Friday, August 15, 2008

Book Notes: The Reason for God by Timothy Keller

Tim Keller was greatly influenced as a young Christian by C.S. Lewis' apologetic work, Mere Christianity. As such, he has sought for many years to make critical engagement with the culture, beliefs, doubts and questions of the people he meets, a central part of all his communication. His church services in New York have Q&A style discussions after the sermons which have obviously had an influence on the way in which he seeks to engage.

His new book, Reason for God, is the fruit of many years of presentation of the gospel, and discussion with its detractors. His aim, is to engage with the questions of today's post-modern culture, as effectively as Lewis did in modernity. Keller is keen that the church is involved in answering today's questions, and as his church (Redeemer Presbyterian) has gained a reputation of being a place where sceptics are welcome, and whose questions will be listened to, respected and engaged with - he has kept a close ear on the changing nature of doubt and 'stumbling-blocks' to belief. This book seeks to provide a coherent Christian response to those questions. In lots of short chapters - each designed to address a single point, he draws on a fascinating array of texts - Biblical, historical, literary, scientific to furnish his argument. Most readers will find some chapters more persuasive than others, however I'm sure that all will be engaged and educated, and no doubt some angered.

The first half of the book is involved with objections to faith, questions rooted in relativism, multiculturalism and materialism - and demonstrates (on the whole very well) the problems, flaws and implications which lie behind the beliefs which generate the specific questions. Keller believes that most of the people who come to his church to debate against Christianity, refuse to subject their own assumptions to the same degree of scrutiny as they do to Christianity - but asks them so to do. The first half of the book asks the reader to do this - in the hope that creating a 'level playing field' will enable the reader to open-mindedly engage in the second half of the book - Keller's reason's for believing in Christ as a coherent and viable alternative to the prevailing secular mindset which is most people's default world-view.

As ever, with such books, most readers will not change their views much. Anti-God polemics tend not to convert believers, and most atheists will not agree with much of this. Even so, I hope that this books is widely read, because it demonstrates thinking-belief, in the face of a culture that seeks to impose a false dichotomy between those two things. One of the problems is that thinking-belief like this is so often confined to weighty theological texts which are as inaccessible as they are unattractive to the general reader - who is about as unlikely to buy a hugely expensive obscure book constantly lapsing into NT Greek - as I am likely to subscribe to the Journal of Mechanical Engineering. As such, Keller's book should promote a coherent view of what Christians believe and respectful engagement on the issues at stake, altogether more pleasant than the shrill tones of the Dawkins/Hitchens school. I hope Christians read it too, because Keller's engagement with doubts is helpful, for thinking Christians who are always probing their beliefs and subjecting them to scrutiny. Penguin books have (rather unusually) put up a website to promote the book, which is here, along with the usual study-guides etc.

One of the best parts of the book is Keller's description of what Christianity is, over and against what he has discovered most people outside of the faith think that it is. The crucial difference is that while from the outside the faith looks like a system based on morality, self-righteousness and gaining approval from God by religion (which must by default look down upon those who 'fail' to meet the standards of the group); Biblical Christianity is a grace-orientated belief which begins by the great-leveller, of common-sinfulness, and the liberation of the knowledge of a God who loves sinners. As such, Christianity might attract the worst sort of people, those who have no pretension that they do not need to be saved - but are overwhelmingly aware of their own sins, failures and shortcomings. Indeed, it is the very humility that this view of grace demands, which inspires the respect for others, which Keller models in his respectful apologetics.
Tim Keller

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