Keller and Kathy were bookish middle-class kids from Pennsylvania, he from Allentown, she from suburban Pittsburgh. It was at Bucknell University in the early seventies that Keller effected a self-transformation from “garden-variety nerd, filled with self-doubt and angst” to born-again Christian. (He’s still unashamedly nerdy. On discovering we both have late-September birthdays, he says, “You know, Frodo and Bilbo are the 22nd of September … very illustrious.”) Keller says he fell under the spell of religious writers, C. S. Lewis being the best known, whose faith in Jesus and the Bible was untainted by the anti-intellectualism of American fundamentalism. Tim and Kathy both attended the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts and were married just before graduation. The couple spent nine years in the small town of Hopewell, Virginia, before moving back to suburban Philadelphia in 1984, where Tim took a teaching post at Westminster Theological Seminary and expanded his pastoral range to include urban ministries downtown.
In the late eighties, Keller’s denomination, the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, asked him to oversee the building—or “planting,” in the Evangelical argot—of a church in Manhattan. The idea was that winning believers in New York would have an influence out of proportion to the group’s numbers. When Keller’s first two picks for the pastor’s job declined the offer, Keller, despite misgivings of his own, decided to move Kathy and their three young sons and take the position himself. “I just felt it would be cowardly of me not to,” he says. “But we had a kind of ‘sick in the pit of our stomach’ feeling every day.” I later asked Kathy, Tim’s soul mate and more blunt-spoken alter ego, whether the church ladies of the Atlanta-based PCA worried about the couple, as if they and their three young sons were being sent on a mission to a remote African village. “Oh, that would have been easier,” she said. “Big bad Whore of Babylon is where we were going.”
The church’s first New York service, in April 1989, drew 75 people to a rented Seventh-day Adventist facility on the Upper East Side. By that fall, Keller was leading two weekly Sunday services for up to 250 people. Redeemer had the luxury of a starter group of parishioners brought to the church by an offshoot of the Evangelical missionary organization Campus Crusade for Christ, mostly young professionals hungry for what Keller calls a “crunchy, believe-in-miracles” kind of Christianity. With its message that you can be a thinking person and a believer simultaneously, Redeemer became, in a phrase one hears with almost eerie frequency from parishioners, the ideal place for a believer to bring a nonbelieving friend. At the time, with Evangelical Christianity mired in the sex and money scandals of the Jimmy Swaggart–Jim Bakker era, “no one had ever met someone who had more than a third-grade education that believed the things that were being preached at Redeemer,” Kathy says. It didn’t hurt that Redeemer came to town just as the early-nineties recession began, when Keller’s blind-ambition-is-the-root-of-all-evil message was especially resonant.
“Why are you in New York? Deep down, you think something is wrong with you.”
Throughout the nineties, the church grew mostly by word-of-mouth. That was by design. The Kellers can be suspicious of the media, especially Kathy, who still hasn’t gotten over a 1998 Times article that emphasized Redeemer’s conservative take on homosexuality and premarital sex (more on those issues below). The story, Kathy says, “could have been entitled ‘Manhattanites More Stupid Than We Thought—Attend Christian Church.’ ”
September 11, 2001, brought a significant jump in Redeemer’s attendance. “We didn’t have two morning services then,” Keller recalls. “You could see the people couldn’t get in, and it was just jammed, so I went back to the organist and came back and said, ‘Everybody who can’t get in the doors right now, if you come back in two hours, I’ll do another service.’ And six or seven hundred people came back.” And last year’s historic economic collapse gave parishioners another reason to seek solace in the church. One congregant testified earlier this year that God “finally saw fit to relieve me from my job in banking” and how “in this season of drought … God will provide.”
Keller is on a promotional tour for Counterfeit Gods. Over the phone, in a car on the way to the St. Louis airport, he’s unpacking the Redeemer theology for me. His belief system is not the fundamentalist strain running through many of the Bible Belt megachurches—the “saved” us versus the “heathen” them. Nor is it the new-school “be a winner, praise the Lord,” Christian self-esteem-building ideology of Joel Osteen. Keller advocates something of a third option. He wants to call people’s attention to the emptiness of a way of living that overvalues worldly achievement and to help them see the spiritual benefits of accepting Jesus Christ, and all he stands for, as their savior. But Keller wants to do that in a way that’s not intellectually insulting or morally hectoring. What he refers to as “idols,” he says, are the things we’re so wrapped up in, it’s as if we worship them as gods, in place of the one true God. Traditional vices like sex and drink can be idols, he says, but more insidious can be traditional virtues like hard work and family—“good” things that we can mistake for “ultimate” ones. “The way you can tell your love for something has turned idolatrous is that you basically destroy the thing you love,” he says. “Overwork often leads to destruction—people who overreach and cheat or have health breakdowns. If you put too much on your children, your kids can be crushed by your expectations for their happiness and success.”