It was his focus on the eternal issues of life—of issues of meaning—that really hooked me. Nowhere else was anybody I knew talking about these things in the way that Tim was. He illustrated his points through philosophy, art, pop culture and yes, the Bible. But it was a Bible I had never been introduced to, despite attending church and Sunday school every weekend of my childhood. He brought it alive and showed how it was actually relevant to my life.
Tim Keller, one of American Christianity’s giants, passed away this week [May 19, 2023] at age 72.
As some of you may know, I somewhat improbably spent years in the evangelical fold starting in 2005 following the sudden death of my father at age 61 and the passing of my beloved grandmother the year after. It’s hard to imagine that I would have headed down this road but for Tim Keller.
I entered Tim’s church, Redeemer Presbyterian, as a fairly committed atheist. I had long ago dispatched with my Episcopalian upbringing and other than the boyfriend who brought me to church, there were very few religious people in my Manhattan friend group, which consisted primarily of people working in or dedicated to Democratic politics.
Sunday was for brunch, not church.
A year later, I was all in with Christianity. And not just any Christianity—I had signed up for Tim Keller’s brand of evangelical Christianity, or at least what I thought was Tim Keller’s brand of evangelicalism.
My feelings about Tim Keller the person are straightforward: I knew him to be a thoughtful, brilliant, kind person. A devoted husband and father; humble and generous. I was often the beneficiary of his wisdom as I navigated various issues. His wife Kathy, just as brilliant as he, was my Bible study teacher for years. They were intertwined heart, mind and soul—it’s hard to imagine the grief she is experiencing as she faces life without him.
What was it that was so alluring about Tim? David Brooks does a good job of capturing it:
American evangelicalism suffers from an intellectual inferiority complex that sometimes turns into straight anti-intellectualism. But Tim could draw on a vast array of intellectual sources to argue for the existence of God, to draw piercing psychological insights from the troubling parts of Scripture or to help people through moments of suffering. His voice was warm, his observations crystal clear. We all tried to act cool around Tim, but we knew we had a giant in our midst.
He didn’t fight a culture war against that Manhattan world. His focus was not on politics but on “our own disordered hearts, wracked by inordinate desires for things that control us, that lead us to feel superior and exclude those without them, that fail to satisfy us even when we get them.”