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The following chapter review was written by my friend Laura Williams who is making her debut as a guest blogger here at provocations. Enjoy!

In chapter seven, “You Can’t Take the Bible Literally,” Tim Keller wrestles with the fact that the Christian faith requires belief in the Bible. To many, this is a big deal. The problems that people have with believing the Bible can be divided into three major objections: conflicts with science, inaccurate and unreliable history, and issues related to cultural differences. Since he has already addressed the issue of science and Christianity in the previous chapter, Keller now focuses on the historical and cultural objections.

Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code has really brought the question of the Bible’s historical accuracy to the forefront in our culture. The book (and movie) are in part based on the idea that the early church had two competing views of Jesus: one of Jesus as a great teacher, and one of Jesus as God in human form. The theory is that both sides wrote gospel accounts, but that the early church chose the “Jesus as God” side, and suppressed the other equally reliable accounts. This idea is very popular right now, but when closely examined, it is hard to support.

To briefly summarize, Tim Keller gives three arguments refuting the idea that the Biblical story is nothing more than a legend that was spread (and changed) orally before it was put down in writing. First of all, he argues that the timing is far too early for the gospels to be legends. Keller explains the evidence for the fact that the gospels were written at most sixty years after the death of Christ, and probably even earlier. And Paul’s letters were written even earlier than that. Secondly, Tim Keller points out that the content is far too counterproductive for the gospels to be legends. The gospels portray the apostles as cowards and even claims that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection of Christ (At that time, women couldn’t even be legal witnesses!). Finally, the literary form of the gospels is too detailed to be legend. For this argument, Keller calls on the literary expertise of C.S. Lewis. Lewis points out that the gospels just do not fit the genre of legend or fiction in that time period. It it is much more likely that the gospels were written down by eye-witnesses shortly after the events occurred.

Keller gives less attention to final objection to the Bible: “We Can’t Trust the Bible Culturally.” This issue usually boils down to two objections: that the Bible endorses slavery and encourages the subjugation of women. The chapter goes on to explain the historical context for these specific issues, but it also goes on to draw some general principles. Keller points out that many of our objections come from “an unexamined belief in the superiority of their historical moment over others.” If we accuse the Bible of being culturally regressive, we are automatically assuming that our culture is better than the Biblical culture. And what gives us the authority to make such an assumption? Finally, Tim Keller brings the focus back to the major message of Christianity, which is Jesus Christ. If we believe that Jesus is God, we have to seriously grapple with everything he says. But if Jesus is not who he says he is, than what do his other claims matter? We should wrestle with the major claims of Christianity before we worry about the less central and more controversial teachings.

The chapter ends with the point that difficult Biblical teachings should not be an argument against God. In fact, we should be encouraged by the fact that we don’t find all of God’s teachings easy to accept. If that were the case, we would have a “Stepford” God, similar to the Stepford wives in the movies (robot-wives who never contradict their husbands). Keller ends with this encouragement: “Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination. So an authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God. It is the precondition for it.”

After this chapter, the book shifts its focus away from objections to Christianity. Instead of refuting reasons to not believe in God, he starts addressing the reason for God. So stay tuned, the good stuff is still to come!

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In chapter six, “Science Has Disproved Christianity” Keller takes on the assumption held by some that evolutionary science has made belief in God unnecessary and obsolete. He says that the first reason many think science has disproved traditional religion is that most of the major faiths believe in miracles. There is widespread belief in the scientific community that miracles cannot be reconciled to a modern, rationalistic view of the world. The problem with this kind of thinking, however, is that there is a huge presuppostion underlying it. Keller touches on this when he writes: “It is one thing to say that science is only equipped to test for natural causes and cannot speak to any others. It is quite another to insist that science proves that no other causes could possibly exist.” In other words, for science to claim that there can be no supernatural cause for any natural phenomenon is a philosophical presuppostion and not a scientific discovery that can be proven. The methodology of science addresses natural causes; it goes beyond its boundaries when it claims that there can be no other kind of causes. The other hidden premise underlying the belief that miracles are irrational is the assumption that there can’t be a God who performs miracles. Keller comments, “If there is a Creator God, there is nothing illogical at all about the possibility of miracles.” This takes us far beyond the realm of science since the existence of God cannot be proven or disproven.

Keller distinguishes between believing in evolution as a process and embracing philosophical naturalism – the view that everything has a natural cause. He argues that when evolution is turned into an “All-encompassing Theory” we are no longer in the arena of science but of philosophy. It is assumed by many that most scientists are atheists on the grounds of their atheism. Citing Alister McGrath, a theologian with an Oxford doctorate in biophysics, Keller claims that this is inaccurate. McGrath shares from his personal experience that most of his atheist colleagues brought their assumptions about God to their science rather than basing them on their science. Their guiding philosophy of philosophical naturalism was firmly in place before they engaged in any scientific exercise.  Our presuppositions concerning what we believe about God’s existence will color the way we interpret the data.

Keller concludes by admitting that belief in miracles is difficult. He refers to the account in Matthew’s Gospel when the apostles meet the risen Jesus. We are told that some doubted. Why would this be included in the Bible unless it really happened? It should be enouraging to us because we learn that not only modern, scientific people struggle with miracles. Even the first century apostles struggled to believe. Finally, Keller speaks to the purpose of miracles. They are not random magic tricks used by God simply to impress people. Miracles performed by God are for the purpose of restoring the natural order of the world. The natural world is presently disordered and reeling from the effects of sin. God’s miraculous intervention in the world is always restorative in purpose. Miracles are fortastes of the kind of world we all want deep down inside: a world that is free of disease, hunger, pain, and death.

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In chapter five, “How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?” Keller addresses the common objection that a loving God cannot also be a God of judgment. He argues that this objection is based on very specific, alternate beliefs. For one, he locates this objection within the context of Western individualism. He does this to show that our disdain for the idea of judgment often comes from our deep belief in personal rights. We insist that the individual is the ultimate determiner of right and wrong and that no one is in a position to condemn me for what I believe. Naturally, the teaching on divine judgment is very foreign and even offensive in this cultural milieu. For this reason Keller requests that we consider our cultural location when we are offended by the teaching on hell. The concept of God as judge is no problem for many non-Western cultures. In fact, many of these cultures find the Western objection to divine judgment odd. He therefore admonishes us not to be so quick to allow Western cultural sensibilities to be the final arbiter in judging whether Christianity is vaild or not.

Keller goes on to emphasize that the God of Christianity is a God of both love and justice, and that these are in no way at odds with one another. He argues that “all loving persons are sometimes filled with wrath, not just despite of but because of their love.” In other words, God’s wrath points us to his opposition to sin – the cancer which eats aways at his good creation. Understood in this way, God’s wrath flows from his love for what is good, beautiful and right since God himself is all of these things. Further, the fact that we were made to be in relationship with this God means that our capability to thrive, flourish, and achieve our highest potential is lost when we forsake relationship with him.

With this in mind, here’s how Keller defines hell: “Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever…it is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.” What makes Keller’s explanation of hell so helpful is that he places it within the context of a comprehensive understanding of sin. Sin is not primarily breaking God’s laws (that is merely a symptom of a much bigger problem). Sin, most basically, is building our identity, our very lives, on anything other than God. Since we were not made to live like this, we experience personal disintegration which results ultimately in self-absorption. C.S. Lewis said this: “It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE HELL unless it is nipped in the bud.” God does not send people to hell kicking and screaming. Hell is the freely chosen destination for those who prefer to live apart from God. God exercises wrath by removing his presence from them and abandoning them to themselves. It is a prison of eternal self-centeredness, misery, and torture. To quote Lewis again, “There are only two kinds of people – those who say ‘Thy will be done’ to God or those to whom God in the end says, ‘Thy will be done.'”

Keller brings the chapter to a close by asking where we get our notion that God is a God of love in the first place. He argues that it is not deduced by simply looking at the natural order, nor is it found in other religious texts like it is in Christianity. He suggests that the ultimate source of this idea is the Bible itself, and since the Bible claims that God is both a God of love and judgment, we shouldn’t be so fast to conclude that they are contradictory.

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In chapter four, “The Church is Responsible for So Much Injustice,” Keller points out that many who oppose Christianity intellectually do so because of personal disappointments with Christians and churches. These disappointments run deep and undermine the plausibility of Christianity for many. In this chapter Keller specifically deals with the character flaws of Christians, the issue of war and violence, and finally the issue of fanaticism.

Addressing the flawed character of Christians, Keller gives the oft-repeated quote that “The church is a hosptial for sinners, not a museum for saints.” While not excusing the flaws exhibited by Christians (think of the well publicized failings of Christian leaders), he mentions that it’s commonly believed that a person must clean up his or her life in order to have a relationship with God. On the contrary, the Bible teaches that right standing with God is not based on a person’s morality, but on who Christ is and what he’s done. Growth is a process; sometimes believers make mistakes and live inconsistently. Whether we like it or not, the church is filled with morally flawed people.

Keller admits that violence done in the name of Christianity is a fact that cannot be overlooked. There’s nothing to explain away or make excuses for. He rightly shows though that secular communities have been just as guilty of oppression and violence as religious communities. The conclusion to make, therefore, is that there is a violent impulse in the human heart – whether a person is religious or not. The reality of violence in a society “is no necessary refutation of the prevailing beliefs of that society,” but rather an indication of something real and ugly about the human heart.

The issue of fanaticism is one that Keller believes to be the biggest deterrant to Christianity for the average person. By fanatics he is talking about those who loudly express their disapproval of anything that even smells remotely like “immorality.” These fanatics strike outsiders as intolerant and self-righteous. Keller likens fanaticism to moralism. Moralists assume they are right with God because of their right behavior and doctrine. This naturally leads them to feel superior to those who act or believe differently. What’s surprising is that Keller’s critique of fanatics is not that they are too committed, but rather that they are not committed enough. He says, “Belief that you are accepted by God by sheer grace is profoundly humbling. The people who are fanactics, then, are so not because they are too committed to the gospel but because they’re not committed to it enough….What strikes us as over fanactical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and his gospel.” 

Keller concludes the chapter by suggesting that the solution for violence and oppression is not a watered-down Christianity, but a more robust expression of the faith. The Bible itself contains resources for criticizing injustice. The biblical prophets and especially Jesus leveled severe criticisms at religious folk who perpetuated oppression and violence. The Bible accounts for the violent impulse in the human heart, detailing the tendency people have to use religion as a means to gain power over others.  Thus, Keller remarks, “The typical criticisms by secular people about the injustices of the Christian church actually come from Christianity’s own resources for critique itself.” What is needed then is a deeper Chritianity, not a moderated version. When Christians commit injustices in the name of Jesus they are not acting consistently with the central message of Christianity: Jesus himself died as a victim of injustice and yet offered forgiveness to his enemies.

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In chapter three, “Christianity is a Straightjacket,” Keller responds to the objection that Christianity is an enemy of freedom since it’s based on absolutes and fails to recognize that cultures have different perspectives on truth and reality. He argues that truth is unavoidable. We all make truth claims whether we like it or not – whether we realize it or not. We can’t help but to do so since we all hold beliefs and label others as wrong when their beliefs contradict our own. He also points out that every community shares common beliefs that create boundaries and excludes others. The openness of a community should not, therefore, be determined by the fact that a community has their own set of beliefs, but by how those beliefs lead the members of the community to treat people on the outside with love and respect. It follows then that Christians should be criticized when they are condemning and ungracious, but not because they are committed to particular beliefs. We all are.

The most helpful “take-away” in this chapter is that freedom should not be defined only in negative terms, as the absence of restrictions or constraint. In many areas of life, freedom is actually about finding liberating restrictions. He uses the analogy of a fish. A fish is only free when it is limited to water. If the fish is removed from the restriction of water, its freedom is not enhanced but violated. Our concern is not so much on how to avoid all restrictions, but rather on how to find the right one’s that fit with who we are as humans. This applies to the spiritual and moral aspect of life as well. What, then, is the environment that spiritually and morally liberates us when we align our lives with it? Keller insists that this environment is love. He writes, “Love is the most liberating freedom-loss of all.” We are most free in relationships of love, yet the irony is that any healthy love relationship involves the loss of independence as we seek to unselfishly serve the other person. When you are in love with another person you are willing to serve them and do whatever it takes to please them. You want to learn what makes them happy so you can bring them pleasure. Yes, you must sacrifice your own freedom and independence to meet the needs of this person, but you are more than willing to oblige because you are in love. To those around you it might appear as though you are enslaved, but you know deep down inside that you are more free than ever.

Christianity informs us that in entering the world and dying on our behalf, God sacrificed dramatically for us. When we really understand what Jesus has done for us, giving up our freedom will not be seen as overly restrictive or limiting. Rather, we will know it to be the most liberating thing we’ve ever done and continue to do.

The conversation continues…

In chapter two, “How Could A Good God Allow Suffering?” Keller claims that just because you can’t discern a good reason why God might allow suffering doesn’t mean there isn’t one. He argues that the problem of suffering is a problem for both believers and nonbelievers alike, but perhaps an even greater problem for nobelievers. He cites the example of C.S. Lewis. Lewis initially rejected the idea of God because of the injustice and suffering in the world. Eventually though, he realized his response to suffering actually provided a better explanation for God’s existence. After all, where was he getting his idea of what is just and unjust? Why the instinctual response to suffering? How can one know a line is crooked without a concept of a straight line? Lewis’ reaction against the presence of evil and suffering in the world proved too problematic for his atheism. Keller, therefore, argues that the nonbeliever doesn’t have a good basis for being outraged at injustice. Recognizing what is wrong or unjust in the world implies that there is standard – one that must be supernatural since natural selection depends on death, destruction, and violence of the strong against the weak.

What Keller is ultimately getting at is that the problem of evil and suffering is a problem for everyone – theists and atheists alike. He then argues that while Christianity doesn’t provide exact reasons for every experience of pain, it does provide deep resources for facing suffering with hope. One thing Christians know for sure is that the reason we experience pain and suffering is not that God doesn’t love us, or that he is in some way detached and distant from the human plight. Christianity tells us that God actually came into the world to take our misery and suffering on himself at the cross. Furthermore, the resurrection of Christ points to the eventual restoration of all things when the earth will be healed and repaired and all suffering will be undone, making the glory and joy even greater.

The relationship between suffering and belief in God is intensely personal for me as a few years ago in seminary my faith was severely tested as I wrestled through this topic both personally and intellectually. I eventually came to the same conclusions Keller does in this chapter by praying, reading, and talking with others. My faith was restored as I drank deeply from the resources of the Christian gospel. If you’re interested in checking out some of C.S. Lewis’ stuff on suffering I recommend The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed. Other books I found helpful were Making Sense out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft and Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be by Cornelius Plantigna.

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In chapter one, “There Can’t Be Just One True Religion,” Keller begins by noting that the claim of exclusivity (that there is only one way to God) is one of the most troubling aspects of Christianity for people to swallow. It’s believed by many that religion represents a significant barrier to world peace, particularly because of exclusive claims to superiority. Keller actually agrees. He says that religion can easily cause people to look down on others who hold contrary beliefs. This can turn into hatred, oppression, or even violence towards others. He asks, “what can we do about it?” He suggests that there are three primary approaches that civic and cultural leaders take to address this issue. They are calls to outlaw religion, condemn religion, or to radically privatize it.

Keller argues that calls to outlaw religion don’t work. These efforts serve to intensify religious belief, rather than eradicate it. History also shows that what replaces religion is usually even more dangerous. Secondly, calls to condemn religion aren’t effective either. This is done as many in a society attempt to stimatize religious belief. They strive to create an environment in which it is considered outlandish to make exclusive claims by insisting on certain beliefs that are assumed to be true. However, these beliefs are inconsistent. Here are a few Keller deals with:

1. “All religions are equally valid and basically teach the same thing.”

Response: This belief insists that doctrine is unimportant, yet at the same time assumes doctrinal beliefs about the nature of God that are at odds with those of all the major faiths.

2. “Each religion sees part of spiritual truth, but none can see the whole truth.”

Response: How could you know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself are claiming to have comprehensive knowledge which none of the religions can supposedly have?

3. “Religious belief is too culturally and historically conditioned to be ‘truth.'”

Response: This very statement is a product of social conditions, and therefore cannot be true on its own terms. You can’t say “All claims about religions are historically conditioned except the one I am making right now.”

4. “It is arrogant to insist your religion is right and to convert others to it.”

Response: We are all exclusive in our beliefs about religion. The view above is exclusive in that it implies that those who don’t agree are wrong.

Finally, calls to radically privatize religion (you may privately believe your faith as long as you don’t bring it into the public sphere) fail to recognize that it’s impossible to check your convictions at the door. This is true for secularists as much as it is for religious people. We all live by some master narrative or worldview that informs our understanding of life, who we are, and what we are supposed to do. We all come to the table with these deep commitments that are really built upon faith assumptions that cannot be proven.

Keller concludes the chapter by suggesting that Christianity has the resources for uniquely dealing with the divisive tendencies within the human heart. Christianity teaches that God’s grace does not come to people who morally outperform others, but to those who admit their failure to perform and who acknowledge their need for a Savior. Christian faith should therefore produce humility as its adherents recognize that they aren’t morally superior to anyone. In addition, Christians should be generous and gracious towards those who hold different views then themselves, since at the heart of Christianity is the One who died for his enemies.

The conversation continues…

Keller begins by describing the divide between liberalism and conservatism. It’s most evident, he stresses, when conversation turns to religion. Liberals fear that conservatives are gaining power in their attempt to impose a Christian ideology on the culture, while conservatives insist that society is growing increasingly relativistic due to the secularism endorsed by liberals. Each side is threatened by the growth and influence of the other. So, which is it? Is skepticism or faith on the rise? Keller’s answer is Yes! He argues that the world is getting both more religious and less religious at the same time. Skepticism toward traditional religion is growing in power and influence. On the other hand, a vibrant, orthodox belief in the traditional faiths is also growing. Because both faith and doubt are on the rise, the world is polarizing over religion. With this being the cultural situation, Keller argues that we have reached an “impasse between the strengthening forces of doubt and belief.” Therefore, we must move beyond the demonizing that takes place and move instead towards respectful dialogue. This won’t happen, however, by simply calling for more civility in our dialogue. There is an absence of commonly held reference points for the two sides to agree on, making meaningful conversation practically impossible. Dismissive gestures towards members of the other side will get us nowhere – the culture wars are taking a toll.

Keller’s proposal is for each side to look at doubt in a new way. He challenges believers to acknowledge and wrestle with their own doubts. People who go through life without asking hard questions about what they believe make themselves vulnerable when faced with tragedy or difficult questions. He also urges believers to carefully listen to the doubts of others. Such a commitment will enable you to respect and understand what others believe, but also strengthen your own beliefs. Keller calls skeptics to do the same. This leads to the basic thesis of the book: “All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs.” Every doubt or belief is based on faith in something that cannot be proven. Therefore, the only way to doubt Christianity rightly and fairly is to identify the alternate belief under your doubts and to consider your reasons for holding that belief. In other words, “you must doubt your own doubts.” He believes this process will lead to more respectful dialogue characterized by understanding and sympathy for those on the other side.

In the intro Keller also explains how in his early experience as a Christian he found himself confronted with two incomplete camps. The first camp included people who were passionate about social justice but who were moral relativists. The second camp consisted of those who were “morally upright” but didn’t seem to care about oppression in the world. He found neither of these personally satisfying and “desperately needed to find a ‘third camp,’ a group of Christians who had a concern for justice in the world but who grounded it in the nature of God rather than in their own subjective feelings.” He goes on to add that he see’s this third camp emerging and growing, especially among younger Christians today.

I found Keller’s introduction helpful. Based on my own experience, I agree with the assessment that both religious belief and skepticism are growing. The rise of the New Atheism and the emergence of books promoting it’s views proves that there is a growing, active, and even militant category of people who are not only disinterested in religion, but who believe religion is harmful to society. In addition, there is an increasing number of people who are skeptical and even cynical of Christianity because of the hypocritical spirituality they see practiced in the Church. On the other hand, Islam is growing exponentially in Europe, while Christianity is modestly growing in the West, but exploding in places like Africa, Latin America, and Asia. I also see this reflected in my own experience as I interact with people. I encounter individuals who are hostile to Christianity and religion, but also people who are very open to faith.

I’m also encouraged by Keller’s talk of a “third camp.” I frequently interact with young adults – believers and non-believers alike – who are totally put off and disinterested in the current state of political affairs. The choice between conservatism and liberalism seems superficial. Particularly among younger Christians, there is a rejection that followers of Christ must be one or the other. For example, why should a Christian have to decide between an emphasis on morality and social justice? Isn’t social justice a moral category in the first place? I believe it’s dangerous to associate Christianity with one particular party. We usually end up imposing our outside values and agendas on the Christian faith when we do so.

Finally, Keller’s emphasis that all doubts are really a set of alternate beliefs is one of the most important contributions of this book. We must all see that our starting point in making sense of life’s most important questions is some kind of faith assumption. We bring our pre-assumptions to the table, and these color the way we interpret evidence and answer questions about God, human life, the world, etc. We need to be honest about this. We are all religious in that we live by some kind of faith assumption.

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