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Anti-moralist Christianity

Books | Book of the Year author and New York pastor Tim Keller takes skeptics in and outside the church from doubt to reason-filled faith

Issue: "Left behind," June 28, 2008

WORLD has briefly reviewed about 200 books over the past year. Many stand out, but one in particular is likely to change many lives and ways of thinking. WORLD's Book of the Year is Tim Keller's The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (Dutton, 2008).

Keller is the gifted pastor of an ecclesiastical semi-miracle, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Few thought that young urban professionals would flock to a biblically orthodox church but Keller's flock now numbers over 5,000, and his church has birthed many others throughout the New York metropolitan area and around the world.

The Reason for God boldly takes aim at smug self-righteousness: "It is possible to avoid Jesus as Savior as much by keeping all the Biblical rules as by breaking them." As Keller explains, "Both religion (in which you build your identity on your moral achievements) and irreligion (in which you build your identity on some other secular pursuit or relationships) are, ultimately, spiritually identical courses to take. Both are 'sin.'"

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Keller in New York and I in Texas have seen the result: "Churches that are filled with self-righteous, exclusive, insecure, angry, moralistic people are extremely unattractive. . . . Millions of people raised in or near these kinds of churches reject Christianity at an early age or in college largely because of their experience. For the rest of their lives, they are inoculated against Christianity."

Keller's anti-moralism allows him to respond creatively to the denigrators of Christianity. For example, we've often heard people say that the divorce rate (or some other rate) among Christians is no better than that among nonbelievers, so the gospel makes no difference. The usual defense: Search for stats that show Christianity does make a difference. Explain. Justify. Defend.

Those stats may be there, but Keller's approach is different. He writes, "Imagine that someone with a very broken past becomes a Christian and her character improves significantly over what it was. Nevertheless, she still may be less secure and self-disciplined than someone who is so well adjusted that she feels no particular need for religious affiliation at all."

Keller develops further the comparison between a non-Christian person from "a loving, safe, and stable family and social environment" and a Christian from the opposite: "Suppose you meet both of these women the same week. Unless you know the starting points and life journeys of each woman, you could easily conclude that Christianity isn't worth much, and that Christians are inconsistent with their own high standards."

Keller's summary: Often, "people whose lives have been harder and who are 'lower on the character scale' are more likely to recognize their need for God and turn to Christianity. So we should expect that many Christians' lives would not compare well to those of the nonreligious." (He notes that the health of people in hospitals is comparatively worse than that of people visiting museums.)

Keller also goes beyond the typical in his defense against the charge that the Gospels are fiction. He could have repeated the good defenses of factual accuracy, but instead he emphasizes genre: "In modern novels, details are added to create the aura of realism, but that was never the case in ancient fiction. . . . The only explanation for why an ancient writer would mention the cushion, the 153 fish, and the doodling in the dust is because the details had been retained in the eyewitnesses' memory."

In other words, New Testament writers would have had to be brilliant enough to create not only an entirely different way of understanding resurrection but also to create a new literary genre, the modern novel, at least 1,700 years before it came into existence.

Keller explains clearly some atypical reasons for believing in God and abandons some unhelpful defenses. For example, he doesn't complain when a secularist objects that religious people tend "to use spiritual and ethical observance as a lever to gain power." Of course, he says: "Jesus conducts a major critique of religion." Christianity differs from its rivals, though, by what Jesus told his disciples: "Whoever wants to be first must be servant of all."

Keller objects when people say that Christianity threatens world peace: "Christianity has within itself remarkable power to explain and expunge the divisive tendencies within the human heart." Since all humans are made in God's image, Christians expect that "nonbelievers will be better than any of their mistaken beliefs could make them." Since believers are still sinners, Christians "expect believers will be worse in practice than their orthodox beliefs should make them. So there will be plenty of ground for respectful cooperation."


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