Tim Keller was a pastor in New York City who had enormous influence far beyond the city limits. He died of pancreatic cancer in May 2023. One of his many influences that is sure to endure will be on how to engage public life with faithful Christian witness. On this episode, Tim and Rick share lessons they have learned from Tim Keller on representing the Christian faith and Christian convictions with remarkable civility, especially during difficult times and in hard places. They discuss Keller’s habits of civility, his ability to disagree without being overly critical, and the effects of being confident in Christianity.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. My name is Tim Muehlhoff. I'm a professor of Communication at Biola University where I teach classes on conflict resolution, family, gender, leadership, diverse perspectives. It's really kind of fun, the classes I get to teach. That kind of led to something called the Winsome Conviction Project, to which I'm the co-director along with a good friend of mine, Dr. Rick Langer.
Rick Langer: Hi, I'm Rick Langer. As Tim mentioned, we're co-directors of the Winsome Conviction Project. I'm a professor in Biblical Studies and Theology department, and also the director of the Office of Faith and Learning. And as Tim and I are sitting down to tape this podcast, it was not many weeks ago that Tim Keller passed away.
And Tim Keller was an enormously influential evangelical pastor. Many of us have read both his books, but actually one of the things that, at least for my wife and I, that we become most acquainted with Tim Keller with, it's just listened to his sermons on podcasts. He's a wonderful communicator, a tremendous... probably one of the most influential preachers in terms of not only people listening to his preaching, but people modeling themselves after his preaching. I would say in the last two decades, he's definitely probably been one of the most influential preachers in our country that way. So anyhow, we mourn the loss of Tim Keller. We treasure the memory of all that he did in the ministry he had in a very difficult place, ministering in New York City and Manhattan.
So anyhow, we wanted to note that. But the other thing that I think Tim Keller was very much noted for were the kind of things that we spent a lot of time talking about at the Winsome Conviction Project. And that is his ability to represent the Christian faith with clearly and deeply held conviction, but with kind of stunning, sometimes downright remarkable civility. And so we want to take some time to just talk a little bit about kind of lessons learned, things that we realized about Tim Keller that we particular value and the ways that he might serve as models for us in our contentious times.
Tim Muehlhoff: And we thought we'd kind of, from a communication standpoint, what we're trying to accomplish here, kind of go back and forth about things that just kind of stood out to us. And I'll start, Rick, with roughly in 2015, Camps Crusade has every other year, they have senior staff training. It's where everybody from across the country, if you're on staff with crew, you have to go. It's Fort Collins, Colorado. It's been held there forever on the campus of Colorado State University. My wife and I were on staff with crew forever, and I'll never forget when word got out that Tim Keller was going to be the Bible teacher for the senior staff training. And so we were all sitting there and two things stand out to me. One, I do not remember what he preached on, which is so discouraging if you're a speaker.
I do remember he gave three talks and wore the same outfit. All three talks. Came out in jeans, tennis shoes, a shirt untucked, and sat on a stool and just talked to 5,000 people. And it was riveting. But the thing that stands out to me, Rick, is he had a meeting where we could go and ask him questions. And I will never forget, he's getting hit with all the hard questions. And he was so gracious as he talked about people who disagreed with him, or he disagreed with them. There was certain fondness as he would talk about other people and then say, "But I do see this differently."
So when Keller passed away, Christianity Today did a story on him, and the person who wrote the story has come out with a brand new book, you might want to check it out. And the book is called Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation. And it's written by a man named Collin Hansen who had unprecedented access to Tim Keller. And in the Christianity Today article, he says this, Rick, let me quote this. "In all of our personal conversations, I cannot recall hearing a single critical comment from him directed toward a fellow believer. His steadiness under this growing hostility gave courage and comfort to young leaders who had become disillusioned by the fall of so many of our former heroes. Even I worried about uncovering unflattering secrets when I began to write his biography. I can assure you, I found none."
How convicting is that, Rick? All of his personal conversations, he never once in a negative way was harshly critical of a fellow believer. That is amazing today.
Rick Langer: Yeah. And that was not because he ended up agreeing with everyone. That's what I appreciate about what Keller did is it isn't that he was mushy on these things. He knew people saw things differently. I remember a particular case where he was invited to give, I think it's the annual Kuyper lectures.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, they mentioned it in the article, yeah.
Rick Langer: Yeah. And he was shown because denomination's position on, was that women's ordination?
Tim Muehlhoff: Women's ordination, he was-
Rick Langer: LBGTQ issues.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes. And he was quoted as stating the Anabaptist perspective, but people assumed it was his perspective and it wasn't. He was just stating what the Anabaptist said, which basically is, we think homosexuality is a sin, but we wouldn't be opposed to it being legalized. We don't care about that, necessarily. He stated the position, people assumed it was his. So let me just give this quick preamble. So he's invited to do the lectures, right? He's all set to do it. You get this massive award. The award is called the Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reform Theology and Public Witness. And you give a speech with it. Okay?
Well, word comes out about the ordination issue and they revoke the award fairly last second. Well, now they don't have a speaker, so here's Keller. Okay, yeah, I won't get the award. I'll still come and give the talk. Isn't that amazing?
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: I mean, you can imagine people going, how dare you revoke this? And I will not darken your doorstep, but no, he came and gave the lecture. And a lot of this article in Christianity Today is about what he said. But I thought, what a charitable position to take where he could have really demonized their decision.
Rick Langer: Well, and that was what I was going to say about that is that so many other believers pick this up as one more example of the cancel culture. People are just, if you say anything that falls outside norm, we're going to disinvite you, because he had been invited. He clears the guy who deserved the award. I mean, they gave it to him. But he suddenly was shunned because he had a belief that didn't fit with their norms. And so boom, he's out the door.
And all those things were things that Keller never said. I think they were all true. I mean, I think to complain about that being an example of kind of a cancel culture thing and things like that, I go, that's a fair observation. I think that's accurate. But I never heard that from Tim Keller. He just was like, these are decisions that they have to make, and I can respect that. And he, as you mentioned, offered to go and give the lecture. And so it was still different than a take your ball and go home. It was very different than canceling. He leaned in and in effect kept the conversation going and was able to give a remarkably eloquent witness to convictional kindness.
Tim Muehlhoff: So that comment that he makes, okay, now listen, if you were my biographer sitting down with me.
Rick Langer: Well, I'd have a few different things to say. I'm sorry. You wouldn't have that problem for me, but I might have a few other things.
Tim Muehlhoff: And it'd probably be a pamphlet, not a book. But I would filter, right? I know I'm talking to my biographer, right? That's what made me think about the 2015 Crew Conference, where he's not sitting with his biographer. He's sitting with a bunch of Campus Crusade for Christ staff, and I never heard him say a negative word. If anything, he was really charitable towards the people that were critiquing him. That's not in the company of a biographer. And my admiration really grew when I heard this biographer say that. And I say, well, that's really important.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Another concept that strikes me, let me give this wonderful aside. I was talking to one of my best friends who pastor in Canada, and he said, "Here's one thing you need to say about Keller. I actually had Keller's phone number. It had been given to me. One day I mistakenly call it. I don't mean to call it. And I look, and there it is, Tim Keller." He hangs up immediately. Two minutes later, phone call. It's Keller. Keller saying, "Excuse me, you called me. Is anything I can help with?" And my friend was like, "Hey, I'm a pastor. I'm so sorry. I dialed your..." He goes, "Oh, okay, but everything's okay?" And he's like, "Yeah. By the way, I'm a huge fan." But yes.
But the fact that he called back I thought was just kind of an interesting little moment into a Keller. It reminded me of Lewis, remember Letters to an American lady, who's talking about, "Dear Mr. Lewis, my poodle has diarrhea," and here's the great CS Lewis, who goes, "Well, I've heard that it would be helpful..." There's a few thoughts, there's a few thoughts on poodle diarrhea as opposed to other options. And I'm like, lady, stop asking him about your poodle. Right? Let's get another Narnia book. But there's something beautiful about the fact that he called back. I thought that was a really nice moment. So he starts this church in New York, church in Manhattan. He planted it with his wife Kathy in 1989. 28 years they were there before he turned... he just turned over the pulpit.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: This is what brings to mind this idea that he had a faithful witness, that you are the church at Rome. You are the church at Thessalonica. There's a rootedness, and that you are there and you become part of the culture after a while of New York is like they're not going anywhere. We have a friend of mine who's been at Yale 40 years doing ministry. He's now like an institution at Yale, who by the way, doesn't agree with very much that he believes, he's with crew, but he's been there for 40 years and he knows the history of Yale better than most people. To me, you begrudgingly earn the respect of people when you show up day after day after day after day, and hey, I am part of this community. And there was no... you can disagree with Keller. There was no disagreeing that he loved New York and was committed to New York and gave the bulk of his ministry to the people of New York.
Rick Langer: And I think that's one of these examples when you think about what is it about Tim Keller, or some other person for that matter, that you really admire. It's good to stop and think. It isn't always the genius or things like that because a lot of those things we can't imitate. I'm not Tim Keller. I don't have his eloquence or don't have his mind or whatever the things it might be. They just go, I could never be that.
Well, you could be a person who just loved people in the same place for a long, long time, and you persevered in that. And some of the power of his testimony and witness comes as much from very ordinary things as it does from his genius. And I would point out the things that we were just talking about, him being kind and not saying bad words, I've actually heard a lot of what you might call very ordinary unfamous people say things like, "My mom taught me that if he can't say anything good, you shouldn't say anything at all." And I always thought that was some good advice.
And you're talking to a guy who's working on your car or your kindergarten teacher, whatever, who's floating that piece of wisdom out. But you're going, that's actually a thing I could do. I'm just choosing not to, or I'm unwilling to discipline myself to do that. And I think there's a lot of the things that Keller modeled for us that we, on the one sense, think, wow, that's so impressive. In another sense, if you stop and think about it and say, "Well, that's closer accessible for you than you think it is." You just have never taken seriously the thought of just not saying bad things about other people, particularly other brothers and sisters in Christ. And I'm going, okay, that's not an impossible thing.
Tim Muehlhoff: And one thing I love about Keller, so his church, and I don't know how he pulled this off, I really don't. But he would, so he'd preach, I don't know how many times he'd preached in a weekend. I mean, this is pretty big congregation. But there was a whole time set aside, an hour that you could go and just ask him questions about the sermon. And you can actually listen to these. I've actually listened to some of these Q&A times. It is the integrity he gives to the question, because you and I are in a weird profession. So a Christian professor, what's the mantra we live by? There are no dumb questions.
Well, Rick, I can assure you.
Rick Langer: Experience would say otherwise.
Tim Muehlhoff: My word, right? But he never shamed people, never made them feel little. And he would just answer these questions. So I'm doing this debate. We actually had this gentleman on our podcast, his name is Tom Jump, he's an atheist. I did an online debate. So somebody said, "Oh, you got to listen to Keller's podcast. It's called Questioning Christianity." And I listened to it. And the brilliance of it is the Q&A time he has with an audience of non-Christians.
And he would, I can't tell you how many times he would say, "That is a really good question. You really put your finger on something that's really important, and I need to really think about that." And he would correct certain people. He would say, "I don't think that's fair to a liberal. I don't think a liberal believes that. I think a liberal believes this." And you and I have talked about steel man and straw man arguments, right? A straw man argument is I purposely give the weakest version of your argument because it's easier to defeat. I put holes in it so I can attack the holes. Steel man is, you actually do the opposite. You say, "Okay, I'm going to take your argument, actually strengthen it a little bit."
Rick Langer: Let me give you an upgrade.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, let me give you a little bit of an upgrade. And then let me deal with the best version of your argument. He was a master of doing that during this Questioning Christianity podcast. And it just reminded me of how secure you are in your beliefs that you can do that. To strengthen a person's argument, make it even better because you're confident in what you believe.
Rick Langer: I agree completely. And I do think that that was one of the things that modeled a confidence and conviction on Keller's part, is his willingness to, A, be questioned, B, to say, oh, that's a really good question. I'll have to think about it. In other words, have expressed a certain amount of humility, say, I haven't thought of everything about this. Let me learn it. And he's picturing, it isn't so much he's confident in his personal convictions, he's confident in his Christianity.
And so he's like, my conviction might be mistaken. I'm very confident in my Christianity, so I might've gotten my Christianity wrong. That's a real possibility. I'm really not very worried about Christianity being wrong, but I might have misunderstood, misread or things like that. And I think that's one of the things that, I think probably for many of us, he helped build all of our confidence in the robustness, the durability, the coherence of the Christian faith. I think part of why he was so good at being a defender of the faith, his reasons for God Book, things like that, part of why those are so well written is he listened so well to real critiques. He drew them out and then he had to respond to them.
Tim Muehlhoff: And wasn't threatened by them.
Rick Langer: He wasn't threatened. He figured the answers are there to be found. I will pursue that. And the flip side, back to the thing about not everyone's got a Keller mind or a Keller eloquence, true enough, but I think there's a lot of, you can say, that really beats me. I don't know. I'll have to look for it. And then to also admit the fact, that the bottom line is, I don't know all the places to look. I may not be able to give an answer to that and not to let your faith dangle by such a thin thread that if you can't answer another person's good question, you feel like I have to abandon my faith and just say, yeah, that's just welcome to the frailties of my human soul, person and mind. I don't have everything it takes to answer every question. I don't expect that I ever would.
Tim Muehlhoff: So Eugene Peterson wrote this amazing... talk about another giant that has passed on, is Eugene Peterson. You came up with a wonderful paraphrase, the message, and he wrote a great book called Subversive Spirituality. It's actually a collection of his essays. Rick, he's got an essay called Lying for God. So this is a different way to go, opposite of what Keller does, right? Somebody presents an objection to me and I feel compelled to refute it. I can't leave and not defend God's kingdom, defend God or the beliefs of my community. So I answer and maybe even lie and make the evidence better than what it really is because I can't lose this one, because God will look bad or Christianity will look bad.
So Peterson said, you start lying for God and making up things because you can't lose a particular argument, rather than having humility. It reminded me of Francis Schaeffer when he did L'Abri. I read a book called The Letters of Francis Schaeffer, and one great letter was he would hang out with college students and he came home, and Edith, his wife, said, "How did it go today?" He said, "Oh, I had this unbelievable conversation with a philosophy major, and he really presented some strong objections to Christianity." Edith goes, "What did you say?" He goes, "I don't know what to say yet."
I'm like, what? But there's something beautiful about that, that Schaeffer left, not lying for God. Like, "Hey, that one caught me off guard. I don't know when I'm about to say to that yet, and I need to think about that." There's something beautiful about having the confidence to leave it dangling and then go back. And I thought that was beautiful by Edith. What did you say? He goes, "I don't know what to say." Go back there right now. Yeah, that's interesting.
Rick Langer: One of the things that I admired about Keller is that he tended to speak with wisdom. I guess the way to put it is he spoke with a lot of wisdom, and he often led with that over merely conviction. In other words, he didn't say, "This is the way it is." Wasn't as much a focus, but here's some wise perspective on this. I am thinking what brought that to mind was a piece that he wrote on biblical justice in response to some of the controversy we've had over social justice and biblical justice. And that's sort of a battle that we have fought because it's been a very polarizing issue on college campuses, churches all around.
And so he has a wonderful piece on biblical justice that I think it'd be easy to find if just Googled Tim Keller and Biblical justice. But I found it very insightful, and it is not framed around the combat or the dismantling of social justice warriors or for people who dismantle social justice warriors. He's just trying to hit good sound, biblical wisdom on a variety of things that are very much controversial, contested issues in our day. And I would consistently read Keller and get insight, not just pats on the back or blaring horns saying charge in the absence of content to support it.
And so, yeah, I have an example list from that article right here. He says, "Why should we be concerned about the vulnerable ones? Well, it's because God is concerned about them. It's striking to see how often God is introduced as the defender of vulnerable people. Don't miss the significance of this. When people ask me, how do you want to be introduced, I usually propose they just say, this is Tim Keller, minister at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Of course I have many other things that I do, but the main thing I spend my time doing is that, in public life." Realize then how significant it is that the biblical writers introduced God as a father to the fatherless and a defender of the widows. This is one of the main things he does in the world. He identifies with the powerless and he takes up their cause.
And I think that kind of tenor is just enormously helpful. And again, there's kind of a deep wisdom to that in terms of not just pulling out a verse, but trying to identify a theme of how often God is associated with doing that task that I just find, not only helpful in that particular case, but kind of typical of a lot of the things that he offers.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well in this Christianity Today article, he makes that point, that one of the great strengths of Keller was not just to assert that Christianity was true, but that it was attractive.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: I love that. So this is what he says. "It wasn't that the early church was merely offensive to Jews and Greeks, but it was also attractive. The first Christians opposed abortion and infanticide by adopting children. They did not retaliate, but instead forgave. They cared for the poor and marginalized." So there's things we offer as Christians that are for the good of the community, for the good of neighbors, and he made it attractive. Remember Pascal said in his great book, the Pensees, he said, "How should we communicate the Christian faith? Paint a picture of it that people would wish it would be true, and then show them that it is." I think Keller really excelled at, hey, if this is true, this is unbelievably good news for everybody, not just for Christians or people of faith.
Let me mention one other thing. His book, Reason for God, is just an amazing book, New York Times bestseller, Belief in an Age of Skepticism. And in it, the introduction is really worth reading if you never even get to the whole book. He basically says, "This book is for Christians and skeptics. It's for both of you, and I think you can get something out of it."
And then he says this, "Religious believers should also be much less dismissive of secular skepticism. Christians should reflect on the fact that such large sectors of our formerly largely Christian societies have turned their backs on faith. Surely that should lead to some self-examination. The time for making elegant, dismissive gestures toward the other side is past, something is now more required." I love that, of saying, "Hey, secular people do not dismiss us, but religious people, we got to stop dismissing people we disagree with. There has to be an opportunity for us to come together and dialogue with each other." And in the introduction, he really does advocate what we call perspective taking, is stop and just get into their perspective and understand why this all makes sense to them. I think it's just a good word for the Winsome Conviction Project.
Last, I think maybe his greatest triumph is when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Rick Langer: Oh, wow.
Tim Muehlhoff: Is that he could have just kept it quiet, but he didn't do that. In the Atlantic, March 7th, 2021, he wrote an amazing essay, Growing My Faith in the Face of Death. Now, he could have taken that time just to present all the answers, right? My faith makes me strong, I'm facing death with the conviction of a follower of Jesus Christ. This is how he started the essay. And I thought this was just incredibly transparent of him to go this direction, the great defender of the faith.
He goes, "One of the first things I learned was that religious faith does not automatically provide solace in times of crisis. A belief in God and an afterlife does not become spontaneously comforting and existentially strengthening. Despite my rationale, conscious acknowledgement that I would die someday, the shattering reality of a fatal diagnosis provoked a remarkably strong psychological denial of mortality. Instead of acting on Dylan Thomas's advice to rage, rage against the dying of the light, I found myself thinking, what? No, I can't die. That happens to others, not to me. When I said these outrageous words out loud, I realized that this delusion had been the actual operating principle of my heart."
And that's the great defender Tim Keller. And it reminded me of CS Lewis when Joy died, his wife Joy, and his good friend said to him at the funeral, "Jack, we have a great opportunity to trust God." And the great CS Lewis responded, "No, we have a bloody mess." And there's something... So to end on a humanizing note, and again, him and his wife did not walk away from the faith, they faced it. But it was a struggle to face it. And I think that humanized him in such a powerful way that you can relate to the great Tim Keller and the great CS Lewis, that they let you into the struggle, not just the final outcome of that struggle.
Rick Langer: Yeah, it's kind of an interesting thing to think about if the best apologetic is a good argument or a life well lived. And I don't mean to convey that if the one's good then the other is bad, but I'm just saying I think there's a real contest between which of two is better. And honestly, particularly in our current day and age, I think in many ways, a well-lived life is the most compelling, a well-lived transparently Christian life, just what Keller was doing in that Atlantic article where he didn't feel obliged to give a systematic defense or solution to the problem of evil or things like that. But rather said, "Let me talk through how my faith informs my experience of suffering in the immediate prospect of death I'm now facing. Whereas before we all had kind of the abstract belief at a someday we'll die, I was suddenly confronted with kind of a deadline," pardon the pun.
But he then decided, let me just be transparent. Let me be self-reflective and transparent about how my faith shapes my life. And I think there's something incredibly attractive about that, that involves absolutely no denial. And it also doesn't do any of what you're talking about with Eugene Pearson. I'm not telling any lies about how my faith is making everything peachy or whatever, because this is what I've discovered when I looked inside. This doesn't happen automatically. And I think people appreciate that very deeply. And it certainly doesn't convey some ambiguity about whether or not there's a God or whether or not God matters in his life or he is planning on following God. It just is like, here's what that looks like to follow God in the midst of pancreatic cancer.
Tim Muehlhoff: And this wasn't something he just did at the end of his life. Have you read the book, The Meaning of Marriage, he wrote with his wife?
Rick Langer: A long time ago. Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. We sell it at Family Life marriage conferences. It's a riot. They share arguments.
Rick Langer: Because they had arguments.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh my gosh, I was reading this to Noreen, and she was like, "Yeah, you're not putting that in a marriage book, buddy." But there was something great about it. For her to say, this is what drives me crazy about Mr. Keller is X, Y, and Z. And I just thought, that's really cool that they would do that. And so the thing that they did at his death wasn't something they just stumbled on. They had already shown-
Rick Langer: Shown a pattern of doing that.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, we'll be honest. We'll tell you what the struggle is like in marriage, as a pastor and a New York Times bestselling author and all that kind of stuff. I thought it was great of him, and so freeing to Christians to say, "Hey, this is a gut punch. And when it was in the abstract, I was okay with it. But man, when you get that diagnosis, it's a gut punch." And I thought, what a good thing to normalize for the rest of us, that if he can struggle, we can struggle.
Rick Langer: And I do want to bring up, just as we're closing this discussion, I think we actually may have talked about this on an earlier podcast, but just in the past few years, there's been a little kind of Twitter storm, a a batch of blogs going back and forth about is the time for a person like Tim Keller passed? Because this whole winsome compassion, the conviction, all that, we live in an age where that doesn't cut it because everybody's cranky and it won't work.
And I would like to say one of the things that to me is saddest about Tim Keller's passing is my absolute conviction that the time for Tim Keller has never passed, and it never will. Tim Keller may pass, but the time for people doing the things that he did and modeling what he modeled and loving people enough to not disparage them even when he had ample reason to disparage them. To amplify the things that are good and gracious and beautiful about God, even in the face of things that are really ugly about people. These are things that don't grow old. And it's a sad thing to me to think of us doubting the value of his life and his testimony for us in our contemporary moment.
Tim Muehlhoff: And I've mentioned this so many times, I need to just stop. But when this critique came out, you wrote an essay for the Christ Animated Learning blog. I know it's a little bit clunky, but Christ Animated Learning blog, just go ahead and Google that, stick in Rick Langer, and you'll come to an article where you respond to critics of Keller and you argue that biblical gentleness does not go out of vogue. And it is one of the best things you've ever written. It is just so well said.
But what prompted it was the critique of Keller, and you started with that critique. So maybe that's just a great way to end this is for us to say thank you to a man we'd never got a chance to meet. But what a great model to all of us. One, how to be civil. Second, how to disagree with people, but never be caught saying overly critical things about them. And then lastly, dying your good death. That's a powerful legacy. So thank you Tim Keller. We're huge fans and so appreciative of the model that you were to us here.
Rick Langer: And thanks for joining us on the Winsome Conviction Podcast. We really encourage you to subscribe at Spotify, Apple Podcast or wherever else to get your podcast. Check us out at winsomeconviction.com website and continue to join us in listening, and we would encourage you to pick up the mantle of faithful Christian conviction. Lived out with loving compassion, but firmly held conviction. It's a great way to go.