Not many people know about this part of Keller’s life, and I was intrigued by the juxtaposition: Keller, who has been called “a pioneer of the new urban Christians” for his work in Manhattan, spent nearly a decade pastoring a church in a community where only 5 percent of the local high-school graduates went on to college.
“They were utterly different places to preach and to pastor,” Keller said. The illustrations, metaphors, and cited sources he used were quite different. Quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, can work in New York City in a way it wouldn’t in Hopewell. In one place, you’re likely to deal with investment bankers and masters of the universe; in the other, you’re interacting with factory workers and people who grew up in an agrarian economy.
Additionally, Keller said, in a rural church like Hopewell, “you’re in everybody’s lives. You go to their Sweet 16 parties, you go to their graduations, you watch them die, you hold their hands as they’re dying, you walk through divorces, you’re there for absolutely everything.” It’s a very different situation in a big city, he told me, where people in the congregation come to see you for counseling during office hours.
But what I found most interesting is that, as Keller explained it, “in a blue-collar town, your pastoral work sets up your preaching.” Unless congregants have gotten to know you personally, unless you’ve supported them through all kinds of problems and shown wisdom in the way you as a minister treat them, they won’t listen to your preaching. They have to trust you first.
In a place like New York, however, “people look for expertise; they’re professionals, and they want to know you’ve got the goods; they want to know you’re really good at what you do. And if they hear you and they say, ‘Oh, that’s smart, that’s very interesting, that’s very skillful,’ then they’ll come and talk to you about their problems.”
Turning to theology, I probed Keller on the challenge to faith posed by theodicy. Channeling David Hume in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, how does Keller explain why an all-good, all-loving, and all-powerful God allows for the existence of evil and suffering in the world? It’s a question to which I have long thought Christian philosophers (and nonphilosophers) offer at best an incomplete response. (I’ve made my own inadequate efforts to wrestle with this issue as a Christian.)
Keller, who was an associate practical-theology professor at Westminster Theological Seminary before founding Redeemer Presbyterian, answered in two parts. On the pastoral side, he said that the wrong answer, especially for a person who has experienced suffering or grief, is: “Don’t question; God has his reasons.”
The whole Book of Job is a testimony to the Bible’s invitation to us to struggle and cry out in suffering, Keller told me. “After Job does this for 40 chapters, God vindicates him,” he said. “This is no call to stoicism or ‘Don’t question.’” Job is “a book showing [that] God is patient with us in suffering and always present even when he seems absent.” So when dealing with someone who is suffering, “you start with Christ’s suffering, his walking with us in the furnace, his giving us his love and presence, though not all the answers.”