Tag Archives: Tim Keller

Lifting the Burden of Self-Made Identity

let it go

If you’ve grown up in America–or even if you’ve just had America imported to you via media and pop culture–the air you breathe with respect to identity and purpose is something along the lines of “be who you want to be,” “follow your dreams,” “find yourself,” “don’t let anyone get in the way of your dreams.”

Every Disney movie ever has this sort of message. Take Frozen and its triumphant anthem known word-for-word by millions of girls all over the world: It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free!

Or consider this similar anthem from The Sound of Music: 

Climb every mountain, Ford every stream, Follow every rainbow, ‘Till you find your dream.

These songs are symptomatic of the supposedly encouraging, empowering, freeing grid of identity-formation which has been imposed upon us by Hollywood and western pop culture. It’s a way of thinking that insists that identity is something only we, individually, can construct and govern. But is this really as freeing as it sounds?

In the Tim Keller sermon embedded below, the pastor/author/theologian suggests that any notion of self-made or self-justified identity is really a crushing burden. It may sound like freedom to “see what I can do, to test the limits and break through.” Yet if that’s the case, our worth and success and value rest completely on our achievement, and then on others’ seeing our achievement and valuing it. But that always fails us.

Christianity, says Keller, is the only identity that is received, not achieved. Our identity in Jesus Christ means that our existence is valuable and justified not based on our performance, but based on His.

Keller really nails the zeitgeist in this sermon, which he spoke at an event in Los Angeles, a city which more than any other embodies and perpetuates the “follow your dreams,” “be who you want to be” value system.

I strongly suggest that you share this video with anyone you know who may be struggling with the burden of self-justification and self-made identity. Not only does it clearly and compellingly present the gospel, but it makes sense of where we are in this cultural moment and why the issue of identity (even sexual identity) is so confusing and yet critical. Watch it here:

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Best Books of 2008

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I read a ton of books in 2008, but most of them did not come out this year. However, I did read a few that were released since January, and the following is a list of my top five favorite books of 2008.

5) The Reason for God, Tim Keller
I love Tim Keller. The Manhattan-based pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian has a strong but compassionate way about him, and his writing voice demonstrates this. He commands a very high level of respect. This book is a pretty straightforward apologetic for Christianity, but it’s one that feels more humane and less didactic/argumentative than some of the others (though no less rigorous). It’s a compelling, smart argument for belief in an age of skepticism, for meaning in a meaningless age.

4) Culture Making, Andy Crouch
In the midst of a glut of “Christians and culture” type books, this one stands out because it takes a step back and forces us to contend with the very word, “culture.” What is it? How do we “make it”? Andy Crouch offers a thoughtful, extremely helpful reality-check of a book for anyone with an inkling to “change the culture” in any way. It goes beyond all the usual clichés and offers a back-to-basics, from-the-Bible justification for why Christians should be thinking about but also participating in culture making. It’s a rare book that challenges Christians to do more than just criticize or boycott culture but to make and remake it ourselves.

3) Hot, Flat & Crowded, Thomas Friedman
I don’t know if there is a more urgent, more sharply written call-to-arms nonfiction book out there right now. Friedman’s epic, well-researched new book is a diagnosis of the challenges facing our world as it gets hotter, flatter (i.e. more developed), and more crowded, as well as a set of specific plans for how America can lead the way in the necessary “green revolution.” Regardless of your politics, you will find Friedman’s arguments compelling, scary, and inspiring. Our world is facing a crisis, and it goes beyond global warming. There are simply too many people, and resources are running out. We have to start thinking about sustainability, and this book is a huge step in the right direction.

2) Home, Marilynne Robinson
I have to admit: it’s hard for me to find time to read new fiction. But Marilynne Robinson is someone I always make an exception for. The Harper Lee-esque writer has offered us some of the most lyrical fiction of recent decades with books like Housekeeping and Gilead, and her new book, Home (a sequel to Gilead) does not disappoint. It’s a calm, solemn, subtle work that puts us firmly in the Iowa town of Gilead and the lives of a trio of characters—a father, a daughter, and a prodigal son. Not much happens, per se, but the book is about so much. It’s a profound, elegant treasure of American prose.

1) Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright
The latest from British theologian N.T. Wright is a stunning, paradigm re-alignment of a book that challenges Christians to re-think their faith in light of a fuller understanding of the Resurrection. Is the purpose of Christianity being able to go to heaven when we die? Wright convincingly argues that no, in light of the Resurrection, there is much more to life than the afterlife. We are living the Resurrection on Earth now, as the Church, a body of renewal and restoration for an aching, needy world. This is an important, challenging book, and essential reading for any Christian serious about understanding the meaning of what they believe and why they believe it.

Christianity: More Harm Than Good?

One of the things that really bothers me about Christians these days is that we are so ill-equipped to answer the increasingly well-articulated arguments from atheists and otherwise anti-religious persons who point out the horrible track record of Christianity and the irrevocable damage that has been done across the world in the name of Christ. Christians today are liable to just sort of shrug and say “that’s not what I’m like,” or find some other way to distance themselves from Christian history (such as calling themselves “followers of Jesus” rather than Christians or a “gathering” instead of “church”).

As marquee atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens proclaim Christianity to be the single most damaging thing to ever befall humanity, are Christians in any position to rebut? Or are we going to simply rely on the frail argument that the “new Christians” are different than the “old” ones (read: crusades, inquisition, imperialism, witch trials, etc)?

When one interrogates the assumption that Christianity has done more harm than good to humankind, we see that it is an idea founded in a rather shoddily conjured historicism. Sure, Christianity has been used to justify a lot of evil—but so have atheism, and paganism, and virtually all other –isms the world has ever seen. Any organized belief system, after all, can be skewed to fit the most heinous inclinations of a wayward soul. In fact, it is often the most secular, areligious societies that wreak the most havoc, not the Christian ones. Think about Stalinist Russia or the various other communist regimes that dotted the globe in the twentieth century. They rejected any belief in God and systematically slaughtered millions of their own people. Think about the French Revolution—a thoroughly secular, godless movement that resulted in the barbaric purging of wide swaths of the innocent citizenry. Clearly a belief in God is not a prerequisite for horrific violence. And then there is the much larger human history (10,000+ years) predating Christ’s arrival on earth: and surprise surprise, all of it is littered with bloodshed and brutality.

Far from a malevolent force of destruction in the world, however, Christianity has done more to make the world a better place than any other organized movement or guiding principle in history. Almost every major reform movement or social-justice campaign can be traced back to Christians, or at least Christian teachings. Christians led the way in the abolition of slavery and were the first to publicly deem it immoral and denounce it as sin (Wesley, Wilberforce, etc). Christians have historically been the first and most active responders to international relief, hunger, and justice issues, and most major charities and humanitarian organizations (Red Cross, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Samaritan’s Purse, Feed the Children, World Vision, etc) have decidedly Christian roots. Christians were the first to establish hospitals, schools, and universities (such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale). They led the way in literacy movements, adult education, prison reform, substance-abuse programs, and many other progressive reforms.

It all goes back to the teachings of Jesus (feed the hungry, clothe the poor, protect the widows, etc) and the practices of the early Christian church. The early church appointed deacons to care for widows and the sick (Acts 6:1, James 5:13), and they were remarkably more open and tolerant (to women, different races and classes, etc) than anyone else in the first century. Tim Keller explains it well when he writes, in The Reason for God,

“At the very heart of their view of reality was a man who died for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness. Reflection on this could only lead to a radically different way of dealing with those who were different from them. It meant they could not act in violence and oppression toward their opponents. We cannot skip lightly over the fact that there have been injustices done by the church in the name of Christ, yet who can deny that the force of Christians’ most fundamental beliefs can be a powerful impetus for peace-making in our troubled world?”

Furthermore, though it is hard to imagine it today (when Christians seem inexplicably marginal to the thought life of the world), devout Christians have also regularly been the biggest shapers of science, thought, art, and culture. People like Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Kierkegaard, Aquinas, Augustine, Rembrandt, Bach, Handel, Chaucer, Milton, Dostoevsky, and T.S. Eliot are just a few names from the impressive list of our Christian forbears.

I do not mean to offer any sort of defense for the many horrible things that have been done by Christians and in the name of Christ over the last 2,000 years. There is no justification for that. We must own up to them just as much as we own up to the many great, selfless things that have been done by Christians. But I also want to point out that Christ is who He is regardless of Christians. He is love, perfect and unconditional. We are just His followers: fallible, weak, human, confused. Sometimes we get it wrong, and sometimes we get it right. More often the latter, I hope and pray…