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Posts from the ‘Tim Keller’ Category

15
Jan

Some thoughts on Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing

Having spent the last four posts talking about childhood reading in general, it seems appropriate to move onto this. Those familiar with the Jesus Storybook Bible will know (and no doubt love) the style. That is easily the best of its kind for young children. Sally Lloyd-Jones and artist Jago have followed up with Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing. It’s ostensibly for children – though it mustn’t be reserved only for children. I found it thrilling – having expected just to dip and out, I found myself reading cover to cover.

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16
Oct

I Am The MOST IMPORTANT Person I’ve Ever Met

Which is a title sufficiently conceited to put anyone off reading this post. But let’s face it – it’s a not uncommon attitude. It lies at the heart of individualism, that pervasiveness western sickness that lies at the root of so many of our ills. It was the title I had in our current series, Great Lies of Our Time (I’m assured that the talks were not allotted because of some particular problem that needed addressing in each speaker – but who can say for sure?).

You can now download the talk here.

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14
Mar

It’s not advice, it’s news! Reflections on Tim Keller’s King’s Cross

After years of literary restraint – during which he has knuckled down with study, ministry and planting – Tim Keller now seems to be on a roll. Every 12 months or so, he produces a new distillation of some aspect of his teaching. And in some ways, the latest, King’s Cross, lies at the heart of it all. A portrait of Jesus – or as the subtitle has it, ‘The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus’.

Keller has always sought to get people into the text of the Bible. And in that aim, he is by no means alone. But at the same time, he tries to remain sensitive to cultural shifts and the complexities of individual personalities. Thus, he has always had an evangelistic edge. It is this combination of concerns (ie biblical exposition, cultural appreciation/analysis, popular psychology and Christian apologetics) that has made him such a unique and powerful voice in the contemporary scene. It is not (entirely) hyperbolic for Newsweek to dub him ‘The C S Lewis of the 21st Century‘. So having covered different ground around the ministry in his previous books (see below), this book perhaps most closely reflects his weekly preaching ministry. It is a journey through one book of the Bible (Mark’s gospel), full of reflections and insights from the surrounding territory en route.

Thrilling news drawn from an old friend

I enjoyed reading King’s Cross immensely – it had me underlining, reflecting, muttering ‘aha’ and pausing for thought with the best of them. But them I’m definitely a Keller fan – I always find so much to learn and be stretched by in his writing. He is refreshingly circumspect, avoids being shrill (unlike some of the other contemporary, transatlantic Christian gurus we shan’t name) and has a breadth of reading that clearly proves he’s not living in some fundie ghetto. What’s more, any book that seeks to draw water from the biblical text, but do it in a lively and contemporary way, will always be a winner for me. I’ve preached through the whole of Mark’s gospel once, and drawn from it many times. Furthermore, for the 4 years we were in Kampala, I taught an annual lecture course on Mark. So the book is like a dear old friend – which made discovering fresh and interesting takes on familiar texts in King’s Cross all the more of a thrill.

And if there is a phrase to sum up this take, it is this one:

The essence of other religions is advice; Christianity is essentially news. (p15)

That is spot on – and characteristically, brilliantly put. What’s more, it perfectly does justice to Mark’s one-line intro to his whole book: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1) And there are many other great lines throughout which help nail the general points. Here are a few that stood out for me:

  • If this world was made by a triune God, relationships of love are what life is really all about. (p9)
  • Jesus claimed to be able to forgive sins, and the religious leaders called that blasphemy. But Jesus goes on to make a claim so outrageous that leaders don’t have a word for it. Jesus declares not that he has come to reform religion but that he’s here to end religion and to replace it with himself. (p37)
  • In Western cosmopolitan culture there’s an enormous amount of self-righteousness about self-righteousness. We progressive urbanites are so much better than people who think they’re better than other people. We disdain those moralistic types who look down on others. Do you see the irony, how the way of self-discovery leads to as much superiority and self-righteousness as religion does? (p46)
  • Why in the world would the sacrifice of a woolly little quadruped exempt you from justice? (p164)
  • The problem is that if you want a loving God, you have to have an angry God. Please think about it. Loving people can get angry, not in spite of their love, but because of it. (p176)
  • Often what seem to be our deepest desires are really just our loudest desires. (p180)
  • The resurrection was as inconceivable for the first disciples, as impossible for them to believe, as it is for many of us today. (p216)

And there’s much more where this came from. I found his insights and connections very refreshing – eg the really helpful contrasting of Jesus’ calming of the storm with the experience of the prophet Jonah (p57), or his explanation of the importance of what he calls ‘the mealness’ of the Last Supper (p170f). It was also good to be reminded of a classic Dick Lucas illustration (p48).

So this is a book to heartily recommend. Especially because it creates an appetite for knowing more about Mark’s gospel – and more importantly, offers a powerful exposure to the sheer magnetism of Jesus himself.

Pedantic quibbles offered by a friend

And yet… and yet… I couldn’t help feeling from time to time that the great strengths of Keller’s range and passions had its flip-sides. This is a book that is essentially the transcripts of talks, on which two of his colleagues, Scott Kauffmann and Sam Shammas, clearly worked hard to transform into a more literary style. They do succeed – but of all Keller’s books, this feels the least like a constructed argument or consolidated whole. But that’s fair enough, I guess, if we appreciate what the starting point was.

It’s just that I’m not quite sure what the book is aiming to be nor who it is always for. It is bigger than many straight evangelistic books (it would require a dedicated inquirer to work through it – but they would do so with great benefit) – I would encourage people to start with one of his other recent books. But it is much shorter than a full study of Mark. A book this size could never be a comprehensive exposition of Mark (and, to be fair, nor does it ever pretend to be). We can only be taken to some of the key moments in the narrative; but even when we are, the pace is relentless. Huge chunks of biblical text are pasted in, on which it’s only possible to make some passing comments at best. This is always readable, of course. And full of pertinent comments. So it is valuable. But frustrating because I kept feeling i wanted to hear more from both Mark and his preacher!

Then if Keller’s commentary is more extended, it is usually not about the text as much as it is on wider, and nearly always fascinating, cultural phenomena or challenges. This what gives the book it’s great apologetic power. But it is not always nuanced by the finer details of the gospel narrative – which leads to some missed tricks. For example, in his treatment of Mk 1:35-38 (p26ff), we don’t have time for perhaps the key surprise – Jesus’ determination to leave for another area despite the crowds desperate for healing ‘so I can preach there also. That is why I have come‘. Which is then, curiously enough, immediately followed by a unique healing (the man lowered through the roof). My hunch is that a bit more textual detail such as this might have lent itself even more powerfully the precisely the points being made. It might also have helped to avoid one or two surprising lapses into what Carson calls ‘root fallacies’ in his Exegetical Fallacies (eg picking up  derivations of ‘dynamite‘ (p61) and ‘psychology‘ (p104)).

Which brings me to my main, albeit pedantic, concern. For at points, I felt the text was primarily a springboard into something else: whether it be an explanation of some systematic theology (eg Jesus’ baptism is a launchpad into a helpful, but not exactly Markan, apologetic for the Trinity) or apologetics (eg some of the strongest sections are those that relate to the equivalent sections in his previous books, such as his explanations of human sin (ch8) and divine justice (ch9).) It’s all good stuff – but it’s not always expository. There are times when it feels that we’re sitting at the feet of the great Christian fiction-writers like C S Lewis and Tolkein as much as Mark the Evangelist (and that is not necessarily wrong!). Just as long as we appreciate that this is what we have, that’s fine and enjoyable. But it’s not always a model to follow, nor necessarily a model that’s possible to follow (simply because most of us don’t have breadth of Keller’s learning).

Now, it is by no means false modesty when I say that I’m by far Keller’s junior when it comes to preaching and pastoral experience, intellectual grasp and insight. And precious few preachers can bear the scrutiny of a pedant’s nitpicking. I certainly couldn’t. The range and depth of these talks are remarkable and do hold up. So as I say, this is a book hugely to profit from – and I’d always encourage people to read it. I’m merely offering the quibbles of a mildly frustrated friend rather than the critical assault of a hostile sceptic!

So Tolle, Lege! It’s worth it. (And if you’re reading this before 22.3.11, use the code in the box above to get a discount at 10ofthose.com)

The next in the Keller line

… ??

As mentioned above, King’s Cross comes as the latest in a number of books published in recent years. Each makes a unique contribution. If I can hazard an overview of them, it might go something like this. The book’s subtitles are revealing in themselves.

  • The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Scepticism (2008) Constantly open to questions, this is an overview of Keller’s responses to the big ones – contemporary apologetics for a metropolitan educated world – and very effective it is too.
  • The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (2009) This articulates the key gospel insight to which Keller constantly returns: the notion that the Prodigal Son parable is a template for how we relate to God. It is most striking for helping us to see the need to speak into 3 situations: The Religious, The Rebellious and The Redeemed.
  • Counterfeit Gods: When the Empty Promises of Love, Money, and Power Let You Down (2009) In this book, Keller unpacks why there is a need for the gospel in the first place – both for the unbeliever and the believer alike. A more trenchant and persuasive articulation of contemporary idolatry it is not possible to find.
  • Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (2010) Some years back, Keller wrote Ministries of Mercy, and in some ways this is an updating of that book – a key explanation for why mercy ministry (for want of a better term) lies at the forefront of the work of Manhattan’s Redeemer church. It is a clarion call for believers to love the city.

This is building into a very valuable and positive library. And i’m looking forward immensely to see what comes next… I’d love him to produce something on a theology of the creative arts…

22
Oct

Avoiding the Keller challenge? Steve Turner’s poetic exposure of our inaction

Having had a bit of a Keller-fest on the last few postings, it struck me as rather fitting to conclude with this piercing and poignant little number from the inimitable Steve Turner. It picks up the themes of Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and the Goats, which is a text Keller picks up on in his book.

It’s a painful provocation…

Lord, Lord
by Steve Turner

You were hungry
and I was sorry.

You were thirsty
and I blamed the world.

You were a stranger
and I pointed you out.

You were naked
and I turned you in.

You were sick
and I said a prayer.

You were in prison
and I wrote a poem.

Poems, p67 (2002)

21
Oct

The gauntlet laid by Tim Keller’s Generous Justice

Keller at DG 2006 by Sola Lumina Captura

So having been motivated by the biblical appeal to action in Keller’s Generous Justice (see previous post), what’s the difference? It would hardly be right to leave us as armchair activists with an impetus to think but not act.

The political tightrope

Speaking as a transatlantic observer, it seems to me that one of the acute problems for American Christians when talking about matters political or social is that hearers are constantly trying to identify tell-tale signs of partisan politics. These quickly become a weapon to justify ignoring a case or to add it to your name-checks of supporters. And meanwhile the importance of the issues at stake gets lost.

Keller does not give hostages to fortune. There’s no way that either Republicans or Democrats can claim him as their own – which is entirely as it should be – he finds biblical grounds for challenges and affirmations to both.

Take, for example, the rather fundamental discussion of what justice is:

But underneath all the name calling are sharp differences of opinion about what justice actually is. Democrats think of it in more collective terms. They believe a low tax rate is unfair because it deprives the poor and minorities of the help they need to overcome years of discrimination. Republicans think of justice more individualistically. They believe that a high tax rate is unjust because it robs people of their due who have risked much and worked hard to keep what they earn.

… The fact is that the word ‘justice’ does not have a definition in our culture that we can all agree on. So we just use it as a bludgeon.  We self-righteously imply that those on the other side know they are simply being unjust. But they don’t. (p150)

Or then there is this discussion of families trapped poverty:

Conservatives may argue that this is the parents’ fault. It is due to a failure of moral character and the breakdown of the family. Liberals, however, see it as a failure of the government system to stem systemic racism and to change unjust social structures. But nobody says that it is the children’s fault they were born where they were. Those children are in poverty largely because they were not born into a family like mine. My three sons, just by being born where they were, have a far better chance to have a flourishing, happy life in society. There is an inequitable distribution of goods and opportunities in this world. Therefore, if you have been assigned the goods of this world by God and you don’t share them with others, it isn’t just stinginess, it is injustice. (p92)

But as mentioned in the last post, it is gospel grace that transforms social attitudes, and thus it supersedes political creeds or loyalties. Here are 3 striking quotations which show how this happens…

In Christ we receive grace, unmerited favour. Nevertheless, in the mind of the Old Testament prophets as well as the teaching of Jesus, an encounter with grace inevitably leads to a life of justice. (p49)
My experience as a pastor has been that those who are middle-class in spirit tend to be indifferent to the poor, but people who come to grasp the gospel of grace and become spiritually poor find their hearts gravitating towards the materially poor. (p102)
I believe, however, when justice for the poor is connected not to guilt but to grace and the gospel, this ‘pushes the button’ down deep in believers’ souls, and they begin to wake up. (p107)

And he goes on to illustrate precisely how this works with an extended quotation from a sermon by nineteenth century pastor and Keller hero Murray M’Cheyne. (p107 ff)

There should be no poor among you…

As can then be appreciated, how to help bring about justice for the marginalised and trapped is going to be very complex. After all, the ideologies of left and right have evolved over decades of thought and experience – and complexity simply begets more complexity. But Keller’s point is that the Bible’s analysis of poverty and injustice is far from simplistic – it’s much more nuanced than many give it credit for. Drawing on commentators like Chris Wright, for example, (and especially his excellent commentary on Deuteronomy), Keller explains how the Bible understands both poverty’s causes and appropriate responses. A key passage is Deuteronomy 15 (one which i was challenged to revisit with further study) as well as a number of others, which together offer 4 provisions for those trapped in poverty (p26 ff):

  • Release from debts
  • Provision for gleaning (i.e. leaving some food by not harvesting the edge of fields): ‘gleaning was not … what would ordinarily be called an act of charity. It enabled the poor to provide for themselves without relying on benevolence’ (p26)
  • Tithing for the poor every third year.
  • The Year of Jubilee

Thus…

If we combine the requirements of radical generosity with the regulations on profit-taking and property use, we are not surprised that God could say, ‘there should be no poor among you.’ This does not mean that people would not continue to fall into poverty. But if Israel as an entire society had kept God’s laws perfectly with all their hearts, there would have been no permanent, long-term poverty. (p28)

But the bible is not naïve about how poverty arises. And Keller’s analysis is all the more striking because he approaches it all from a theological background more commonly associated with the Christian right.

The three causes of poverty, according to the Bible, are oppression, calamity and personal moral failure. Having surveyed the Bible on these texts numerous times, I have concluded that the emphasis is usually on the larger structural factors. (p38)

So what to do…

This book gave me one of those lightbulb moments at the point where he ingeniously imagined a Good Samaritan follow-up.

Imagine a sequel to the Good Samaritan parable. The months go by and every time he makes his trip from Jerusalem  to Jericho he finds another man in the road, beaten and robbed. Finally the Samaritan says, ‘How do we stop the violence?’

The answer to that question would be some kind of social reform – instituting a new social arrangement that stops the flow of victims because of a change of social conditions. (p126)

And thus, every problem is part of a wider context – what he calls a ‘matrix of causes’ (p33). Which is why it needs a matrix of responses. He articulates 3 levels of support – relief, development and reform. Here he draws on the famous theologian and former Dutch Prime Minister, Abraham Kuyper and his distinction between the institutional and organic church (the latter being the impact of individual Christians going about their business in the world).

I believe Kuyper is generally right. We have spoken of different ‘levels’ of ministry to the poor – relief, development and reform. As we have said, churches under their leaders should definitely carry out ministries of relief and some development among their own members and in their neighbourhoods and cities, as the natural and crucial way to show the world God’s character, and to love the people that they are evangelising. But if we apply Kuyper’s view, then when we get to the more ambitious work of social reform and the addressing of social structure, believers should work through associations and organizations rather than through the local church. While the institutional church should do relief inside and around its community, the ‘organic’ church should be doing development and social reform. (p145)

The book does give examples of transformational work happening through churches and individuals. And as an avid devotee of The Wire (having devoured all 5 seasons in with equal measures of horror and rapt amazement!), I was hugely encouraged to hear of the work of New Song Urban Ministries in Sandtown Baltimore (started up by his friend Mark Gornik). Here all these levels are being worked out.

But, that’s definitely quite enough for now! Read the book – he says it all much more fluently and coherently. His case is cogent and hard to dismiss.

Finally, for those who think our only responsibility is to help fellow believers, there’s this resounding battle cry. Ignore it your peril:

However, the Bible is clear that Christians’ practical love, their generous justice, is not to be confined to only those who believe as we do. Galatians 6:10 strikes the balance when Paul says: ‘Do good to all people, especially the family of faith.’ Helping ‘all people’ is not optional, it is a command. (p61)

20
Oct

One week only: Get Keller’s GENEROUS JUSTICE cheap

One or two have been in touch to say that getting hold of Tim Keller’s excellent Generous Justice through Amazon is proving tricky. Well, help is at hand. The dudes at 10ofThose have come up with another of their exclusive Quaerentia offers. This gives you an extra £1 off the already discounted price.

But QUICK – it is for one week only.

Go to 10ofThose and add this discount code when you get to the check out

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But hurry – you’ve only got a week! Pass the message on!

20
Oct

Provocations and Grace from Tim Keller’s Generous Justice

I have been waiting for years for someone to write this book. And so I’m hugely grateful to Tim Keller. He’s clearly the man for the job – his years of ministerial experience, academic ability and personal integrity well qualify him to write of the crying need for Evangelicals to engage with issues of justice and poverty. He’s done it before in his celebrated Ministries of Mercy, but this book seems to have a greater apologetic edge.

And he knows his audience. Or rather his audiences. For he is well-aware, no doubt from heated interactions, that there are various groups out there who are profoundly sceptical of this passion. The problem is that they are coming from such conflicting starting positions; so it takes a masterly lightness of touch to engage each without alienating another.

A complex battleground

But part of the approach is to identify his interlocutors from the start (from page xi) and then interact with each as he goes along – I’ve tried summarise them like this:

  • The Instinctive Advocate: those Christians with the gut feeling that poverty and justice are important but who have never been able to integrate that with their faith. To them, Keller seeks to give a thought through, biblical rationale for why this instinct is god-given.
  • The Sceptical Evangelist: those who fear any journey down this road will inevitably lead to doctrinal compromise and the ‘social gospel’. We’re here just to evangelise, aren’t we? To which Keller challenges by articulating both Old & New Testament motivations and commands to love the poor, and to question what a reluctance to such love might indicate about their ministerial context and personal spirituality. He doesn’t think they are the same thing – and this is important to what he goes on to say – but he does argue that we can’t have one without the other:

… to consider deeds of mercy and justice to be identical to gospel proclamation is a fatal confusion. I propose a different way to understand evangelism and social justice. They should exist in an asymmetrical, inseparable relationship. (p139)

It is also impossible to separate word and deed ministry from each other in ministry because human beings are integrated wholes – body and soul. When some Christians say, ‘Caring for physical needs will detract from evangelism’, they must be thinking of only doing evangelism among people who are comfortable and well-off. (p141-142)

  • The Revisionist Campaigner: frustrated by evangelicals’ sluggish or avoided engagement, these go further than Instinctive Advocates and blame what they perceive as the ‘individualism’ of protestant orthodoxy. Their solution is to water down or distance themselves from it. To them, Keller is resounding in his appeal to evangelical orthodoxy – not just because he seeks to prove its biblical faithfulness, but also because he sees it as the fundamental bridge to a changed life and ethical behaviour, when it is properly understood. This quotation could serve as a summary of a point that he frequently returns to:

But as we have seen, doing justice is inseparably connected to preaching grace. This is true in two ways. One way is that the gospel produces a concern for the poor. The other is that deeds of justice gain credibility for the preaching of the gospel. In other words justification by faith leads to doing justice, and doing justice can make many seek to be justified by faith. (p140)

  • The Atheist Accuser: those who follow the likes of Christopher Hitchens by claiming that ‘religion poisons everything’. Keller has interacted with such issues before, most notably in The Reason for God. But the focus is narrower here. His approach is to question the ethical basis for human rights in the forbidding frigidity of a godless universe, and then to suggest that talk of human dignity is an inevitable corollary of divine creation and redemption. He even seems to have Derrida on his side on that point! (p167) It is a trenchant argument – proving that far from being poisonous, religion, and Christianity in particular, is pivotal for the protection of the vulnerable and the weak. This is, of course, why it is such an affront and scandal when Christians don’t do that.

I suppose for a number of years I fell very much into the first camp – troubled by the world’s injustices, but unable to articulate an integrated theological response. Many friends, whom I hugely respect, were in the second – and part of the problem, I think, is that they would not read or engage with many who think differently on this issue (because of their lack of orthodoxy in other areas). What is so refreshing therefore about Keller’s approach is that he is explicitly and deliberately approaching the question from the vantage point of the classic reformed doctrines of creation, substitutionary atonement, justification, sanctification and so on. Some attack him because his social involvement leads to suspicions that he has gone soft on these. But Keller retorts by saying that it is precisely this gospel that drives him to it. And he enjoys great precedents in reformed luminaries as diverse as Jonathan Edwards, Murray M’Cheyne and Abraham Kuyper (all of whom he quotes at various points).

Getting back to the Non-Question

Having lived in the two-thirds world for a number of years, it was impossible to ignore the  appalling conditions and social realities of people’s lives. It would have been callous to do so. That, in part, is why very few African friends understand the western church’s hang up on social action and evangelism. It’s a non-question for them. But in Generous Justice, Keller convincingly argues in a coherent, accessible and readable way why it should be non-question for us all. I sensed when we lived in Uganda, and I sense all the more strongly having read this book, that one mistake is to get lost in the intricacies of working out theoretical priorities (a necessary activity, of course). You start pitting this life against the next life and … well … it seems no contest.

But suppose we take the concern for justice out of the mission equation, just for a moment (don’t panic – I do think that it is an integral part of what God is doing on earth, which is why we should be involved. But bear with me just for a moment.) Instead, place justice and poverty in matters of holiness and discipleship and suddenly the landscape changes. It’s not then primarily a question of priorities. It’s a question of godliness. We don’t ask, ‘is it more important to be honest, humble or generous?’ That would be ludicrous. We shouldn’t expect to have to choose – we should strive after all three.

So it is with seeking justice and loving the poor. And as that is God’s heartbeat, so it should be ours. As Keller points out, it’s fascinating that God introduces himself as

‘a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows’ (Ps 68:4-5). This is one of the main things he does in the world. He identifies with the powerless, he takes up their cause. (p6)

To be like God is to do the same thing – to care for what has been called the “quartet of the vulnerable” (the widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor cf. Zech 7:10-11). (p4)

Grace changes everything

The thrust of this book’s argument is that grace is the heart of everything. And so Keller returns to the well-worn but crucial paths on the dangerous road to Jericho. His earlier book Ministries of Mercy was subtitled the Call of the Jericho Road. And here he is very clear why we should:

Before you can give this neighbour-love [e.g. as the Samaritan does], you need to receive it. Only if you see that you have been saved graciously by someone who owes you the opposite will you go out into the world looking to  help absolutely anyone in need. (p77)

This is why the gospel of grace is absolutely pivotal – both for motivating and modelling an all-round holistic ministry, and for reminding us of our own deep needs and equality with those we serve and love.

In the next post, I’ll pick up some of the more practical and political aspects of Keller’s case.