Yesterday The Atlantic interviewed Tim Keller “about how his success as a writer has affected his church and the process he went through to write his latest book, The King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus , which comes out this week.” The final Q&A includes an outstanding illustration about humility when preaching and teaching God’s word:
[Question] As you were writing King’s Cross, was there anything you learned about the Gospel of Mark that you hadn’t noticed before?
[Tim Keller] No one thing. I’ll tell you, the thing I struggle with is doing justice to it. When I’m preaching I don’t quite get the same— When you’re writing a book, you feel like you’re putting something down. It’s a little more permanent. And therefore I actually struggled just with a feeling like I’m not doing justice to the material, which is the Gospel of Mark, or more directly, Jesus himself. There’s a true story, evidently, of [Arturo] Toscanini. He was director of the NBC Symphony Orchestra years ago, here in New York. And there was some place where he had just conducted—actually it was just a rehearsal. He conducted a Beethoven symphony. And he did such an incredible job with it that when it was all done, the musicians gave him a standing ovation. And he started to cry. He literally started to cry, and he actually had them sit down, and he wouldn’t let them applaud, and then he said, “It’s not me, it wasn’t me, it was Beethoven.”
Now, what he’s getting across there is a feeling like, “I’m just trying to do justice to the material.” And usually I don’t. And if occasionally I do ok, you shouldn’t be applauding me. It’s just, I got out of the way. I just got out of the way and we actually heard how great the music was. And I feel the same struggle. I’m just trying to get out of the way. And you can’t. In other words, when you’re actually reading, and you’re getting directly a sense of the greatness and the attractiveness of Jesus—and by the way, to say he’s attractive doesn’t mean he’s warm and toasty all the time. I mean, sometimes he’s scary, but he’s still attractive. I just want to say, I want other people to have the same experience I’ve had as I’ve read. And I never quite get there. So I struggled with that, a lot. And it was a huge struggle to write. It’s a lot harder to write than it is to speak. There’s something about speaking that’s impermanent. You think, “Well, I can do it again next time.” But with a book, I didn’t feel that way.
Sometimes, actually, I have to say, some of the chapters I read and I wept and felt good about. I felt like it wasn’t a great chapter—I let him through. I let Jesus through. But there’s others that I don’t feel that way, and I say, “Agh.” My big struggle was doing justice to him, and doing justice to the material. That sounds a little bit pious, to say it the way I said it there. You understand, I hope.