How Timothy Keller Spreads the Gospel in New York City, and Beyond
In 1989, Timothy Keller moved from rural Virginia to New York City with his wife and sons to start Redeemer Presbyterian Church. The church started small but in the past two decades has grown to 5,000 weekly attenders, attracting attention from the New York Times for its ministry to New Yorkers after the September 11th attacks and New York magazine, which called Keller the "most successful Christian Evangelist in the city" in 2006. Keller's influence began to extend beyond New York in 2008 when he published The Reason for God, a rational defense of belief in God that became a New York Times bestseller. Keller spoke with The Atlantic about how his success as a writer has affected his church and the process he went through to write his latest book, The King's Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus, which comes out this week.
What made you decide to write a book about the life of Jesus?
In a way, the reason why I wrote the book is I'm a Christian minister. And a basic job, I think, is to get people to be attracted to Jesus. That's the purpose of the book: to take the continual, almost inexorable, interest that people have in Jesus—it seems like no matter whether people have a positive or negative view of the church, regardless of whether the culture is secular or religious, there is an interest in Jesus. I'm trying to connect with that because I find Jesus very attractive, and I want people to be attracted to him.
And why did you choose to focus on the Gospel of Mark rather than any of the other three gospels?
You're an author, so you'll probably laugh at this: I chose Mark because it's the shortest gospel. But because it's short, it's compressed, and it moves from incident to incident in Jesus' life very quickly. In Matthew, Luke, and John, you have these long discourses, long pieces of teaching, and they're wonderful in many cases, like the Sermon on the Mount. And they raise a lot of questions.
But if you're really just trying to get exposed to all the aspects of Jesus, in Mark you get three or four incidents: Jesus with the dying girl, Jesus with the Pharisees, Jesus with a scholar. You get so many pictures of him per chapter that very quickly you get a very full-bodied picture of who he is. Also there's a sense of immediacy: it's all in the present tense. Sometimes it says, "Immediately he did this, immediately he did that." It's pretty compelling. I always go there, to Mark, if I'm trying to introduce somebody to Jesus. It's the fastest way to give the person a picture.
It's interesting to hear you say that writing books is part of your calling as a Christian minister, since in the past you've said you think you're a better preacher than a writer.
Well, I struggle to be a writer. If you ask me to go someplace and speak after all these years, yes, I can pull that together, I can do that. Writing is much more difficult for me. ... I am a better speaker than a writer, but basically I felt like over the years there are certain messages I wanted to get out there, and I felt that the written word is one way to get them out that can't be gotten out any other way.
I was reading some article—I can't remember who it was, it was a book reviewer for the Washington Post, I thought. Basically, it said a book is a textually created world. ... When you give yourself to a book, you essentially let the author take you into a world for a while. Even if it's a non-fiction book, the author is basically saying, "This is how I see what's going on in the world." ... It has an effect on you that simply listening to a 30-minute talk or an address, no matter how compelling, I don't think does.
I found in the last three years that people are affected by the books in ways I don't think oral communication can do. So I made that effort, and it's not easy.
What's your writing process like?
It works best if I have spoken on it because I can hear myself saying it, and then I write it. The other thing that you might find interesting—though I don't know if I can keep it up—is what I'll do is when I've written a chapter or two or three, I'll read them to my wife, out loud. And as I do that, we'll both say, "Well, do you want to put it that way or that way?" I understand what I'm trying to say better if I actually read it aloud to her, and she would actually rather I do that even though it's a bit tedious, you know, to have someone read aloud to you for an hour. She would rather do that than actually look at it on the page.
I think partly it's because when you're reading something I think you do say it in your head. And so I want to hear what it's going to sound like in the people's heads. And the best way to do that is to read it out loud. So, I usually have to speak it, then I write it, then I speak it to my wife and make corrections that way.
You've been a minister for a while, and you've led Redeemer for more than two decades. What made you decide to start writing books for a wide audience now, rather than earlier in your career?
I'm 60. I've been here for 20 years. I've had almost 40 years of ministry. I waited deliberately to write for a few reasons: One is I wanted to get pretty much mature in my thinking. In other words, I've pretty much come mostly to my conclusions. If I were a man in my 30s or even my 40s writing, then I would be afraid that I'd evolve on past what I'd written down.
Also, I've got a lot more material because I've been working this stuff through. I've probably preached the whole book of Mark five times in my life. And so I feel like I've got, you know, more stuff. I waited for that reason: I felt like it would be better stuff if I waited.
The Reason for God spent several weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. How has being a successful author changed your relationship with the people in your church?
That's a fair question, and a good one, actually, and a wise one, even. The upside is, many, many people show up because they've read the book. An example of this is, I met a German PhD student at a local university who was wrestling with whether he believed in God or not, found the book The Reason for God in the airport, read it, was very intrigued with it, said "Gee, I would love to hear more about this," and realized he lived within walking distance of where the church was. He just looked at the book jacket and said, "Wait a minute, I can walk to this place." And he just showed up.
Those are the good stories. I would say that the problem with ministers who write books is that people make the church a destination church. Which is to say they either drive in from a long distance away because they say, "Oh, let's go into town, have a bite to eat, and go hear the minister whose book I read." Or they may even fly. There are certain churches where the minister has a high profile that become destination churches. I don't think it actually directly hurts to have an additional 500 people every Sunday who show up and don't live here and aren't actually part of the church. In some way you could say it's cheap thrills—they fill up the seats, and it's really kind of festive, and it's nice. But it actually can give the rest of the congregation the mistaken idea that the congregation is growing—which it has, but it's not actually growing as much as they think because the folks are not really part of the community.
That doesn't hurt. And yet I could imagine if this went on for 20 years, I think you'd actually have to start to say, "Which part of the church is the community of people who are here, and which part of the church is coming to hear the celebrity?" I would say that because I'm near the end of my career, I don't think it's going to harm the church, at all.
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.