Wall Street Journal ably captures Tim Keller's voice, and little else

Pastor Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church blends a good nature, a nimble mind, leadership in evangelical circles, and a pastoral heart toward fellow New Yorkers.  A lengthy profile in the Wall Street Journal captures much of that, yet leaves much unsaid. And it adds a couple of things that should have been left out.

The 1,870-word profile has several strengths. It briskly marches out the basics: 5,500 attending Keller's services, 300 church plants around the world, regular members under 35 years old. It also clearly summarizes Keller's message:

“Everyone has a God, everyone has a way of salvation, we just don’t use the term,” he says. “St. Augustine would say: What makes you what you really are is what you love the most.” Mr. Keller adds that he likes “to show secular people that they’re not quite as unreligious as they think. They’re putting their hopes in something, and they’re living for it.” For ambitious, driven New Yorkers, it’s often a career, he says. “I try to tell people: The only reason you’re laying yourself out like this is because you’re not really just working. This is very much your religion.”
If there’s no God, he says in sermons, then everything you do at work will be forgotten, and nothing you can do in your career will earn lasting significance. But if Christianity is true, then “every good endeavor,” he likes to say, no matter how small, “can matter forever.” One tough part for people, he says, is coming under “God’s authority,” because “you have to find your identity in Christ, and not in just fulling yourself,” That “completely collides with what the culture is telling people.”

In classic profile fashion, the Journal fills in personal details: Keller's glasses, his 6-foot-plus height and the church’s offices in midtown Manhattan. He "looks less like a pastor than a professor," the writer says.

The story stocks a rich fund of direct quotes. Some profiles are heavy on paraphrase and commentary, almost shouting, "This is what he/she is really like." The Journal allows us to "hear" what Keller is like through his own words.

The newspaper even does an excellent job of capturing the rhythm of his talk: The quotes closely match Keller's speech in the video above.

I also liked the brutal honesty in this Keller quote:

“If you’re trying to win people to Christ, if you’re trying to say this world is not enough and you need faith—I hate to say it, recessions are wonderful times for that message to fall on more open people.” He adds: “I wish the number of conversions and Christian growth would go along with prosperity and giving—but they usually don’t.”

The article shows the flavor of Keller's thought also through his socio-cultural references. The writer says Keller "takes on the likes of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud in a sermon rooted in a specific Biblical text. He’ll sprinkle in references from popular culture—something about contentment he read in the Atlantic, a poignant passage from 'Lord of the Rings.' "

She gets him to talk a little about the unfortunate mating of conservative Christianity with conservative politics. And she tells an intriguing anecdote on how he handled a congregant's demand to address recent racial tensions. She doesn't say how she knew the anecdote, though. She may have witnessed it herself; she says upfront that she attends one of the church's campuses. But she should have attributed.

That's one small problem with this piece. Another is that it doesn't really say what launched Keller into the national evangelical eye: his 2008 book The Reason for God, a polite but vigorous apologia of the faith. The Journal also doesn't mention the Gospel Coalition, which Keller co-founded. Its 52-member council -- multistate, multiracial, multinational -- reaches far beyond New York City. The biggest hint of his global influence is saying that Redeemer has helped plant more than 300 churches in 45 cities, "from Santiago to Dubai."

Even inside Redeemer Church, the Journal didn't mention Hope for New York, its benevolent ministry, or the Center for Faith & Work, the church's "cultural renewal arm." Both projects are linked from Keller's personal website.  

Some of this might have come to light had the writer asked others about Keller. Friends? Foes? Influential congregants? City officials? Evangelical colleagues? How do they see the man and his work? This is a basic element of profiles.

Then there are the shopworn phrases. The article says Keller has "revived Christian orthodoxy in the naked city," borrowing a title from an old TV series. Even the headline, "God Isn’t Dead in Gotham" (which, of course, the reporter probably didn't write), is lifted from a minor gospel film, God's Not Dead, that whisked through theaters this year.

But the assertion that Keller has "revived Christian orthodoxy" -- in a city otherwise devoid of it -- is an incredible statement, which isn't supported in this story. It's common for devoted members of a thriving church to think that way, but at least one website counts 6,000 churches in New York. Are we to believe that only Keller's church preaches true Christianity? I doubt Keller would say so himself. Nor, of course, would pastors of the other churches.

A little research would have helped here. Pollster George Barna reported in 2011 that "residents of the New York City media market are more spiritually active today than they were in the late 1990s – and more so than they were in 2001." He broke that down into rises in reported prayer, church attendance and Bible reading. And those who hadn't attended church in the previous six months declined eight points, to 34 percent.

Even more eyebrow raising was the area of beliefs. Barna found that "born again Christians" -- those who said they had a life-changing encounter with Jesus -- "surged" during the 1990s to 32 percent of New Yorkers. Yet the percentage of evangelicals -- people who accept the accuracy of the Bible, see the need to share their faith, etc. -- decreased over the previous 14 years, from 4 percent to 1 percent. So if there's a revival of Christian orthodoxy in New York, it wasn’t evident in the research.

Maybe those numbers are superseded? Maybe there's later research? If so, the story should have added it. And if not, the Journal should have accounted for Barna's findings. Or, of course, dropped the assertion.

Granted, the profile is already long at 1,870 words. Granted, this is the Wall Street Journal, not The Atlantic or The New Yorker. But other newspapers run profiles with more elements in less space. That's what a full-featured profile needs. There is more to a man than his own voice.


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