up the three authors you reference most frequently in the book—Lewis, Jonathan Edwards, and Flannery O’Connor—and investigate their backgrounds, and start getting into limited atonement and election and a sacramental notion of the church and the Anglican broad way, don’t you run the risk of someone saying, “It’s all relative: It all depends on where I’m going to be most comfortable,” as opposed to “Christ founded a Church—and this is it.”
I know there’s 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 you’re pointing them out perfectly—you’re pointing them out perfectly. Listen, I could probably do a better job than you, because you’re being nicer to me. But I could be meaner, and I could say, “This fits in with the spirit of the age,” which is, I’m coming to you as an individual. I’m 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 doesn’t stress enough that you’ve 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 I’d probably write this differently. You can’t help it.
The Church would play a much bigger role.
A much bigger role. But I know that Catholics reading the book—I 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 it’s got sectarian roots to it and tells people, when you’re done, you’re going to have to be a part of a particular church. That’s the best I can do. My best job. I mean, there are a lot of judgment calls, and I just made them.
You’ve 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, “I tried Christianity but it didn’t work. I still felt lost, I still felt depressed, it didn’t make sense of the narrative of my life, and so I gave up on it.” What do you say to someone like that?
“Be specific.” There’s almost no good answer to that if you allow a person to stay at that level of generality: “It didn’t work. It didn’t really make sense of my life.” 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, there’s no way even to answer your question because it’s so general. I can tell you the kinds of things I usually hear when I ask, “Be specific.” In many cases, it’s a short-term disappointment. Which is, “I really was sure that God was calling me to do this, and every door closed.” You can always go to the “Evil and Suffering” chapter, chapter two, which says, “If you can’t see any good reason why God let something happen, does that mean there can’t be any good reason why God let that happen? The answer is no, so why are you acting as if there can’t be any good reason? That’s the motive problem. In other words, you got into this faith in order for God to serve you, not for you to serve God.”
A second area, if I say, “Please be specific,” is that they feel that Christianity is too hard. For example, a lot of times I’ll have a young man say, “I know I’m not supposed to sleep with girls until I get married, but I don’t have any prospects and I just can’t do it. I just can’t go without sex.” Or something like that. You know, Christianity’s too hard. That’s a much better argument. But then you can always say what Lewis says about “is Christianity hard or easy,” 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. Everybody’s going to fall down at various points. But if you’re actually addicted, as it were—if you say, “Here’s something I shouldn’t do but I just can’t stop,” then there’s an addiction going on, there’s something going on. You need to get in touch with that. Even if you weren’t a Christian, you shouldn’t be violating your conscience. There’s something else going on, there’s something that’s too important to you, you have to deal with your heart. You need counseling.
It’s not something I would imagine you heard a lot in the sixteenth century, though: “It didn’t work for me.”
No. But that’s what I mean by saying, usually it’s a disappointment. And that’s where I can come back and start to say, “If there’s a God, then you should relate to him”—and I do talk about this in the last chapter—if there’s 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, “It doesn’t work for me,” I think the right answer, as you just alluded, is “What do you mean ‘work for you’? You should be doing this because God is God and you’re not. And he’s the Lord and you’re his servant. What are you talking about ‘work for you’? You’re being selfish, you’re being individualistic, you’re being a consumer” Now, even though that’s probably true (laughs), I’ll try to find out what the specifics are, and usually the person’s got some real—the individualistic culture’s created this victim mentality and this feeling like God’s gotta be there to meet my needs. It’s created that and it’s 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 one’s life.
That’s also why I don’t throw the consumerist thing at people anymore . . . Don’t 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 you’d have to give me specifics, and there’s 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 hasn’t been helped by certain ministries, the health-and-wealth gospel, and other bestselling authors who shall remain nameless.
Yeah. It’s the background for people’s legitimate—I think people in the sixteenth century were asking questions like, “If God really loves me, why have four of my five children died of dysentery?” Surely they were struggling with that. But the background of “if there is a God he ought to be meeting your needs”—our consumerist culture makes that almost unbearable. Almost unbearable. But it does irritate me to hear people say, “I don’t believe in God because bad things happened to me.”
Whenever people write about Redeemer, they usually refer to it as a megachurch.
Now, I’ve heard you—
Have you seen Bob Newhart? Stop it!
Stop it. Go ahead.
I actually have his “Button-Down Humor” stand-up album from like 1968 or something. OK: I’ve 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 “seeker church” now I think mean Willow Creek to most people, which is a service that is strictly—Willow Creek branded that term, so I probably can’t use it anymore.
Yeah, well the seeker church is a church in which you have sort of low participation, there’s a talk, there’s good music—but it’s not really a worship service. You’re not trying to get people engaged. You are targeting nonbelieving, skeptical people as the audience. That’s considered a seeker church. And I would have always said that Redeemer is the kind of church in which we’re trying to speak—it’s a worship service, but we’re trying to speak in the vernacular. We’re trying to speak in a way that doesn’t confuse or turn off nonbelievers. We want nonbelievers to be there. I think that a lot of ministers would never say, “We expect nonbelievers to be constantly there, lots of them there, incubating in the services.” And we do. We do expect that. In that sense we’d be a seeker church. But now I’m afraid I don’t think it’s a good word to use, because when people hear “seeker church” they’re thinking something else.
I found that if you define megachurch as anything over two thousand people, then yes, then we are. But here’s four ways in which we’re not a megachurch, or we don’t do things people associate with megachurches. One is, we do no advertising or publicity of any sort, except I’m trying to get the book out there so people read it and have their lives changed by it, but Redeemer’s never advertised or publicized. And the reason is, if a person walks in off the street just because they’ve heard about Redeemer through advertising, and they have questions or they want to get involved, there’s 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 don’t have laser-light shows, we don’t have Jumbotrons, we don’t have overheard projectors, we don’t have screens. We don’t have anything like that. Thirdly, we have a lot of classical music, chamber music—we are not hip at all. We don’t go out of our way to be hip.
There’s praise music in the evening services.
Yeah, but it’s jazz. It’s toned down. It’s much more New York. It’s certainly not your typical evangelical contemporary music. We actually pound into people that we’re not here to meet your needs but to serve the city. So we pound that into them, that we’re not a consumer place, that we’re 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 issues—but 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 doesn’t believe comes they’re often surprised at how interesting, intelligible, nonoffensive the thing is. So it’s relatively subtle at this point.
Do you ever see a point at which Redeemer’s 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 you’re part of a denomination, you’ve 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 didn’t have any—like, 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 don’t 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 it’s 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, it’s not set up for churches that don’t have their own buildings. And if we were an independent church, we’d just do it our own way. But we think it’s very very important to be part of the connection. We think for accountability it’s important, for tradition it’s important. So we just put up with it.
Even though you’re helping to plant non-Presbyterian churches?
Yes, because I don’t believe you can reach New York with the gospel if you only plant Presbyterian churches. There are all kinds of people who’ll never be Presbyterians. It just doesn’t appeal to them. Some people are going to be Pentecostals, some people are going to be Catholics. I mean, I know that sounds—I’m not talking about that certain cultures reach certain people. It’s much more complicated than that. Even though there’s 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 wouldn’t 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 that’s why we give money to start churches of other denominations, and give free training to it. And we’ve done about a hundred in the New York area, where we’ve helped people. It’s very important to us.
One last question: If you had to recommend one book that wasn’t the Bible and wasn’t The Reason for God to someone questioning Christianity, what would it be?
I’d 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 it’s still peerless and much better than my book. My book is Mere Christianity for Dummies.
Anthony Sacramone is managing editor of First Things.