A new book, Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation, details the story of the individuals, institutions, ideas, and events that have formed the life and work of Timothy Keller. This book from Collin Hansen, who is editor in chief at The Gospel Coalition, is a gift for church leaders. Hansen writes appreciatively of Keller’s work, with a focus on the many factors that influenced him — the stories behind the story.
Reading this sort of reflection on a life’s work, I couldn’t help but think of Wendell Berry’s fictional character Jayber Crow. Jayber Crow himself reflects on his own life in Berry’s novel of the same name:
If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line — starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led — make of that what you will.
Like Jayber Crow’s reflection on the pilgrimage of his life, Hansen’s telling of Keller’s life shows not a logical path from hell to purgatory to heaven but, instead, a pilgrimage “wandering and unmarked” at times, as it may be for all of us. Though Jayber Crow went from pursuing the pastorate to becoming a barber, and Keller went from (almost) saying yes to work with the postal service to choosing a pastoral assignment, the similarity lies in the looking back — at pilgrimages with paths unexpected and winding and different in their nature, both led by grace.
Hansen’s book is not meant to provide a strategy for pastoring and cultural engagement, nor to encourage people to be more like Keller. Rather, it is a celebration of God’s grace in Keller’s life — and in our own lives, too. Though having walked a wandering and unmarked path, Keller’s desire to learn never wavered. Hansen’s readers find that this is a grace, too, that has followed Keller in his work as a pastor in the work of the church.
Learning the Work of a Pastor
Hansen reveals that long before Penguin Random House contracted with Timothy Keller to write a book a year, an admired professor in seminary regularly passed over him for a Fellowship. He wanted the mentorship that the Fellowship would afford, but was denied it. His preaching professor gave him a C and, according to Keller, said, “You are like a big teapot with a little spout. You need to learn how to let it out.”
As Keller’s seminary studies came to completion, the job prospects were bleak. He had decided to seek Presbyterian ordination, despite the review of a certain preaching professor, and he desired to stay in New England. Hansen notes that Keller had a new family to consider as well from the start this endeavor. Keller and Kathy married at the beginning of their final semester, and after graduation — since any prospect for the kind of position Keller sought was not in sight and he had very few connections due to his Evangelical Congregational Church upbringing — they began, together, making plans for temporary work. The Kellers took the U.S. postal carrier test, and they both received job offers that could begin that summer.
Keller’s undergraduate and seminary years were formative, so with an offer from the Postal Service on the table, he still hoped for the opportunity to pastor. Hansen introduces some of these formative studies in Keller’s education, too, like the pastoral work of Rev. Richard Merritt, as well as the biblical teaching of Ed Clowney and Barbara Boyd through InterVarsity. R.C. Sproul, Elisabeth Elliot, and Roger Nicole also had significant influence on Keller’s aspirations.
A pastoral position soon came on the Kellers’ radar: a three-month interim opportunity in Hopewell, Virginia. The church was hurting (the previous pastor had run off with the choir director), and there were no assurances of a longer stay. It wasn’t New England. And it wasn’t an ideal assignment. It was certainly not the kind of thing one would script for themselves in crafting a life plan. It would have made sense had they declined the opportunity and began work with the postal service, except they didn’t. The Kellers accepted the position and moved to Hopewell in May 1975.
Then three months turned into nine years. “Keller had to do everything from the start of his time there — guide his session of elders, preach Sunday morning and evening, lead the Wednesday prayer meeting with another sermon, teach Sunday school, plan the youth group, deliver talks on the men’s and women’s retreats, visit the sick,” and more, Hansen writes. It was also in Hopewell that all three of their children were born, he notes.
In those nine years in Hopewell, Keller preached more than 1,500 sermons.
For Keller, learning was always a priority. Unfortunately, the church budget did not include a book allowance, and the demands on his time could have easily pushed aside any efforts for ongoing education — so, Hansen writes, Keller “asked Kathy and other family and friends to buy him books as Christmas gifts. He would read those ten to twenty books all year long.”
This kind of pastoral work continues in churches around the world. The ordinary pastor does not have a large staff, nor a budget for ongoing education. They do not get to focus on one or two areas of their gifting, and they are often leaned upon to serve in all areas of church life. It is work that bears the mark of the Fall, like all human toil. Hansen emphasizes through Keller’s story that, by grace, that work also forms us into the image of Christ.
Learning by the Work of the Church
In 1979, with the first of three young children already born, Keller enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program through Westminster Theological Seminary. He did not have a specific plan or project for study, and so he took the recommendation of another, according to Hansen’s telling. George Fuller told Keller, “Work on deacons — no one knows how important that office is anymore.”
That recommendation to focus on the diaconate, Hansen says, would lay the groundwork for Keller later joining the faculty at Westminster, chairing the steering committee of Tenth Presbyterian Church’s ministry to AIDS patients in Philadelphia, and being tasked with researching New York City for future church planting as the northernmost staff member for the PCA Mission to North America.
It is hard to imagine how Hope for New York and Redeemer’s Center for Faith and Work would have been started and prioritized by the local church, except for Keller’s focus on the deacons in the church. (And Hansen reminds readers how difficult and unlikely it was to believe that New York City was a good place to plant a church in the late 1980s, or that someone like Keller was a good fit for it.) Keller researched contemporary textbooks on social work and studied how churches in Geneva, Amsterdam, and Glasgow developed structures for public social service through their diaconates. “Keller investigated how the role of deacons had shifted in Presbyterian life away from serving the poor and needy into tasks like keeping books and managing facilities,” Hansen writes.
Keller’s commitment to lifelong learning was consistent through some of these busy seasons of growth in the life of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. “Between 2004 and the 2008 recession, Keller met about four times a year with James Hunter, pastor Skip Ryan, and two business leaders, Don Flow and Jim Seneff,” Hansen writes, to read and reflect. They called it the Dogwood Fellowship, in honor of their shared Virginia roots. Here, he remained open to learning new ways of engagement and persuasion with skeptics of the Christian faith.
The Dogwood Fellowship is one example of the path to wisdom encouraged in Scripture: The Book of Proverbs describes the wise as those who learn from rebuke or instruction. The wise love to learn, and so they are willing to learn in whatever ways life might choose. Neither being passed over for a fellowship in seminary nor reaching The New York Times bestseller list have caused Keller to stop his pursuit of learning. Nor the demands of a small town pastorate with young children or an expanding urban ministry, and alongside personal health challenges at that.
Because Hansen’s book is described as being about the influences on Keller, there were times I expected more engagement with the source materials from Hansen himself. For example, Hansen notes that The Stranger by Albert Camus was an assigned book in three separate courses in the same semester for Keller at Bucknell, but in this book, he never interacts with the work himself. But what the book lacks in deeper literary engagement, it makes up for in historical context. This book will serve future accounts of the life and work of Timothy Keller by both fans and critics alike.
For church leaders today, Hansen’s book is a great reminder of the unexpected providence of God that can help us grow through rebuke and instruction, through failure and success. The providence of God that may, like Berry’s Jayber Crow, lead one to look back and confidently say: “Now it looks to me as though I was following a path that was laid out for me, unbroken, and maybe even as straight as possible, from one end to the other, and I have this feeling, which never leaves me anymore, that I have been led.”
What Hansen’s account really reveals is that what was true for the people of Israel in ancient times is true for us today: “If the Lord had not been on our side” — all of our labors would be in vain.