How Tim Keller Found Manhattan
When Tim Keller came to Manhattan in 1989, New York City had a well-deserved reputation as a snarling, scary place. Violent crime, drug dealing, and other urban pathologies had weakened or chased off many of the faithful. While a barely perceptible renewal was under way, it seemed as if the few remaining orthodox Protestants were huddled together in historic buildings. All of Keller's formal pastoral experience had happened in a small, blue-collar town in Virginia.
Yet today, almost 20 years later, he steps onstage before a packed auditorium at Hunter College on Manhattan's Upper East Side. His church, Redeemer Presbyterian, has five crowded Sunday services in three rented locations—Keller dashes between them—with an average total attendance of 5,000. The service at Hunter is the largest, the "tourist service." (For many years, Redeemer deliberately avoided publicity, but word has spread lately, and Keller estimates that hundreds of out-of-towners show up each Sunday.) Well over 2,000 people—mainly young whites and Asians you would expect to be sleeping off a late Saturday night—have come to this morning's service.
Redeemer's worship is seemly and traditional. Instead of using video monitors, casually dressed worshipers follow a 20-page bulletin that includes hymns, prayers, and Bible texts. Organ and a brass quartet lead the music. For evening services, jazz musicians play contemporary Christian songs.
Standing 6'4", with a bald head, glasses, and a coat and tie, Keller, 58, does not look hip. Nor is his sermon funny, charming, or daring. He preaches from the first chapter of Genesis, on the doctrine of Creation.
Keller speaks like a college professor, absorbed in his content, of which there is a lot. When longtime friend and founding member Dee Pifer invited colleagues from her Manhattan law firm, she would say, "I want you to hear a really good litigator."
Keller begins by saying that authorial intention is a key to interpreting any ancient text, and by that criterion, Genesis 1 is obviously not about evolution. Keller explains the literary principles scholars use to argue whether Genesis 1 is poetry or historical narrative. If poetry, then its six "days" may be poetically long; if historical narrative, it speaks of a young earth. Keller says he believes Genesis 1 is Hebrew poetry (though Genesis 2 is not), but pleads for mutual forbearance. "Christians used to agree to disagree on this," he urges.
He goes on to preach four points of doctrine: the goodness of creation, the finiteness of creation, the unity of creation, and the importance of creation. His audience is dead silent, apparently rapt. Citing Jonathan Edwards, Elisabeth Elliot, J. R. R. Tolkien, Richard Dawkins, and John Updike, he fills out the richness of doctrine. Along the way, for each of his four points, he manages to appeal to nonbelievers. For example, regarding the goodness of creation, he says that Christianity may be the most materialistic religion there is, citing the miracle at Cana. "Nobody has a better motivation to be playful" than people who know that God made the earth and made it good.
Or, regarding the unity of creation, Keller points out that all human beings are equally formed by both the Creation and the Fall, so "nonbelievers are far better than their wrong beliefs should make them, and we Christians are far worse than our beliefs should make us."
Keller closes by asking: "Why does nature move everybody?" Why may even the most hardened atheist find that a forest dawn prompts tears, laughter, or joy? Keller dismisses explanations offered by evolutionary psychology and suggests that we are moved as we sense creation's song of praise to its Creator, a glorious fulfillment of its God-given nature. We are moved, Keller says, because we wish to join that chorus and cannot. He points to the Cross as the way by which we can regain that song.