Several years ago, Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, published The Reason for God, a book that introduced skeptical readers—and many a believer—to logical arguments pointing to the existence and goodness of God. Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life's Biggest Questions, based on previous talks given to students and businessmen, is a kind of companion volume, that lays an emotional groundwork for embracing the rationality of Christian faith. Owen Strachan, professor of theology and church history at Boyce College, spoke with Keller about how discovering Jesus can change people's hearts and lives.
You've been doing apologetics and evangelism for an audience of skeptics for years. Why this book at this time?
There are ten chapters, and the first five were talks I did at Oxford University in February of 2012. Every three years, the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union does a campus-wide mission, and they bring in speakers to speak at lunchtime and in the evening. It's a really big deal, and very well done. It's an honor to be asked. I gave five talks that were the first five chapters of the book—Nathanael, Nicodemus, the woman at the well, Mary and Martha, the wedding feast, and Mary after the resurrection. Each of them was an example of someone whose life was changed by encountering Jesus, and so that's the basis of the book.
This book seeks to reach the heart, though I give much philosophical argument. I don't think people would actually sit down and listen to The Reason for God unless they already might wish that Christianity does make sense. A lot of people aren't going to give the time it takes to think it through if they don't care if Christianity is true. But if you expose people to Jesus' claims and offers, that makes people say, "That would be great—living water." It has to make emotional and even cultural sense to people before they sit down and decide if it makes rational sense. Jesus does that—he resonates with people. So this book is more of a precursor to something like The Reason for God.
Who should read this book?
The first five chapters are about how Jesus changed people's lives, and the last five chapters are about incidents in his life. It's basically trying to give you a thoroughgoing sense of the gospel that is radically Jesus-centered. It's a good book to give a non-Christian, but it's also a book to give a Christian that doesn't understand their own faith. It's about the Christian life but is told through the lens of Jesus' life.
The book is for the person I tend to run into in a place like New York or Oxford. It's trying to present the gospel in these cultural centers to people who are experts in their own area. They're very educated and very knowledgeable. So when you come to them and talk about faith, philosophy, religion, and belief, they expect that you will know the background. But you still have to summarize and explain it for intelligent people who may not know theology but who have worked through major kinds of data in other fields.
If I'm talking with a doctor, and I talk to them as if they're capable of understanding concepts and distilling information, that's a fit. This matches the contexts in which this book was created—the last five talks were given to businessmen at the Harvard Club. For many years, there was a meeting where Christians could bring non-Christian friends. So of course the book is not going to be simplistic. These people are not going to be excited about simplistic material. That said, the books are fairly down-to-earth and simple.