I sat down on Wednesday lunchtime to finish a Norman Mailer novel and ended reading the whole of this book in one sitting. I interrupted it to mash some potatoes and peel carrots and to gush on the edge of tears to Wife-Unit about its supremacy.
Tim Keller is an American megachurch pastor. Don’t let that count against him. If the Arcade Fire are right when they say “Never trust a millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount” then it might be an extensible maxim to say “Never trust a pastor of thousands when talking about humility”. But let me go out on a limb and make a claim that will sound ridiculous to many and be something I can never prove.
Tim Keller is a Church Father of the future.
There. I got it out of the way at the start. There’ll be nothing as ridiculous in the rest of this review.
In centuries he will be read. Reason For God, Prodigal God, Counterfeit Gods, Generous Justice and perhaps best of all, his first and often overlooked book Ministries Of Mercy are a canon for every church leader to pore over and analyse. Reason For God grows in my estimation every passing year. Prodigal God is being used to huge effect in my church to introduce people again to the reality of God. The more recent two books are for Christians and challenge them about where they have placed their heart commitments. They naturally draw less attention to themselves.
The goal of this book is simple and ambitious. Here is a summation:
The most traditional formulation of evangelical doctrine, rightly understood, should lead its proponents to a life of doing justice in the world.
To reference yesterday’s post on the Reformed tradition, here is our most articulate Reformed pastor hitting the Genevan nail on the head. Salvation is an invitation to the good life.
His argument has eight sections. In the first chapter he defines what justice is going to mean and he rotates the idea around the Old Testament concepts of mishpat and tzadeqah. The latter is about building harmony within relationship and the former is about asserting equity in status, so that people get what they deserve.
In chapter 2, what they deserve is unpacked as he examines the idea of justice in the Old Testament. Keller often reminds me of another bald Presbyterian leader, this one slightly less revered. Patrick Mitchel is extreme in the moderation with which he approaches difficult issues. It exasperates a tabloid mind like mine but it means that contentious issues are always treated with real subtlety. Keller unpacks God’s preferential option for the poor but does so without over-egging the pudding and representing the Hebrew Scriptures as a proto-Marxist tract. But he is insistent and clear nonetheless. The Deuterocanonical teaching on gleaning (that farmers could not harvest all their field but had to leave the margins for the poor to pick) is not to be seen as charity. Keller makes the point repeatedly. It was the property of the poor. To deprive them of this is not stinginess. It is theft. This is just one example of the way that Keller goes back in to the OT with the intention of hearing what it has to tell us, not what we want to hear. He manages to do this without falling into the pre-made traps of contemporary political or economic ideologies. The guys has nuance.
In chapters 3 and 4 he treats justice in the New Testament. Firstly with a broad overview and then in four with a more detailed discussion of the Good Samaritan parable. This material is reminiscent of his first book, the practical handbook Ministries of Mercy. Those familiar with Keller’s teaching will see how tight his thinking is. The thrust of these sections is that in the New Testament the work of justice is considered essential to the Christian life but it is not done for the purposes of gaining credit, approval or salvation. Rather, “it was a sign that you already had salvation, that true, saving faith was already present.”
In chapter 5 he takes up the thorny question of why we should actually take this Biblical witness seriously and actually do the work of justice. Drawing on Jonathan Edwards great and relevant words on these topics Keller says that “a heart for the poor ‘sleeps’ down in a Christian’s soul until it is awakened”. Only when we understand the extent to which we have received mercy will we be agents of it. Or in the terms of the book’s slightly polemical claim; if we are numbered amongst those who God has been merciful to, then we will share that mercy.
That chapter 6, “How Should We Do Justice?” is the longest should say something. This is not a book of theory advanced from a cosy office somewhere. This has been the life work of Keller and his close companions. Surely one of the most relevant gifts in this chapter is the discussion about the distinction between evangelism and justice work (there is one) and the connection between them (they must be “in an asymmetrical, inseparable relationship”).
In chapter 7 I sensed the presence of Catholic moral theologians, who apart from Gutierrez and Cavanaugh don’t show up in the excellent footnotes. Perhaps I am imagining it and it just so happens that those boys are so right-on that one naturally comes to their conclusions when informed by patient thought, scriptural study and sacrificial experience! Regardless, Keller argues against a public square stripped of moral or religious commitments. Citing people as diverse as Derrida and Obama, he says that all questions about justice are ultimately judgmental. To remove the religious angle of discussion is to avoid any questions of how we arrive at the conclusions we arrive at. It is a practical impossibility, an ideology foisted against reality. In the endnotes there is some up to date readings of the old thorny question of how the church ought to relate to the civic square. For those interested, Keller seems to comes down with a cautious Kuyperian transformation model.
I apologise for the cryptic nature of that last sentence but this brief off the top of my head review just went over a 1000 words. You want it to end sometime, right?
In chapter 8 he comes back round to an idea he begins with – how beauty inspires justice. Giving space to those critics of Elaine Scarry who argue that beauty is insufficient to generate justice (since the NAZIs loved to retire to their offices at the end of the day and listen to Mozart etc etc), Keller suspects you just need something more beautiful. God suffocating on a Roman torture device is the beautiful thing that Christians propose. To the extent that we realise he hangs there for us, a costly love for justice will spring forth from us like mighty rivers.
I have a friend who was part of the first group that formed Redeemer Presbyterian with Keller. Twenty years after that launch, I met Keller in London. He wanted to know how our mutual friends were. I can’t remember the names of core members of my church and there are about 70 of us. I thought this revealed something about Keller as a man. It spoke of his integrity and pastoral care.
My friend who was part of Redeemer always told me that the great technical ability that Keller brings to preaching is his skill as a redactor. To be honest, this whole blog, which I call a “theological sketchpad”, is an effort to develop similar redactional skills. By redaction my friend means that Keller can draw disparate sources together and put them in discussion with a Biblical text and thus enlightening it all. One of the great strengths of this book is the way he draws on the best sources to inform the argument. Whether it is Vinoth Ramachandra or Miroslav Volf or Chris Wright, he knows how to bring others into the conversation. There are 5 more books on my To-Read list after reading this book. It is always the way with Keller. Even when I end up utterly agreeing with him, I want to read all the slightly different perspectives.
So, in summation, the argument of the book is that to the extent that we get the Gospel, we get justice. Whether we are engaged in primary or rectifying justice, whether its on the level of relief or development or social reform, whether we do it as deacons or as plain and ordinary Christians, it is an invitation to share the grace we have received and thus revel in superabundances of further grace. It is brief, clear and brilliantly written. You’d be a damn hell ass fool to miss this book.
Your Correspondent, Ain’t no damn hell as fool