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From the September/October, 2009 issue of Touchstone

 

Manhattan Gospel by Louis Markos

Manhattan Gospel

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism
by Timothy Keller
Dutton, 2008
(320 pages, $24.95, hardcover)

reviewed by Louis Markos

Ever since Socrates set up his table in the agora of Athens and challenged his fellow citizens to debate with him the true nature of wisdom, courage, and justice, philosophers have been accused of being naive and impractical disturbers of the peace. Cut off from the real-life concerns of everyday mortals, they live with their heads perpetually in the clouds. Apologetics, inasmuch as it is a branch of philosophy, has borne its own share of criticism from cynics and pragmatists who consider its answers too pat, its reasoning too abstract, and its premises too otherworldly.

It is therefore a cause for rejoicing that the author of the best recent book of apologetics is a man who can hardly be accused of living and working in an ivory tower, divorced from the struggles of his readers. Timothy Keller, the charismatic pastor of the 6,000-member Redeemer Presbyterian Church, lives and works in the heart of Manhattan, where he wrestles side-by-side not only with orthodox believers but also with seekers and skeptics, feminists and environmentalists, conservative businessmen and liberal activists, wealthy celebrities and the urban poor. For nearly two decades, he has ministered to his diverse and growing flock and has listened— really listened—to their questions and doubts, their frustrations and fears, their sorrow and their rage.

The Reason for God is a passionate and compassionate book written by a working pastor whose experience has taught him— really taught him—to love sinners. Keller is as unswerving in his pursuit of truth as he is non-judgmental in his embrace of modern and postmodern truth-seekers. Though he presents the gospel clearly and forcefully, his goal is not simply to win converts; he wants his readers to know that an intimate relationship with Christ can free them to become fuller, less judgmental, less self-centered people.

Identity & Addiction

In a bold move, Keller asserts that the Christian doctrine of original sin is good news. Our modern (and postmodern) society has taught us that we are all victims in some way, fated to be what we are to some degree by our genes or our upbringing or our environment or our socio-economic status. While not discounting the devastating effects of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, Keller asserts that the knowledge of our own sinfulness provides us with hope that we are not “simply the helpless victim[s] of psychological drives or social systems.” As sinners, we are not slaves to fate, but moral agents made in the image of God who have fallen away from our original purpose and proper relation toward God, ourselves, our neighbors, and the natural world. It is only after we awaken to our own sinfulness, that we can, with God’s help, seek restoration and wholeness both by forgiving others who have wronged us and asking forgiveness from those we have wronged.

“Every person,” Keller explains, “must find some way to ‘justify their existence,’ and to stave off the universal fear that they’re ‘a bum.’” The way most of us do this is by attaching our self-worth to something in this world: duty to our family, charitable service, career advancement, intimate relationships, artistic development, self-discipline, social popularity, the acquisition of power or wealth, and so on. Whether these pursuits are religious or secular, self-negating or self-serving, corporate or individualistic, they eventually come to define us as individuals.

And that is when the problem begins. “Identity apart from God is inherently unstable. Without God, our sense of worth may seem solid on the surface, but it never is—it can desert you in a moment.” Sooner or later, all those who seek self-worth apart from their Creator find that they have built their identities upon sand. In the end, they crash and burn and are left alienated from their true, inner selves.

Worse yet, writes Keller, an “identity not based on God also leads inevitably to deep forms of addiction.” And, sadly, it often happens that the nobler the cause, the deeper the addiction. We are so made that we must protect our self-worth and identity at all costs, even if that means enslaving ourselves to an idol that slowly devours our true nature.

The Real Culture War

Thus far, Keller’s argument, though it is nuanced in a fresh, appealing way, will be recognizable to those familiar with C. S. Lewis’s warning (in The Four Loves) that when we turn any earthly love into a god, it becomes a demon, and with his insight (in The Great Divorce) that good things (like mother-love or patriotism) are more likely to act as substitutes for God than bad things (like drugs or pornography). It also echoes the popular evangelistic argument that we are all born with a “God-shaped” vacuum in our hearts that only God can fill.

But Keller goes beyond repackaging Lewis—and behind Lewis, Augustine—for the twenty-first century. Committed to speaking the language of a generation that tends to equate the church with prejudice and intolerance, Keller goes on to argue that it is sin, idolatry, and addiction—not the Christian solution for sin, idolatry, and addiction—that leads to racism, classism, and sexism. Taking his cue from Jonathan Edwards’s The Nature of True Virtue, Keller explains that when our self-worth and identity are founded on a political cause,

we must despise and demonize the opposition. If we get our identity from our ethnicity or socioeconomic status, then we have to feel superior to those of other classes and races. If you are profoundly proud of being an open-minded, tolerant soul, you will be extremely indignant toward people you think are bigots.

Only by basing our self-worth on Christ can we free ourselves from our addiction to causes, groups, and ideologies and the subsequent intolerance that springs up to guard our addiction. For the last several decades, the media has fueled those addictions by playing up the culture wars between the “moral majority” forces on the right and the “lifestyle choice” advocates on the left. But the “real culture war,” writes Keller, “is taking place inside our own disordered hearts, wracked by inordinate desires for things that control us, that lead us to feel superior and exclude those without them, and that fail to satisfy us even when we get them.”

Addressing Today’s Audience

Keller’s subtle and his incisive treatment of original sin, the dangers of idolatry, and our innate need for Christ are indicative of his book as a whole. On the one hand, he is a traditional apologist. Building on the work of such luminaries as Augustine, Edwards, Kierkegaard, Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Bonhoeffer, Alvin Plantinga, N. T. Wright, Peter Kreeft, Francis Collins, Alister McGrath, and (especially) C. S. Lewis, he presents us with a range of classic apologetic arguments: the Big Bang and the fine tuning of our universe point to a Creator; relativism, naturalism, and inclusivism are all self-refuting systems because they rely on absolute statements; the true answer to the problem of pain is found in the Cross; the Gospels offer early, reliable, non-mythic accounts of the life of Christ based on the testimony of eyewitnesses; the Resurrection is a historically verifiable event that is attested to by a mountain of evidence.

On the other hand, he carefully inflects these arguments so as to make them piercingly relevant to a modern urban audience that is socially conscious but suspicious of allowing the church into the public square, spiritually hungry but alienated from institutional religion, and desirous of deeper meaning in their lives and work but resistant to the possibility that there might be one true way to God. Keller’s success at reaching this audience and speaking their language rests on a number of factors that make his work unique.

First, Keller’s organization is innovative. The typical apologetic approach is to lay out the case for Christ, and then proceed to answer major objections. Keller reverses the process, choosing to devote the first part of his book to answering the toughest challenges to faith and the second half to building his defense of the gospel. Keller knows that many modern city-dwellers are so put off by the problem of pain, the exclusivity of the church’s claims, the doctrine of hell, and the biblical emphasis on miracles that they won’t even give Christianity a fair hearing. Keller assures them that being a Christian does not require leaving their brains or their hearts or their social consciences at the door.

The Way to Restoration

Second, Keller weaves into his narrative a bold but irenic dialogue with the gurus of the “new atheism” (Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennet, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris). Conceding their point that Christians have often been guilty of treachery, imperialism, intolerance, and abuses of power, he gently reminds his readers that every age, culture, ideology, and religion (including atheism) has committed atrocities in the name of its “faith.” The biblical doctrine of original sin teaches us to expect such things.

The question that needs to be asked is not which faith or ideology has no blood on its hands (they all do), but whether or not there is a faith or ideology that offers a solution to human depravity. Only Christianity offers real hope that fallen people can be transformed, and only Christianity provides a firm, unshakable foundation for the intrinsic worth of every human being. Yes, many slaveholders in the past were Christians, but it was the Judeo-Christian worldview that supplied the impetus to abolish the slave trade. Yes, many Christians are racists, but it was the Judeo-Christian worldview that supplied the impetus for the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

Third, Keller applauds the high premium that many nonbelievers put on love and forgiveness, but then reminds us how costly these things are. Wrongs, and the pain and devastation that wrongs bring, cannot simply be erased. Someone always has to “pay,” even if the payment is emotional rather than physical or financial. True love does not try to overlook wrongs but seeks to bring healing and restoration; indeed, it seeks to so transform wrongs that they become tools in the arsenal of justice.

It is a sad irony that so many Americans and Europeans who have sacrificed much to bring about world peace have wrongly identified Christianity as an impediment to their goals. To these noble laborers in the field, Keller offers this closing vision: “Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was an infinitely costly rescue operation to restore justice to the oppressed and marginalized, physical wholeness to the diseased and dying, community to the isolated and lonely, and spiritual joy and connection to those alienated from God.” •


Louis Markos (www.Loumarkos.com), Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His books include From Achilles to Christ (IVP), Apologetics for the 21st Century (Crossway), and Literature: A Student's Guide (Crossway). His On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis was released by Moody in October 2012.

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