- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008


By Tim Keller

Dutton, $24.95, 320 pages


It’s now time for the Christian counterpunch, responding to the deluge of diatribes that have pounded away at God and his followers these past few years.

Faith is responsible for most of the world’s problems, said Sam Harris in 2004. Believers are deluded, Richard Dawkins declared in 2006. And God is not great, argued Christopher Hitchens last year.

So up stands Tim Keller, theologian, intellectual, pastor, who shepherds a church of 5,000 in New York City (only don’t call that a megachurch — those are only in the suburbs).

How do you plead, Mr. Keller, to the charge that religion has caused much of history’s trouble and bloodshed?

Guilty, says Mr. Keller.


“Religion can certainly be one of the major threats to world peace,” Mr. Keller writes.

Wait a minute. Perhaps we could back up and check your orthodox credentials Mr. Keller.

Do you believe in the divine inspiration of every word in the Bible? Of course, he says.

How about your education? Did you attend a bona fide Calvinist seminary? Try two, he retorts: Gordon-Conwell and Westminster.

And you belong to the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), not the liberal Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA)? Sure do, he says.

If you’re confused, you won’t be the only one. Mr. Keller, a prominent evangelical figure, writes in a tone quite unlike a few other current responses to the anti-God books.

Ravi Zacharias, a respected Christian apologist descended from Hindu nobles, and David Aikman, an established journalist, have both just come out with aggressive defenses against the claims of Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens. Both Mr. Zacharias and Mr. Aikman are up at arms, offended, hurt and angry over their opponent’s claims.

Mr. Keller, on the other hand, begins his book by simply making a plea for sanity and civil discourse among the children at the table. It’s an Obamaesque move.

“We have come to a cultural moment in which both skeptics and believers feel their existence threatened because both secular skepticism and religious faith are on the rise in significant, powerful ways,” Mr. Keller says.

The fact is, he argues, that both religion and secularism are ascendant. The failure to recognize this causes a problem, he says: “We don’t reason with the other side; we only denounce.”

Mr. Keller recommends less fear and loathing of opposing faith views. The idea of either side making the other extinct is silly. Instead of paranoia, he says each side should learn to “represent the other’s argument in its strongest and most positive form,” then wrestle with that opposing point of view.

“Only then is it safe and fair to disagree with it,” Mr. Keller writes. “That achieves civility in a pluralistic society, which is no small thing.”

Such clearheaded, common sense advice is badly needed these days, as are people who will follow it.

As already stated, Mr. Keller’s approach to his argument is anything but direct. He gives up more ground than the 2006 Indianapolis Colts defense (seventh worst all time) and uses more misdirection than an option offense.

Religion causes violence, doubting God is healthy, Christianity cannot exist without social justice, Jesus suffered exclusion from God’s presence (no mention of wrath), Christians tend to be morally deficient, and macro evolution is probably for real.

Throw in the natural goodness of man, the relativity of meaning and a naturalistic explanation for supposed miracles and you’d actually have a liberal.

But Mr. Keller isn’t willing to go that far. It’s a bit of a rope a dope. Mr. Keller follows up his line on religion’s threat to peace with this caveat: “Within Christianity—robust, orthodox Christianity—there are rich resources that can make its followers agents for peace on earth.”

Mr. Keller is willing to take one step backward with his reader, drawing his reader in with the hope that he can then take them two steps forward. It’s a somewhat new model of apologetics, in comparison to the knee jerk reactionary nature of conservative Christian culture over the last few decades. But it’s not as if Mr. Keller sells himself, or orthodox Christianity, short.

By the end of his book, he’s made the case that absolute truth exists, that Jesus is the only way to God, that hell exists and miracles are real, that multiculturalism destroys local cultures and erodes freedom but Christianity truly builds up diversity and preserves civil rights, and that all people, even secularists, have their own religion.

But he takes his time getting there, first addressing the most common objections to Christianity he’s heard over the past 19 years in Manhattan, and then moving on to build his case for the existence of God from the bottom up, starting with art and beauty and then getting more specific. Through it all is the gentle tone of a man who’s actually listened to people who want to believe in something but can’t get past this objection or that question.

Mr. Keller may receive rougher treatment from his own kind than he does from non-Christians. His statements on evolution have angered some within the PCA.

“For the record, I think God guided some kind of process of natural selection,” Mr. Keller says.

Those who choke on their muffins over this will probably disagree with Mr. Keller’s broader point about the evolution debate. He calls it an “intramural” distraction from the more central tenets of Christianity. And since his book is written to skeptics and seekers, his goal is to remove all obstacles to belief save the necessary ones.

Meanwhile, “The Reason for God” broke into the New York Times top 10 best-sellers list within a month of its mid-February release. That’s all the more reason for anti-elitist conservatives to be suspicious.

But Mr. Keller has stood apart for years from many Christian leaders because he has made it his mission to not only exist in a city, but to thrive on engaging with that urban culture. This idea of engaging culture—city, suburb or rural—has been hotly debated among Christian circles for several years now. Evangelicals have realized that they’ve had their heads in the sand but haven’t known quite what to do about it.

Mr. Keller has an idea about what to do, though he wouldn’t suggest he has all the answers. He says, and demonstrates, that you can believe in the Christian faith and stand unflinchingly for its teachings, and yet still be humble, gracious and winsome.

But he does not call for less fanaticism. In fact he calls for more.

“Think of people you consider fanatical. They’re overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive and harsh,” Mr. Keller says. “Why? It’s not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving, or understanding—as Christ was.”

Jon Ward covers the White House for The Washington Times.

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