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Tim Keller defends praise of Stephen Colbert, says Christian critics should read Col. 4:5-6

Tim Keller, Timothy Keller
Dr. Timothy Keller, the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, speaks at Movement Day Global Cities at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City on Thursday, October 27, 2016. |

Tim Keller has responded to criticism after praising "The Late Show" host Stephen Colbert, claiming critics need to better understand the teaching of Colossians 4:5-6 about being "wise in the way you act toward outsiders."

In Friday's episode of the CBS late-night talk show, singer and model Dua Lipa asked Colbert about the role faith plays in his life and how his faith and comedy overlap. The comedian said his faith was "connected to the idea of love and sacrifice being somehow related and giving yourself to other people. He added that "death is not defeat."

"Ultimately, [I hope] with us all being mortal, the faith will win out at the end. I certainly hope when I get to Heaven, Jesus has a sense of humor," he joked. "I'm a Christian and a Catholic, and I always connected to the idea of love and sacrifice being somehow related — giving yourself to other people. And death is not defeat."

Colbert quoted Robert Hayden, who said: "We must not be frightened or cajoled into accepting evil as our deliverance from evil. We must keep struggling to maintain our humanity though monsters of abstraction threaten and police us." 

"So if there is some relationship between my faith and my comedy, it's that no matter what happens, you are never defeated," he concluded. "You must understand and see this in the light of eternity and find some way to love and laugh with each other."

Keller, the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and Redeemer City to City, wrote on Facebook Friday night that Colbert's answer was "a skillful example of how to be a Christian in the public square,"

"It is a form of witness that culture can handle," Keller said. "We should desire to have more Christians in these spaces and give them grace as they operate."

"Please do not make the error: if you cite person X at all you must answer for everything person X ever did or said," Keller continued, predicting that some would find reason to criticize his praise of the 57-year-old comedian, who previously hosted Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."

"That is not fair. I am merely saying, this is a winsome way to answer this question that we should desire to emulate."

Keller's response drew pushback from Christian conservatives, as polls have shown that Colbert is viewed as one of America's most liberal late-night talk show hosts. Critics online claimed that Colbert is "not a Christian" and that Keller's praise was "foolish" and "juvenile."

In a follow-up post on Saturday, Keller quoted Colossians 4:5-6, which reads: "Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone."

"The recent post I made about Stephen Colbert's partial answer about his faith and the ensuing comments has shown me American Christians still have a long way to go on understanding Col 4:5-6, how to be 'wise in the ways you act towards outsiders?'" Keller wrote.

"This is called contextualization. What is contextualization? It's adapting your message to be understandable and compelling to particular hearers without compromising the truth in any way."

Keller gave six reasons why Christians should "contextualize."

"First, because everyone already does it. As soon as you choose a language to speak in, and vocabulary, and illustrations, and arguments, you are adapting to some human hearers more than others," Keller stated. 

"Second, because Paul contextualizes in his speeches. Cf. how he presents to Bible believers in Acts 13, blue-collar pagans in Acts 14, educated pagans in Acts 17. Third, because the Biblical writers contextualized. See John's use of Greek philosophy's 'Logos' in John 1; see the use of the Hittite suzerain treaty form in the book of Deuteronomy; see Paul's contextualization of the gospel to Greek and Jewish cultural narratives in 1 Cor 1:22-24."

The fourth reason, Keller said, is because Paul calls for "contextualization without compromise" in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

"Fifth, because the incarnation itself was a kind of contextualizing so we could understand —the Word made flesh," he stated. "Sixth, keep in mind you can't and shouldn't say everything every time when bearing a public witness to your faith. In Acts 17 Paul spoke of judgment but not of the cross or of how to get forgiveness. So it wasn't a full gospel presentation. It was laying a foundation for talking to people later. Unless Christians are completely going to pull themselves out of the public square we will need to contextualize. Let's do so well."

Keller, the co-founder of The Gospel Coalition, was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in May 2020 but was told by doctors last December that his health had seen "remarkable" improvement in the months following his diagnosis.

In a series of tweets posted on her husband's official Twitter page, Kathy Keller thanked supporters for their prayers and shared an update regarding the pastor's condition.

"Through God's mercy and your prayers, there has been remarkable improvement in the last 18 months — in fact, his doctors are using words like 'fantastic' and 'dramatic' to describe the progress. Your prayers are working!" she wrote. 

In an April 2021 interview with The Christian Post, Keller also expressed gratitude for his health despite mentioning that pancreatic cancer is typically an aggressive disease that often claims its victims within a year.    

"My wife Kathy and I are pretty grateful," he said in the interview. "It looks like I've got more time than we thought when we originally got the diagnosis."

The pastor told CP that no matter what lies ahead, he's "ready for anything."

"What the future holds, I don't know. Pray that I would have years and not months left, and that the chemotherapy would continue to be effective. But we are ready for whatever God decides for me. We're spiritually ready," Keller contended.

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