Communicating Truth in Our Late-Modern Moment

How Tim Keller's New Book Is Helping Me Minister in Rural America

“Given this apparent cultural distance between New York and rural America, it may surprise you to hear me say Keller’s new book on preaching should be required reading for all preachers, precisely since it equips us to preach to our culture. But that’s my point.”


“Most Christian speaking and preaching still assumes that listeners have the [same] fundamental understandings of reality that they had in the past.”

— Tim Keller

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the [heck] is water?’”

— David Foster Wallace

The cultural distance between Tim Keller’s church in Manhattan and mine in rural Illinois is about as far as is possible within the United States and Canada. My morning commute amounts to a mile-and-a-half drive through a cornfield. I generally obey the law, and my drive takes three minutes and 22 seconds. I timed it. I haven’t thought about calling a cab since Taxi went off the air in 1983.

Don’t get me wrong. Here in the rural Midwest we do battle occasional traffic complications. Each spring our school celebrates “Drive Your Tractor to School Day.” Encouraging the Future Farmers of America is a good thing. But the average tractor cruises down the highway between 15 and 20 miles per hour. A couple dozen tractors wreak havoc on traffic patterns. “Drive Your Tractor to School Day” can throw my travel time off by every bit of four minutes.

Given this apparent cultural distance between New York and rural America, it may surprise you to hear me say Keller’s new book on preaching should be required reading for all preachers, precisely since it equips us to preach to our culture. But that’s my point. Whether you’re trading tractors in Illinois or catching cabs in Queens, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (Viking, 2015) [20 quotes | interviewreview] is essential reading for preachers who want to effectively proclaim the Word in the cultural waters in which we swim.

A quick read isn’t going to be enough. We need to engage Keller’s thoughts on preaching Christ to the culture, summarize the concepts, write them in our own words, interact with his sources, and, most importantly, work out fresh applications on how we can preach to our culture from the inside out. My purpose here is to share some of the notes and summaries I’ve made which may help others interact with the book, because, as I’ll explain, the cultural narratives in the rural Midwest are largely the same as those in New York City.

Unique Contribution 

I’m convinced the unique contribution of Preaching is its insights on communicating Christ to our culture. If we’re to effectively engage audiences in our time, Keller argues, we must follow the example of New Testament evangelists who requisitioned the vocabulary or categories of their audiences in order to confront them with the gospel (96–102). Consider, for example, how John begins his Gospel: “In the beginning was the logos, the word” (John 1:1). John’s strategy of using logos was a “bold rhetorical move that filled an existing cultural concept with new meaning but used its older associations to point people to the gospel” (97).Likewise, in Acts 17:28 Paul quotes a Greek poet to gain the attention of his listeners at Mars Hill (99–101).

Of course, it’s easy enough to say we should generally follow the example of John or Paul. To do so, however, we must understand the mind of our day so that we too can identify entry points. Just as Paul had enough familiarity with Greek philosophy to quote one of their poets, we must be able to dialogue with our culture. Understanding the cultural waters in which we’re immersed is no easy task; it can only be accomplished if we consider how the Western mind has changed over the last 2,000 years.

To equip preachers to begin to understand the worldviews of our late-modern moment, Keller interacts with a number of sources such as Charles Taylor’s massive and dense A Secular Age. Taylor’s work is notoriously long and inaccessible. (For help with Taylor’s work read James K. A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor [interviewinterview | review]). Keller does a portion of the work of reading Taylor for us by distilling important lessons and showing how they can inform our approach to homiletics. Specifically, Keller argues that in order to do cultural apologetics—that is, to understand the waters in which we swim and reason for our hope (1 Pet. 3:15)—we must identify the unspoken cultural narratives that inform the mindset of our day. These narratives are so deeply embedded in our culture’s consciousness that most people aren’t even aware they hold them.2

Keeping the Concepts Straight 

If at this point you struggle to keep the concepts straight in your mind, I’m with you. Keller’s presentation is clear, but there are many deep concepts to master, especially if you also consult some of the sources he cites. So that Keller (and Taylor’s) points would be clear in my own thinking, I’ve created several figures to illustrate the major points.

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Read another review here.