the agnostic, the atheist and the Christian

Today I went to the debate between Rowan Williams and Richard Dawkins at Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre chaired by former Priest, now agnostic philsopher, Sir Anthony Kenny.
Richard Dawkins began the debate by saying he sang the first part of a hymn in the shower this morning “It is a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be” saying that the hymn went downhill after that point! Of course it doesn’t continue with an ode to the wonder of natural selection but rather to the wonder that the creator God broke into creation and saved his rebellious children (I did think that the Archbishop missed a good opportunity to talk about revelation and the cross).

It is a thing most wonderful
Almost too wonderful to be
That God’s own Son should come from heaven
And die to save a child like me!

It was a very amicable debate which concentrated on some complexities related to the origin of the universe and issues relating to matters of evolution.  Some of this was quite technical and obtuse.  Both men spoke passionately about the wonder and marvel of the natural world, although one praised evolution the other praised a creator!

Rowan Willians made some good points about human consciousness and the eternity of the soul, which were quite persuasive.  Overall though discussion was rather obscure and not entirely satisfying.

Having said that, all credit to Dr Williams for being prepared to engage in the discussion and all three men took some of the heat out of the debate.

King’s Cross by Tim Keller – a review

King’s Cross, by Tim Keller (Hodder & Stoughton 2011)

Reviewed by Simon Vibert

     Tim Keller has been criticised (or complimented) depending on which way you look at it) as being a better speaker than a writer (note the conversation surrounding Reason for God in Newsweek magazine and Tim’s own response;  In fact, this criticism does not apply to King’s Cross.  For sure, this book started life as Bible expositions in Mark’s Gospel – and you can “hear” Tim speaking all the way through – but it has been turned into very readable and edifying prose.

 The book received a surprising and insightful boost from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at the July 2011 General Synod meeting inYork:

 The American Presbyterian writer Timothy Keller has recently published a book on Mark’s gospel, entitled King’s Cross.  It is a vividly written and often very moving presentation of the great themes of the gospel (and incidentally offers a forceful defence of substitutionary language for the atonement that might give second thoughts to some who find this difficult); but perhaps its simplest and most dominant insight is that Christianity is not advice but news. (

 King’s Cross divides neatly into the two recognisable halves of Mark’s Gospel – Part One: “The King” (Mark 1-10); Part Two: “The Cross” (Mark 11-16).  The book is a combination of winsome apologetical summons and affectionate (in all senses of that word) appeal to everyday human experience.  Chapter titles such as “The Dance”, “The Waiting”, “The Stain”, “The Feast” etc are surprising and enticing titles for a series of Bible talks. He credits CS Lewis as his favourite author (p.6) and it is not hard to see why Tim is often labelled as “a C. S. Lewis for the 21st century, a high-profile Christian apologist who can make orthodox belief not just palatable but necessary.” (Newsweek article).  He tells the Gospel story in a way which resonates with the human quest for a meaningful narrative for life.

 There are other big themes which are part of Tim’s “Gospel-centred” approach to Christian ministry, such as, the chapter “The Rest”.  He shows that Jesus came to earth to bring about the end of Religion as we know it:

 “Righteous” people believe they can “heal themselves,” make themselves right with God by being good and moral.  They don’t feel the need for a soul-physician, someone who intervenes and does what they can’t do themselves…Because the Lord of the Sabbath said, “It is finished,” we can rest from religion – forever. (p47)

 He also interacts with William Vanstone’s interesting book The Phenomenology of Love indicating that we all seek true, unconditional love, but are incapable of giving it.  But, ironically, in meeting Jesus we are enabled to need less and give more.  Why is that?

 If your agenda is the end, then Jesus is just the means; you are using him.  But if Jesus is the King, you cannot make him a means to your end. (p106f.).

 The strong evangelistic/apologetic appeal is evident throughout the book.  Alongside Mere Christianity this is the kind of book which I would give to a thinking non-Christian today.  For example

 [Jesus] is both the rest and the storm, both the victim and the wielder of the flaming sword, and you must accept him or reject him on the basis of both.  Either you’ll have to kill him or you’ll have to crown him.  The one thing you can’t do is just say, “What an interesting guy.”  Those teachers of the law who began to plot to kill Jesus at the end of this episode in the temple – they may have been dead wrong about him, but their reaction makes perfect sense. (p162).

 His death on the cross is simply explained as Jesus drinking the cup of God’s wrath (the poisoned chalice) so that we don’t need to; and as going under the sword, bearing our punishment in our place.

 I join the Archbishop of Canterbury in highly recommending this book.  When Tim comes to Oxford to lead the OICCU mission next year I trust and hope he will do what he has said all preachers need to do, and that which this book exemplifies:

 To be a great preacher, one needs to be tri-perspectival in their exegesis. That is, they need to be committed to the exegesis of the Bible, the exegesis of our culture, and the exegesis of the human heart. Some preachers claim that if you exegete the Bible properly, you don’t need to bother yourself with the exegesis of our culture or the human heart. The problem with this view, however, is that the Bible itself exhorts us to apply Biblical norms to both our lives and to our world… But no preacher has consistently taught me how to do all three in the context of every sermon more so than Tim Keller. His balanced attention to all three forms of exegesis makes him very unique, in my opinion. (


More on Tim Keller’s preaching in my book Excellence in Preaching published by IVP UK, September 2011.