Reviewed by Anthony Sacramone
When C.S. Lewis crafted the radio talks that became his now classic work of apologetics Mere Christianity, carefully constructed arguments and analogies culled from the miscellany of common experience were his chosen tools of persuasion. But in an ADHD world in which factoids supplant facts, rage overrides reason, and the sui generis self knows none of the permanent things, how does the Christian soul–winner keep cool, engage the easily distracted, and defend the faith without sounding defensive?
Timothy Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, shows how in his new book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. An answer to the prayers of many who have passed through the Hunter College auditorium—one of three sites that accommodate the 5,000–plus who attend Redeemer on any given Sunday—The Reason for God represents the sum and substance of Keller's homiletic method: preaching and teaching directly to the contemptuous no of unbelief and unmasking the unexamined assumptions of skepticism.
Keller begins with typical objections he hears from young people regarding religion generally and Christianity specifically: (1) there can't be just one truth, the very notion being arrogant and culturally conditioned; (2) there's a contradiction that inheres in the concept of a loving God tending an evil and corrupt world; and (3) the Church has historically acted as an agent of repression and oppression. Frankly, while the specific examples cited and the cultural references may have changed, the basic obstacles to faith have remained fairly constant. Even if you throw in developments in evolutionary theory, given that St. Augustine himself did not read Genesis literally, and G. K. Chesterton regularly rode roughshod over scientific determinisms, what's old is, well, still old.
What's new is the pomposity of the bestselling New Atheism and the defensiveness of Christians confronted with a secular certitude that any religious fundamentalist would envy. Yet Keller gives each and every objection its due, and, in due course, offers straightforward responses to atheism's and relativism's hoary shibboleths, the products of shabby reasoning and a tenuous grasp of history. Keller does not go it alone, however: He brings to the field of epistemological battle as many contemporary and classic sources as he can marshal—from philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Alasdair MacIntyre to historians C. John Sommerville and Rodney Stark, and from such stalwarts as Jonathan Edwards and Soren Kirkegaard to the novellas and short stories of Flannery O'Connor.
A great practitioner of what has been called in a political context "beyondism," Keller strives to get beyond pharisaical religion, with its tendency toward self–righteousness, and edgy irreligion, which constantly makes withdrawals on the bank of Christian morality in the pursuit of some inchoate notion of "goodness." Both are attempts at self–salvation rooted in a "struggle for a sense of worth, purpose, and distinctiveness … based on conditions that we can never achieve or maintain." After rejecting these false alternatives, Keller opens a space for the gospel's third way and the offer of a new identity as a sinner saved by grace—a new life that is both unmerited and, therefore, secure.
Here Keller pulls no theological punches. Although his own Reformed and Calvinist roots remain, for the most part, safely underground in The Reason for God, the doctrine of penal substitution comes through quite clearly in his explication of the atonement. Despite the objections of some that this extension of St. Anselm's satisfaction theory traffics in a blood lust or a form of cosmic child abuse, Keller argues that "the Christian faith has always understood that Jesus Christ is God. God did not, then, inflict pain on someone else, but rather on the cross absorbed the pain, violence, and evil of the world into himself. Therefore the God of the Bible is not like the primitive deities who demanded our blood for their wrath to be appeased. Rather, this is a God who becomes human and offers his own life–blood in order to honor moral justice and merciful love so that some day he can destroy all evil without destroying us."
A Newsweek squib on The Reason for God lamented that the book was bereft of Keller's personal "charisma and conviction." I was a member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church for eight years, and I would not describe Keller's style as charismatic. If there is an oratorical equivalent to digital plain text, that's Keller's style—but with a range of ideas and references that thicken his delivery to a level of sophistication capable of holding the attention of an educated audience. You never walk away from a Keller sermon feeling you have been rhetorically manipulated (think Spurgeon at his bombastic worse rather than his winsome, evangelical best). I would say the same for Keller's prose. He does not beguile the reader with many well–turned phrases or startling metaphors. But there is craft here—and conviction, even if expressed without adornment. Keller's is a cumulative and convincing disclosure of the Cross of Jesus Christ as the only viable option for putting what is wrong in a broken world right. And his gift does not lie so much in stunningly original answers to perennial questions about religious truth as in his ability to pinpoint his interlocutors' unexamined presuppositions—about morality, social justice, and even the justice of ultimate judgment (otherwise known as hell).
In a chapter titled "Intermission," Keller addresses concretely the stark differences between Christian denominations, admitting that someone who was not a Presbyterian minister would write a book with similar apologetic intentions in a different way. While he is attempting to defend "Apostles' Creed" Christianity, he nevertheless rejects the idea of a mere Christianity: "All Christians believe all this," Keller states, "but no Christian believes believe just this. As soon as you ask 'how does the church act as vehicle for Jesus' work in the world?' and 'how does Jesus' death accomplish our salvation?' and 'how are we received by grace?' Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians will give you different answers. Despite the claims of many to be such, there are no truly 'generic' non–denominational Christians. Everyone has to answer these 'how' questions in order to live a Christian life and those answers immediately put you into one traditional and denomination or another."
He is also emphatic that once someone has come to faith in Christ, joining a church is not optional: "The church of Jesus Christ is therefore like the ocean. It is enormous and diverse. Like the ocean there are warm and clear spots and deadly cold spots, places you can enter easily without danger and places where it will immediately whisk you away and kill you. I realize how risky it is to tell my readers that they should seek out a church. I don't do it lightly, and I urge them to do so with utmost care. But there is no alternative."
It is here, I feel, that Keller falters. While he admits the risk in emphasizing church membership, in a recent interview with me he also admitted the risk in not emphasizing a specific church in the way that, say, a Roman Catholic would have. He had concluded that particularities of that sort would have caused more problems than they would have solved, and so was willing to throw the new Christian into that "enormous and diverse" ocean that is denominationalism. The question is: Who will teach the newbie to swim? Who will lead the baby Christian to his or her mother (as Calvin called the Church)? Is it enough to say simply, "Be careful"? This criticism was also leveled at Lewis. But Lewis was already settled in a communion that housed high church and low, liberal and conservative, Calvinist and Arminian, with the Book of Common Prayer the glue that held them together.
Despite not wanting to make a great show of his Presbyterian credentials, Keller nevertheless makes plain in the introduction of The Reason for God that he is ordained in the Presbyterian Church of America. He is, in fact, beholden to Reformer thinkers, and membership classes for Redeemer teach and affirm the Westminster Confession of Faith (although members need not sign on to all its tenets). In short, Keller is a Calvinist, someone who believes that Christ died for the elect only and that the wrath of God abides on everyone else. Should his readers, floundering in the chilly waters of church choice, pick up a volume of Jonathan Edwards or Cornelius Van Til or any of a number of Puritan authors for ballast, they are in for a big surprise: They must now turn inward for signs of election, for evidence that their faith isn't false or temporary—a self–scrutiny that can be agonizing. Keller's revolt against self–absorption and subjectivism is suddenly put down by the forces of religious scrupulosity. If this is why Keller refuses to wave the flag of Calvinism in The Reason for God, is the alternative then a denominational relativism? Again, who will help the uninitiated negotiate those endless variations on the Christian ecclesiastical theme?
But this is an argument to continue at a later date. As it stands, The Reason for God succeeds given the limits Keller has set for it—to bring the unbeliever to faith in Christ and to affirm the Apostles' Creed. Keller dismisses favorable comparisons between his book and Mere Christianity, insisting that Lewis' work is far better, even if not as accessible. He doth protest too much, I think. While I find it mind–boggling that college–educated twentysomethings today can't make their way through Lewis (as Keller remarked in the interview), I would not hesitate to give skeptics Keller's tome instead, even if that were not the case. His supposedly inferior book is a superior achievement for the age in which we live, and I found even my own faith strengthened by it.
Anthony Sacramone is managing editor of First Things.
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