Glimpses of a world with grace at its core: The Christian Witness of Tim Keller

Max Jeganathan explores Tim Keller's legacy - and especially his hugely influential model of public theology.

In June 1989, a young Christian pastor and his wife moved from Pennsylvania to New York, to plant a church in Manhattan. His name was Timothy Keller. His project was faithful, hopeful, and unlikely: to share the Christian message with the professional class in New York City. When he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church 34 years ago, Keller couldn’t have anticipated the way his life and work would re-define the way millions of Christians across the world thought about the intersection between the message of Jesus and modern society.

Keller’s death last week at the age of 72 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, was followed by two obituaries published in the New York Times (one by Sam Roberts, the other by David Brooks) That’s no small thing. Journalist and author Jonathan Ranch — an atheist — said that Keller’s work had enabled him to have “glimpses of a world with humility, love, and grace at its core”.

I heard Keller referred to once as the “Protestant Pope”. The hyperbole is amusing, but it’s not empty. He will be remembered as one of the most influential cultural apologists of the twentieth century and a central figure for an entire generation of Christians and interested sceptics. His death presents an invitation to reflect on how Christianity is represented and understood in the twenty-first century public square.

In the age of acceleration, he invited people to slow down and take a look at the message of Jesus, and they did.

Tim Keller wrote and spoke with grace, humility, and penetrating insight — a rare combination in public discourse today. Fittingly, it was a combination that proved enormously attractive. His Redeemer family of churches now draws 5,000 people every Sunday in Manhattan alone. And the not-for-profit he co-founded — City 2 City— has had a hand in planting almost 1,000 churches across some 140 countries. It’s an unlikely story: the growth of classical orthodox Christianity in high-income, highly educated metropolitan centres around the world. Whatever Keller did, it worked. In the age of acceleration, he invited people to slow down and take a look at the message of Jesus, and they did.

Christianity in an age of authenticity

The Berlin Wall came down a few months after Keller planted his church in New York. The Cold War ended, the internet emerged, the global economy boomed and philosopher Charles Taylor’s “age of authenticity” swung into action. Christianity — in public, at least — was torn, confused about whether it should play defence or offence. The problem was that defence looks weak while offence feels, well, offensive.

The culture warriors asserted the need to stand firm, hold fast and defend ground in the battlefield of ideas. By contrast, the theological liberalisers had a greater regard for the cultural climate but, at times, were willing to re-interpret the Bible to better suit modern parlances. The former can lack empathy, reducing faith to a political ideology. The latter can imply that the Bible is only an occasionally relevant guide to moral life — to be shelved alongside volumes on effective habits, winning friends and influencing people. Examples of Christianity on defence and offence abound, but neither feels or sounds much like the Jesus that we read about in the Bible.

These tensions continue. Christians — with good reason, sadly — are seen by some as an annoying combination of wishy-washy, irrelevant, bigoted, and dogmatic. While these critiques remain in some quarters, they have been successfully countered by Keller and those he influenced. This revitalised approach to Christian public engagement is not ubiquitous in Christian circles, but it has proven resonant and effective where it has been tried.

Keller’s model of public theology

The onset of the internet, the communications revolution, and the emergence of techno-capitalism called for a reviving of Christian public theology from generations past. A model was needed that made sense to modern Christians and, more importantly, resonated with sceptics. It needed to communicate the truth claims of the Bible through the wide-ranging riches of Christian thought, philosophy, and activism from earlier generations.

Creatives like Dorothy Sayers and J.R.R. Tolkien; cultural apologists like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Francis Shaeffer; social activists like Corrie Ten Boom, Martin Luther King, Jr. and William Wilberforce; and scholars from St. Augustine to Kierkegaard to Pascal — these all have served as a reservoir of intellectual and moral nourishment. For most sceptics and many Christians, these are not household names, but they are witnesses to and reminders of what secular societies demand of the church.

Tim Keller was certainly not the first or the only one to draw on such sources or to synthesise their thinking, but he did so uncommonly thoughtfully and effectively. This freshly calibrated brand of public theology takes its place in the lineage of cultural and biblical exposition that goes back to the early church. When the Apostle Paul visited Athens, he communicated the Christian message in the synagogue (through the Jewish scriptures), in the marketplace (through the concepts of the marketplace) and in the Aereopagus (through the words of local poets and philosophers).

It is a model of public theology that doesn’t run away from the Bible. And it doesn’t run away from the big questions of culture. It begins with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. And it refuses to put down either. It doesn’t bend to cultural dogmas but it accommodates itself to cultural parlance. It doesn’t jettison the supernatural. Rather, it critiques the human condition, revealing our need for the supernatural. It embraces the biblical truth that love is the supreme ethic, but it draws on ancient wisdom to challenge our contemporary assumptions about the shape of the good life. It recognises the Bible’s resonance with modern cries for justice but makes the case that for justice to be redemptive, it must first seek restoration, not retribution.

This inviting and responsive model of public theology doesn’t seek a middle path between defensive and offensive Christianity, but runs on a different track altogether. It is a culturally resonant re-introduction to — what C.S. Lewis called — “mere Christianity”. It points to a biblical model of flourishing that is anchored in purpose not utility, in sacrifice not desire, in pursuing goodness rather than greatness. And it recognises the critical importance of form alongside substance. Accordingly, it assumes a posture that is gracious, humble, empathetic, and respectful. These messages are countercultural, not anti-cultural.

The place and promise of Christianity

The search for and experience of faith are rarely simple. Most people most of the time are either walking with God, struggling with God, wrestling with God, or trying to ignore God — and many of us are doing a number of these things simultaneously. Effective public theology needs to recognise that our existential journeys are messy and non-linear. We are all trying to fit in, stand out, deal with suffering, make something of ourselves, and often just get through the day. If the Christian message is going to play its part in modern lives, then Christian public engagement needs to empathise with the complexity of modern life. Keller was able to do this powerfully and effectively. It explains the widespread regard for his work.

We are often told that the culture wars are a battle to be joined. The Bible sees them more like a puzzle to be solved. Christians are told to swim against the cultural currents. But there is an alternative — to introduce new tributaries of fresh water into those currents, influencing their composition and trajectory.

While Tim Keller may not meet the criteria for fame outside of Christian circles, his importance is clear.

There is a difference between fame and importance. The Kardashians and Isaac Newton occupy different categories. While Tim Keller may not meet the criteria for fame outside of Christian circles, his importance is clear. For Christians, Keller’s death should serve as a reminder of the enduring relevance of his humble but powerful approach to public theology. For everyone else, his success could serve as an invitation to investigate the central promise of Christianity: that even in the midst of our struggles and doubts — in Keller’s words — “we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope”.

Max Jeganathan served as a political and social policy adviser in the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in ABC Religion and Ethics.