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Tim Keller Wants to Save Your Yuppie Soul

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New York itself isn’t the problem, Keller says. “I basically revel in New York,” he says. He and Kathy maintain an out-of-towner’s love of museums, concerts, and restaurants, and like to explore neighborhoods they don’t know with their son Jonathan, an urban planner. The problem, Keller says, is a culture that values success above everything else. “There is an enormously sick pressure to perform and do well and make money. Companies essentially force people to make work more important than anything else.” Orthodox religious faith, he says, “is a hedge against the idolatry of success and what people are doing—almost selling their souls. I don’t have a Bible verse that says you’ve got to live the rest of your life in New York. But I say slow down and try to actually enjoy the city. People use the city to get ahead. And I’m saying no, have your life here.” Keller is conscious of the fact that while he is reproving us for our workaholism, he himself is putting in hours that could stand comparison to those of the most driven hedge-funder. “The people who know me best don’t think I’m a hypocrite,” he says. “They see me as one of them. A fellow struggler.” He says his faith was only strengthened by the tough-minded rationalism he faced when he came to his adopted hometown. “I talked to a lot of sharp New Yorkers who had a lot of tough questions,” he says. “I very often said, ‘Gee, I don’t know why,’ and I had to think and read until I could get back to them.”

The signature Keller sermon is a mix of biblical scholarship, pop culture, and whatever might have caught his eye in The New York Review of Books or on Salon.com that week. The intellectual component is the key to winning over New Yorkers, he says. “When you communicate in a way that touches a person’s heart culturally, you get growth,” he says. “I come here, and people say, ‘Oh, look, Tim quotes The New Yorker and Nietzsche and talks about the existentialists. He’s an intellectual.’ Another way to put it is: ‘He’s showing me what Christianity would look like if I believed. Because I think like him, and even though I’m not sure I agree, it resonates.’ ” Using the author of The Antichrist to get across a Christian message is a neat trick, and I confess to Keller that an old cynical expression popped into my head: “Running with the hares, hunting with the hounds.” He doesn’t smile. “It’s not too deliberate, otherwise it does become an act—‘That’ll get the New Yorkers,’ ” he says. “You have to live here so you’re a lot like New Yorkers, you live the same life, and you have the same concerns.”

“You can’t teach what we teach—that you must be born again through belief in Jesus Christ—without saying most of the world is wrong.”

Keller’s effect on parishioners struggling to make sense of 80-hour workweeks or rejected theater auditions can be intoxicating. “I needed something to ground me and didn’t know what it was,” says 27-year-old Shani Barrett, who moved here from Southern California to make it in theater, so far with limited success. “He was, like, dead-on-balls accurate,” is how she describes the experience of hearing Keller speak for the first time. “I just felt he was talking to me and my situation.” These days, she says, “I pray after yoga class, I pray before auditions, and before I go onstage. I put it in God’s hands. What he wants to happen will happen.” Mark Tait, a 25-year-old private-equity analyst, says Keller’s teachings help him keep his demanding work life in balance. “I really don’t understand how people aren’t throwing themselves off the Brooklyn Bridge if they don’t have more to live for than earning six figures and going out every night and buying nice clothes.” Jonathan Tse, a 28-year-old investment analyst originally from Hong Kong, describes Redeemer’s emphasis on divine grace as a kind of liberation from the pressure that Manhattan, and the Asian community in particular (the Redeemer congregation has a disproportionately large Asian component), puts on its young people to perform. “Redeemer and the gospels themselves basically say, ‘You don’t earn your way into eternal life by working or by being good.’ ”

Keller doesn’t like to call himself an Evangelist because of the right-wing political overtones the term carries, but he certainly aims to convert others to his faith. He and his church also stress the importance of developing a personal relationship with God and Jesus Christ and generally take a conservative approach to interpreting the Bible. Keller does not believe the world was created in six days, but unlike his more mainstream Protestant counterparts, he does believe that the Genesis account of Adam and Eve is, in some real, nonmetaphorical sense, true. Imagine, he asks his congregation, “the grief God feels looking at us when we commit spiritual adultery? We’re the spouse from hell. God is in the longest bad marriage in history.” And for all their modern urban sparkle, his sermons unfailingly resolve into the same Evangelical endgame: Jesus died for our sins. Wake up New Yorkers and accept divine salvation.


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