The Far-Seeing Faith of Tim Keller

On the evening of February 11, 2006, a severe winter storm arrived in New York City. By four in the afternoon the next day, nearly twenty-seven inches of snow had fallen in Central Park, surpassing the record that had been set in 1947. That night, as many streets in the city remained impassable, I trudged to a church building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and found six hundred or so people, mostly young professionals, squeezed into the pews. They had come to listen to a Presbyterian minister named Timothy J. Keller preach his fourth sermon of the day. I was there, as a religion reporter for the Times, to observe perhaps the most gifted communicator of historically orthodox Christian teachings in the country.

Keller had glasses and a bald pate and wore a dark blazer and a red tie. He stood well over six feet tall. The stage made him appear even more imposing, particularly when he raised his hand high to make a point, but his mannerisms and tone were that of an English professor. With a sheaf of notes on a music stand, he preached a thoughtful disquisition on Jesus’ healing of a paralyzed man, drawing on readings from C. S. Lewis, the Village Voice, and the George MacDonald fairy tale “The Princess and the Goblin.”

Keller, who died, of pancreatic cancer, on Friday, at the age of seventy-two, had a résumé that resembled that of perhaps no other Christian minister in America. In 1989, he and his wife founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the heavily secular milieu of Manhattan. By the time he stepped down, in 2017, Redeemer had more than five thousand worshippers across multiple services every Sunday, making it one of the largest Protestant churches in New York City. Keller also was a best-selling author, publishing more than twenty books, including 2008’s “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism,” and writing regularly for major publications such as the Times, The Atlantic, and this magazine. He was a frequent guest on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”—the co-host Joe Scarborough and his family attended Redeemer—and was friendly with a remarkably broad cross-section of influential figures in media and politics, including the Times columnist David Brooks; The Atlantic’s former majority owner, David Bradley; Francis Collins, the former head of the National Institutes of Health; the actress Patricia Heaton, of “Everybody Loves Raymond”; and even Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. (President Bush issued a statement on Friday, in which he said he was “one of many who is blessed to have learned from Dr. Keller’s teachings and benefited from his compassion.”)

On the weekend after the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, more than five thousand people showed up for Sunday services at Redeemer. At one service where people had to be turned away, Keller quickly decided to convene another, and hundreds returned. The traumatic moment for the city turned out to be a pivotal one for Redeemer’s growth, as its attendance remained elevated in the weeks and months afterward. On the fifth anniversary of the attack, White House officials asked Keller to deliver a sermon at an ecumenical service at St. Paul’s Chapel, in lower Manhattan, for the families of the victims. In 2011, President Obama invited Keller to the White House to speak at the Easter prayer breakfast.

In “Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation,” a biography published earlier this year, the author Collin Hansen sketches Keller’s unusual path to ministry success. Keller was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on September 23, 1950. His father, Bill, was a retail executive; his mother, Louise, reared Tim and his two siblings mostly on her own. The family attended a Lutheran church, and Tim, the eldest child, was bookish and socially awkward. He enrolled at Bucknell University, where he studied religion, but it was his involvement with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the evangelical campus organization, that propelled his interest in the ministry. He went on to attend Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in Massachusetts, and, in 1975, moved with his wife, Kathy, to Hopewell, Virginia, a faded factory town once known as the “chemical capital of the South.” Keller led a small blue-collar church in Hopewell for nine years, before becoming a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, in Glenside, Pennsylvania.

In the late nineteen-eighties, officials with the Presbyterian Church in America, a relatively young denomination based in a suburb of Atlanta, began searching for a pastor to start a congregation in Manhattan. When they offered the position to Keller, he initially turned them down. Only after two other candidates also declined did he agree to take the job. His limited preaching experience, in a small-town church in the Bible Belt, made him an unlikely fit for New York City. Within three years of its founding, however, Redeemer had swelled from fifty people to a thousand. By the mid-aughts, it had become a beacon, around the world, for pastors interested in ministering to cosmopolitan audiences. Unlike many suburban megachurches, with their soft-rock praise bands and user-friendly sermons, Redeemer’s services were almost defiantly staid, featuring traditional hymns and liturgy. But the sermons were wry and erudite, filled with literary allusions and philosophical references, and Keller was shrewd about urging his congregants to examine their “counterfeit gods”—their pursuit of totems like power, status, and wealth, which the city encouraged. Hansen depicts Keller as a voracious reader, constantly on the lookout for source material, whether it was from the Anglican minister John Stott, the existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, or the urbanist thinker Jane Jacobs. “Keller’s originality comes in his synthesis, how he pulls the sources together for unexpected insights,” Hansen writes. “Having one hero would be derivative; having one hundred heroes means you’ve drunk deeply by scouring the world for the purest wells.”

Shortly after I wrote the article about Keller for the Times, I began regularly attending his church. Over the years, we became friends, and I would consult him from time to time while reporting on religion. In December, 2017, Keller wrote an essay for The New Yorker, in which he lamented the state of the evangelical movement in the Trump era. He had long eschewed the “evangelical” label because of its partisan implications, making a point of avoiding controversial political topics on the pulpit. In his essay, Keller explained that he had come of age in the early seventies, when “the word ‘evangelical’ still meant an alternative to the fortress mentality of fundamentalism.” But the meaning of the term had changed radically, no longer describing a set of historic Christian doctrines. “ ‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground,” he wrote. “Now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite.’ ” Keller sought a return to what he called “little-e evangelicalism,” which is “defined not by a political party, whether conservative, liberal, or populist, but by theological beliefs.” He expressed optimism for a future shaped not by white evangelicalism, whose core was aging and declining, but by a more diverse, global cadre of leaders who defied political categorization.

He later wrote an Op-Ed for the Times in which he warned that Christian faith should never be aligned with a single political party. “Most political positions,” Keller wrote, “are not matters of biblical command but of practical wisdom.” By way of example, he noted that the Bible made lifting up the poor a moral imperative, but that there were many ways to do so. “Should we shrink government and let private capital markets allocate resources, or should we expand the government and give the state more of the power to redistribute wealth? Or is the right path one of the many possibilities in between?” he wrote. “The Bible does not give exact answers to these questions for every time, place and culture.”

In June, 2020, Keller announced that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. One of his final projects, completed earlier this year, was an eighty-three-page white paper he called “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church.” It offers a wide-ranging set of prescriptions for what he viewed as the profound afflictions of the evangelical movement, including its anti-intellectualism, its problems with race, and the politicization of the church that has “turned off half the country.” The document is an exhaustive blueprint, but the question now is who will carry it out.

Keller’s passing leaves a void in the nascent movement to reform evangelicalism, and today’s social and political currents make the prospects for change seem dim. In his paper, Keller observed that, in the past, significant revival movements in Europe and North America often began with “pace-setting individuals”––in other words, people like Keller. Yet he was careful to add that “ultimately no one can control” what would capture the imagination, fortify the spirit, and become “an organic, significant movement.” In his view, this was the role of the divine. ♦

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