“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 writes 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.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.