Book Review - The Reason for God by Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller is genius. Timothy Keller is money. I want to be Timothy Keller. So much so in fact that I nearly shaved my head bald after reading The Reason for God. Except that I don't think my nubby head would look good bald.

OK, exaggerations aside I want to chime in on the value of this book. Exaggeration is actually fairly common in book reviews. Sometimes book reviewers get really hyperbolic, vastly overstating a book's value as they praise its virtues. But when one reviewer referred to Keller as this generation's CS Lewis - a comparison of this book with Lewis' modern classic Mere Christianity - it was not an exaggeration.

Lewis' book was by far the best explanation of and argument for Christianity in his era: the Rationalistic skepticism of the 1940s. While that Rationalism has not completely gone away, in our day it has been shoved over and now grudgingly shares center stage with a new kind of skepticism: Postmodern thought. As such, a fresh presentation of the Christian faith, and reasons to believe it, has been in order. Keller provides it, and wowzers, does he rise to the challenge.

Playing Defense: Responding to Objections
Just as a football team plays both offense and defense, this book is divided into two parts. Part 1 of The Reason for God is "playing defense." It presents a response to the most common objections to Christianity that people have today. I won't attempt a full summary of everything Keller deals with, but suffice it to say he ducks none of the big questions. The 7 major objections he responds to are:

  1. There can't be only one true religion
  2. How can a good God allow suffering?
  3. Christianity is a straitjacket
  4. The Christian church is historically responsible for much evil
  5. How can a loving God send people to hell?
  6. Science has dis-proven Christianity
  7. You can't take the Bible literally
In each case you'll find an intelligently argued response that will challenge both the Christian and the skeptic alike. Yes, you read that correctly: Keller's approach is as solid and persuasive a defense of the Christian faith as any I've read, and it will give the honest skeptic a lot to chew on. Keller shows the assumption behind each objection, and urges the skeptic to consider his own beliefs more clearly. But Keller is simultaneously interested in teaching Christians how to respect, honor, and talk with spiritual skeptics. He has a lot to say to those of us have lived with Christianity all our lives, as well as to the skeptic.

An Example - Religious Violence
One example: in dealing with objection #4, Keller writes about the idea that religion tends to multiply humanity's worst impulses, turning disagreement into hatred and opposition into violence. Atheist Christopher Hitchens has gained a lot of traction by making this argument, and almost every Christian knows someone who thinks this way.

Keller's response? Perhaps surprisingly, he begins by agreeing in part with Hitchens. Citing examples of religiously fueled violence throughout the modern world, Keller acknowledges that the belief in divine sanction sometimes contributes to people inflicting harm on others. On page 56 he writes, "Hitchens' point is fair. Religion 'transcendentalizes' ordinary cultural differences so that parties feel they are in a cosmic battle between good and evil." Now I confess that when I first read the book I wasn't entirely comfortable with this concession. I felt that Keller was giving too much away, and that in an effort to sound reasonable he might be undermining his own argument. But he proved me wrong.

After noting that religious belief does sometimes contribute to violence, Keller goes on to note that this isn't really a problem of religion. He points out that if you remove religion from a society people will "transcendentalize" something else in its place, and commit just as much violence in the name of that new ideal as they would have in the name of the old religious one. As evidence he notes that the 20th century saw every bit as much blood shed (if not more) in the name of secular ideals like Marxism as for religious ideals. So what Keller does is to correct Hitchens by putting the focus of the question in the right spot: apparently the impulse to violence comes from something other than religion, it comes from human nature. The Bible calls it sin, and offers a life-changing solution.

In a similar way, each of Keller's other responses present arguments that are respectful and gracious, yet persuasive and intellectually strong defenses of Christianity in the face of modern skepticism. But he doesn't stop there.

Part 2 - Playing Offense
The Reason for God goes on to present positive reasons to believe. Keller describes several reasons why the Christian faith makes more sense of the world we live in than any other belief system. He includes chapters that present multiple evidences for the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus. He also explains several Christian ideas that frequently confuse unbelievers, such as why Jesus had to die before we could be forgiven. In the process he demonstrates a remarkable level of insight that educates the believer as well as the unbeliever.

For example, Keller addresses the need for the cross. He notes that many non-Christians simply don't get the bloody spectacle of Calvary, and in fact are put off by it thinking it makes God an angry deity who must be appeased by child sacrifice. Keller explains that all forgiveness, even between two people, requires the forgiver to bear the burden of the forgiven. If I demean my wife by mentioning one of her weaknesses in public and then later apologize to her, she may forgive me. But in order to do so she'll have to bear the consequences of my actions, including public shame and perhaps damage to her reputation. Forgiveness means choosing to bear the cost of wrong done to us. Keller summarizes on p. 200, "Why did Jesus have to die in order to forgive us? There was a debt to be paid - God himself paid it. There was a penalty to be born - God himself bore it. Forgiveness is always a form of costly suffering."

And this is precisely what we find on the cross. Our sin is a tremendous offense against God, but rather than making us pay for it he comes to earth as the man Jesus and bears the consequences of our actions by dying in our place. That is true love.

Something for Everyone
It is these kinds of thoughtful insights and explanations that make The Reason for God a thought-provoking and educational read for both the believer and the skeptic alike. I've learned several things about Christianity by reading it, and some of those insights have already worked their way into my preaching. Every skeptic likely believes one or more of the objections discussed in this book, and here you will find a gracious yet rigorous challenge to your skepticism. Christians on the other hand have much here to gain in understanding the reasons for modern skepticism, and becoming much better at presenting the reasons for God.

Get. This. Book!

Watercolor by my beautiful wife Amy


*Melissa* said...

Can't argue with that! I am definitely gonna have to look into buying this! Great review!

Matt Guerino said...

Cool! Maybe you'll like it as much as I do. But don't shave your head... ;)

Aaron said...

Great review, Matt. It made me excited that I'm already reading it and encouraged me to get back into it now that I'm back from Boma!

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