After years of literary restraint – during which he has knuckled down with study, ministry and planting – Tim Keller now seems to be on a roll. Every 12 months or so, he produces a new distillation of some aspect of his teaching. And in some ways, the latest, King’s Cross, lies at the heart of it all. A portrait of Jesus – or as the subtitle has it, ‘The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus’.
Keller has always sought to get people into the text of the Bible. And in that aim, he is by no means alone. But at the same time, he tries to remain sensitive to cultural shifts and the complexities of individual personalities. Thus, he has always had an evangelistic edge. It is this combination of concerns (ie biblical exposition, cultural appreciation/analysis, popular psychology and Christian apologetics) that has made him such a unique and powerful voice in the contemporary scene. It is not (entirely) hyperbolic for Newsweek to dub him ‘The C S Lewis of the 21st Century‘. So having covered different ground around the ministry in his previous books (see below), this book perhaps most closely reflects his weekly preaching ministry. It is a journey through one book of the Bible (Mark’s gospel), full of reflections and insights from the surrounding territory en route.
Thrilling news drawn from an old friend
I enjoyed reading King’s Cross immensely – it had me underlining, reflecting, muttering ‘aha’ and pausing for thought with the best of them. But them I’m definitely a Keller fan – I always find so much to learn and be stretched by in his writing. He is refreshingly circumspect, avoids being shrill (unlike some of the other contemporary, transatlantic Christian gurus we shan’t name) and has a breadth of reading that clearly proves he’s not living in some fundie ghetto. What’s more, any book that seeks to draw water from the biblical text, but do it in a lively and contemporary way, will always be a winner for me. I’ve preached through the whole of Mark’s gospel once, and drawn from it many times. Furthermore, for the 4 years we were in Kampala, I taught an annual lecture course on Mark. So the book is like a dear old friend – which made discovering fresh and interesting takes on familiar texts in King’s Cross all the more of a thrill.
And if there is a phrase to sum up this take, it is this one:
The essence of other religions is advice; Christianity is essentially news. (p15)
That is spot on – and characteristically, brilliantly put. What’s more, it perfectly does justice to Mark’s one-line intro to his whole book: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1) And there are many other great lines throughout which help nail the general points. Here are a few that stood out for me:
- If this world was made by a triune God, relationships of love are what life is really all about. (p9)
- Jesus claimed to be able to forgive sins, and the religious leaders called that blasphemy. But Jesus goes on to make a claim so outrageous that leaders don’t have a word for it. Jesus declares not that he has come to reform religion but that he’s here to end religion and to replace it with himself. (p37)
- In Western cosmopolitan culture there’s an enormous amount of self-righteousness about self-righteousness. We progressive urbanites are so much better than people who think they’re better than other people. We disdain those moralistic types who look down on others. Do you see the irony, how the way of self-discovery leads to as much superiority and self-righteousness as religion does? (p46)
- Why in the world would the sacrifice of a woolly little quadruped exempt you from justice? (p164)
- The problem is that if you want a loving God, you have to have an angry God. Please think about it. Loving people can get angry, not in spite of their love, but because of it. (p176)
- Often what seem to be our deepest desires are really just our loudest desires. (p180)
- The resurrection was as inconceivable for the first disciples, as impossible for them to believe, as it is for many of us today. (p216)
And there’s much more where this came from. I found his insights and connections very refreshing – eg the really helpful contrasting of Jesus’ calming of the storm with the experience of the prophet Jonah (p57), or his explanation of the importance of what he calls ‘the mealness’ of the Last Supper (p170f). It was also good to be reminded of a classic Dick Lucas illustration (p48).
So this is a book to heartily recommend. Especially because it creates an appetite for knowing more about Mark’s gospel – and more importantly, offers a powerful exposure to the sheer magnetism of Jesus himself.
Pedantic quibbles offered by a friend
And yet… and yet… I couldn’t help feeling from time to time that the great strengths of Keller’s range and passions had its flip-sides. This is a book that is essentially the transcripts of talks, on which two of his colleagues,Scott Kauffmann and Sam Shammas, clearly worked hard to transform into a more literary style. They do succeed – but of all Keller’s books, this feels the least like a constructed argument or consolidated whole. But that’s fair enough, I guess, if we appreciate what the starting point was.
It’s just that I’m not quite sure what the book is aiming to be nor who it is always for. It is bigger than many straight evangelistic books (it would require a dedicated inquirer to work through it – but they would do so with great benefit) – I would encourage people to start with one of his other recent books. But it is much shorter than a full study of Mark. A book this size could never be a comprehensive exposition of Mark (and, to be fair, nor does it ever pretend to be). We can only be taken to some of the key moments in the narrative; but even when we are, the pace is relentless. Huge chunks of biblical text are pasted in, on which it’s only possible to make some passing comments at best. This is always readable, of course. And full of pertinent comments. So it is valuable. But frustrating because I kept feeling i wanted to hear more from both Mark and his preacher!
Then if Keller’s commentary is more extended, it is usually not about the text as much as it is on wider, and nearly always fascinating, cultural phenomena or challenges. This what gives the book it’s great apologetic power. But it is not always nuanced by the finer details of the gospel narrative – which leads to some missed tricks. For example, in his treatment of Mk 1:35-38 (p26ff), we don’t have time for perhaps the key surprise – Jesus’ determination to leave for another area despite the crowds desperate for healing ‘so I can preach there also. That is why I have come‘. Which is then, curiously enough, immediately followed by a unique healing (the man lowered through the roof). My hunch is that a bit more textual detail such as this might have lent itself even more powerfully the precisely the points being made. It might also have helped to avoid one or two surprising lapses into what Carson calls ‘root fallacies’ in his Exegetical Fallacies (eg picking up derivations of ‘dynamite‘ (p61) and ‘psychology‘ (p104)).
Which brings me to my main, albeit pedantic, concern. For at points, I felt the text was primarily a springboard into something else: whether it be an explanation of some systematic theology (eg Jesus’ baptism is a launchpad into a helpful, but not exactly Markan, apologetic for the Trinity) or apologetics (eg some of the strongest sections are those that relate to the equivalent sections in his previous books, such as his explanations of human sin (ch8) and divine justice (ch9).) It’s all good stuff – but it’s not always expository. There are times when it feels that we’re sitting at the feet of the great Christian fiction-writers like C S Lewis and Tolkein as much as Mark the Evangelist (and that is not necessarily wrong!). Just as long as we appreciate that this is what we have, that’s fine and enjoyable. But it’s not always a model to follow, nor necessarily a model that’s possible to follow (simply because most of us don’t have breadth of Keller’s learning).
Now, it is by no means false modesty when I say that I’m by far Keller’s junior when it comes to preaching and pastoral experience, intellectual grasp and insight. And precious few preachers can bear the scrutiny of a pedant’s nitpicking. I certainly couldn’t. The range and depth of these talks are remarkable and do hold up. So as I say, this is a book hugely to profit from – and I’d always encourage people to read it. I’m merely offering the quibbles of a mildly frustrated friend rather than the critical assault of a hostile sceptic!
So Tolle, Lege! It’s worth it. (And if you’re reading this before 22.3.11, use the code in the box above to get a discount at 10ofthose.com)
The next in the Keller line
As mentioned above, King’s Cross comes as the latest in a number of books published in recent years. Each makes a unique contribution. If I can hazard an overview of them, it might go something like this. The book’s subtitles are revealing in themselves.
- The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Scepticism (2008) Constantly open to questions, this is an overview of Keller’s responses to the big ones – contemporary apologetics for a metropolitan educated world – and very effective it is too.
- The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (2009) This articulates the key gospel insight to which Keller constantly returns: the notion that the Prodigal Son parable is a template for how we relate to God. It is most striking for helping us to see the need to speak into 3 situations: The Religious, The Rebellious and The Redeemed.
- Counterfeit Gods: When the Empty Promises of Love, Money, and Power Let You Down (2009) In this book, Keller unpacks why there is a need for the gospel in the first place – both for the unbeliever and the believer alike. A more trenchant and persuasive articulation of contemporary idolatry it is not possible to find.
- Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (2010) Some years back, Keller wrote Ministries of Mercy, and in some ways this is an updating of that book – a key explanation for why mercy ministry (for want of a better term) lies at the forefront of the work of Manhattan’s Redeemer church. It is a clarion call for believers to love the city.
This is building into a very valuable and positive library. And i’m looking forward immensely to see what comes next… I’d love him to produce something on a theology of the creative arts…