#1-5 on my dream guest list
Jordan Raynor sits down with Tim Keller, Founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, to talk about how the Church should respond to COVID-19, which of his books he hoped would reach a wider audience, and how creatives like Lecrae and C.S. Lewis have made art that points to God’s “Master Narrative” for the world.
[0:00:05.3] JR: Hey everybody, welcome to the Call to Mastery. I’m Jordan Raynor. This is a podcast for Christians who want to do their most exceptional work, for the glory of God and the good of others. Every week, I’m bringing you a conversation with a Christ follower who is pursuing world class mastery of their craft. We talk about their path to mastery, we talk about their daily habits and how their faith influences their work.
Today’s guest really needs no introduction but I’m going to give him one anyway. On my list of dream guest for this podcast, he is easily numbers one through five. That’s right. Today, I’m talking with Tim Keller. He, of course, is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and author of some of the bestselling books of our time, including The Reason for God, The Prodigal God and of course, Every Good Endeavor.
If that title sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because it’s the most recommended book by guests of the Call to Mastery. It’s also kind of the reason why this podcast exists, why my work exists, why my books exist. Years ago, I read Every Good Endeavor, first time I really understood the biblical narrative for work, it’s what inspired me to write Called to Create and the rest is history. Nobody has had a greater impact in my faith and my work than Tim.
Talk about a tough interview to prepare for by the way. My wife Kara, we were talking just before the show, she’s like, "What in the world are you going to ask the person who has had such a profound impact on your life?" It wasn’t easy culling it all down. But Tim and I sat down, we talked about how the church should respond to COVID-19 and which of his books he hoped would reach a wider audience than they eventually did. We talked about Lecrae and C.S. Lewis and other artists that point to God’s master narrative for the world through their work. You guys are going to love this conversation.
Without further ado, here is Tim Keller.
[0:02:11.8] JR: Tim Keller, thanks for joining me, I appreciate it.
[0:02:13.8] TK: Here I am, glad to be with you Jordan.
[0:02:17.2] JR: You’re in New York City today, your long time beloved home. Obviously the city shut down, we’re recording this on April 6th, the city shut down due to COVID-19. I personally have been spending a lot of time at Philippians, thinking about Paul and the letter he wrote when he was in relative isolation and saying that even those circumstances, the Lord used to advance the gospel.
My first question for you is, how can the church be thinking about these circumstances, right now in the middle of COVID-19, in this crisis. To advance the gospel in our communities and particularly, at work.
[0:02:51.1] TK: I think, listen, this may sound like I’m weaseling out. After 9/11, that was more in New York City here than anywhere else but after 9/11, it took a while for us to figure out what would be the unique and right response. Generally speaking, most Christian churches and ministries are going to have to do more with less. That is to say on the one hand, there’s going to be more opportunities to minister to people, more fearful people.
Perhaps more - both people inside and outside the church - that you might be able to deal with. And yet you're almost – I could be wrong but most churches and ministries are going to be facing decreased revenue, income, giving, and so you’re going to be in this position where you’re going to need to not only do more, not just for your own people but even for your communities that are going to be hurting. You know, there might be 25% more opportunity and 25% less money.
That was the 9/11 thing. You not only have to figure out what is our unique way to show the love of Christ right now and you also have to ask how do we do it for less and what that’s going to look like, I think it’s going to be several months from now before we know. Partly because whenever people say, it’s just devastating us, we don’t really know how much. For example, will there be – when I talk to all the financial people, the economic forecasts are all over the map. Is there going to be a fairly fast bounce back, whether we pent up demand and buy the fourth quarter, you know, stocks will be going up and things will be getting better or are we talking about two years, rather than three or four months? How bad will the unemployment be?
I don’t think we know, I really don’t. Also, another thing is, if every community goes through what New York is going through, that’s another issue. If it doesn’t, if you are out there, because you shut down earlier if you escape this, that will be great and you will be back to normal faster. I just don’t know that the answer, I told you there would have to be ingenuity, there will have to be ways of reaching your non-Christian neighbors and community and ways that you usually don’t have to worry about or think about. You’re going to have to do it with a little less resources but exactly what that looks like, I won’t know. I don’t think we know yet.
[0:05:10.7] JR: No, I think that’s right. Let’s talk about something you do know, that’s about as elegant a transition as I can make from the dark subject of COVID-19. Let’s talk about craft, right? We talk a lot here on the Call to Mastery of craft and what it takes to become masterful and whatever the guest’s vocational discipline is.
You are my all-time favorite non-fiction writer. Broad, open-ended question, curious to see where you take this. What are the keys to mastering your craft of communicating really clearly in the way that you do in your books and your preaching?
[0:05:42.9] TK: Okay, that’s fair. When you started talking about craft, I was saying, I’m a pastor, what craft? And then I realized, communication of course. Verbal communication. I am still more interested in oral communication than written. First of all, I’m vastly better at it, I’m very happy you like my writing. But I am far better at it, at oral communication.
That doesn’t mean I’m polished, never have been, don’t speak in complete sentences like my British friends. Not necessarily all that dynamic, like you know, African American and Hispanic members when they would bring their friends to Redeemer, before they brought them, they use to say now listen, contrary to what it looks like, I want you to know, he really does love Jesus.
[0:06:32.6] JR: I love that.
[0:06:33.2] TK: Because I wasn’t all that passionate and demonstrative. Yet, I think partly by temperament because it’s not an act but also partly by God’s providence, I learned to do oral communication in a way in New York City to mixed crowds of believers and nonbelievers very effectively, I think. It was increasingly effective. I know that, how effective, I don’t know.
On a scale of what to what. But I do know on my own scale from where I was when I got here to where I got to, I did get better. That’s one craft. Now, putting it in writing, I’m nowhere near as good. I need far more help.
[0:07:11.9] JR: How do you get that help? How do you seek –
[0:07:14.0] TK: Okay, listen, I would say almost every writer needs a – maybe there might be a few who don’t. You’ve got to be willing to take lots and lots of criticism. I kind of go more with my instincts and often do things differently than other people would say and I feel like it has paid off.
I can’t do that - to me for the average writer, to be a good writer, I would say I’m average by myself, I can become good if I just do over and over rewrites and tons of feedback from who? My wife of course. I have an editor at Penguin who is quite good and I have my wife and I always get at least that but the best would be, if you have time to give it to other people. Also, 10 rewrites, 15 rewrites, really. Over and over again, here’s one. Kathy and I read it out loud. Every single book.
[0:08:08.6] JR: Yeah, I read this. You write it as if you’re preaching, right? You read it as if you’re preaching.
[0:08:13.5] TK: Because you actually can’t hear the stupidity. No, the infelicities, you can’t hear the infelicities. Even though writing style and oral style is very different. Nevertheless, when you read it out loud, you start to say, that was repetitious or that’s not the best way to do it, we read the entire book out loud to each other and catch things we would never catch if you’re just going through it on the page.
Anyway, just to constant over and over, on the other hand, my oral communication, I would definitely say that every sermon needs to be basically written about six times. On the other hand, the books need to be written more like 60.
[0:08:52.0] JR: Yeah. I don’t know of a book in your portfolio that you could point to that could have been deemed a commercial failure. I’m really curious, is there one that stands out in your mind and be like, "Man, I really thought that one was going to reach more people or people are going to resonate it within a deeper level than they actually did?"
[0:09:10.5] TK: Kathy and I did a little Meaning of Marriage devotional. A 365 — which actually didn’t sell as well – that just came out like four months ago. Early. But it didn’t sell all that well but part of it is and my publisher will tell you. When you have a crisis like this, same thing with 9/11, when it comes to promoting things, it’s hard to get anybody to pay attention to anything but –
[0:09:34.5] JR: It’s the only thing people are talking about.
[0:09:35.8] TK: That’s right. Anyway, I would say, Making Sense of God in spite of the fact that you know, plenty of people have read it, it’s very clear. Communicators have read it. When it comes to being broadly out there as much as like Reason for God, I really wish that half as many people. I think Reason for God sold quite a lot and Making Sense of God hasn’t even sold maybe a fifth and I actually think in some ways for a lot of non-Christians, it’s a better book.
[0:10:04.3] JR: I agree. I think for the non-Christian it is a better book. But it’s also younger, right?
[0:10:10.6] TK: It’s younger. I mean, well, what do you mean by younger? You mean it’s newer?
[0:10:14.9] JR: Yeah, it’s a newer title.
[0:10:16.3] TK: Yeah, but also, I actually – there was a bookclub in Washington DC with some friends of mine, some Christians and some non-Christians in the book club. Very prominent, older guys and they decide they’re going to read the book and they asked me to come on down and talk to them about it.
Exactly what I hoped, it was really well received and I got a letter from one very prominent, non-believing person, very secular person who said, he said, "You know what?" He’s like in his early 70s and very well known person. You might know him if I give you the name. He wrote me and he said, "For the first time, I actually believe that intellectually, I now see that Christianity has credibility, I’m open to the case."
What he meant by that was he said, "I always felt like no matter what people told me about it does this for you, or the Bible or whatever, I always felt like it’s just not possible for a rational, sensible person to even be open to it. He said, all the book did was it showed me, oh my goodness, you know, I really can’t do that anymore. There is a real case for it and I should be willing to explore it. I actually think the book is going to have better impact on more secular people and Reason for God is a little more for folks that are close or even for – I hate to say it, evangelical kids who are starting to get doubts about their faith and then they read it and they say, "It’s okay."
[0:11:40.7] JR: Yeah, that’s true. I think some people think you stepped down from preaching, you’re going to retire. Obviously you’re not retired, you’re on back to back interviews today, you’re doing work with Reformed Theological and Redeemer City to City which you of course founded.
What does your typical day look like? Well, not these days, let’s say pre self-quarantine days? What does the day in the life of Tim Keller look like?
[0:12:01.1] TK: Well it depends. I try to have days to write and I try to have days to be out doing everything but I’d say a quarter of my time has been teaching. So we’re teaching ministry students so I am basically quarter time a seminary professor with myself. Another quarter of my time has been traveling and speaking in a variety of ways but I am actually pretty happy. I feel well-used, I mean I feel well-used, who wants to be used.
But the point is I work for Redeemer City to City and so what Redeemer City to City does is they’ll take me to places in this country but also take me to and over last year I have been to Mexico City; Rio de Janeiro; Sao Paulo; and Seoul; Taipei; Kuala Lumpur.
[0:12:45.4] JR: Not a bad gig.
[0:12:46.8] TK: London; Krakow, Poland; and Chicago and I have done conferences in every one of those places and here is the good thing, the books draw people in. And basically if you get a 1,000 people in the room and you do a conference and then you say we want to help you plant churches in your city and guess what, 10 or 15% of the people sign up and if I go I could not only help them but I gather them in that particular country because the books are in 80 languages all over the place.
And so the books ended up being a way for us to basically have convening power and when I get them in the room, I do a conference. Fine but what I love about it is the outcomes and –
[0:13:27.7] JR: Yeah you love the work afterwards, right?
[0:13:29.4] TK: Yeah if somebody says to me, “Please go to Colorado Springs and talk to 10,000 kids about why they shouldn’t have sex before marriage.” And you say wow 10,000 kids I am not going to do it. No somebody else could do that. But probably you are not going to be able to get somebody else - perhaps - in Kuala Lumpur to get a whole lot of say Chinese house church pastors together and then you challenge them and actually two years later, you can see exactly X number signed up. X number of new churches, see?
So that is pretty exciting but that is a lot of work. I mean when I do one of those things it basically takes essentially a month out of my life, basically. So there is like I can do two of those in a year and I think I may not be able to keep doing it. So there is the convening power, there is the teaching and then there is the writing and then actually there is miscellaneous, which I could break into 10 other things as you know. There is always this –
[0:14:27.6] JR: Yeah sure always. By the way you are writing that at a frenetic pace. I should say you’re publishing at a frenetic pace, you published this three book kind of combination - On Birth, On Marriage, On Death and you just came out with Uncommon Ground which I loved just finished up the advance copy this weekend. We are going to release this a day after it comes out so you guys can go buy a copy right now.
I got a question about the book but first can you give our listeners a 30 second overview of this newest title, Uncommon Ground?
[0:14:55.2] TK: Yeah, the overview is this - that John Inazu who's my co-editor for this book, wrote a book called Confident Pluralism, academic book. Basically how do Christians engage with people who are not believers in the public sphere in a way that even though we can’t even agree on what the common good is, that is we can’t agree on common good like what is a good society, we don’t agree.
On the other hand, is there any way to find common ground to continually dialogue and find some overlapping areas of commitment where we can be good neighbors instead of just fighting with each other. Another background book would be James Hunter’s book To Change the World. –
[0:15:39.0] JR: Yeah such a great title.
[0:15:40.4] TK: Both of those books are basically talking about a way of not withdrawing, not dominating, not assimilating but staying engaged and being civil and still being yourself, still being a Christian, both of those books are academic books and this book is essentially has a set of peak essayists all of whom totally buying those two books and now we are saying this is how it fleshes out in our lives. So it is case studies.
[0:16:05.1] JR: Yeah so I want to talk about one of those essays. I love the essay from Lecrae.
[0:16:08.9] TK: Isn't that a great essay.
[0:16:10.0] JR: It was a great essay.
[0:16:11.9] TK: I loved it.
[0:16:12.9] JR: I want to see you and Lecrae watching some of your co-favorite movies here. You know he is a big The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe fan, The Lord of the Rings fan. I know that is some of your favorites and I love this essay because Lecrae talks about why we love these stories, because they are so artfully revealing God’s master narrative for the world. But I know a lot of Christians who would never describe the work of those filmmakers and authors as redemptive or eternally significant, right?
It is not like Sam and Frodo come on at the end of the film and walk the audience through a tract. So here is my question, is it good enough? Is it eternally significant to just make people long for that master narrative? Is that God glorifying in it of itself?
[0:16:55.0] TK: Well listen, if you are an evangelical Christian and you wrote Lord of the Rings – well actually, you know Tolkien obviously was a devout Catholic. He went about it differently. The answer is yeah, that short answer is yes. In fact there is non-Christians who were glorifying God. The way Psalm 19 says “The heavens are glorifying God.” And they’re not even people. So yeah I mean here is what I get from Lecrae. Lecrae says that the world’s narrative is a reductionistic.
So he says take a look at a young black kid being shot. One narrative is that it’s always the cops are the bad people. It is never the black poor community. It is always the cops are the bad people. The other narrative of course is the cops are always okay. I mean they are dangerous. Their lives are on the line there is always bad characters out there and of course they are going to make some mistakes sometimes and he says those are reductionistic.
Because only and here is where he has been totally reformed by the way. He says, "Creation is good and yet it is fallen," and therefore the world will either try to idolize one thing and demonize something else but whatever you idolize is actually a fallen created thing and whatever you demonize is actually something creationally good and therefore Christianity is actually more nuanced than any other point of view. It actually says, look there is sin and grace running all through here.
The real villain is not the cops or the kids. The real villain is sin and the real redemption of course is only in Christ. And so what Lecrae is doing is he says that Christianity just makes you more nuanced, it kind of complicates those old narratives and you can find both sin and redemption in so many of the best stories. I love it.
[0:18:43.0] JR: I like the line it was something in the effect of nobody is exclusively a villain or a hero right? I like that angle in his essay. All right three quick questions that we end every conversation with. Number one, which books do you gift the most or recommend most frequently to others?
[0:18:58.1] TK: It has to be C.S. Lewis books and which ones, it depends on the person.
[0:19:04.3] JR: What is your favorite? Do you have a favorite, favorites Lewis titles?
[0:19:08.6] TK: Probably The Great Divorce. I do. There is things in there just make me cry. Every time. What I like about it it is didactic. I mean Lewis is preachy, you know he is not hard to decipher but on the other hand there is wonderful images. You know Sarah Smith of Golders Green, you know where this incredible figure, she looks like a goddess who is so beautiful in heaven and on earth she was like nobody knew who she was.
She never married, she is very plain not very good looking, didn’t have any money. She was Sarah Smith of Golders Green and yet of course famed in heaven and famed on earth are two different things. Sorry I love it. Whether we gift it, it depends on the person because we certainly have given Mere Christianity many to people, Screwtape Letters to many people. The Narnia Chronicles to plenty of people.
[0:20:00.6] JR: Yeah I am pretty sure by the way, we had Lewis’s step son, Douglas Gresham on the podcast a few months ago and I am pretty sure he said The Great Divorce. I asked him specifically which title of his stepdad’s and he said I am pretty sure it was The Great Divorce. I got to look it up I’ll let you know. All right who would you most like to hear talk about how their faith influences their work?
[0:20:21.8] TK: I actually do know somebody I haven’t heard but I do find it interesting to listen to Francis Collins. You know we actually differ, Francis and I have gone back and forth both in private and public about whether there was an Adam and Eve but he is one of the leading scientists in the whole world and he is an extremely thoughtful Christian and a wise person. So I always love to hear how he sees his faith having a bearing on the way in which he’s –
He is also basically in charge — he is my age and is in charge of the NIH, which is vastly the biggest funder of scientific research in the world. He is doing a great job.
[0:21:02.4] JR: That is a terrific answer I like that. All right last question, single piece of advice to leave this audience with who they are seeking to do exceptional work primarily for God’s glory and the good of others, what would you leave them with?
[0:21:14.9] TK: I can almost guarantee unless you are a terrible introvert, some people are horribly introverted and probably need to get out more but mostly that’s probably not your thing –
[0:21:25.8] JR: But not right now.
[0:21:26.8] TK: Not right now, I know. However I think most of your folks underestimate the importance of prayer and reading and solitude. When you get to the end of your life you are going to say I should have put way more time into prayer, reading and solitude.
[0:21:38.4] JR: That is a good answer. Hey Tim, thank you for spending decades mastering your craft so that millions of people like me could understand the gospel at a deeper level. Thank you for helping open our eyes to what the Bible has to say about work and the good gift that work is and how it contributes to the unfolding of the kingdom. Thank you for inspiring us all to work not for our own glory but for the glory of God and the good of others.
Hey, Tim’s newest book is Uncommon Ground. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Make sure to go pick up a copy today. Tim, thank you so much for spending some time with me today.
[0:22:13.3] TK: Well, thank you and it is great to meet you.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:22:17.2] JR: That was an absolute joy, one of the great honors of my life. Thanks for forgiving me for fanboying so hard, everybody. Hey, before you go I got an announcement to make that I am really excited about. A lot of you have asked us if we would aggregate the great books recommended by guests on the Call to Mastery including The Great Divorce that Tim just mentioned. That is why this week, we have launched jordanraynor.com/bookshelf, which makes it super easy for you to find books recommended by every single guest on the Call to Mastery.
We have also added a leaderboard of the most recommended books ever on the podcast and how many times they have been recommended and then in addition to that I have curated lists with my personal recommendations for the best books I have ever read in a bunch of different categories, from faith to work to general Christian living to entrepreneurship and the craft of writing. All of that is there at jordanraynor.com/bookshelf.
And in honor of today’s guest, I have added a list of my top 10 favorite books by Tim Keller. I think I’ve read everything that Tim has ever published by my count that is more than 25 titles at this point all of them are great but these 10 are the very best. Again you are going to find all of those books at jordanraynor.com/bookshelf. Thank you guys so much for joining me for this special episode of the Call to Mastery, I will see you next week.