“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you,” says the LORD (Isa. 49:15). The birth metaphor is stitched into the Bible’s DNA, from Old Testament prophets to New Testament apostles.
So, how does birth illuminate the Bible? And how does Scripture illuminate birth? Tim Keller—TGC vice president and chairman of Redeemer City to City—probes these questions in his latest book, On Birth.
Shock of Birth
Keller writes to a culture in such a parenting recession that “there are not enough births to replace deaths” (8). Birth is no longer life-threatening; instead, it’s lifestyle-threatening. Keller writes incisively about the conflicted relationship 21st-century Westerners have with parenting. We cling to freedom and self-fulfillment, but parenting rips those idols from our hands. Indeed, Keller observes, parenting “challenges all the habits of the heart that our culture has formed in us around relationships” (10). How should we respond, then, to the unshakeable commitment it demands?
Birth is no longer life-threatening; instead, it is lifestyle-threatening.
Counterintuitively, Keller commends the ancient Christian practice of “giving your child”—not away to other humans, but to God, through baptism or baby dedication (14). In this act, we recognize that we’re parents under God and in community. We’re raising children who are fearfully and wonderfully made. But just as we had no real hand in their design, so we have no ultimate control over their lives. They are the Lord’s; we must acknowledge that.
So, what is our role as parents?
Point of Parenting
Keller notes one modern reaction to the shock of birth—at least for privileged folk—is to turn parenting into its own profession. But the point of this job is unclear. “What,” Keller asks, “are parents trying to actually do with their children?” (10). Raising merely happy humans isn’t enough, for even cruel people can be happy (11). But what does it mean to raise kids to be good in a world where moral values are seen as culturally constructed, and where imposing one’s own values on others is anathema?
In On Birth, Timothy Keller—theologian and bestselling author—helps us understand both physical and spiritual birth, as well as how baptism connects the two. With wisdom, joy, and compassion, Keller draws on 45 years as a pastor and a parent to consider what it means to receive a new birth as well as to be reborn.
We must call our young not just to ethical behavior, but to heartfelt awe and love of their Creator.
Never one to hunker down in a political trench, Keller argues that Christian parenting draws both from the “conservative” playbook of “discipline, limits, and the teaching of moral values” and the “progressive” script that emphasizes “listening to children, strong affirmation, and giving them freedom” to think (13). Beyond this, Keller urges us to raise kids in a “moral ecology” (26) and a “moral cosmology” (27). We must call our young not just to ethical behavior, but to heartfelt awe and love of their Creator. And we must shape their “moral imagination” through both spiritually grounded storytelling—focused on repentance and grace—and exposure to other Christians who model faithful living.
Pain of Parenting
Reflecting on Simeon’s warning to Mary, Keller observes that “every love relationship brings ‘a sword in the heart,’ because when you love someone truly you bind your heart to the other person with the result that your happiness is tied to his or her happiness” (37). But this binding is particular when it comes to our kids. “No wonder so many modern people have given parenting a pass,” Keller concludes. “But just as Jesus could not bless the world without the suffering of his parents, so we cannot give the world the blessing of our children’s new life without accepting the sword in our hearts” (38).
Lines like this—when Keller threads Scripture through the needle of experience and stitches it into our lives—are worth the price of the book. We buy parenting books hoping to circumvent the pain, but Keller won’t let us fall for that lure. While offering us wisdom, he’s careful not to present knowledge of God as a means to parenting ends, but rather the reverse.
Thus, central to this book is how the metaphor of birth enshrines the gospel.
Jesus’s Birth Metaphors
The term “born-again Christian” is so familiar that we forget how radical it is. But Keller won’t let us stay inoculated. He meditates extensively on Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus and concludes: “The message is this: no matter how good and well-ordered your life is, you must be born again, yet no matter how chaotic your life has been or how often and profoundly you have failed, you can be born again” (76).
This new birth is vital for all of us. We must be born again, and like newborn babies, we must “drink the pure milk of the word” (1 Pet. 2:2). But it’s also costly to God. Keller writes powerfully on John 16:23, where Jesus channels both the pain of labor and the joy after birth as a metaphor for the cross. “See what Jesus is saying?” Keller writes. “Your first birth brings you physical life because someone risked her life, but your second birth brings you spiritual and eternal life because someone gave his life. That someone was me” (83).
A mother’s joy at the sight of her child—in spite of the incredible pain she has endured—mirrors the joy Jesus has in us (83). But while Keller woos us to this metaphor of individual salvation, he also widens our gaze.
Contra the Greek philosophers who “believed history was endless and cyclical, with periodic purges” called palingenesia (or “rebirth”), after which “history started afresh,” Keller notes that Jesus uses that same word in Matthew 19:28 to describe his second coming (47–48). Like human birth, the palingenesia will be a once-for-all event. Illuminating how this metaphor plays out, on both the personal and the cosmic stage, is perhaps Keller’s greatest achievement in this book.
Old-Testament Mothering Metaphors
Given the book’s focus on birth, my one disappointment was not hearing Keller’s reflections on the mothering metaphors in the Old Testament. How can we give full weight to the startling rebuke of Deuteronomy 32:18 (“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth”), or the breastfeeding image from Isaiah 49:15 with which this review began, or the stunning sweep of Isaiah 66—when Jerusalem as nursing mother flows into an image of God as comforting mother (Isa. 66:13) before God speaks once more as conquering Hero and justice-bringing Judge?
God’s identity as Father is deeply rooted in our minds. But while God is always husband and not wife in the Bible, we must reckon with the maternal metaphors he claims. Keller writes with such eloquence on Jesus’s channeling of the maternal. I would’ve loved to see his theological firepower directed at the birthing, nursing, and mother-comforting metaphors peppered throughout Scripture.
In a world increasingly confused about both gender and parenting, we need the full range of scriptural imagery to grasp a fuller vision of the transcendent and yet intimate God, who satisfies all human needs and fills what’s lacking in all human relationships.
Don’t Miss On Birth
On Birth is a slim book. It can be read in a couple of hours. I highly commend it to those in the throes of parenting. But its practical theology is a gift to us all: married or single, directly parenting or modeling faith to the kids in our church.
Read it, and you’ll surely find the delight of your rebirth being freshly impressed on your heart, as you’re reminded of the One who died in childbirth for you.