Wednesday, June 04, 2008

the reason for god

Here are ten reasons why you should have a garage sale in order to raise money to buy this book for every Christian young adult you know. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God; Belief in an Age of Skepticism (Dutton, 2008)

Keller is pastor of a church in Manhattan. One over-indulgent (!) Keller fan has brought together much of the material on him that is available on the internet. And then there is the site related specifically to the book itself and the one where free downloads of Keller messages are available.

But back to my Ten Reasons:

1. Keller has the courage to face the issues which dominate the water-cooler conversation about Christianity and which are so tough for pastors and churches that they tend to be consigned to the too-hard basket. The Table of Contents reveal "the seven biggest objections and doubts about Christianity I've heard from people over the years" (xix) including 'how could a good God allow suffering?", 'how can a loving God send people to hell?', 'there can't be just one true religion', 'science has disproved Christianity', 'you can't take the Bible literally...

2. I have always considered that while you can't judge a book by its cover, you certainly can judge it by what is just inside the covers. I've mentioned the Table of Contents. But I am grateful for being left-handed because my natural flick through a book starts at the end with the bibliography. So crucial in my choice as it shows me what is informing the mind of the author. Keller's 'Notes' section at the end is breathtaking for the breadth and depth of his reading - but also for how contemporary his reading continues to be.

3. Maybe the most remarkable thing of all is that complicated though these issues are and deep though his background research may be, he covers all seven of them in just 114 pages. Astonishing! Here is a collection of short, readable chapters that cover complex issues with a light, but profound, touch. 'Science has disproved Christianity' in a mere 13 pages - and 19 footnotes! So while Keller isn't trying to answer everything and cover everything, he certainly sets the reader up to face the right direction.

4. I love this one. What I detest about the apologetics of my tertiary years was that the field was dominated by people who were full of truth and empty of grace. I remember taking an Irish friend called McPhillimy to hear the greatest Christian apologist of the age ... and if that presentation and follow-up conversation one-on-one ever led to McPhillimy's conversion it would have been a remarkable act of God's grace. Up close and personal the guy was just so arrogant - and yes, I am still angry about it. Keller finds a gentler, gracious, respectful way to engage the views of others - without ever compromising his understanding of the truth. The lines on the page are great - but the tone between those lines is just so appealing.

5. Keller has done his homework. But this book is more than the fruit of library research. It responds to the 'view from Manhattan'. It is sparked by listening to countless people in real-life conversations with everyday doubts in the course of his pastoral work. Keller must be a prototype of one of the great needs of the church today - the pastor-scholar. Then when I hear on the grapevine that he is resistant to speaking out on the circuit because of his commitment to his local church - I am all the more impressed.

6. Keller has a high view of 'twentysomethings'. He respects them enough to listen to them. He believes in them. He is not dismissive of them. He engages their doubts and skepticism. Gee - the book emerges from his pastoral care of them. And I am with Keller on this one - I reckon they are a different breed from what has gone before. If pastors were better equipped to engage their questions and more motivated to care for their souls - the last issue we'd be facing is the question of why young adults are leaving the church.

7. The anti-Christian bias that leaks out of lecturers in the secondary/tertiary institutions of this nation just amazes me. And this supposedly from the bastions of objectivity and fairmindedness. Christianity gets whipped. Christian students can read this book and follow its footnote trail all the way to their own essays with its footnotes. On his scholarly merit Lamin Sanneh will find his way into that anthropology essay. On his scholarly merit Rodney Stark will find his way into that history essay. And on and on it goes ...

8. Keller is a superb communicator. The book is littered with rhetorical questions that draw in the reader. His accumulation of deft examples and revealing illustrations is just so skillful. My own DMin thesis is built around the way the parable can be a "genre for skeptics" and I am seriously considering using Keller as a case-study of some kind. And if I am ever in New York City Redeemer Church will be as big an attraction as Ground Zero.

9. I love the way he engages the skepticism in a mixture of front-foot and back-foot play. There is a bit of offense and defense here. "In both my preaching and personal interactions I've tried to respectfully help skeptics look at their own faith-foundations while at the same time laying bare my own to their strongest criticism." (xix) And then, let's not forget that the second 114 pages of the book is all about stepping forward and winsomely commending the Christian perspective on God and sin and cross and resurrection and Trinity to his readers.

10. Keller is not just a pastor-scholar, he is a pastor-scholar-evangelist. To read through the book so full of explicit scholarly insight and implicit pastoral heart and reach the final 'where do we go from here?' chapter and encounter the gentle, insistent pleading of an evangelist. It was very moving for me.

I know that this post will appear as a high-octane rave to some. Maybe they haven't even got this far!! I cannot apologise for this. I cannot imagine a Christian tertiary student not absorbing this book. I cannot imagine a pastor not setting up a small group, hosted in their home around a meal, and reading this book together one chapter at a time with interested people in their church.

Maybe you are a little older, or a little incapacitated, or life is full with so much busy trivia - and you are wondering how you can contribute to the mission of God from where you sit just at this moment in time? WOW - I have an idea! Why not ask God to give you a burden for a twentysomething who seems to walk perennially on the edge of a faith-crisis abyss and why not invite them to read and pray their way through this book with you? Pretty radical idea, eh?!

nice chatting

Paul Windsor

13 comments:

nemoidian said...

Hi Paul,
great choice of topic - i have just started reading this book and so far have enjoyed it immensely. Keller has an ability to outline the arguments very clearly; something not always found in other apologetic volumes! I have also been listening to some of his material on bethinking.org - a great site covering a number of issues in the realm of apologetics.
shannon

Sam said...

Great post, very encouraging. I pastor a church in central wellington made up predominately of 20 somethings and completely agree with point 6. I've just about finished reading "surprised by hope, rethinking, heaven, the resurrection and the mission of the church" by NT Wright. Would be very interested in your thoughts on this book.

Richard said...

One interesting thing i've noted about the book is that is has recieved a very good reception from quite a broad section of people; from more emerging/missional church perspectives like on Scott Mcknights excellent blog jesuscreed.org , but also from the more conservative reformed evangelicals. Considering those communities seem to often be at loggerheads so much of the time, yet both think the book is fairly good to me indicates its probably a good apologetic guide.

its nice to see some apologetics that is targetted at 20 somethings that doesn't regurgitate the very modernist sounding frameworks of schaffer/van till or the CS Lewis stuff, but unlike alot of the "spiritual growth/formation" apologetics (i'm thinking much of mclaren's work here) still maintains a rigourous commitment to defending and demonstrating the truth.

I have likewise very much enjoyed Tom Wright's apologetics and work, mainly because it is so grounded in goood new testamnent scholarship and historical study without sounding like josh mcdowell. Again, i think it succeeds because it deals with contemporary questions and attitudes people actually have.

Paul said...

Next bit of light reading for me is Tom Wright's Simply Christian which one or two have mentioned to me - and which appears in Keller's footnotes. I'll follow through on your title as well, Sam.

Tom Wright is another of these pastor-scholar-evangelist's, isn't he?!

Interesting to read of Keller's breadth of acceptance, Richard. I am not surprised as he does have this blend of a gracious and respectful and humble tone - mixed with stubborn convictions. Like GK Chesterton used to say - it is fine to have an open mind as long as you know when to close it. (a very, very rough paraphrase!)

Paul said...

Next bit of light reading for me is Tom Wright's Simply Christian which one or two have mentioned to me - and which appears in Keller's footnotes. I'll follow through on your title as well, Sam.

Tom Wright is another of these pastor-scholar-evangelist's, isn't he?!

Interesting to read of Keller's breadth of acceptance, Richard. I am not surprised as he does have this blend of a gracious and respectful and humble tone - mixed with stubborn convictions. Like GK Chesterton used to say - it is fine to have an open mind as long as you know when to close it. (a very, very rough paraphrase!)

Rhett said...

I'm really keen to get my hands on this book after your glowing review Paul. I watched a lecture Keller gave on Google Video a few weeks back - the man is impressive.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Simply Christian. I'd give it an 8/10. Wright brings a fresh perspective and I really like his emphasis on "putting the world to rights" but I felt like he skimped on the future hope we have and the afterlife.

Sam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sam said...

Rhett, in that case his latest book is for you, it is all he talks about!
It is great to have this mix of pastor scholar being modelled, I have seen the fruit in my community as we have increasingly placed a high value on the teaching of theology that is a bit deeper, that is speaking to the times, with an attitude of humility. My suspicion is that most people (christian or not) are hungry for truth, I happen to believe it is rapped up in a guy who called Himself truth... It makes for some very exciting conversations, and a dynamism in the church. It also gives permission to move into places of doubt or mystery without throwing in the towel (which I suspect many people do as soon as they hit uni and are confronted with people challenging their worldview). I think that Scott Pecks stages of faith have being very helpful in articulating some of this journey, its on my blog about three posts down http://mrharvey.blogspot.com/
What people like Keller and Wright model is so incredibly refreshing and I think I could learn a lot from their approach...

steve taylor said...

Paul,

this is meant as a compliment --
i could you see have a Keller type ministry here in NZ. We need some pastor/preachers that are good thinkers, synthesisers and really good listeners to 20somethings.

i think keller is grand because he's regular in pulpit ministry, journeying with a group which is so different from the one-off stuff.

and methinks that the type of 20something attracted to a seminary is asking slightly different, (more church and less world) type questions that the average 20something.

steve taylor
www.emergentkiwi.org.nz

Paul said...

Very kind, Steve. Thank-you.

I am intrigued by the 'seminary' comment. Not sure what you mean by this... I am assuming that you are underlining the fact that the 20somethings with whom Keller engages, as I understand it, are urban and urbane Manhattan-dwellers about as far from seminary as you can get.

Then in terms of 20somethings in NZ, we have a fortnightly homegroup with them. Up to 20 can show up. This year we are interspersing Bible Study (Amos and John) with 'hard questions' evenings. When I polled them for their questions in February their list has an uncanny resemblance to Keller's Table of Contents!

And then in terms of the 'seminary' context of which I am a part (although I would not refer to Carey as a seminary), maybe you are correct ... maybe Keller's questions do get marginalised a bit as other questions are pursued. That is a bit of a shame really.

Anonymous said...

Paul,

i am thinking of the time i was teaching in a class with a mix of auckland uni students and pastoral leadership students.

we were doing theology of creation and looking at Psalm 8. all the pastoral leadership students were happy.

but the big cultural question that hangs around that text is around damage to the environment. and it took a lot of work before that issue was named and discussed, and it was named by uni student.

it struck me at that moment that the 'big questions' which i think keller is naming brilliant (so similar to Stephen Hunt's The Alpha Enterprise, which critiques alpha as answering questions culture is not really answering), were questions not on pastoral leadership/seminary horizons.

i wonder if there is something about preparing for church ministry that can close people's horizons and brings an added challenge around how those horizons are kept open.

steve taylor

Mark Maffey said...

Reading through the trail of comments I want to reinforce the value I see in the critical thinking approach that Bible Colleges are actively taking their students. As a late 20 something student of Paul's at BCNZ in the 90's I can vouch for how he took us down the interaction with world views through Gospel in a Post-Christian Society.

20 somethings are searching for answers and I believe that they do respond well to well-reasoned and constructed arguments which are done in a humble, honest way. What they don't react well to is brash know it all type presentations.I have also interacted well with Rob Bell Pneuma series.

In terms of Psalm 8, the creation motif is strong and one can certainly see God as being environmentally concerned, but as I see it one of the main things I see is our response to our creator God in praise and worship. Below is a reflective poem I have penned on Psalm 8:

Above the heavens, from the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise
Worthy are you of their praise, you are almighty God worthy of their heart outpouring
Your majesty is demonstrated over all the earth; you created it, all its nights and days
You desire that your people worship you, at your name the demons will flee far away
Who can stand in your presence? Only those with clean hands and pure hearts can stay
You have torn the veil, you desire that people enquire in your temple and see your glory
They will come and worship, from the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise

Because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger, when I consider your heavens,
The work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, what is man that you are mindful of him,
You know as your people praise you, the devil cannot speak, their praises heaven leavens
Their praises come as a result of your grace in giving your Son he carries away their sin
Who is like you O Lord; you alone are worthy of praise, may it be as incense in the heavens
For your love for your people is so amazing, what is man they you are mindful of him


The son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
Yet in order to do this; to Earth he had to come, incarnate, made flesh, to die and rise again
At his name every knee will bow, every tongue confess, worship him you heavenly bands
They survey the empty cross, their richest gain they count but loss, for he for them was slain
Now the Lamb of God sits upon the throne, you made him ruler over the works of your hands

You put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field,
The birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.
For he has paid the price, redemption of creation is in him, their strength and shield
A mighty fortress, a buttress where they know his protection, their enemies flee
Everything is under his hand, all to him must bow, he is LORD, and all to him must yield
He came that we might have life in abundance; to free his creation from sin and diseases,

O LORD, O Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You are worthy of all praise; wisdom, honour, glory and strength,
Great are you Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth
There is none holy as you Lord as we worship you we gain strength
Come before his presence with singing, he is King of heaven and earth
Bless his holy name; how majestic is his name in all the earth

Paul said...

I have decided to work with Keller's book as I write my thesis - so I am rereading it more closely and may post a few further comments as I go from time to time.

Redeemer Presbyterian (which Keller pastors) has an average age of 30 and is more than two-thirds single (xiv).