Timothy Keller spoke with The Christian Post about media perceptions of evangelicals and politics, the debate over whether Christians should support social justice, and what the book of Jonah teaches the Church today about how to treat non-Christians.
In The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God's Mercy, which was released Oct. 2, Keller, author and founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, examines Jonah's moral messages, especially in regards to how believers should treat those who are of a different race and religion.
"God wants us to treat people of different races and faiths in a way that is respectful, loving, generous, and just," wrote Keller in the newly released book.
In an Oct. 29 interview with The Christian Post, Keller explained that as a pastor, he has preached on Jonah multiple times over the years, with the application of the message changing from time to time.
For example, when he preached about it while serving a church in Virginia decades back, he applied the book to race relations; in 2001 at the Manhattan-based Redeemer Presbyterian, the application came to the issues surrounding 9/11.
"Basically, I would preach the book pretty much the same way, but the applications changed over the years because the situation changed," said Keller.
CP's interview with Keller focused on multiple topics, including how well American churches are treating those with different religious beliefs, whether "social justice" is compatible with Christian teaching, and his thoughts on the apparent trend of younger evangelicals opting to leave the Republican Party. Below are excerpts from that interview.
CP: On multiple occasions in your book, you point out that the pagans acted better than Jonah, showing us that "Christians should be humble and respectful toward those who do not share their faith." How well do you believe American churches do that?
Keller: It depends on the church and where they are, but in general not terribly well, I don't think. I think there certainly is in almost all American churches, certainly the evangelical churches, they always express concern for the lost. So they express concern for people of other faiths or no faith. But there are other ways in which the attitudes sometimes are paternalistic.
Many, many churches and Christians, when they do evangelize nonbelievers, are harsh and condescending. I have seen it. So I would say, even though Jonah did eventually go to Nineveh, he went to the city to preach there, but he didn't love the city. And he didn't love the people at all, didn't love them or respect them. And clearly, that's one of the messages of the book is that it's not enough just simply to preach at people, you also have to love and respect them, too. So you shouldn't just be preaching at nonbelievers, you should be caring, respecting, and listening to them as well. So yeah, I think that's one of the messages of the book.
CP: In your book, you wrote "We deserve the critique of the world if the church does not exhibit visible love in practical deeds." In your opinion, right now where does the current American church most deserve "the critique of the world"?
Keller: There's so much emphasis [in the news media] on "all evangelical Christians are backing Donald Trump and the Republicans." And of course the world church, which is largely non-Anglo, non-white, is more politically diverse. You cannot characterize worldwide evangelicalism as simply conservative or liberal.
In some ways they're more liberal because there's a lot more poor people, a lot more nonwhite people who care about justice, but at the same time they are very conservative when it comes to sex and gender and things like that. So they're looking at the American church and they are asking questions. They're saying "Why aren't you caring more for the immigrant?" "Why aren't you caring more for the poor?"
I think that the media tends to simplify everything, tends to generalize. And so, in some ways I don't think that's completely fair, but it's partly fair. So that the world and the world church are looking at the evangelical church and thinking right now, the American evangelical church has been caring more about its own political power than it does about the outsider, the marginalized. I don't think that's completely fair, because I think there are plenty of churches that are not like that. Plenty. Nevertheless, there's enough that I think there's criticism.