“Most Christian speaking and preaching still assumes that listeners have the [same] fundamental understandings of reality that they had in the past.”

— Tim Keller

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the [heck] is water?’”

— David Foster Wallace

The cultural distance between Tim Keller’s church in Manhattan and mine in rural Illinois is about as far as is possible within the United States and Canada. My morning commute amounts to a mile-and-a-half drive through a cornfield. I generally obey the law, and my drive takes three minutes and 22 seconds. I timed it. I haven’t thought about calling a cab since Taxi went off the air in 1983.

Don’t get me wrong. Here in the rural Midwest we do battle occasional traffic complications. Each spring our school celebrates “Drive Your Tractor to School Day.” Encouraging the Future Farmers of America is a good thing. But the average tractor cruises down the highway between 15 and 20 miles per hour. A couple dozen tractors wreak havoc on traffic patterns. “Drive Your Tractor to School Day” can throw my travel time off by every bit of four minutes.

Given this apparent cultural distance between New York and rural America, it may surprise you to hear me say Keller’s new book on preaching should be required reading for all preachers, precisely since it equips us to preach to our culture. But that’s my point. Whether you’re trading tractors in Illinois or catching cabs in Queens, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (Viking, 2015) [20 quotes | interviewreview] is essential reading for preachers who want to effectively proclaim the Word in the cultural waters in which we swim.

A quick read isn’t going to be enough. We need to engage Keller’s thoughts on preaching Christ to the culture, summarize the concepts, write them in our own words, interact with his sources, and, most importantly, work out fresh applications on how we can preach to our culture from the inside out. My purpose here is to share some of the notes and summaries I’ve made which may help others interact with the book, because, as I’ll explain, the cultural narratives in the rural Midwest are largely the same as those in New York City.

Unique Contribution 

I’m convinced the unique contribution of Preaching is its insights on communicating Christ to our culture. If we’re to effectively engage audiences in our time, Keller argues, we must follow the example of New Testament evangelists who requisitioned the vocabulary or categories of their audiences in order to confront them with the gospel (96–102). Consider, for example, how John begins his Gospel: “In the beginning was the logos, the word” (John 1:1). John’s strategy of using logos was a “bold rhetorical move that filled an existing cultural concept with new meaning but used its older associations to point people to the gospel” (97).Likewise, in Acts 17:28 Paul quotes a Greek poet to gain the attention of his listeners at Mars Hill (99–101).

Of course, it’s easy enough to say we should generally follow the example of John or Paul. To do so, however, we must understand the mind of our day so that we too can identify entry points. Just as Paul had enough familiarity with Greek philosophy to quote one of their poets, we must be able to dialogue with our culture. Understanding the cultural waters in which we’re immersed is no easy task; it can only be accomplished if we consider how the Western mind has changed over the last 2,000 years.

To equip preachers to begin to understand the worldviews of our late-modern moment, Keller interacts with a number of sources such as Charles Taylor’s massive and dense A Secular Age. Taylor’s work is notoriously long and inaccessible. (For help with Taylor’s work read James K. A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor [interviewinterview | review]). Keller does a portion of the work of reading Taylor for us by distilling important lessons and showing how they can inform our approach to homiletics. Specifically, Keller argues that in order to do cultural apologetics—that is, to understand the waters in which we swim and reason for our hope (1 Pet. 3:15)—we must identify the unspoken cultural narratives that inform the mindset of our day. These narratives are so deeply embedded in our culture’s consciousness that most people aren’t even aware they hold them.2

Keeping the Concepts Straight 

If at this point you struggle to keep the concepts straight in your mind, I’m with you. Keller’s presentation is clear, but there are many deep concepts to master, especially if you also consult some of the sources he cites. So that Keller (and Taylor’s) points would be clear in my own thinking, I’ve created several figures to illustrate the major points.

First, I summarize how culture arrived at its current narratives by picturing a pendulum that swings across the millennia from Greek philosophy through the Christian middle to the late-modern extreme. Figure 1 shows that:

  • Prior to the influence of Christianity, Greek philosophy—with its emphasis on an impersonal force—dominated philosophical thought.
  • The spread of Christianity in the West provided the momentum necessary for cultural narratives to swing to the middle, thereby reflecting the view that God created the material and that humanity is created in God’s image.
  • However, the pendulum continued to swing to the other extreme. Late modernity has “created a moral value matrix out of the fruit of Christian ideas and severed the root” (129).

Steeped in the Sovereign Self

When we understand this pendulum represents an arc through the last 2,000 years, we begin to see that any differences between New York City and the Midwest, while they may feel significant to us, are infinitesimal in terms of the cultural mind. Whether you’re in New York, New York or Stillman Valley, Illinois, we all connect to the same internet.

For example, Keller points out that one of the most significant “unthoughts” of our time is what Robert Bellah calls “expressive individualism” and Keller calls “the sovereign self.”5 Over my 20 years of preaching in the Upper Midwest I’ve discovered our people are so steeped in the sovereign self that it’s difficult for them to understand the basic doctrines of original sin and union in Christ. Americans imbibe expressive individualism with their mother’s milk no matter where they live. (Consequently, my basic goal in Bound Together: How We Are Tied to Others in Good and Bad Choices was to biblically counter expressive individualism.)

Forming Cultural Narratives 

The pendulum diagram considers the big picture. But what are the particular narratives we must address? Keller identifies five late-modern cultural narratives that arose from Christianity and its interaction with the classical paganism of antiquity. Taylor refers to these narratives as “unthoughts”—a term coined by Michel Focault to describe the leaps of faith secular people take of which they’re unaware. Unthoughts are “the (usually unstated) presuppositions that undergird an account of secularity and the decline of religious practice” (Smith, 80–82, 143). These unthoughts must be identified and strategically engaged if we’re to interact with the late-modern mind.They’re often expressed in unquestioned slogans like “choice is a good thing” or “authority is suspect” (Keller, 126).

Table 1 is my organization of how Keller shows the development of cultural narratives or unthoughts over the last 2,000 years.

  • Column I summarizes the broad views of Western thought before Christianity.
  • Column II summarizes how Christianity reshaped these narratives.
  • Column III summarizes how in our late-modern age these basic narratives have been reinterpreted yet again. 

Building Alliances 

Reading about cultural narratives and unthoughts may strike some as too theoretical or esoteric. But Keller demonstrates how, having identified these underlying narratives, we can effectively engage them in Christ-centered preaching.  

The practical application is seen in Keller’s demonstration of understanding doubts and objections. He encourages preachers to address the questions of unbelievers in terms they find meaningful:

The basic way to handle objections is to sincerely agree with your listeners’ beliefs at some point, but then to question a second, mistaken belief on the basis of the first. It is to say: “Since you believe this, why not believe that?” This forms an alliance between the Bible and one of the listeners’ own beliefs, which can powerfully move people to accept other things the Bible says. (112)

Keller offers a number of examples of how preachers can build alliances between Scripture and one of the listeners’ beliefs. I’ve summarized these in Table 2, which will be most useful if you read Keller’s entire explanation. My purpose here is to demonstrate how Keller brings the depth of his homiletical mind to bear on the task of preaching to our late-modern age.

Keller offers many other insights on how today’s preachers can do cultural apologetics. But the above examples may be sufficie to encourage preachers to engage with his thinking and eventually incorporate his approach as they seek to defeat “defeaters.” 

Must Reading 

A word of caution is in order. If preachers simply rehearse Keller’s material as a script, they won’t achieve the full benefit of this work. We must personally labor to identify fresh points of contact where alliances can be built between the Bible and the culture so that the idols of our age can be demolished (2 Cor. 10:4–6).

Taylor introduces A Secular Age by saying his goal is to define and trace what took us “from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others” (3). This is a question all preachers today must consider as we seek to proclaim Christ in our late-modern age. It’s as every bit as relevant for pastors in the rural Midwest as it is for those in New York. And, arguably, no one has thought about this question (in terms of homiletics) more than Tim Keller.

For this reason, Preaching is must reading for all who proclaim the Word in our late-modern moment. 

Keller writes, “John did not simply tell the pagan philosophers that they were completely wrong and needed to believe the Bible instead of what they already believed. Rather, he showed them, first, that some of their intuitions about the universe—being not random or self-directed but purposefully guided by a supernatural principle that must be discovered—were right. Second, and this is the ‘but no, but yes’ part of his discourse, he showed them that the reality behind this aspiration is embodied only in Christ” (98).

James Davison Hunter writes, “‘Worldview’ is so deeply embedded in our consciousness, in the habits of our lives, and in our social practices that to question one’s worldview is to question ‘reality’ itself. . . . This is why one cannot merely change worldviews or question one’s own very easily. Most of what really counts, in terms of what shapes us and directs us, we are not aware of; it operates far below what most of us are capable of consciously grasping” (To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, 33). Smith writes, “This disembedded, buffered, individualist view of the self seeps into our social imaginary—into the very way that we imagine the world, well before we ever think reflectively about it. We absorb it with our mother’s milk, so to speak, to the extent that it’s very difficult for us to imagine the world otherwise” (How (Not) To Be Secular, 45–46).

Keller prefers the label “late-modern” to “postmodern.” “What we have now is less a reversal of modernity than an intensification of its deepest patterns,” he explains. “So it would be better to talk of our late-modern rather than postmodern times” (123). Similarly, Smith writes, “Postmodernism does not make a clean break from modernism. There are both continuities and discontinuities between modernity and postmodernity. The most significant continuity is that both deny grace; in other words, both modernity and postmodernity are characterized by an idolatrous notion of self-sufficiency and naturalism” (Who’s Afraid of Post Modernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, 26).

Elsewhere Keller defines “defeater beliefs” as “common sense consensus beliefs that automatically make Christianity seem implausible to people.” A defeater belief is “Belief-A that, if true, means Belief-B can’t be true. When enough defeater beliefs combine, they become a cultural implausibility structure—so that people no longer feel that it is even necessary to evaluate Christianity” (“Deconstructing Defeater Beliefs: Leading the Secular to Christ”).