Christ and Pop Culture Reflects on the Legacy of Timothy Keller
On May 19, 2023, Timothy Keller passed away following a three-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Many readers of this site will be familiar with Keller’s work as the founding pastor of Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church and as a well-regarded contemporary apologist. He was particularly noted for his ability to integrate thoughtful ideas from philosophy and culture into his insightful biblical exposition. Here, some of Christ and Pop Culture’s writers present their reflections on how Keller’s life and thought informed or shaped their own work.
A Man of Grace and Truth
There’s a lot I could say about Tim Keller, but I will keep it brief. At the end of his life, his death is a reminder that even the most caring, brilliant, service-oriented, and insightful men and women have an expiration date. How we impact others along the journey with our gifts, talents, time, energy, and knowledge is what will matter most when we are gone.
And what mattered most to me about Tim Keller was his consistent approach to humanity with grace and truth. Of course, this will be an overstatement for many of you, but I’ll state it anyway: I wish more Christians were like Tim Keller. I wish I was more like him because his pursuit and joy was to be as loving as Christ was to the world.
“The gospel says you are simultaneously more sinful and flawed than you ever dared believe, yet more loved and accepted than you ever dared hope.” — Timothy Keller
Isn’t This What We Are?
Though I’m a literature professor by trade and a cultural analyst here at CaPC, I first learned about Keller through listening to his sermons. Though I am a layperson, I’m also a pastor’s kid and an intellectually promiscuous reader, so I’ve had a lot of time to ingest biblical scholarship. A good sermon ought to be practical, of course, but I also want it to teach me something I didn’t know. (The way to my heart is through my mind, as if those were even two different faculties.) This sets a bar for preaching that seems almost impossible to meet. Yet, as I soon learned, this is exactly the standard Timothy Keller kept throughout his pastoral ministry: sermons that were erudite and instructive but also deeply practical too. He preached what remains to this day my all-time favorite sermon.
But what I found in following his work was that whether in his preaching, his talks and interviews, his other writings, or even (as best I can tell) in his life, he modeled what I had always thought evangelical Christianity could be (indeed, what I, in my little intellectual corner, had always grown up thinking it was). Well-read and interdisciplinary, clear but nuanced, truthful but gracious, sailing toward the future with the wind of tradition in his sails, Timothy Keller was simply the fullest embodiment of qualities I was used to seeing among friends and colleagues in churches and Christian colleges across my entire life.
In a recent article, Michael Luo asks whether Keller’s work will be able to continue. In our fractious and polarized environment, are there other leaders of his caliber doing what he did, balancing ardent faith with charitable argument and robust cultural sensibilities in a way that rejects our currently inadequate Western categories? I don’t know the answer to this on the macro-level. I know plenty of people doing it on other tiers, from simple church parishioners and family members to colleagues around the world and across disciplines. Locally, I think of my acquaintance Leslie Anne Bustard, also taken from us by cancer this year, who, with her husband Ned helped guide Square Halo Books (which has even published a book about Keller’s work). Can this tribe win the day in our current climate? I can’t say. But at least we have had one picture of what it could look like.
He Was Kind
In watching the flow of online reactions to Tim Keller’s death, I couldn’t help but notice one dominant theme: his kindness. Over and over again, people recalled instances when Keller reached out, sent a note, set up a meeting, or just offered some encouraging words to someone badly in need of a little compassion.
And it wasn’t just kindness to his peers, either. Repeatedly, people have shared memories of Keller’s kindness to them when they were in no position to do anything for him. To all the “little people,” the bloggers with just a handful of readers, the obscure pastors, the women experiencing bruising pile-ons on social media or in their churches, he made it a special point to be kind. And to those who disagreed with him, as well. One woman who worked with him, and who is now pursuing ordination, wrote, “I was never treated less-than because I had different beliefs. My contributions to our work were always recognized.” Anyone who’s spent five minutes in our current cultural milieu will recognize how rare and precious that is.
The days and weeks to come will undoubtedly bring many reflections on Keller’s doctrine, worldview, leadership, and preaching skills. All of those are unquestionably important. But how moving—and how biblical—that the first thing to come to so many people’s minds was simply, “He was kind.” May his example inspire us to do likewise.
“And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” —1 Corinthians 13:2 (NKJV)
Because He Was Faithful…
I probably should not be writing any sort of tribute to Timothy Keller, but here I am, doing it anyway. The thing is, I have never read anything by Keller, and I feel like that disqualifies me somehow. But I have prayed for him ever since I heard of his cancer diagnosis, and when I heard word of his death, it struck me like the passing of a friend.
The thing about Tim Keller and me is, his words and teachings have been all around me since about 2016. For these past years, he was the pastor of my pastors, the caregiver of those who have given care to me. He influenced the thought and spiritual formation of those who have influenced mine. I have, in ways I will probably uncover for years to come, learned from Tim Keller’s faithful pastoring, and it helped me to hold on to Jesus.
Tim Keller has stood for me as a steward of truth during years where the truth has been obscured along tribal and political lines. I came to realize, over the last few years, that I tended to gravitate toward pastors and teachers and mentors who quoted a lot of Tim Keller. I came to realize that for me—with the temptation to despair and deconstruct so near—Tim Keller’s faithfulness and the faithfulness he inspired in others struggling through the storm like me meant the whole world to me. Because he was faithful, I think there are many who did not lose hope. I think I can, in the end, call him “friend,” because I think he’s the sort of person who would have been okay with that.
And I think I should probably, finally, read one of Tim Keller’s books.
The C. S. Lewis of Our Times
When I was in college, I served at a small Southern Baptist church in the panhandle of Florida. In the three years I served at that church, we went through four different pastors. I was only 18 and newly married when I started, and during the course of my time there, I unexpectedly lost my mother. This was a difficult formative time for me in vocational ministry. After leaving, my wife and I found various churches to visit and ultimately felt out of place.
I was always a little bit of a rebel and began spending time with a few other students from my small Bible college at a local cigar and wine bar. We met a military family there who wanted to start a Bible study in a context that was different from the local church. We started spending time on the weekends at their house, and they started inviting some of their friends. One of their friends shared that they had been a part of a church where the pastor recommended Tim Keller‘s book The Reason for God. This was around the time when Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others had started the “new atheist” movement while evangelicalism was known for its anti-intellectualism. It was also at this point that I was introduced to the work of the C. S. Lewis of our times.
Tim Keller was a Presbyterian and I was a diehard Baptist, though truthfully, I didn’t understand our doctrinal differences. Over time, he introduced me to a new way of understanding how to communicate the gospel. There was no formula or beating other people with the Bible, and there was truthfully nothing other than grace. Later in my life, I realized I was probably closer to being a Presbyterian than being a Baptist, but more importantly, I realized that it’s okay to disagree with other people about doctrine. Tim Keller taught me that. He taught me that while he believed women could not hold the office of Pastor, it’s important to respect anyone and any office they are in. He taught me that while you may disagree with someone about baptism, as long as people are coming to saving faith in Jesus Christ, it truly doesn’t matter.
One anecdote comes to mind when I think of Tim Keller: a woman I know with a PhD, who is an ordained pastor, shared with pride that she was in a meeting with him. He treated her as an equal, even in an office he did not believe she should hold. This does not happen in many evangelical spaces. Tim taught us a new way forward and if we want to continue to deal with our current culture’s polarization as Christians, we would do well to learn from his example.