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Hello, fellow wayfarers. What Tim Keller taught me … Why falling in love is worth risking your career … How horror stories tell (and don’t tell) the truth … A Desert Island Playlist with an actual island vibe … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore

What Tim Keller Taught Me

“Gandalf isn’t supposed to die.”

That text appeared on my phone yesterday from a New York City pastor who worked closely with Tim Keller. It made me smile and cry at the same time. So many of us called Tim “Gandalf,” in part as a tribute to his frequent J. R. R. Tolkien references, but also because he fit the image of the sage wizard guiding us hapless hobbits out of harm’s way.

In the opening chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien notes that Gandalf’s “fame in the Shire was due mainly to his skill with fires, smokes, and lights. His real business was far more difficult and dangerous, but the Shire-folk knew nothing about it.” By any measure, Tim was an impressive figure—the most significant American evangelical apologist and evangelist since Billy Graham.

Most people think immediately of his skill in the areas of preaching, cultural analysis, church-planting strategy, and apologetics. All of that is true. But Tim’s real business went beyond his skills and gifts. He was smart, yes, but what made him unique wasn’t intellect but wisdom.

“Well, wait, let’s think about this for a minute, Russell.”

Those words from Tim kept me from more dumb decisions than I can recount. They prefaced the counsel from Tim that kept me in my position as president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention. In the wake of my refusal to support Donald Trump as president, I was facing significant backlash.

"Let's list all the people trying to drive me out that are under the age of forty," I said. “None. I can’t think of one. As a matter of fact, I’m having trouble thinking of more than four or five that are under the age of seventy.”

“That’s what I’m saying,” Tim said. “Don’t do something stupid.”

Four years later, after consulting scores of friends and counselors about whether to leave the ERLC for a new field of ministry, Tim was the one who convinced me to go. I told him the decision was really hard to make, and he said, “You’ve already made the decision. You know what to do. Your mind is just fighting what your soul already knows.”

When I protested that I didn’t want to make a rash decision I might later regret, Tim said, “Honestly, Russell, of all of the possible responses from anywhere in the world, do you really think even one of them will be ‘Why so soon?’”

I laughed—and the decision was made. With just the right joke, Gandalf helped my mind and soul align.

Untold numbers of people have similar stories. Tim would call to encourage us, even while he was undergoing chemotherapy treatments. He sent his last text to me from a hospital room while he was nearing death. He wanted to check on a prayer request I had given to our Wednesday night book club the week before.

Tim was able to care for so many of us in times of trial because he didn’t tell us what we wanted to hear, and we knew that he knew what he was talking about. His wisdom came from decades spent in the presence of Christ. He cultivated closeness with the Spirit through the Word, and as a result, he, like Jesus, so often “did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person” (John 2:25).

Over the past several years, Tim and I were often in conversation with unbelievers—some curious and irenic about faith, others dismissive and hostile. I remember stifling laughter when an atheist whom Tim loved and respected told a group of us that the need for transcendence could now be met with psychedelic mushrooms. I watched Tim’s eyebrow go up. I felt like White House chief of staff Leo McGarry on The West Wing when he saw President Jed Bartlet at a press conference put his hand in his pocket, smile, and look away.

Watch this, I said to myself.

In every one of those interactions, I never once saw Tim humiliate someone with arguments, even though he could easily have done so.

“Well, let’s think about this for a minute,” he said to the atheist arguing that morality could be explained by evolutionary process alone. Tim explored this man’s objections to human slavery, imagining them in the context of a cosmos without any transcendent moral order. In so doing, he affirmed the rightness of the man’s moral intuitions while simultaneously showing how his theory couldn’t bear the weight of those same intuitions. Once again, he showed where the mind and the soul (or the mind and the conscience) were at odds and pointed to a better way.

At the end of the conversation, there was no question that Tim understood the argument and had responded with devastating clarity. But we also knew that his talk wouldn’t end up as a YouTube video titled “Watch Tim Keller Own the Atheist.” He really loved the man and engaged him without passive retreat or intellectual intimidation.

When I invited Tim to guest-speak in the Institute of Politics class I taught at the University of Chicago, most of the students were disconnected from people of faith and didn’t know who he was. David Axelrod, the director of the program at the time, said, “These kids have highly tuned B.S. detectors, and it’s almost like you could hear the shields coming down three minutes after he started talking.”

Many of them realized, Wait, this pastor is as smart as or even smarter than we are, and he’s not the least bit embarrassed about Christian orthodoxy and biblical authority.

That wisdom freed him from personal ego too. Sometimes he would call and say something along the lines of “Well, I just wanted to check in on the other inerrantist, complementarian, Marxist social justice warrior I’m seeing on YouTube.”

Then he would reference a video from the “TheoBros for Confederate Blood and Rage” or whatever.

“I wouldn’t in a thousand years even know about that video,” I said. “Why on earth do you?” He was aware of it because he had compassion on his critics—and not just the rational, good-faith ones. With astounding accuracy, he could see the pain they were experiencing.

“A lot of people are hurting and don’t feel significant,” he said. “They try to find significance by attacking people they think others will find significant.” When he saw those critics and others coming after him, he didn’t feel attacked. He saw it as a prayer request and prayed accordingly.

“I wish I were that magnanimous,” I said in response to the TheoBros video. “But I don’t look at those things because I would want to call down fire from heaven.”

He responded with a smile, “Well, I guess we all have a little theobro side to us, don’t we?” Ouch.

Tim’s wisdom wasn’t just about treating people well. He would almost assign the task of tracking people who needed support, even before they knew they needed it. For example, when Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren started writing a weekly column for the New York Times, he said, “She’s going to be great; she’s such a good writer. In that venue, though, no matter what she writes, she’ll probably get a lot of criticism. She can handle it, but it’s never fun. We need to encourage her when that happens.”

In those and other similar moments, he showed more than intellect. He exhibited wisdom through compassion, maturity, grounding, solidarity, and good intuition.

The pastor who texted me “Gandalf is not supposed to die” knew Tim wouldn’t live forever. By that he meant he has trouble imagining a world without Tim’s voice of calm, steady, joyous counsel.

Gandalf once said to Frodo, “Good-bye now! Take care of yourself! Look out for me, especially at unlikely times!” The next time we see Tim Keller will be at the consummation of all things in Christ. On that day, Tim won’t have to talk any of us out of stupid decisions. He won’t have to give any of us a reason for God. But I like to think he’ll say to C. S. Lewis or Herman Bavinck or one of the countless skeptics he led to Christ, “Well, wait. Let’s think about this for a minute.”

And like many times this side of the Shire, we’ll see that Gandalf can indeed die for a little while, but the gospel he carried stands forever.

Love, Fear, and Occupational Ruin

Speaking of Tim Keller, I think often about the days after I decided to leave what I had for so long considered my “dream job.”

“How are you doing?” he said. “Are you okay?”

I gave him the speech I’d been giving to everybody else, including myself: that I was grateful for the good people of the Southern Baptist Convention, that I was looking forward to the years to come, and so on.

Tim said, “Well, now that we’ve gotten the public relations out of the way, I’ll ask the question again: ‘How are you? Are you okay—really?”

Knowing that Gandalf could see I was still hiding the “ring” in my pocket, I told the truth. I told him that I was scared, that I couldn’t imagine my life apart from the Southern Baptist Convention—my spiritual home since the moment I was conceived. I said I felt like an exile, like my closest friendships, relationships, and networks were gone.

“Well, it will be okay,” he said. “Jesus and Maria aren’t going anywhere.”

Once again, he was right.

This Saturday, Maria and I will celebrate our 29th anniversary. When I look at our wedding pictures now, I am struck by how much I think we look like children. We kind of were—both of us were just barely in our 20s, younger than our oldest sons are now.

This week, our friend Nancy French replied to a Twitter post from someone telling young people that they shouldn’t fall in love before their 30s because it would hurt their career trajectories. Nancy tweeted, “I fell in love with David French at 20-years-old, so I narrowly missed occupational ruin.” We could say the same.

I remember once as a teenager laughing at my grandmother for how ridiculously young she had married, back in the 1940s, and saying how she must have regretted that. She responded, “Honey, how many years with your grandfather do you think I’d want to take away?” By that point, she’d been a widow for well over a decade—and it was the last time I ever commented about her age when she married.

Marriage isn’t for everybody, and marrying young isn’t for everybody either. I know that. Many people don’t fall in love until their 40s or 50s or older, and that’s great. But the only thing I regret about this being our 29th anniversary is that it’s not our 30th. On our first date, I knew, I am going to marry her if she’ll let me, and I never doubted it from that point on. We could have married a year earlier if I hadn’t spent so much time needlessly worrying about whether I could afford it.

We’ve been through a lot of scary things together: miscarriages, our fathers’ deaths, Donald Trump. But we’ve been through many more joyous things together. What comes to mind are, of course, some of the big things: the adoption of two of our sons, the births of the other three, various moves into new houses and fresh starts.

But what comes to mind even more are the “little” things: walking and pushing our children in strollers to the fruit stand down the road from our small house in Louisville, sitting outside on the Fourth of July with our friends to watch the fireworks, standing in the backyard watching our kids chase lightning bugs. I wouldn’t subtract one year from any of that.

You might not fall in love young—or at all. You can be not just faithful but also happy. But don’t not fall in love because you’re afraid to, especially about something as relatively meaningless in the sweep of a lifetime as a career. You can do both, but when you have to choose, choose love.

A Good Horror Story Doesn’t Lie

In the second issue of this newsletter—around the onset of the pandemic—I wrote of an interview with Stephen King addressing some people’s observation that life during COVID-19 felt like one of his horror novels. I thought about that a few weeks ago as I read a New York Times Book Review interview with Victor LaValle, a horror-genre novelist of whom I had never heard, much less read.

When LaValle was asked what makes for a good horror story, he replied:

For me, the best horror speaks to a deep fear the author hopes to address, one that feels profoundly personal, and you as the reader are welcome to watch the author/the characters wrestle with it. People sometimes ask why I want to read horror at all, let alone write it. Horror is a fearless genre. So much writing glances off the hardest and worst experiences, but horror confronts the worst that happens. Sometimes the worst can be defeated, but just as often it can’t. Nevertheless, it can be addressed, acknowledged, rather than tidily resolved. A good horror novel doesn’t lie to you.

I readily admit I know next to nothing about horror novels, but there’s something here that resonates.

Maybe you’ve been in a place where you’ve sought counsel from someone about a situation in your life and the person advising you gives a quick and cheerful answer: “Well, all you have to do is …” And maybe you’ve walked away frustrated, thinking, This person doesn’t realize how bad my situation is; they don’t understand.

When you’ve lost a baby and someone says, “Well, you’ll have another one,” that person doesn’t truly understand what you’re grieving. Or when you learn you have a brain tumor and someone says, “Oh, I’m sure you’ll get better,” that person doesn’t seem to get how dangerous your situation is.

The “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” happy talk can actually make you more scared—because you’re facing something so scary that people tend to lie to you about how scary it is.

In that sense, horror stories don’t lie to us. When you hear the telltale heartbeat under the floorboards, you really don’t need someone saying, “White noise is good for sleep!”

But horror stories tell us the truth only halfway.

Our intuitions tell us that there are terrible things both “out there” and “in here.” Stories—in whatever culture or genre—show us that those intuitions are correct.

But our intuitions also tell us that the universe is filled with beauty and wonder, that the love we feel for others and for life itself is more than just a biological impulse. And stories show that those intuitions are true as well.

The Bible puts those hopes and fears together. Sometimes people misunderstand as “happy talk” the Scripture verse that says, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). This verse does not say that everything that happens to you is good. It says that in all things, God is at work for your good. That good is defined as conformity with Christ and an inheritance with him (v. 29).

At the center of human history is a horror—a crucifixion at Skull Hill. Crucifixion is not good. With the cross, though, God was turning the artillery of evil against itself, defeating it with deeper wisdom and power than a fallen cosmos could know.

When you first encounter the Lord Jesus in heaven, notice his hands and his side. They still bear the marks of Roman spikes and a spear (John 20:24–29). He’s no victim. He’s the triumphant heir of everything seen and unseen. And in him, so are you.

A good gospel doesn’t lie to you—and is the Good News even still.

Desert Island Playlist

Every other week, I share a playlist of songs one of you says you’d want to have on hand if you were stranded on a desert island. This week’s submission comes from reader Napp Nazworth, a well-respected journalist who leads the American Values Coalition, which does good work combating misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories.

Here’s Napp’s very on-theme island-y list:

Readers, what do y’all think? If you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life and could have only one playlist or one bookshelf with you, what songs or books would you choose?

  • For a Desert Island Playlist, send me a list of 5–12 songs, excluding hymns and worship songs. (We’ll cover those later.)

  • For a Desert Island Bookshelf, send me a list of 5–12 books. If possible, include one photo of all the books together.

Send your list (or both lists!) to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

Quote of the Moment

If Jesus Christ was actually raised from the dead—if he really got up, walked out, was seen by hundreds of people, talked to them … If he was raised from the dead, then you know what? Everything is going to be all right. Whatever you’re worried about right now, whatever you’re afraid of, everything is actually going to be okay.

—Tim Keller, when I asked him on my podcast what he would say to a young Christian who is fearful of the future

Currently Reading (or Rereading)

Tobias Cremer, The Godless Crusade: Religion, Populism and Right-Wing Identity Politics in the West (Cambridge University Press)

Robin Waterfield, Plato of Athens: A Life in Philosophy (Oxford University Press)

Saul Bellow, Dangling Man (Penguin)

Peter Ross, Steeple Chasing: Around Britain by Church (Headline)

Hannah Arendt, Love and Saint Augustine (University of Chicago Press)

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Ask a Question or Say Hello

The Russell Moore Show podcast includes a section where we grapple with the questions you might have about life, the gospel, relationships, work, the church, spirituality, the future, a moral dilemma you’re facing, or whatever. You can send your questions to I’ll never use your name—unless you tell me to—and will come up with a groan-inducing pun of a pseudonym for you.

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Russell Moore

Russell Moore
Editor in Chief

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