Rev. Timothy Keller, bestselling Christian author, was well into writing Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter (Viking Penguin, out now) as the pandemic raged last spring. Then, life took an even grimmer turn. He was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in May. Immediately, the subject of fear became more than a literary exercise. It became a reckoning with what he really believes.
“Most books you write after you have gone through an experience, but in this case what was so strange was I was having the experience while writing the book,” he told PW. “When you realize this may be the end and you have this abstract belief in heaven and the promise of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, you have to ask, do I really believe this? So writing the book was really a struggle with that question.”
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the 70-year-old Keller, founder of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the sodom known as Manhattan does believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus. While writing, he spent extra time in prayer and “experiencing the presence of the risen Christ,” as he put it. “I was just shocked at how much more experience of God there was than I found before. So I have grown and I have confidence in the resurrection after a combination of faith and experience.”
Keller has buckets of experience as an author. His first title, The Reason for God: Belief in the Age of Skepticism (Dutton, 2008) hit number five on PW’s Bestseller List and sold more than 150,000 copies in its first year. That was followed by more than 20 titles on everything from love to suffering, Christmas to church planting. He hit PW’s twice more, with Prodigal God (Dutton, 2008) and Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Dutton, 2014), both of which hit the 100,000 copies sold mark. Hope in Times of Fear is intended as a bookend to Hidden Christmas, a holiday book published by Viking in 2016. In between books, Keller became one of the pioneers of the now-standard megachurch model of multi-site worship. Before retiring in 2017, he spent years of Sundays hopscotching across Central Park, going uptown and down, giving three or more sermons a day at Redeemer’s five different sites. Today, there are Redeemer-affiliated churches in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Throughout his publishing career, he has been with one editor — Brian Tart, president and publisher of Viking Penguin. Tart heard about Keller and his popular church in 2006 and headed there one Sunday to hear him preach. “Obviously, he knew the Bible inside and out, but he also took a lot of examples from stories and myths and movies and books. He was really engaged in the cultural conversation of the moment and there wasn’t a barrier of entry for people to understand him. He reached people where they were,” Tart told PW. "That Tim is talking about cancer makes his personal journey to God helpful to people. He is saying ‘I’ve been through a dark time, we all been through a dark time, and yet I feel this great reservoir of hope.”
Jennifer Powell McNutt, a professor of the history and theology of the Reformed church, which includes Keller’s denomination, said his voice resonates far. “He thinks through prominent questions from our culture and draws on the resources of the church broadly and the Reformed tradition specifically to help sort through these questions with scripture,” she told PW. “He brings the richness of the church’s history and theology into an interpretation of scripture for a broader audience and consequently he’s become a well-known voice of Christianity in our country.”
But Keller has his critics. He has been a punching bag for pastors and bloggers who find his interpretation of church doctrine too watered down and wishy-washy. Some take him to task on his opposition to the ordination of women — something his denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, does not permit. Others question outright his belief in God (for proof, Google “Tim Keller Marxist”). An entire roster of anti-Keller theologians produced Engaging with Keller – Thinking through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical (Evangelical Press, 2013).
Keller is well aware of their complaints but isn’t sweating over them. “Those folks are trying to say don’t follow Tim Keller, he is too broad, he hobnobs with Catholics and says nice things about Pentecostals,” he said. “Is it possible that I am too nice? Maybe I should preach more hellfire sermons than I did. I don’t know.”
And after 12 years at the top of the Christian author food chain, he has some advice for pastors looking to join him there. First, don’t write too soon or too much. “You have to put in your time to establish your ministry, which is your first priority, and you have to spend time thinking and evolving,” he said. “Then you will have so much more material. I have preached 1,500 sermons in New York City — one or two every week on the average for 30 years. I had so much material that when I started to write books, they just cranked.”
And then there is the price of celebrity. Keller misses the intimate talks he used to have with churchgoers — seekers and skeptics especially — at the front of the church after preaching. But since he’s become famous, those people have been replaced by out-of-towners who want him to sign their books. “The books cut me off from a lot of pastoring,” he said. “They take you from being a minister to being a brand.”
Then there are the pleading messages he gets almost daily from people around the country. “It breaks my heart how often people really want me to be their pastor and they are in Idaho or Alabama and what they really need is a local pastor,” he said. “You realize I cannot be the pastor for the whole world, but people don’t have the local connections they once had.”
Yet, for these readers and more, Keller keeps on writing, even in the midst of chemotherapy and scans and all the other daily indignities of cancer. "The first year went unusually well," Keller said, "But it is still pancreatic cancer." And he's still Timothy Keller, who believes he will have no trouble completing the book for Viking, this time on forgiveness, by fall.