Thoughts on NIcholas Kristof and Pastor Timothy Keller's Conversation: "Am I a Christian?"

I am not a big fan of Pastor Timothy Keller. I mean, I have read a couple of his books and there is nothing particularly wrong in what he has to say that I have seen, but for some reason his books have left me largely uninterested. But today, I came across an interview that he did with Nicholas Kristof of the Gray Lady where the aforementioned liberal/progressive op-ed columnist for America's Newspaper of Record decided to use Pastor Keller as the expert to ask his questions about the truth of Christianity around Christmastime. The article entitled "Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?" was run two days before Christmas, and asked questions akin to, "Does everyone who does not believe the truth of the entire Bible go to hell?" and "Why aren't the Gospels clear or consistent on Jesus' resurrection?"

Over at Breitbart News, Charles Hurt read Kristof's article and interpreted it as an attack on Christianity by Mr. Kristoff on one of Christianity's biggest holidays. In an article entitled, "The Nuclear Option; The New York Times Trolls Christians -- on Christmas," Hurt first asks whether the New York Times would have the published a similar article raising questions about Islam's claims about Muhammed on Ramadan, concluding that it wouldn't do so either out of political correctness or out of fear of what happened to Charlie Hebdo. He then adds, "On Christmas Day this Sunday, The New York Times took the sacred opportunity of Jesus Christ’s birth to interview a Christian and basically pick apart the entire religion."

Personally, I don't share Mr. Hurt's viewpoint or his concerns. First, the questions Mr. Kristof asks, while sometimes loaded with assumptions, did not "pick apart the entire [Christian] religion." On the whole, the questions are quite reasonable when coming from the perspective of a man who does not share a robust Christian faith. Kristof is what I would call a nominal or cultural Christian. They are certainly no worse (and in many ways they are much better) than the types of challenges any Christian apologist faces on any skeptical bulletin board or in the answer to posts on blogs such as this one.

Moreover, when I read what Kristof, as a journalist, asks Pastor Keller, it reminds me of the the type of questions that Lee Strobel posed to the apologists in his best selling, The Case for Christ. Strobel's questions in that book grew out of his own search several years before when he was seeking to disprove Christianity. He asked hard questions, and found good answers to those hard questions. This was Strobel's journey, and it may be the start of Kristof's own journey.

If we complain, as does Hurt, that a skeptical journalist is asking hard questions, we should be ashamed. Christians have dealt with much worse than a series of loaded questions around Christmas. In fact, we should welcome the fact that the skeptical journalist actually chose to feature a pastor's responses to the tough questions. After all, most of the time the hit pieces against Christianity around the holidays are published without really consulting anyone who is actually a Christian. Oh, sure, they consult psuedo-Christians like John Dominic Crossan or authors of similar ilk who claim to be Christian but who are really working to destroy the Bible's credibility, but someone who believes the what the Bible actually teaches? That almost never, ever, ever happens. So I believe that Mr. Kristof's article is actually a good thing. If Kristof himself isn't effected by Pastor Keller's answers, maybe a skeptical reader will at least begin to recognize that Christianity is reasonable and not some alien philosophy entirely divorced from reality.

But what I found most perplexing and wonderful about the article was the title: "Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller"? Why in the world would Nicholas Kristof ask such a question? This is where I get back to Timothy Keller. As noted above, I'm not particularly a fan. However, his responses to Kristof nail it. His answers are brief, straight-forward and reasonable. And it is his answer that leads Kristof to ask the titular question in the first place. In the course of the conversation, Kristof asks a question that attempts to highlights the differences in the resurrection accounts, and the testimony of the Gospels that the people did not recognize Jesus at first when he made His post resurrection appearances. Kristof asks:
 As you know better than I, the Scriptures themselves indicate that the Resurrection wasn’t so clear cut. Mary Magdalene didn’t initially recognize the risen Jesus, nor did some disciples, and the gospels are fuzzy about Jesus’ literal presence — especially Mark, the first gospel to be written. So if you take these passages as meaning that Jesus literally rose from the dead, why the fuzziness? 
Keller, not a novice to this type of question, is outstanding in his answer when he says,
I wouldn’t characterize the New Testament descriptions of the risen Jesus as fuzzy. They are very concrete in their details. Yes, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus at first, but then she does. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24) also don’t recognize Jesus at first. Their experience was analogous to meeting someone you last saw as a child 20 years ago. Many historians have argued that this has the ring of eyewitness authenticity. If you were making up a story about the Resurrection, would you have imagined that Jesus was altered enough to not be identified immediately but not so much that he couldn’t be recognized after a few moments? As for Mark’s gospel, yes, it ends very abruptly without getting to the Resurrection, but most scholars believe that the last part of the book or scroll was lost to us.
Skeptics should consider another surprising aspect of these accounts. Mary Magdalene is named as the first eyewitness of the risen Christ, and other women are mentioned as the earliest eyewitnesses in the other gospels, too. This was a time in which the testimony of women was not admissible evidence in courts because of their low social status. The early pagan critics of Christianity latched on to this and dismissed the Resurrection as the word of “hysterical females.” If the gospel writers were inventing these narratives, they would never have put women in them. So they didn’t invent them.
The Christian Church is pretty much inexplicable if we don’t believe in a physical resurrection. N.T. Wright has argued in “The Resurrection of the Son of God” that it is difficult to come up with any historically plausible alternate explanation for the birth of the Christian movement. It is hard to account for thousands of Jews virtually overnight worshiping a human being as divine when everything about their religion and culture conditioned them to believe that was not only impossible, but deeply heretical. The best explanation for the change was that many hundreds of them had actually seen Jesus with their own eyes. 
Seriously, that is a masterful answer to give in such a short space. He first dismisses the editorializing by Kristof by pointing out that he rejects the characterization of the Gospel accounts as "fuzzy" but does so in a very low-key and respectful manner. He then acknowledges the problem Kristof identifies, but turns the alleged problem into a strength by noting how the willingness to show that the failure by some in the Bible to recognize Jesus immediately is an argument for its authenticity (using the criteria of embarrassment). He then points out that a person making up the Gospel in ancient Judea wouldn't have identified women as the original witnesses because of the culture of the time which again speaks to the authenticity of the accounts. Finally, Pastor Keller uses the question as an opening to give an introduction to point out that the very spread of the Gospel in such a culture would be unthinkable if the people didn't truly believe it had happened.

But then Kristof asks a rather odd question: He asks, "So where does that leave people like me? Am I a Christian? A Jesus follower? A secular Christian? Can I be a Christian while doubting the Resurrection?"  Why would he ask such a thing?

While the possibilities are endless, two ideas spring up: (1) Kristof sees himself as a Christian but does not agree that belief in the truth of the Bible is important, and (2) it is possible that Kristof has been touched by Pastor Keller's answer to the prior question.

On the first point, Kristof thinks of himself as a Christian, but he is not in any sense an orthodox Christian because he does not accept the central teachings of the Bible. In an article he wrote for the New York Times in September entitled "What Religion Would Jesus Belong To?", Kristof identifies himself loosely as Christian, but certainly no believer in the teachings that most evangelicals hold. He wrote:
This may seem an unusual column for me to write, for I’m not a particularly religious Christian. But I do see religious faith as one of the most important forces, for good and ill, and I am inspired by the efforts of the faithful who run soup kitchens and homeless shelters. 
Kristof's view, based upon this very brief comment when coupled with the longer conversation with Pastor Keller, shows him to be familiar with Christianity, maybe even claiming the mantle of Christianity, while not accepting the primary teachings of the faith like the Resurrection. He is what one might refer to as a mainline liberal church Christian - one who views the work done in the name of Christ as more important than the actual teachings of the Bible.

On the second point, Pastor Keller's assurance of the truth of the Gospel accounts have somehow reached Kristof. He has probably been living comfortably saying things like, "Jesus was a good moral teacher but the Bible cannot be trusted" on the basis of such slim arguments as "if Jesus was resurrected, why didn't the apostles recognize him immediately?" and "if Jesus was resurrected, why are the four Gospel accounts different on the details?" Pastor Keller took what Kristof had to say and turned it from a weakness into a strength. It may be that this was the first time that Kristof heard that reasons actually existed for believing the Bible accounts were true rather than just a myth, and Kristof may be wondering whether his brand of faith is sufficient to get him into heaven in this alternative (actually, orthodox) view of Christianity that Pastor Keller defends so well. Pastor Keller's response left no uncertainty:
I wouldn’t draw any conclusion about an individual without talking to him or her at length. But, in general, if you don’t accept the Resurrection or other foundational beliefs as defined by the Apostles’ Creed, I’d say you are on the outside of the boundary. 
What a tremendous answer. No, we are not in a position to judge the heart of any person, but if a person doesn't believe in the Resurrection or the fundamental teachings of the Church as reflected in the Apostles Creed, the Bible leaves little room for believing them to be in a right relationship with God and therefore a Christian. If only we would all be so clear and loving in all of our responses as we head into the New Year.


Happy New Year Bill. Good article, thanks for posting.
Jason Pratt said…
Great article, although at the risk of unhelpful non-brevity I'd answer Mr. Kristoff's question a little more broadly:

1.) If Jesus Christ judges that you've been loyally cooperating with Him, then you're a Christian even if you're surprised to discover you've ever been serving Him. (Via the Matt 25 judgment of the flock.) That's for Christ to decide. Relatedly, if Jesus decides you're a doer of injustice strongly rebelling against Him, it doesn't matter whether you've been doing miracles in His name (thus with His power) and care so much about doctrine you're even willing to test apostles.

2.) If you accept and follow Jesus Christ as the ultimate authority in your life, you're a Christian at least culturally. (If you do so without making love your chief priority, then see addendum to point #1.)

3.) If you accept that Jesus Christ has the ultimate authority to judge whether you're a Christian or not, you're at least culturally a Christian and Jesus might agree a Christian. (See point #2.)

4.) If you trust Jesus Christ to save you from your sins (since that's why He was named "Joshua" at all), in a way that doesn't just give you convenient excuses to do whatever you feel like doing, you're at least culturally a Christian and I'd suppose there's at least a strong likelihood Jesus would agree you're a real Christian. (Also related to point #2.)

5.) If you trust Jesus Christ to save other people from their sins, then ditto.

6.) If you trust Jesus Christ to save other people from pretty much anything, then ditto.

I'm trying to stick with important minimal standards from the canonical NT, and specifically from Gospel (and RevJohn) reports of what Jesus Himself said. Be that fundamentalistic and/or inerrant of me, or otherwise. {g} The same texts indicate He expects more from those who have been given more advantages, but that doesn't mean He doesn't fully appreciate all of whatever little someone can manage.

As I've occasionally said in the past, including to the one I love the most: in God's evaluation, someone who is giving all of whatever two little cents of faith she can muster, may be far ahead of a Pharisee like me coming along afterward giving out of my doctrinal riches. One of the best uses of being a hyper-picky ultra-trinitarian doctrinaire at all is to validate that point! {g!}

(That having been said, I suspect Mr. Kristoff would still fall short of many of those criteria.)


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