Remembering Tim Keller
Inside This Episode
On this special edition of Maybe God, Justin Brierley commemorates the life and legacy of Timothy Keller, world-renowned pastor, author, and theologian, who passed away on May 19, 2023 at age 72 after a three-year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. Justin speaks with three people who were personally impacted by Keller’s work, including Collin Hansen, author of “Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation”, Molly Worthen, a journalist and associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Max McLean, an award-winning actor and founder and artistic director of New York City-based Fellowship for Performing Arts.
Featured Book: “Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation” https://www.amazon.com/Timothy-Keller-Spiritual-Intellectual-Formation/dp/0310128684/?tag=thegospcoal-20
Featured Obituary by Molly Worthen: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/05/tim-keller-pastor-obituary/674124/
Molly’s story on Gospel Coalition: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/gospelbound/happened-molly-worthen/
Fellowship for Performing Arts: https://fpatheatre.com/
Julie Mirlicourtois: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the show. My name is Julie Mirlicourtois and I'm the producer of both the Maybe God podcast and our first-ever documentary series that's based on an episode of the podcast. The four-part series is called Across, and it's the story of what happens when American Christians set aside their politics and witness the humanity and unwavering faith of Central American asylum seekers firsthand.
Across has already won multiple awards. This very timely docuseries will be released on June 20th, 2023 for World Refugee Day. If you'd like to learn more, the official trailer is now live on our website. That's acrossdocumentary.com con also on Maybe God's YouTube channel. We'd be so grateful if everyone listening today would watch the trailer, share it with friends and subscribe to our email list for updates on the June release and special screening events we'll be hosting later in the summer. Thanks in advance for your support of this huge nearly four-year undertaking. Now enjoy this episode of Maybe God.
Justin Brierley: Welcome to the Maybe God podcast. I'm Justin Brierley, guest hosting on today's edition of the show and something very special for you today as we remember the life of Tim Keller, who died on the 19th of May at the age of 72. Timothy J. Keller was the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, a bestselling author, and a globally recognized Christian thinker and communicator.
Joining me to commemorate his life today are Collin Hansen, Molly Worthen, and Max McLean. Collin Hansen serves as vice president for content and editor-in-chief of the Gospel Coalition, as well as being executive director of The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. He authored the recent biography, Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation.
Molly Worthen is a journalist and associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She recently wrote an obituary for The Atlantic titled Tim Keller's Critique of Liberal Secularism.
Max McLean is founder and director of the Fellowship of Performing Arts, well known for portraying C.S. Lewis in theater and movie productions, including The Most Reluctant Convert. Max is based in New York City and has frequently worshiped at Redeemer and counted Tim as both a friend and his pastor.
So welcome, everyone, and thank you so much for joining me for this special program. Why do we lead straight in with some of your memories of Tim, perhaps starting with how you knew Tim and your own reaction to the news of his passing? I'll start with you, Collin, if that's all right.
Collin Hansen: Sure. So my relationship with Tim goes back to 2007, the first-ever meeting of The Gospel Coalition. I was working on a book at the time. And I bet Molly can relate to some of my experience here as a journalist. I went up to him and I'm working on this book, I was the news editor at Christianity Today, and I say, "Hey, you're really important part of what I'm working on here. Would you be interested in talking with me?" And he says, "No."
But Tim didn't like to make people upset. So then he said, "Here's my email address, you can send me some stuff." Well, sure enough, I send a bunch of questions and he responds to me. Yes. No. No. Yes. No. No. It was useless to me as a journalist. So I wrote him off. But then oddly enough, I then started editing some books with Tim. We were working on things like what I do with The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics now about Christian public engagement. That led through a lot of years of collaboration with him at the Gospel Coalition.
So I think the difficulty with losing Tim is that, in one sense, it was so expected and yet still so sudden. I don't know how else to describe that because we all, especially with his recent treatment, we all hoped that the Lord might give him a number of more years. I know there were some really important projects that he really wanted to work on. And there just wasn't any sense of giving up at all but going faster. So when things started to go downhill, it felt like they were going downhill quickly, even though we knew what the end game was going to be, absent a miracle that we prayed for. So he's already deeply missed. But it's also good just to remember what the Lord has done through his life.
Justin Brierley: I'll be coming back to you in a moment for a bit more detail of Tim's early life and ministry before he founded Redeemer. But Molly, I guess you're more recently someone who got in touch with Tim. Do you want to tell us about how you got to know him a little bit and perhaps a little bit of what you expressed in your obituary for him in The Atlantic?
Molly Worthen: My relationship with Tim Keller has evolved, I suppose. I became aware of him probably ten years ago in my capacity as a historian and freelance journalist who tries to pay pretty close attention to the goings on in the Christian landscape broadly in the United States, and particularly conservative evangelicalism, at that time as a total outsider. So I was aware of the work he was doing in New York City and the needle he was trying to thread in really adhering to conservative orthodoxies, but without becoming a culture warrior and the phenomenon of his evangelistic success in this landscape and postmodern 21st century Manhattan that seemed like such hard ground.
But he wasn't someone I was personally engaged with by any means until about a year ago when I found myself... after a long period throughout my adult life of incompetence, erstwhile attempts to become a Christian that had always failed, I found myself getting evangelized in a more serious way by a pastor down here in North Carolina who put me in touch with Tim personally.
I knew of Tim as this fancy famous guy. I was intimidated and I didn't think... I remember I had been reading his books in a new way and reading different books of his that I had read in my capacity as a historian. So I was reading, especially "Reason for God" is more apologetic stuff. His books focused on really helping you understand who Jesus is. And I told my pastor friend down here, "I just want to send him a fan note." And I didn't expect a response.
So I got his address and I sent my enthusiastic, earnest message and he wrote back... First I got the auto-reply indicating, as I knew, that he was in treatment for cancer. But fairly quickly after that, I got a long reply indicating that he had read my work very carefully and full of kind and thoughtful observations about the landscape of evangelical history and offering to have a Zoom conversation.
So over the course of the next few months, we met over Zoom a few times and exchanged emails. He took the time to put together personally curated sets of his sermons and unpublished courses that he had compiled for people in ministry attached to Redeemer that he thought would be useful for me to speak to specific questions that I had. I was just astonished by the time that he made for me in the midst of all he was doing and going through and the way he made me feel so much less of an oddball and an alien. You know, as I was trying to find my way to Christianity along a path that I didn't see echoed anywhere else among any of the other Christians that I was aware of...
I mean, his message to me was, You're not alone. I remember he said to me in our first conversation, "If I weren't a pastor, I would have become a professor of philosophy or theology." And he could inhabit so many worlds at one time and reach people in those different worlds always in this posture of remarkable humility. Remarkable because he was so erudite, but he wore that erudition so lightly.
In the wake of his death, I mean, I think it's encouraged for me and I think a lot of a lot of people in and around the landscape of American Christianity, a moment of reflection on who else, is anyone else doing this kind of work or capable of this kind of work? And if not, what does that mean? Is there any way to continue the kind of apologetic and church planning work that Tim was so good at?
Justin Brierley: Well, it seems highly appropriate that we do have you on the show as someone who can count part of your journey to faith at Tim's help and his hand. So welcome along to the show, Molly. I know that there's a much longer version of that story that we can listen to that you recorded with Collin on The Gospel Coalition podcast. So I'll make sure that that's linked to from today's show as well.
Max welcome along as well. Tell us a little bit about your background. I think you started attending Redeemer back in 1999, was it?
Max McLean: That's right. That's right. Tim was my pastor from 1999 until he retired in 2017. I came to Redeemer at a particularly lean, spiritually lean time in my life. My marriage was struggling, our children were just leaving. Church felt irrelevant, though it's always been an important part of the... I'm an adult convert to Christianity and so I've had some really strong relationships with my church community and also some very weak ones. And it sort of ebbed and flowed.
It was a particularly at the time of retreat in 1999 and so... Sharon and I were living in New Jersey. The thing that really struck immediately was how coming to Redeemer, how everything was so on point for someone who is probably spiritually dry. This Jesus dictum "feed my sheep" was so appropriate because I started coming to Redeemer and listening to him and just getting deeply nourished at a time when I needed to be deeply nourished. He certainly engaged my mind. He softened my heart and inspired my imagination.
Probably the biggest influence that he had was he would quote C.S. Lewis quite regularly in his sermons, not just quote them, but he would sort of explain them in the context of his sermons. And, boy, that just hit me really, really hard. I was a theater person, so I started trying to integrate Lewis' material and trying to make them into theatrical pieces, starting first with "Screwtape Letters", then "Great Divorce" and "Most Reluctant Convert", then the piece I'm doing now, Further Up & Further In. But all of that was ignited and nourished, and the flame was fanned at my time at Redeemer.
Justin Brierley: It's great to hear some of those recollections of the various ways in which Tim has obviously spoken into all of your lives. During the course of this show, we're going to tackle and look at Tim's life and legacy from three different perspectives. First of all, his time as a minister in New York, the ministry had that skeptics in particular, the global ministry he went on to have through his bestselling books and obviously becoming a much-in-demand speaker and communicator around the world, but also his enduring legacy as we mark his passing and we ask where we're at now and what challenges the church faces, given his witness and the culture that we're currently living in.
Just as we begin that then, why don't we hear a little clip from Tim preaching at Redeemer on Faith and work? This is from several years ago, and it's just a typical example of the way Tim brought that message across to the erudite and often skeptical members of his congregation at Redeemer.
[Clip of Tim preaching at Redeemer]
Tim Keller: What this means is this. Look, Jesus is looking at you, as it were, and saying this. If you try to earn your salvation religiously by trying to live a good life, maybe God will take you to heaven. You'll be exhausted. Or if you try to earn your salvation socially, emotionally by working very hard to get status so you can feel good about yourself, "I'm a doctor, I'm a lawyer, I'm an artist, I'm good at this, I'm good at that," that will exhaust you. It'll grind you into the ground. Oh.
But Jesus says, I worked myself to death for you. I was ground into the ground for you. I took the restlessness. I took the homeless. I took the thorns. And when you see Me dying on the cross, that should assure you of My love for you. Receive Me as your savior. Rest in Me. And now, finally, you know who you are. There's your meaning in life. There's your value. And then when you turn with that knowledge, that sense of His love, resting in his work, not in your own, you get a deep rest of soul. Deep, deep, deep, deep rest. That suddenly means your work becomes not about you, but about the work and about the people you're serving. And it becomes a joy.
Justin Brierley: Collin, I'm sure you've listened to a lot of preaching over the years yourself. Tell us a little bit, though, about where this all began for him. Because obviously, Redeemer, he began in 1989, but he had been an ordained minister at that point. Can you just briefly spell out the road to his sort of call to ministry in that way and what sort of ministry he was involved in before he began at Redeemer?
Collin Hansen: Sure. So, of course, this goes back to his conversion at Bucknell University at the end of his sophomore year in 1970. From there, he heads in... basically, he's in ministry immediately. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, he's doing that actively. From there heads off to Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary north of Boston, relatively new school at the time. That's one of the reasons that I enjoyed doing the book so much, is that I got to tell the story of so many other things happening in the American evangelical world at the time. Because the next thing that happens is he becomes a convinced Presbyterian.
His background had been in baptized, Catholic and baptized again as a Lutheran, then grew up a Lutheran, and then switched to the Evangelical Congregational Church, a small sort of Armenian fundamentalist sect... or not sect, but just a domination. And then from there, heads off and becomes a convinced Presbyterian. But then there is a brand new denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. So this Yankee, this northerner ends up going south to Virginia.
So the brief story there is that Tim Keller, who's famous for all of these learned books and apologetics is preaching 1,500 sermons in a congregation that's only about a hundred people. He's there for nine years from about age 25 to 34, has three boys. He and Kathy have three boys there. And these 1,500 sermons are being delivered to a group where only two of them, when he gets there, have any college education. They're both elementary school teachers. Most of the rest of the congregation, they have a sixth-grade education. It's a dramatically different situation. But in so many ways, he saw it as formative for the kind of ministry that he would end up doing.
And it becomes formative for his belief that ministry is always contextualized. You're not doing the same thing in New York City that you're doing in London, that you're doing in rural Virginia. It's going to have some different characteristics.
But in the middle there, as Molly alluded to earlier, I think Tim Keller would have been an extraordinarily successful professor if he'd stayed at Westminster Theological Seminary, which is where he went between Hopewell and Virginia. But that wasn't the Lord's call on his life, as he discerned it. It was a tense kind of back and forth with him and Kathy about whether to go because New York was not a particularly appealing place for an evangelical minister at the time. Plus she [won?] raising three young boys. But they felt it was the Lord's call. Obviously, as they say, the rest is history. But it was a very interesting journey with a number of twists and turns.
Justin Brierley: Max, as a native New Yorker and someone who obviously began attending Tim's church at a time when you were kind of looking for something a little bit more, I guess, intellectual, something that fed your soul a bit more, what was the magic, the ingredients that just made Redeemer and Tim's ministry there so appealing to people like you and many others besides in New York?
Max McLean: Well, my first impression of Redeemer, it was at the Hunter College Auditorium, which is a real nondescript venue. You know, not impressive at all. It was low-key. You noticed immediately a lot of young people, very Asian. It had a reputation preceded that it attracted artists, which that was unusual.
The worship was more liturgical than I expected or more than I was used to, as a matter of fact. The feeling was contemplative, worshipful. There was certainly an emphasis on excellence. Not at all showy or ostentatious. It felt humble. It felt right. It felt on point. Prelude music was probably a trumpet, a piano. There was an organ, a small chamber orchestra occasionally. Rarely a choir. But occasionally when there was a choir it was wonderful.
And the reason I say all these things is because everything was obviously planned out to the minute detail by Tim. The church bulletin itself was a wonderful devotional guide. I kept it all week. There was inspiring reflection quotes, you know, from Shakespeare, from Lewis, Dostoyevsky, or something current in The New York Times.
One of the associates would give a very short meditation to begin the service, the transition from whatever secular state you were in to this transcendent space. And it did feel transcendent. It was relevant. It recalibrated my mind and senses something different. You know, very classical stuff. Concession. Lord's Prayer. The hymns were classical hymns, you know, "Immortal Invisible", "Mighty Fortress", "All Creatures", "Amazing Grace". It was real church.
It became for me and for Sharon... You hear about appointment television. It was appointment church. You looked forward to getting recalibrated to this other transcendent world. This is all the support before he got up to speak because you know... And of course, that 30 minutes was... I mean, it was so presented in the sense that he was so platformed by the time he spoke that you were just ready. And he never disappointed.
Justin Brierley: Well, in that sense, it wasn't just that he was-
Max McLean: Or rarely disappointed.
Justin Brierley: Well, I was gonna say, in that sense, it wasn't just that he was obviously a great preacher, but that he knew how to construct a service in which the word came alive at the point where it was presented. But I'd be fascinated to hear your thoughts on this, Molly, not as someone who lives in New York or has even been that invested in Tim's ministry until recently. But what do you think sort of has been the attraction and why so many young, modern skeptical Manhattaners enticed into the doors of Redeemer, in your opinion?
Molly Worthen: I think that there is an esthetic piece and then there's a theological intellectual piece. I mean, listening to Max reflect on the worship experience, it's very important that Redeemer, under Tim, did not trade in any of the cultural forms associated with big-scale, flashy evangelicalism that secular people make fun of. That's very important. The service he constructed was liturgical without making a giant point of liturgy. It still adhered to the kind of reformed Protestant paradigm of the meat of the sermon being the centerpiece, but felt like, I mean, as Max put it, a proper church without being fussy.
I mean, that was a gutsy gamble, it seems to me, in founding a brand new, initially quite small church at that moment in New York City history to say, no, we're not going to do something flashy. This speaks, I think, to Tim's temperament and the fact that he found a home in the PCA, right? He didn't go off on his own and become, you know, another kind of evangelical warlord, entrepreneur with his own brand. He was just not interested in a cult of personality.
But that's not to say that he was not deeply charismatic. He was in this understated way. He had a large presence, was a tall guy. But he spoke not in this railing way but in a way that really retained control of his energy. I think it's important that he did not speak with any kind of regional accents. I mean, yes, he was a Yankee, but not aggressively Yankee. I mean, he could translate and function rhetorically in a number of contexts. So I think all of that is important. But the esthetics, his personal style, that all... that was the supporting structure and the medium for the theological marrow. It's significant that Tim found his home and his intellectual energy in the reformed tradition.
One of the major themes in Orthodox Christianity across its traditions is, of course, the critique of idolatry. So I don't want to suggest that Presbyterians have some kind of monopoly on showing the secular world its idols. But since the origins of the reform tradition in the 16th century, that is the starting point in a unique way for Tim Keller's forefathers that I think is special.
Now, I think, too, there is this theme in his ministry that is Lutheran, that takes as a starting point, you know, do not worship the law, but stripped down your legalistic ideas of what saves you. Yes. But to me, and especially reading through more and more of his books over the years, what was so powerful and spoke so potently to New Yorkers who were seeking, who were climbing their career ladders, checking the boxes set before them by the secular world, and feeling totally empty inside was Tim's critique of the idols they were worshiping.
I mean, he says in "Reason for God", If you don't live for Jesus, you will live for something else and your career won't die for your sins. He said that in various ways over and over. That was and remains the message that so many people need to hear.
Justin Brierley: Yeah. You're nodding away to that, Collin. I guess one thing that strikes me in all of this is that for at least ten years or more, Tim still wasn't sort of, in a sense, a household name in the evangelical world. He was just faithfully building that church in the center of New York, seeing a lot of secular people start to get interested in the gospel, kind of critiquing the idols all around in that sense.
I'd be interested to know, I mean, obviously, 9/11 was a huge thing for all churches in New York. But I do remember listening back to some of the sermons Tim preached around that time and just that sense of how obviously this felt like a real turning point moment for many New Yorkers. What do you know of how that kind of event impacted the ministry that Tim had there? Because it feels like that was also kind of around that period that Tim started to, I guess, emerge on a more kind of international sort of front as well.
Collin Hansen: We could go a number of different directions with that question. But I think the most helpful way to go would be against the backdrop more broadly of cultural shifts in the United States around that time. One of the things that Tim discussed is that part of the effect of 9/11 was not to make Americans more religious, but actually to make Americans much more skeptical toward religion in general, including Christianity.
But really their thought was toward anyone who would take their faith so seriously as to try to implement it through force, i.e. through politics in the public square. And that gave rise to, of course, that tremendous trans-Atlantic movement and phenomenon we know as the New Atheism, as you know very well, Justin, you've covered so much over the years.
One of the things when "The Reason for God" comes in there... Kathy Keller and I would go back and forth on this a little bit because in some ways, 9/11 did not change everything. The New Atheist didn't change anything for Tim. When he came out with "The Reason for God", these were simply answers to questions that he had been getting for decades. And his own ministry, patterned after R.C. Sproul, patterned after Francis Schaeffer, had been about answering these questions and helping skeptics to find satisfying answers. Even going back to his very conversion, that was his own status.
But all of a sudden, the cultural moment, the political moment was overwhelming in its skepticism toward thoughtful Christianity in ways that Lewis would have recognized in his own day. So as Lewis had stepped forward, Keller was probably the most significant voice that stepped forward, not really out of nowhere at all, because he'd been engaged in a very fruitful, effective ministry for decades, including in New York, but for the first stage in 2008.
And to Molly's point there as well, it wasn't just one book that was published in the aftermath of September 11th in the New Atheism. It was two books. The first book was "The Reason for God". So that's your response, more or less to a lot of the questions the new Atheists are asking after 9/11. The second one is "The Prodigal God". That's what Molly is referring to here as basically the genesis of Tim's Lutheran message, the justification by faith alone, the basic gospel as he understood it.
Then, of course, the next book that follows there is "Counterfeit Gods". That's his book on idolatry, as Molly is referring to there as well. So they all come right in that bit. But in some sense, the world's focus on New York and broader trans-Atlantic cultures, severe skepticism toward the powerful impacting, you know, public impact religion set the stage for the Lord to raise up, in this case, Tim, to be able to help rally people around some answers.
Justin Brierley: This provides a good point to segue into talking about Tim's global ministry in that sense. Let's just listen to another clip of Tim, this time speaking at Google HQ. I guess it would be San Francisco. This is, I think the second time actually that he spoke. This time it was on his book "The Reason for God". This is Tim talking about the genius of Christianity in response to one of the employee's questions.
[clip of Tim speaking at Google HQ]
Tim Keller: So I would say, check out all the different religions, but the genius of Christianity, even though many people who are professing Christians don't see it, is that religion by itself actually makes you as bad as everybody else. And in fact, it can make you worse because it makes you a Pharisee. But the doctrine of the grace of God that you're saved by sheer grace humbles you and yet affirms you at the same time. You're so bad Jesus had to die for you. But you're so loved that Jesus was willing to die for you. So [Gilkey?] saw, Here's a guy who actually got it, and he was different. So that would be my answer.
Justin Brierley: I'll come back to you, Max, because Tim did have this ability, it felt, to speak to all kinds of people. There are lots of well-known American megachurch pastors, but there are very few that kind of really reach outside of that bubble, I would say, that really kind of seemed to be able to speak to many different Christians in lots of different parts of the world. That, I guess, is why I do think of Tim as being as close to a C.S. Lewis figure as we've had in recent years, because he was able somehow to do that mere Christianity thing, whereas many other good Christian communicators still tend to reach their types of Christians, if you know what I mean, or their kind of particular segment of culture.
Again, I guess I'm asking you to describe what the magic is here. But what did Tim embody that enabled him to have this very broad reach across so many different kinds of Christians, even though he obviously came from a specific theological tradition himself?
Max McLean: Well, I do think his presence in New York launched him to a global presence, because, you know, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. There is a little bit of that. I was listening to what Collin and what Molly are saying and I guess perhaps my focus in this conversation would be, okay, what was the esthetic? I mean, there was theological, there was philosophical, and intellectual dynamite, and certainly tremendous interest in what he had to say. But it was in a presence that...
I think, for instance, one of the most underappreciated attributes of Tim is his voice. It had tremendous resonance. He never overstated his case. The premise was always to under-promise and over-deliver. And that gave his audience this feeling of trust. He was always very friendly, but not gushy. It was your favorite professor. He articulates extremely well. He spoke relatively quickly, but never in a hurry. I don't recall him telling jokes at Redeemer. I've heard sermons of him telling jokes. He's not a very good joke teller, but very...
Collin Hansen: Very dry. Very dry.
Max McLean: But he was often quite funny. And it was also what Lewis says, that when Lewis was describing Chesterton, that he liked his sense of humor. Not jokes, not the... It was what he called the humor was the bloom of his argument. And that always tended to work. So these are the things that I remember about Tim.
And then, of course, his sermons they almost always left you with a catharsis. It always ended with Jesus constantly in it. And sometimes I thought, he's got to be Jesus' PR agent. There was a little bit of that. I remember one time I heard you, Justin, say that Tim was sometimes called Tim Clever. Is that what you called him one time?
Justin Brierley: Yes. Tim Clever instead of Tim Keller. Yes.
Max McLean: Tim Clever. There was a little bit of that. But more often than not, it was this element of catharsis. And it was a catharsis from an intellectual place. I think Molly talked about his charisma. He had an extraordinary charisma. But it wasn't obvious. It certainly didn't seem that way when you first saw him. But it really did grab you. And I do think it was the premise of under-promise and over-deliver.
Justin Brierley: Hmm. Molly, any thoughts from you on Tim's broad appeal?
Molly Worthen: Yeah. What Max said is so important. This way in which he never overplayed his hand. I mean, I've been reflecting a lot on this. Why is it that Tim's books of apologetics, his big, meaty book on theodicy "Walking with God through Pain and Suffering", why did those books... why was I able to absorb them and dialog with them in a way that I hadn't with other works of apologetics or theodicy?
And I think that at least part of the explanation is Tim's combination of rock-solid confidence in his position and his absolute humility. So his knowledge that confident faith does not mean certainty. So he would acknowledge it. He does this very explicitly in the outset of "Reason for God" that no single argument for the truth of Christianity is the silver bullet that will put all of your doubts to rest.
However, he says to the reader, Come along with me, just look at these things. They're kind of interesting. And if you take them together, they might have a powerful effect on your doubts. They might compel you to doubt your doubts, as you like to say. And his approach to theodicy is the same. In that book, I mean, he absolutely acknowledges, Listen, if this is the, in some ways, the problem.
I mean, when you look at some of the most famous cases of people losing their faith, it's generally not due to some debate over the historicity of the resurrection or the debating of Genesis. It's the problem of evil. This is true of Charles Darwin. I think people are under this misapprehension that evolution by means of natural selection destroyed Darwin's faith. No. It was the death of his favorite daughter and the problem of evil that destroyed his faith.
So Tim says when he handles the problem of evil, this is a toolbox. And some of these arguments and prayer practices and ways of talking to and about God are appropriate for when you are in a good place and you're riding pretty high and things are all right. Those may be totally inadequate, even offensive when you and your family are in the depths of despair. And here are some other tools. And listen, none of these are going to leave you in a place where you walk away with all your questions answered. But just come along with me and let's think about the Christian answers in comparison to the answers the secular world offers you, the answers the Buddhist tradition offers, and see if you're not compelled to find these answers of some comfort and intellectual satisfaction. That was always his posture.
I mean, we've talked about C.S. Lewis, and I think he also quite... Collin talks about this in his book, modeled himself also on the great Anglican preacher, John Stott. And in many ways, he fits better in the British evangelical tradition, I mean, partly because of this apologetic approach, but also I think because he accepted the status of Christianity as the pathetic minority. And he had no interest in culture war crusading.
I think that his legacy is different from someone like Francis Schaeffer because Schaeffer did become much more of a crusading culture warrior toward the end of his career. And, you know, you can argue about the pros and cons of that depending on your views. Tim was not interested in that. But he wasn't the quietest. He was very aware of the American political and cultural context. But I think he was able to be both, you know, intellectually humble and focused on those arguments, while also focused on the pragmatic challenges of church planting, the pastoral challenges, and that combination. We haven't talked about that at all.
But his influence on younger pastors looking to plant churches and what's involved there and speaking your context is so important. In part because it turns out that in the 21st century, New York City is not that strange and alien a place. That in fact in Manhattan, Tim was encountering and developing ways to talk back to a whole set of problems, the challenges and complexity of pluralism that, you know, one might have thought in the late 20th century is limited to urban contexts. But in fact, pastors trying to get churches off the ground in rural America and the suburbs and all over and in other countries were facing many of the same things. So I think Tim found himself in this position, which maybe he had not planned, I don't think he planned, of pioneering apologetic approaches and pastoral approaches that had a surprising amount of relevance well beyond New York.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, thanks to the internet.
Justin Brierley: Well, indeed. Yeah. There's no doubt that the internet played a huge part in the way that Tim's message and style went around the world. But coming back to you, Collin, I mean, Molly mentions there that he somehow managed to transcend or deliberately chose to not get engaged in these culture wars, which is obviously have only heightened in the last several years.
I mean, increasingly, though, towards the end of his life, Tim was, I think, taking more and more heat from other Christians around the fact that he kind of wasn't kind of laying his cards down or choosing not to get embroiled in some of those debates. There was even that viral article that went around questioning whether we need to abandon the winsome approach of Tim Keller. Now's the time, maybe, to stand up and fight rather than kind of have lovely intellectual discussions about these things. Where do you land on that, Collin? Do you think Tim got it right in the way he did things?
Collin Hansen: I think a lot of that is particular to Tim's... his personality, his focus. I think in the main, absolutely, he got it right. In terms of the focus of... He is an ecclesial revivalist, a church-based evangelist. That's how he saw his calling. He never saw his calling... I've come back again and again and again to compare Tim to Billy Graham. My first book was working on Billy Graham.
Billy saw working with the powerful politicians as a way of being able to get more credibility for the Gospel as he preached it to others. And of course, he was tremendously successful, from London to New York to everywhere around the world. Hugely successful in that. And also politics really burned him. But Billy was in some ways made for that kind of spotlight. Tim was not made for that kind of spotlight, not his personality. The charisma that we're talking about here did not translate in the same way in those areas.
So I think it's safe to say, and Tim would have been the first person to say that just because he did something in the 1980s or 1990s or 2000s that was fairly effective shouldn't be the paradigm that we then apply all the time. Because he simultaneously did speak out about a number of issues, especially since 2020. He wrote extensively about racism.
Now in some ways, it was actually easier for him to do that because he wasn't a pastor anymore. One of the unique challenging dynamics of our age is the interplay between the pundit and the institution. Those two are going in different directions because they're increasingly difficult to hold together. So he could be more free to speak out on certain things because he wasn't trying to lead that church anymore.
Some people tried to criticize him for the decisions he made, decisions that Redeemer made about the pandemic in terms of masks and vaccinations. He wasn't even the pastor at the time. That was another reason why people were concerned there. I think in a lot of ways he was willing to speak out in some of those ways. But coming back to New York, coming back to that setting that Max know so well, his argument was that in New York, we need to focus on the ways that separate Christians from non-Christians, not that separate Christians from each other, and not primarily those ways that are let's say that people associate with Christians, especially in the 1990s, that distract them from the central claims of Christianity.
Molly speaks to this so well in her own experience. Tim's conviction, and this is where I agree with him wholeheartedly we need to focus on the Lordship of Jesus Christ is He who He says He was and is and will be forever. Because if He is, and this is where Tim would cite his mentor, Barbara Boyd, in her view of Lordship, that He is the Lord of all things and we must follow Him no matter what. But if He is not, then we don't have to be having all of these other arguments about politics. So let's stay focused on Jesus and then let's work from there through all of the different implications there.
That I still think is the right way to go. But I would also say that increasingly with the politicization of everything in Western culture in the United States in particular, we are probably going to have to increasingly meet people where they are, which is not bringing relativistic arguments to us in objection to Christianity, but actually bringing moral objections to Christianity. That I don't think was a challenge that Tim had fully worked through. And I think he would have been open about that. And that was a transformation that's relatively recent. We're talking in the last decade or less.
Justin Brierley: That's really helpful. We're kind of transitioning into talking about the world as it is and the church as it is, as Tim has passed, and therefore how we should approach his legacy. Let's just hear another clip from Tim. This is actually taken from his final message to Redeemer. This was filmed a few weeks actually before his death. They were due to have a special service with this video message from Tim on the 19th of May, which happened to also be the day that he passed away. I'm just going to play a short segment of that, of Tim's final words of advice to the church that he founded and loved so much.
[clip from Tim's final message to Redeemer]
Tim Keller: Lastly, forget about your reputation. Jeremiah 45:5, this is what Jeremiah says to his secretary, Baruch. "Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not." Genesis 11 tells us that people tend to go to the city to make a name for themselves. They get excited. They're going to come, they're going to do well in their work. And by the way, ministers very often come to New York City to make a name for themselves. Just letting you know that. "I'm a minister in New York City. I'm cool. I'm going to do well here." Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not.
Don't worry about your reputation. Don't worry about your credentials. Ministers do not identify... Don't make your ministry success your identity. So if things don't go well, you just feel like an utter failure, you just freak out. People, don't make getting a big name in New York City your main thing. Lifts up Jesus' name. Hallowed be thy name. Forget yourself. Forget your reputation. Do what you can to lift up God's name. Seekest thou great things for thyself? Even New Yorkers? Of course, all New Yorkers are seeking great things in themselve. No, no. Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not. Thank you for listening.
Justin Brierley: As we heard in that clip, Max, Tim himself, I think, was one of those people who never sought a limelight or stage. Sadly, that's probably not always true of some Christian personalities in our day and age. As someone who does, in a sense, it's your job to be in the limelight, you know, on the stage, at theater really. What was it about Tim's example that we could take forward as Christian leaders, thinkers in terms of I suppose that non-anxious presence, as one person put it recently, or that sense of humble confidence, I think, that he embodied where he didn't have to shout to make his opinions known. He trusted that God had this, that Jesus was ultimately sovereign in all things.
Max McLean: Well, certainly that. I mean, he was extraordinarily gifted in the sense of he read everything and he had a steel trap mind to bring it out. So as soon as he spoke, he just grabbed your attention. And of course, when he left Redeemer, I was just thinking about how much the world has changed since 2017 because I think Tim said himself that the sorts of things that happened obviously post-Trump, post-pandemic, he really didn't have to deal with. So I think Tim would have been challenged. I would be very curious to see Tim...
I just finished Collin's book. Tim never saw himself as a great leader or a leader of people. I thought he was terribly mistaken in that assessment. He would so motivate people to do things that just very few other people just had the ability to do. Take my case. I was living in suburbs of New Jersey, and he said, "If you want to make a difference in the city, you've got to live in the city." So my wife and I moved into the city based on his... So I guess what's interesting is if he didn't retire at 2017, I would be very, very curious how he would have met with the challenge of the church in New York because it would have been pressured. I think you probably read Aaron Renn's treatment of Positive World, Neutral World and Negative World. If it was negative in 2017, it's super negative now.
Justin Brierley: And by that you mean the fact that the Christian worldview, as it were, is now kind of viewed in a hostile way, in a way that it was perhaps during?
Max McLean: Much more. Much more so.
Justin Brierley: Whereas during the majority of Tim's ministry, there's no that neutral phase.
Max McLean: Exactly. And I do think that that the winsome argument is nobody cares of your winsome. You have the wrong message and your message needs to be certainly marginalized and quarantined and not be part of the everyday conversation. That would be very interesting to see how Tim would respond. I think in that message you just showed, he tried to respond. And I do think his presence would have given a lot of people some confidence to carry on.
Justin Brierley: Yeah. I mean, Molly, you're probably familiar as well with that analysis of the positive, neutral, and now negative atmosphere in which the Christian message is being put. And that's been one of the reasons why people have said, well, maybe it's time to move on from this winsome cultural engagement type of evangelism in apologetics of Tim Keller. What's your feeling on that, Molly?
Molly Worthen: I think perhaps the central intellectual gift Tim had that made him so effective and that also allowed him to adapt his approach to apologetics and what it meant to engage the culture is this was not a static thing that he developed in at InterVarsity and Bucknell in the 70s and then hung on to. It was something that he was always working on and revising.
But the key to it was his intellectual omnivorousness. I mean, he stood in a particular place. He had a denominational home and all that. He believed in institutions. But he was interested in the whole panoply of human, cultural, and intellectual achievement. He didn't see any of it as off-limits to Christians or somehow too risky to engage with. Nor did he stick narrowly to a single approach in how to make an argument.
I mean, I find him so effective because of his blend of traditional evidentialist apologetics that walk you through the case for the resurrection and so forth with a real attention to presuppositionalism that is so crucial to pointing out the faith-based assumptions of secular modernity. And you see that evolving in his later apologetics. In 2016, he published "Making Sense of God", which I think didn't sell as well as "The Reason for God". But it's an amazing book-
Justin Brierley: It is.
Molly Worthen: ... and speaks very much to the set of questions that he found seekers to have prior to the questions they would find answered in "Reason for God". Most recently he kind of reiterated many of those themes in the Speaker series, which became the podcast question in Christianity. But he's not really making arguments for the truth claims of Christianity, but rather talking about questions of meaning and why is it that the secular modernity falls down here.
I think the key application of this in the context of our increasingly... our culture of bad faith, bad faith among all parties, assuming the worst of... Christians assuming the absolute worst of pointy-headed academics in their ivory towers and vice versa. The key is Tim's resolute feeling that no intellectual space was off limits to Christians or indeed not already full of lots of Christians.
So where I see his legacy continuing most vibrantly is in the Christian study centers that have been founded and really since the 1970s but there's been a efflorescence of them in the past decade or so on or right adjacent to the campuses of big secular universities like my own, University of North Carolina, and in those spaces.
And I've spent some time, I know our community very well, and I've spent some time interviewing students and staff and faculty, who are associated with these study centers at secular schools around the country. I consider them a fleet of little Tim Keller's who have a very similar... They all love Tim Keller almost to a person. Right? But they have a similar orientation of just, you know, let's put the cultural and political questions aside. Let's spend time deeply engaging with what our students are learning and our faculty are studying in this secular, postmodern academic context. And let's do it in a deep, open-minded, curious engagement with our faith. That's the starting point.
So I see those kind of slow-burning, but quite important flames of that approach that Tim took that I think he saw could never be static, but at some level was premised on rejecting the bifurcation and dichotomies of our political moment.
Justin Brierley: Just sticking with you for a moment longer, Molly, I really enjoyed as well Tim's sort of historical analysis of the church in the U.S. And this is obviously an area you're very familiar with yourself. But he did this sort of for kind of long-form essays on Gospel in Life, where he looked at the history of the mainline denominations and the evangelical church and so on, and kind of also did some looking at where we are in this cultural moment and how the church needs to ready itself for the future.
I mean, without necessarily commenting exactly on what Tim wrote in those articles, do you feel like the church is in a place where they can carry on Tim's legacy in that sense of that kind of culturally engaged, winsome type of approach? Or are we going to lose that, I guess, as we lose Tim's influence in the culture now?
Molly Worthen: Gosh, that's a great question. It takes a lot of reading and homework doing and talking to people to do what Tim does. I don't think that carrying on his legacy is a matter of just reading all of Tim Keller's books and listening to his sermons and then drafting off Tim's CliffsNotes on Western civilization. You can't get away with that. So in that sense, I guess the short answer is no.
But I guess in the longer term, I think it's always important to zoom out on the American and the Western context in which Orthodox Christianity seems quite imperiled and consider the worldwide landscape and the Christian revival that the world has been in the middle of for four decades now, and the way in which the rapid growth of Christianity in the global South and the shift of the center of gravity of Christianity is posing all kinds of questions to Western Christian and post-Christian people across the political spectrum in our part of the world.
Questions that expose the deep parochialism of our culture war, political frameworks and I think demonstrate that the way forward is to see that parochialism and to see that Tim was right on to something when he said, keep the main thing the main thing. And indeed that ideas matter and that a broader sense of what ideas are relevant is crucial to Christianity... to Christians retaining their ability to speak into these different cultural contexts and figure out what is gospel and what is culture.
Justin Brierley: It's been so helpful having all three of you on the show today. Time is coming to an end. So I'm just going to ask each one of you, just briefly, to maybe share a final thought, perhaps something that you're going to be taking personally forward from your own engagement with Tim's life and ministry and perhaps something you can share with our listeners as well, many of whom perhaps may not have been particularly aware of Tim's ministry themselves, but might be wanting to go and read a book, listen to a podcast, watch a video or whatever. I'll start with you, Collin. What was your final thought and something for listeners to take away?
Collin Hansen: Yeah. My encouragement was that when you look through my book on Tim, you see all these giants of the faith that he learned from when he was a youth, when he was a young adult, when he was a new pastor, when he was leading a family heading into New York, when he was facing a crisis like 9/11, the rise of new atheists, all these people, all these sources, all these places that he learned from.
I think the encouragement for us is we wonder, well, now what without Tim Keller? And yet, look what the Lord always does. He always brings new leaders. They don't have to be famous. They don't have to be in the limelight as you referred to earlier. Yet he's always faithful to build his church.
I'm grateful for the last three years that God gave Tim that vision to invest in a lot of younger leaders, to spend that time with Molly in here, to spend the time with the group that we've brought together at the Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, not because any of us can stand in Tim's shoes, but because we've been gratefully helped to understand and love God better, thanks to Tim.
And we want to continue to build, as Molly said there, not shrines to Tim Keller, but we want to maintain a lot of the key convictions that he held, not just the actual convictions themselves, but the manner in which he held them. So I'm really hopeful going forward as I'm just filled with gratefulness for the time that we had with Tim.
Justin Brierley: Max, your thoughts?
Max McLean: Well, I think of the legacy that he's left. In my case, I sat under his ministry and I was inspired to integrate my faith with my work in a way that I wouldn't otherwise have done. That's what builds this church and continues it on. I was thinking I'm one of thousands. I think of all of the church planters that he done and all the artists that were in New York, all the businesspeople in New York, all the nonprofits that emerged. Your faith was not just intellectual, your faith had to do some things.
It's so interesting because we really focused on how smart he was. But I'm always left with how passionate he was. Towards the end of his sermons, almost routinely, he would get pretty Pentecostal. I mean, in the sense that, you know, from an academic sort of way, he was kind of on the edge, you know, going places and stirring. And we felt it. He was showing us Jesus and he was showing us the gospel. He was showing us the Holy Ghost.
Collin Hansen: Well, I think Max, quickly on that one, you know, Tim would always say, and I'm sure you heard him say this, "If you're not taking notes at the beginning of my sermon, I'm doing something wrong. If you're still taking notes at the end of my sermon, I'm doing something wrong." Because he wanted to steer your emotions in the end. He was very much that pivot in his sermons.
Justin Brierley: Molly, we'll finish with you.
Molly Worthen: Tim made a big impact on me as someone... first, as a seeker and then as a pretty fragile new believer who had and still has all kinds of insecurities about my own faith and what it's supposed to look and feel like. And he had this ability to challenge me while also affirming for me that there's many ways to get to know Jesus and that even a Christian of his maturity still had doubts.
He has this great line in "Reason for God" that a faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. That was so helpful for me. And it characterizes his whole approach to focus on assimilating your doubts rather than the quixotic quest to silence them entirely. And to see that you can learn from the whole span of Christian tradition and experience. We had great conversations about church history, including some of my interviews and my journalistic work with more Pentecostal Christians in Nigeria and Latin America, without feeling that your own faith is defective because it doesn't look like that.
So I would say, I haven't had a born-again experience. I haven't had some sort of mystical cloud of unknowing settle on my head. And does this mean that my conversion is not real? I mean, he would you look at me through the zoom screen and say, "Molly, I'm wired the same way as you and that's okay." I guess I want to affirm at the end of our conversation his tremendous pastoral gifts, which are totally connected with these intellectual themes that we've been discussing but are really important to not lose sight of, the way in which he was a pastor first in all of these contexts.
Justin Brierley: Thank you so much, all of you. I just want to add my own very brief thought, as well as someone who had the privilege of interviewing Tim several times during my time as host of the Unbelievable? show. He very kindly endorsed my first book as well. And he was just incredibly encouraging both on mic and off mic. He frequently sent me emails saying how much he had enjoyed the show and was enjoying the fact that I was doing this kind of bridging the secular and Christian world thing.
And I can't tell you how encouraging that was to hear from someone like Tim Keller, who I sort of, you know, has always been a theological hero for me. So thank you, Tim. Thank you, all three of you as well for your reflections on Tim's life and legacy. God bless you all.
There will be links to where you can find out more about Collin Hansen's biography, Timothy Keller, his spiritual intellectual formation, where you can read Molly's obituary for Tim in The Atlantic, and Max McLean as well, you can find out more about him with the links from today's Maybe God Podcast show. But for now, thank you so much for joining me on the program.
Julie Mirlicourtois: This episode of Maybe God was produced by Justin Brierley, Julie Mircourtois, and Eric and Geovanna Huffman. Our editor is Justin Mayer and our social media team is Kat Brough and Justin Keller. For more information about Maybe God and to sign up for exclusive updates and content, head to maybegodpod.com today. And don't forget to follow and engage with us on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Thanks for listening, everyone.