How Timothy Keller Spreads the Gospel in New York City, and Beyond

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Dutton

One of the most interesting parts of King's Cross is where you discuss the work of the historian Andrew Walls, who says that Christianity's center is always migrating away from seats of power. You write, "[W]hen Christianity is in a place of power for a long period, the radical message of sin and grace and the cross can become muted or even lost. Then Christianity starts to transmute into a nice, safe religion, one that's for respectable people who try to be good. And eventually it becomes virtually dormant in those places and the center moves somewhere else." How does that account for the success of your ministry in a place like New York, one of the most powerful cities in the world?

If you think about it, Christianity was, maybe 150 years ago, very dominant in all the big cities. Peter Drucker—do you know who he is? He was a management guru. He wrote a bunch of books—he wrote The Effective Executive. Anyway, I was at a talk he did where he was talking about how the big cities of America had become more like Europe. He was saying that when he moved from Austria in the 1930s. ... He was already an intellectual, he was a professor, and he got a job at NYU. And he was moving to the New York area—I think Hoboken or something like that—and he was trying to buy a house, and the banker said, "I'd like to speak to your rabbi or your priest or your minister." And being Austrian, he was surprised, and he said, "Why?" And the banker said, "Well, we would never lend money to someone that doesn't go to a synagogue. Why would we trust you if you weren't a member?"

And when Drucker told that story, he was trying to say things have changed, in his own lifetime. Things have really, really changed in a place like New York. There was a time at which, you had to, essentially, profess to be an orthodox Christian, to even really be in power, to work your way up, to get a loan.

It's the other way around now. Frankly, if you are an orthodox Christian in Manhattan right now, it's a social problem. People are nervous about you, they feel like you're bigoted. And so actually right now if you are a graduate of Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, and you've got your MBA, and you're working on Wall Street, or being a downtown artist or something like that, and if you are an orthodox Christian, that's very, very subversive. It's very transgressive. And in that setting, to some degree, it's tough to be a Christian here. But in other ways, it is the kind of soil in which Christianity does well. And that is: Christians are out of power.

I know what you're saying is, "Yeah, but New York is a power center, and if you have an MBA from Harvard and you're working on Wall Street, then you're part of the power." Well, yeah, but if you're a Christian, at this point, that still puts you somewhat on the outs. Certainly not in my lifetime is that going to turn around. Which means, it's not a bad soil for Christianity to grow here.

How does Redeemer respond to the difficulties of being a church in a place that is skeptical of religion?

You know the new book by Robert Putnam? It's called American Grace. Putnam is a Harvard guy—he wrote Bowling Alone. He's written a book, and it's trying to be a snapshot of where America is on religion. It's quite an interesting book. But the one thing he made a pretty interesting case for is, he said that in the end of the '60s, the mainline liberal churches got very politically involved with liberal politics. They identified with liberal politics. And that put them way out of step with the mainstream. And there was actually a real reaction against it, and people left the mainline. It just turned them off.

But he's made the case that in the '80s and '90s the evangelical church did the same thing, except with conservative politics. Because it identified so strongly with conservative politics, that also put them somewhat out of step with the mainstream. The mushy middle is kind of moderate about politics, really.

And as a result there's been a backlash against evangelicals. And I think that's true. Because I've been here during that time. And I would say that as a fairly orthodox believer, that I've seen in a place like New York, because of the identification of orthodox Christianity with conservative politics, there's actually more antipathy here than there was 20 years ago. There's more fear. Part of the reason why Redeemer has done well is because we've always said, "We're about Christianity, not politics. And we know that your Christian faith is going to affect your political views. We know that—we're not saying that won't happen. But we also don't think that your Gospel faith necessarily throws you into one party or the other. " And because we've had that stance, it's one of the reasons I think we haven't had a backlash here.

As you were writing King's Cross, was there anything you learned about the Gospel of Mark that you hadn't noticed before?

No one thing. I'll tell you, the thing I struggle with is doing justice to it. When I'm preaching I don't quite get the same— When you're writing a book, you feel like you're putting something down. It's a little more permanent. And therefore I actually struggled just with a feeling like I'm not doing justice to the material, which is the Gospel of Mark, or more directly, Jesus himself. There's a true story, evidently, of [Arturo] Toscanini. He was director of the NBC Symphony Orchestra years ago, here in New York. And there was some place where he had just conducted—actually it was just a rehearsal. He conducted a Beethoven symphony. And he did such an incredible job with it that when it was all done, the musicians gave him a standing ovation. And he started to cry. He literally started to cry, and he actually had them sit down, and he wouldn't let them applaud, and then he said, "It's not me, it wasn't me, it was Beethoven."

Now, what he's getting across there is a feeling like, "I'm just trying to do justice to the material. And usually I don't. And if occasionally I do ok, you shouldn't be applauding me. It's just, I got out of the way. I just got out of the way and we actually heard how great the music was."

And I feel the same struggle. I'm just trying to get out of the way. And you can't. In other words, when you're actually reading, and you're getting directly a sense of the greatness and the attractiveness of Jesus—and by the way, to say he's attractive doesn't mean he's warm and toasty all the time. I mean, sometimes he's scary, but he's still attractive. I just want to say, I want other people to have the same experience I've had as I've read. And I never quite get there. So I struggled with that, a lot. And it was a huge struggle to write. It's a lot harder to write than it is to speak. There's something about speaking that's impermanent. You think, "Well, I can do it again next time." But with a book, I didn't feel that way.

Sometimes, actually, I have to say, some of the chapters I read and I wept and felt good about. I felt like it wasn't a great chapter—I let him through. I let Jesus through. But there's others that I don't feel that way, and I say, "Agh." My big struggle was doing justice to him, and doing justice to the material. That sounds a little bit pious, to say it the way I said it there. You understand, I hope.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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