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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

In Memoriam: Timothy Keller (1950-2023)

May 19th, 2023 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

If you spend much time reading Tolkien, you will very quickly discover that a large part of his appeal is not simply wrapped up in the world-building and narrative, but particularly in his use of language. He uses language in a grand way, sometimes also a mischievous way, and he’ll expand your mind for how to use it yourself. One of the words Tolkien changed for me was “love.”

In our context, love almost always refers to romantic bonds. And in particular in our context the “love” we have in view within the romantic bond is chiefly about a strong sense of emotional attachment between people. Tolkien almost never uses it that way. For Tolkien, love is relentlessly active. It is nearly always an active moving out of yourself and toward something or someone else, propelled forward by the fact that you value that thing you’re moving toward more than you do your own life.

So this, from Return of the King:

Then as he had kept watch Sam had noticed that at times a light seemed to be shining faintly within; but now the light was even clearer and stronger. Frodo’s face was peaceful, the marks of fear and care had left it; but it looked old, old and beautiful, as if the chiseling of the shaping years was now revealed in many fine lines that had before been hidden, though the identity of the face was not changed. Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself. He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured: “I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.”

The love in view here is not in any way romantic or sexual; it’s friendship, in part, and it’s a love of beauty, of some far off light that comes to us sometimes and that we know is good, something we’re made for and that, somehow in that moment, was shining through Frodo. Sam’s love for Frodo, then, is a love that takes him out of himself and toward Frodo in friendship but then beyond Frodo toward the light.

You can find a similar love in how Tolkien writes of Aragorn.

‘The Paths of the Dead?’ said Pippin. ‘I heard Aragorn say that and I wondered what he could mean. Won’t you tell us some more?’

‘Not willingly,’ said Gimli. ‘For upon that road I was put to shame: Gimli Gloin’s son, who had deemed himself more tough than Men, and hardier under earth than any Elf. But neither did I prove; and I was held to the road only by the will of Aragorn.’

‘And by the love of him also,’ said Legolas. ‘For all those who come to know him come to love him after his own fashion.’

Elsewhere in the same volume Eomer says to Aragorn, “Since the day when you rose before me out of the green grass of the downs I have loved you, and that love shall not fail.”

So again the activity of love for Tolkien: The love Eomer feels for Aragorn is a kind of active relationship that takes on a life of its own, such that it itself is able to succeed or fail. Though I don’t believe it’s ever made explicit exactly what that thing itself is, I think we can answer it reasonably well from what we are given: There is a bond of trust and shared loves that define Eomer’s people and Aragorn’s. And so the love that exists between them succeeds when they labor toward those things together and it would fail if one or the other were to abandon that labor.

I think the love many of us who knew him feel for Tim Keller is something like what Legolas and Eomer are describing—and I am also quite sure that Tim would cringe to be likened to Aragorn in this way. Even so, it remains true, I think.

Loving Tim, for us, was a bit like the love you feel for a great captain. I remember thrilling to read Reason for God partly because I felt my own doubts and struggles with specific issues being assuaged (I was 20 when I first read the book and still very much in a kind of Old Millennial version of deconstructing), but also for another reason too, I think. I don’t think I ever had a time when I was closed off to Jesus. If anything, as I fell out with fundamentalism I found that Jesus became more beautiful and compelling than ever.

But I didn’t know what to do with that. I didn’t know if there were churches for people like me. I didn’t look like the adult men at the churches I knew, and I didn’t care about all the things they tended to care about. I also did care about a great many things they either ignored or actually disdained. I didn’t know what that meant and the possibility that it might mean I couldn’t be a Christian loomed at times quite large in my mind. So what Reason for God did for me was it offered a vision of Christianity that I could imagine myself actually believing and defending, and it helped me learn how to talk about Jesus and Christianity with other people like me who hadn’t yet encountered Jesus in the ways I had, even at that point in my life.

This is like something Susannah Black Roberts said to me once years ago. She told me that what Tim did for New Yorkers is he made it possible for people who loved New York, who loved the pink light of a setting sun reflected off the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, who loved going to the theatre and the MOMA and Central Park and all the rest, he made it possible for people like that to imagine themselves being Christian. In the mind of many New Yorkers, Susannah said, “evangelical Christians” were people who drove SUVs and lived in McMansions in the suburbs and shopped at Hobby Lobby. None of that was bad, to be clear. It was just very much not them. They didn’t know how to disentangle “being a Christian” from being all those other things. And then Tim showed them how.

So when I say Tim was a kind of Aragorn figure, that’s what I mean. He made you want to see and love the things that he saw and loved and then give your life to those things in the same way he did. And that love he inspired was strong enough that many of us have been willing to follow him on our metaphorical Paths of the Dead.

This, incidentally, is why we at Mere O have fought the way that we have to preserve persuasion, to preserve the evangelical center, and to ward off the distractions and attacks on that center coming from both the progressive left and the reactionary right. Tim’s work was in many ways the work of his own heroes and of some notable contemporaries. Cory Brock uses the wonderful phrase “orthodox yet modern” to describe the broad project of Herman Bavinck, and that was very much Tim’s project too. And it was the project of John Stott and J. I. Packer and Edmund Clowney and Billy Graham, all saints now departed to their rest, like Tim. I also think it was very much the project of Benedict XVI and if you’ll forgive a brief excursus the also recently departed pontiff might provide us a useful lens for understanding what made Tim distinct and what those of us who wish to carry on his work need to do.

Consider this passage from one of Benedict’s final books, written about the infancy narratives of Jesus of Nazareth:

God is love. But love can also be hated when it challenges us to transcend ourselves. It is not a romantic ‘good feeling.’ Redemption is not ‘wellness,’ it is not about basking in self-indulgence; on the contrary it is a liberation from imprisonment in self-absorption. This liberation comes at a price; the anguish of the Cross. The prophecy of light and that of the Cross belong together.

He then continues:

From the moment of his birth, (Jesus) belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in worldly terms. Yet it is this unimportant and powerless child that proves to be the truly powerful one, the one on whom ultimately everything depends. So one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standards, in order to enter the light of the truth of our being, and aided by that light to find the right path.

Those are the words of someone who wants to preserve the “orthodox yet modern” encounter between Christianity and the world. They are not the words of a reactionary conservative who wishes to wave away all that has transpired in the west in recent centuries. But neither are they the words of a progressive who simply seeks to treat Jesus and Christian faith as one more tool in the mental health and wellness toolkit or the comparable progressive political toolkit alongside many others. Benedict wants his readers to encounter Jesus as he is and in the world as it is. He wants them, in and through that encounter, to come to love Jesus and then offer their own lives as a sort of sacrifice in response to Jesus’s, all the while aiming at goods that go beyond this world and chasten the idols we erect in this world. There is, needless to say, a great deal of Tim’s work and vision in this passage.

Benedict had offered the Roman church a way of stepping back from the seemingly irresolvable fights provoked by Rome’s own encounter with the modern world. He attempted to call her into an era of unapologetically faithful orthodoxy melded together with a generosity of spirit, sincere interest in one’s neighbor, and an openness to sincere encounter with one another. I am not sure if he succeeded, though that is for others to decide. At least, much of the contemporary discourse in the Roman world feels like a re-entrenchment of the debates that marked the church throughout the 60s and 70s.

The fracturing of the Evangelical world has, of course, seen many similar dynamics emerge in our own communions as we fracture along predictable lines. My prayer for the Protestant world is that Tim’s passing would mark the end of that because Tim’s ministry calls us toward the same things that Benedict called the Roman church to. Hold tight to Jesus, to the Word of God, to the Gospel. And then throw open the doors of the church and take that Word into the streets. This ministry, in Tim’s case, saw a city that was once one percent orthodox Protestant became five or six percent orthodox Protestant within 30 years. It is a ministry we should seek to preserve and carry forward, rather than repudiate as being antiquated and out of step with contemporary challenges.

My prayer is that the passing of this giant would be an occasion for reminding us to return to our first love, to persevere in that love, and to labor together so that the message Tim shared so frequently and faithfully would go on echoing in the world entire.

Throw open the doors of the church. Go into the streets. Proclaim the good news to everyone, that they too are invited to the great feast to come at the end of all things. For the words written by Tolkien after the fall of Sauron are true in our world as well:

You were brought out of the fire to the King. He has tended you, and now he awaits you. You shall eat and drink with him.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).