It is an awesome burden which the biographer takes up,” writes Elisabeth Elliot in her 1968 biography of missionary R. Kenneth Strachan. Any such project is “a judgment—upon the subject most obviously, upon the biographer himself, and upon any who were associated with the subject.” To read such a work is at some level to become involved in the judgment. The reader is invited to grapple with the questions raised by the subject’s life.
And yet, we are endlessly fascinated with biographies, not to mention autobiographies, memoirs, interviews, published diaries, collected letters—everything falling under the umbrella of “life-writing.” In reading them, we hope, perhaps, to glimpse the inner workings of the human heart and mind, to tease some meaning out of what Elliot calls the “careless—apparently, at times, haphazard” events of a human life. Perhaps the light shed by these other lives can help us more clearly see the shapes of our own.
Two recent releases offer this opportunity. The first, Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation, is a biography of the author and retired pastor, now in his 70s and undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer. A teacher since 1975, Keller became nationally known after 9/11 for his role in the growth of New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
Author Collin Hansen, editor in chief of The Gospel Coalition, lightly sketches what could be called the personal side of his subject’s life. Keller’s mother was involved and demanding; his father, emotionally absent. Keller left for college disenchanted with the gracelessness he saw in the churches of his youth. Despite majoring in religion in order to look for alternatives to Christianity, he made a commitment to Christ—and apparently to the pastorate, though Hansen devotes only one ambiguous sentence to the subject—by the end of his sophomore year.
Hansen briefly addresses what he sees as Keller’s weaknesses, characterizing him as a poor manager who tends toward overcommitment and people pleasing. Keller’s strengths are more readily apparent, including his ability to connect with people and to present theology in a way many have found compelling. These things helped make his teaching effective—and paved the way for a demanding title-a-year contract with Penguin Books.
Ironically, this broadening of Keller’s audience disrupted his primary work in the local church, as people from outside New York City started coming to hear him preach and get signed copies of his books. Further disruption came with the 2016 election, as he increasingly found many of his ideas a target for Christians across the political spectrum.
Keller’s ideas are Hansen’s primary focus, and he traces their development carefully. Neo-Calvinism, penal substitutionary atonement, amillennialism, complementarianism, broad politics, social justice, worship, evangelism—these are some of the themes Keller is known for, and Hansen shows both the individual and institutional influences behind them. (He names John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Stott, J. I. Packer, R. C. Sproul, C. S. Lewis, Elliot, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, InterVarsity’s Urbana missions conference, L’Abri, and many more.) For Hansen, this wealth of sources is key to Keller’s success. We “honor Keller better by reading his library than by quoting him,” he writes.
The second offering in this genre comes from Beth Moore, founder of Living Proof Ministries. Moore has taught audiences for almost 40 years, published half a dozen books and more than 20 Bible studies, and amassed over a million Twitter followers. Now, at 65, she has released a memoir, All My Knotted-Up Life.
Moore is a good storyteller with an engaging voice. With a few well-chosen vignettes, she shows the inner dynamics of her family of origin: her father’s unfaithfulness and abuse, her mother’s depression and suicidal tendencies, and the children’s attempts to cope. Moore married her college sweetheart at age 21, and they each brought grief and trauma into the marriage. They had two daughters who “deserved stability” that “we didn’t have … to give” but who hung the moon and the stars for their parents.
Running through the narrative is the thread of the Southern Baptist church where Moore was a fixture growing up. In college she volunteered at the denomination’s sixth-grade girls’ summer camp, where she had a spiritual experience that her pastor and the camp supervisor both took seriously as “a call to vocational Christian service.” As a young mother, Moore was asked to lead a church aerobics class, then to speak at women’s retreats, then to teach Sunday school, then to provide original Bible study material to her classes. The major Baptist press Lifeway asked to publish that Bible study, then others, then to run events that Moore would headline.
In preparing to teach, Moore found an abiding love for the Bible. Studying it became “the hunt for Christ himself.” She learned from sources including Marge Caldwell, Buddy Walters, John Bisagno, Abraham Joshua Heschel, William Tyndale, Lewis, Stott, Packer, and many she doesn’t name.
She studied New Testament Greek, then Hebrew, working her way through one multi-volume commentary after another. As she describes it, “I’d spend my entire adult life looking for someone I’d already found. Looking for something else about him. For what his face looked like in this light or that.”
Moore’s audience grew with her reach, from women to mixed groups, from fellow Baptists to a slew of denominations, from live events to the wide world opened by the internet. And the greater the visibility, the greater the criticism she faced. Despite this, she’s chosen to open more of her life to public view: “Some couple, some family, some reader we’d never otherwise reach might need to hear our story,” she writes. “We can no more fix another individual’s similar challenges than we can fix our own, but we can help another feel less alone.”
These books and their subjects arequite different in many ways. Hansen’s voice is more formal; Moore’s more familiar. Keller has done his work largely in connection with a local church body; Moore has worked with many churches and denominations. Keller found a ready-made organizational structure to formalize his vocation and support his work; Moore formed her own organization because for her there was no such framework available.
So it’s striking that, in other ways, Keller and Moore have followed such similar trajectories. Both have seen massive audience growth, Keller from a church of fewer than 100 people to one of 5,000, Moore from a class of 12 to regular arena crowds of 10,000. Keller has sold over 7.5 million books; Moore, 17.5 million Bible studies. Moore’s YouTube channel has 65,000 subscribers; Keller’s, more than twice that. Moore is often described as belonging to the parachurch side of the Christian world and Keller to the institutional church, but these numbers suggest Keller’s influence is now primarily in the parachurch world as well.
And both Keller and Moore have found that as their reach grew, it caused problems for their work. As Moore says, “With visibility comes scrutiny.” Both saw this scrutiny intensify in the political ferment around the 2016 presidential election. Both found themselves broadly criticized for ideas they had taught for years.
Here we see one opportunity these books offer to enter into the process of judgment. Keller and Moore have told a lot of people the good news about Jesus. But there are clear downsides to the scope of their influence. Both are burdened by the pressures of heightened attention, hurt by harsh criticism, and lonely because their packed schedules limit relationships. These constraints shape their marriages, their parenting, their theology, and their souls in ways it’s impossible to quantify.
It’s even harder to know the effect on the rest of us of consuming a steady diet of teaching from people we don’t really know. Scripture paints a picture of teaching and learning as a shared life, not simply the communication of information. Paul tells the Thessalonians, “We were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thess. 2:8). Keller and Moore give every indication that they’re doing their best in the system we live in, but with an audience of millions, there’s no way they can share their lives with most of the people they shepherd. And there’s no way most of us can know what kind of people they are across the quiet moments of their lives.
Books like these can serve as a partial antidote, offering the perspective of a handful of people who have been able to know Keller and Moore in daily life. These windows into life offstage suggest patterns of growth and repentance.
But Scripture also emphasizes that the point of Christian teaching is what we do with it. James reminds us that if we habitually listen to teaching without putting it into practice, we’re like amnesiacs, not even knowing who we are (1:23–24). Paul says, “The goal of our instruction is love” (1 Tim. 1:5, NASB). For most of us, it’s easier to hold the right beliefs on paper than to turn the other cheek, and in this kind of distance learning, there’s no accountability, no way for the shepherds to know how the sheep live their daily lives either.
So the truth of Elisabeth Elliot’s observation comes home. Not only do these works provide a necessary view of Keller’s and Moore’s faithfulness and failure, they invite us to look at the shape of our own lives. What do we value? Why do we gravitate toward teachers with whom we can’t have relationships? Are we looking for those of whom we can say, as Timothy could of Paul, that we “know all about [their] teaching … way of life … purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings” (2 Tim. 3:10–11)? Are we living in such a way that people around us can say the same?
Lucy S. R. Austen is the author of the forthcoming biography Elisabeth Elliot: A Life.
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