Losing Identity, Losing Sanity (Keller)

Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical

As many of our readers know, identity issues and crises are a dime a dozen in our culture today. It’s not just a gender thing. People also find their identity in what they do or don’t eat, their political views, their preferred method of schooling their children, their excursions and adventures, or their looks/image. And the list goes on. Timothy Keller has a good chapter on this topic called “The Problem of the Self” in his book Making Sense of God. I’ll cite a paragraph from this chapter below, but you’ll have to get the book to follow the larger (helpful!) discussion that ends with a great empahsis on finding one’s identity in Christ:

If we base our identity on love we come to the same cul-de-sac that we saw with the novelist who got his identity from work. Just as he could not bear poor work, so we will not be able to handle the problems in our love relationships. The writer had to believe he is a great writer in order to be sane. We will have to believe our love relationship is ok – if it goes off the rails, we lose our sanity. Why? If our very identity is wrapped up in something and we lose it, we lose our very sense of self. If you are getting your identity from the love of a person – you won’t be able to give them criticism because their anger will devastate you. Nor will you be able to bear their personal sorrows and difficulties. If they have a problem and start to get self-absorbed and are not giving you the affirmation you want, you won’t be able to take it. It will become a destructive relationship. The Western understanding of identity formation is a crushing burden, both for individuals and society as a whole.

Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God, p. 131.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002

Arguments for God’s Existence (Keller)

Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical Many Christians throughout history have argued for the existence of God in various ways and using various methods. For example, there’s the moral argument for God. The argument goes something like this: there are objective morals in the world that transcend local communities. These morals didn’t just arise out of thin air and they can’t well be defended by the theory of evolution. The best explanation for these objective morals is the existence of God. Of course this argument takes various forms.  There are also other arguments for God’s existence like the argument from order or the “first cause” argument.

I appreciate how Tim Keller briefly explains these kinds of arguments for God’s existence:

Many people point out that the arguments for God not only do not prove God’s existence but also give us only an ‘unmoved mover’ or some other abstract being, not the holy, loving, all-powerful God of the Bible.

But the purpose of the so-called theistic arguments is not to give us a specific description of God. The main work they do is to help us ‘see the inadequacies of [secular] naturalism’ and bring us to see that there is probably something transcendent outside of nature. These ‘cases for God’ have been around for centuries, but in today’s world our goals for their use should be targeted but modest. They primarily provide a means for ‘shaking up the dogmatic confidence…that naturalism and materialism are the default rational views of the universe.’

Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God, p.228

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Faith and the Workplace (Keller)

Tim Keller has a helpful section in Center Church that has to do with the Christian faith and our daily vocations (callings).  I’m sure he goes into this more in his other book on this topic, but here’s a nice summary from Center Church:

  1. Our faith changes our motivation for work.  For professionals and others who are prone to overwork and anxiety, the gospel prevents us from finding our significance and identity in money and success.  For working-class people who are prone to captivation to what Paul calls ‘eyeservice’ (Col. 3:22) …and drudgery, our faith directs us to ‘work with all our heart, as working for the Lord’ (Col. 3:23).
  2. Our faith changes our conception of work.  A robust theology of creation – and of God’s love and care for it – helps us see that even simple tasks such as making a shoe, filling a tooth, and digging a ditch are ways to serve God and build up human community….
  3. Our faith provides high ethics for Christians in the workplace.  Many things are technically legal but biblically immoral and unwise and therefore out of bounds for believers.  The ethical norms of the Christian life, grounded in the gospel of grace, should always lead believers to function with an extremely high level of integrity in their work.
  4. Our faith gives us the basis for reconceiving the very way in which our kind of work is done.  …In most vocational fields, believers encounter workplaces in which ruthless, competitive behavior is the norm. A  Christian worldview provides believers with ways to interpret the philosophies and practices that dominate their field and bring renewal and reform to them.

Timothy Keller, Center Church, p. 332.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

“Preaching” by Timothy Keller: A Short Review

Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism  In the introduction of his new book, Preaching, Timothy Keller gives the general theme of the book:

“As we preach, we are able to serve and love the truth of God’s Word and also to serve and love the people before us.  We serve the Word by preaching the text clearly and preaching the gospel every time.  We reach the people by preaching to the culture and to the heart” (p. 23).

Keller’s book is not a detailed manual of preaching or homiletics.  Instead, it is a short (240 smallish pages) explanation of the things Keller has learned about preaching over many years of pulpit ministry – grounded in Scripture and aimed at people’s hearts.   There are three main parts: 1) Serving the Word (pp. 27-90), 2) Reaching the People (pp. 93-187), and 3) Preaching and the Spirit (pp. 191-210).  There’s also a very short appendix on how to write a sermon.  I did enjoy this book, and do recommend it; however, I would say that this book is good but not great.  Let me explain:

1) Keller very clearly emphasized the need to preach Christ in every sermon and from every part of Scripture.  There’s no moralism here.  (As a side, I did have a few questions about how Keller got from a text to the gospel – sometimes his moves seemed bit far-fetched.)
2) The book gave some detail on preaching to actual people – people who have hearts, intellect, beliefs – the people listening to sermons.  Yes, preachers must preach God’s truth, but they always do so to real people!  Keller is good at helping preachers understand this.
3) The book is full of the wisdom of an experienced preacher.  Keller has not only been a preacher for a long time, but he’s been a student of preaching just as long.  I don’t have the time here to share all the excellent insights Keller gives about preaching God’s Word, but it does have many excellent themes and parts.

Some of the material in this book is also found in other books Keller has written.  For example, I’ve read “Center Church” and some of Keller’s work on apologetics and idolatry, and I could see clear overlap.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but about 60% of the material in Preaching is found in his other books (not verbatim, however).
2) I’m not convinced by Keller’s three levels of the ministry of the word: 3) preaching from the pulpit, 2) teaching (Sunday School, small groups, blogging, etc.) and 1) casual conversation.  He says this book is meant for levels 2 and 3, but I highly doubt that blogging and preaching are as close as Keller makes them – nor do I think this book has much to do with Christian blogging!
3) The subtitle of the book should be tweaked to say something like, “How to preach to urban skeptics.” I enjoyed many of the sections where Keller explained how to preach to skeptics, but it did seem to be the major emphasis of the book. Again, it’s a good discussion, but preachers also need help preaching to people (Christians and non-Christians) in suburbia or more rural settings.

In a word, this is a short book on how to preach Christ-centered sermons with a focus on presenting gospel truths to urban skeptics. However, even if you’re not a preacher in an urban/skeptical context, you’ll benefit from this book quite a bit. Although I do have a few minor critiques of the book, I do very much recommend it. Christian preachers can always use more lessons in presenting the gospel!

Timothy Keller, Preaching (Viking: New York, 2015).

shane lems

Christianity: Different From Every Other Religion

Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life's Biggest Questions Question: What makes the Christian religion different from every other religion in the world?  Timothy Keller has a good answer for this question:

“The essence of what makes Christianity different from every other religion and form of thought is this: Every other religion says if you want to find God, if you want to improve yourself, if you want to have higher consciousness, if you want to connect with the divine, however it is defined – you have to do something.  You have to gather your strength, you have to keep the rules, you have to free your  mind, you have to fill your mind, you have to be above average.  Every other religion or human philosophy says if you want to make the world right, or yourself right, then summon all your reason and your strength, and live in a certain way.”

“Christianity says the exact opposite.  Every other religion and philosophy says you have to do something to connect to God; but Christianity says no, Jesus Christ came to do for you what you couldn’t do for yourself.  Every other religion says here are the answers to the big questions, but Christianity says Jesus is the answer to them all.  So many systems of thought appeal to strong, successful people, because they play directly into their belief that if you are strong and hardworking enough, you will prevail.  But Christianity is not just for the strong; it’s for everyone, especially for people who admit that, where it really counts, they’re weak.  It is for people who have the particular kind of strength to admit that their flaws are not superficial, their heart is deeply disordered, and that they are incapable of rectifying themselves.  It is for those who can see that they need a savior, that they need Jesus Christ dying on the cross, to put them right with God.”

Timothy Keller, Encounters with Jesus, p. 9-10.

shane lems

Not Eliminating Grief

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering How did the early Christian church differ from Greek philosophers when it came to dealing with suffering and grief?

“For Christians, suffering was not to be dealt with primarily through the control and suppression of negative emotions with the use of reason or willpower.  Ultimate reality was known not primarily through reason and contemplation but through relationship.  Salvation was through humility, faith, and love rather than reason and control of emotions.  And therefore, Christians don’t face adversity by stoically decreasing our love for the people and things of this world so much as by increasing our love and joy in God.  [Luc] Ferry says, ‘Augustine, having conducted a radical critique of love-as-attachment in general, does not banish it when its object is divine.’”

“What he means is that, while Christianity was able to agree with pagan writers that inordinate attachment to earthly goods can lead to unnecessary pain and grief, it also taught that the answer to this was not to love things less but to love God more than anything else.  Only when our greatest love is God, a love that we cannot lose even in death, can we face all things with peace.  Grief was not to be eliminated but seasoned and buoyed up with love and hope.”

Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, p. 44.

shane lems

Overemphasizing the City?

I recently finished Timothy Keller’s Center Church and I really appreciated it.  It was thought-provoking, insightful, motivating, and helpful in many ways.  I do recommend it.  In the next few months I hope to engage it here from time to time and I’ve also written a review for another venue.  In this post, I want to point out one area of the book with which I’m not totally comfortable.

In around seven out of the thirty chapters, Keller focuses on the city.  He begins his section on the city by giving a brief biblical-theological overview of the city, drawing on earlier work by Harvie Conn, Meredith Kline, and Robert Linthicum (among others).  He rightly notes that the Bible doesn’t view cities in a hostile light nor does it view them in a romantic way.  Rather, biblically speaking, cities are places of sin and violence but also places of refuge and protection.  Since the city is important to Keller’s church/ministry vision, this book, Center Church, has almost everything to do with the city.

For Keller (and others) cities are significant because of the population density that rural areas do not have.  Keller also notes that “we have reached the point where over 50 percent of the world population now lives in cities, compared to around 5 percent two centuries ago” (p. 154).  He explains how large cities and urban centers profoundly influence entire countries and civilizations.  For these reasons – since the city is a dense population center and since it influences countries and civilizations, Keller argues that the church should focus on the city and city renewal.

I agree that we should be planting solid churches in large cities and urban areas.  We need to focus on population centers for sure when we consider church planting.  However, we have to be careful not to overstate the importance of the city at the expense of rural areas and smaller towns.  In my opinion, Keller overemphasizes the city.  Here are two examples.

“‘…The country is where there are more plants than people; the city is where there are more people than plants.  And since God loves people more than plants, he loves the city more than the country.’ I think this is solid theological logic.  …Cities…are absolutely crammed full of what God considers the most beautiful sight in his creation.  As we have noted before, cities have more ‘image of God’ per square inch than anywhere else, and so we must not idealize the country as somehow a more spiritual place than the city.  Even those (like Wendell Berry) who lift up the virtues of rural living outline a form of community just as achievable in cities as in small towns” (p. 170).

“Christians should seek to live in the city, not to use the city to build great churches, but to use the resources of the church to seek a great, flourishing city.  We refer to this as a ‘city growth’ model of ministry rather than a strictly ‘church growth’ model.  It is the ministry posture that arises out of a Center Church theological vision” (p. 172).

There are other similar statements about the city in this book that I think are debatable.  I don’t just say this because I live in a rural area (though I am quite close to a metropolitan area – St. Paul/Minneapolis).  I also say this because, in my opinion, Keller’s “Center Church” vision overemphasizes the city at the expense of smaller towns and rural areas.  I still do like and recommend this book, but I hesitate to put as much emphasis on the city and urban renewal as Keller does.

rev shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi