I’m just one of countless many whose Christian faith was critically shaped by Tim Keller. He was a well-known pastor in Manhattan who recently passed away from pancreatic cancer. I recently read a biography released earlier this year before his death, Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation by Collin Hansen.
Keller has a dedicated section of my bookshelf and I’ve read most of the books he’s published since his first New York Times bestseller, Reason for God. I listened to his sermons when I wanted to listen to something, but didn’t know where to go or who I could trust, and I admired him for his intellectualism and integrity, diligence and humility that seemed like it could only be shaped by intimacy with God. His sermons weren’t readily available to the public, limiting the reach of his platform, and he didn’t tell a lot of jokes or yell at you or anything.
In an age of sudden and short celebrity, Keller lived a life of slow obedience and character, and the most controversy he found himself in was perturbing the political right on social justice or the political left on sexual ethics. He didn’t seek fame, and only found it to such great extents after pastoring in New York City, a role and move he didn’t want to make - he spent nearly a year trying to find someone else to do the job. Even then, the fame he found became a hindrance to the work he wanted to do in NYC - reach non-Christians. Though I know him for showing the viability of Christian intellectualism, he spent 9 years pastoring a church in West Virginia where almost no one had a high school education. Before that, he and his wife were preparing to work for the US Postal Service to make ends meet.
The biggest takeaway I had from this biography was just how many people influenced Tim Keller and helped form him spiritually (I knew he loved CS Lewis, but I didn’t know he directly learned from folks like RC Sproul and Elisabeth Elliott or that he was a part of InterVarsity in college, or that CRU staff made up a bunch of his early church in NYC). He could take from a bunch of different sources - disparate and disagreeing - and synthesize them, adding his own voice and application. He spent so much time listening to people that it was said that he could articulate their viewpoints and hopes and desires better than they could, and in a way that they would agree with and even feel honored by. From all of these influences, he learned to incorporate so many things into his application of faith (social justice, urban contextualization, intersection of faith and work, the arts, loving those who have been shunned by the church, working across “denomination” or “tribe”, etc), and all of this bolstered from his position on major doctrinal issues rather than in spite of them. Toward the end of his life, this unwillingness to compromise earned him disownment from both sides of the political spectrum.
What I loved the most from his biography was catching a sense of the breadth and the depth of the Christian faith. It can touch every part of our lives and of our society. It can satisfy our longings and ambitions in ways we can only begin to imagine and describe through fantasy. And in the post-Christian West, shaped by political syncretism, it can be traced back across so many different eras and cultures.
Seeing these dimensions to the Christian faith has been a great comfort to me in a world where that faith can often feel so narrow and untethered.