Manhattan and Mars Hill

     A few weeks ago, I was saddened to hear that a major pastoral influence in my life, Tim Keller, had passed away from Pancreatic Cancer. Keller was a retired pastor who had lived out most of his ministry at Redeemer Presbyterian, a church in the heart of Manhattan, sharing the Gospel with young college students, artists, and businesspeople in the city.

    Of course, there is little reason to be sad for Keller himself. As a Christian, we believe him to be secure in the presence and rest of God; however, I am sad for the void that he leaves as a wonderful example to other Christians of how to engage with people who believe differently than us.

     We live in a time when it is increasingly expected and celebrated that we loudly, angrily, and regularly attack out idealogical opponents. Liberal, conservative, Christian, atheist- Your dedication to the cause is often judged by how outraged you are by what the opposing faction is doing. Keller was perhaps most famous for his book "The Reason for God", a work of apologetics designed to advocate for the faith of Christianity. The outrage culture would seem like a natural place for him. After all, apologetics is all about winning arguments, isn't it?

     Keller, however, had a different approach to those who disagreed with him. For him, apologetic discussions were never a chance to win an argument, but rather, an opportunity to sincerely understand the longings of another human being made in God's image and then walk with them, trying to help them find that what they were ultimately looking for was the person of Jesus. As a reformed presbyterian, he made no room for doctrinal compromise, but he also refused to demonize his opponents, seeing them as people who were made in the image of God, and likely had been shown some glimpse of God's common grace that could lead them toward Jesus.

     Toward the end of his life, he came under fire from many in the church for being too "winsome"- too kind and friendly toward his "enemies". They said that the time for kind dialouge was over- the "opponents" of Jesus had become too evil and dangerous. They sould not be engaged, they should be shouted down as loudly as possible.

    Luckily, Keller was too much a student of Paul- (something all of us should seek to be) to believe them. In Acts 17:16-34, we find Paul in Athens, the center of thought and philosophy in his day. Make no mistake: Roman culture was deeply sinful- easily as much so as (if not moreso than) our modern times. As Paul walks the idol-filled streets, we are told that he is deeply upset by what he sees, and yet when he engages the Athenians it is not upsetness, outrage, or condecension that defines his tone. His tactics are surprising. Paul begins by actually affirming them. He acknowledges the sincerity of their religious practice and worship, yet he can't help but notice an altar to an unknown God. He uses this "unknown" along with their sincerity to paint a compelling image of the God of Israel and Jesus, his son. Not only that, but he actually cites their own pagan poets, acknowledging that they, though misguided, are on to something and are not totally blind to the fact that a powerful god is at their origin, and continues to sustain them. Paul is not seeking victory, self-vindication, or affirmation by other like-minded God-fearers. He is seeking to understand the Athenians, and giving them a picture of Jesus they can understand.

     Keller and Paul were men who knew that apologetics and discourse were primarily acts of understanding and love. In them we hear and interact with real souls who have real concerns and really need Jesus, and we offer him in a way that is challenging, yet beautiful. As we live as Christ in a culture continually determined to get us as angry at the "others" as possible, I challenge you to remember their examples. Anger, outrage, self-righteousness and derision are all cheap excuses for apologetics. Sometimes the thing that will be most refreshing to the culture around you and the greatest evidence for the existence of Jesus in your midst will not be simply what you say, but the sheer amount of love and understanding that you are able to speak with. With men like Keller and Paul now gone, we continue to need more Christians like that.

Dan Vandzura