This is the transcript for this episode featuring Tim Keller:
Allen Wolf (00:00):
A quick announcement. If you work in entertainment, you’ll want to check out our new online Just Show Up Book Club. We’ll be gathering together media professionals to listen to and discuss a new book. This is a great way to explore new ideas, increase your knowledge, and get to know others who work in entertainment. There’s no preparation needed. You just need to show up online. For more information, visit navigatinghollywood.org under the Gatherings menu. Again, that’s navigatinghollywood.org under Gatherings.
Welcome to the Navigating Hollywood podcast. My name is Allen Wolf, and I’m a writer, director and producer of feature films, and also an author. Navigating Hollywood encourages and equips entertainment professionals to live relationally and spiritually holistic lives. If you work in entertainment, visit navigatinghollywood.org to discover how you can get involved.
Today, we will be hearing a message from the late New York Times best-selling author, pastor, and speaker, Tim Keller. He authored 31 books that have sold over 6 million copies and have been translated into 29 languages. His legacy continues to inspire and shape the spiritual journeys of countless people. He passed away on May 19, 2023. That was a very sad day for me personally because I’ve known Tim since I was studying filmmaking at New York University. That was when I started attending Redeemer, which was the church he had recently launched with his family in Manhattan. That was unusual at the time because no one was starting new Presbyterian churches in New York City, but the church became very popular and impacted many people’s lives, including my own.
In the early days, the services were so crowded that you had to press through a wall of people to get to the next one, and this all started inside a building that was not air-conditioned. I will forever be grateful for the time I spent with Tim over lunches or meetings to talk about life and faith. Something became obvious to me during my time at Redeemer, and that was Tim’s appreciation for the arts and artists. You would notice that by the people you discovered at Redeemer. I met Broadway actors, filmmakers, members of the Rockettes, performers from the Metropolitan Opera, the Philharmonic, and the ballet company.
I was on my own spiritual journey during that time, which is why I started a group at NYU called Artistic Believers. We gathered to talk about the intersection of faith with film and TV. Many years later, that same passion led me to launch Navigating Hollywood. While I was a student, I wanted to create an evening where you could experience the arts and think about how they connected us to something beyond ourselves. So I produced and directed a one-night show in an off-Broadway theater that included music, dancing, film, theater, and the visual arts. I asked Tim Keller if he could be a part of the show and talk with the audience about the meaning of the arts, and he said yes. He chose the topic: Why are there artists and why do we need them? I recently found the original recording of Tim’s message, and you’ll now get to hear it for the first time since that evening in 1993.
Tim Keller (03:38):
Why are there artists and why do we need them so much? And I’m serious. Why are there so many artists and why do we need them so much? Martin Luther, believe it or not, he said, “The poor need beauty as well as bread. That’s why they’re so wretched,” he says, “because they’re starved from both. Go look and see where they live. They’ve got neither bread nor beauty, and if you’re really going to pull them out of their wretchedness, you need to give them both.” Now, that’s true, but why? Why do we need art? Let me give you a theory. It’s actually a very complex theory. I’ll just present it very briefly. The theory is that we need art so much because we’re cut off from something and art is our effort to try to get back to it, to try to get ahold of it.
Animal lovers know that human beings are a lot more unhappy than animals. On the other hand, animals don’t create art. Why are human beings so unhappy? They’re unhappy because we disappoint ourselves so much. We want meaning in life, something that animals don’t need. We want to believe that love is real. We want to believe that there’s such a thing as beauty. We long for an excellence and a harmony and a beauty that we just can never seem to produce. That’s why we’re always extremely unhappy. We’re always disappointed in ourselves. And not only that, animals don’t seem to have that much problem with death, that Dylon Thomas says we rage against the dying of a light.
Why? What’s so unnatural about death? We find it unnatural because we look at death and we say, “I know I’m more than chemicals and tissue. I know there must be more to me than this. I know there must be more than I’m achieving right now.” When Leonard Bernstein in his very, very famous set of television programs talking about music, I remember them because I was about eight years old at the time, and he was talking to kids and I watched some of them. And at one point he says, “When you listen to Beethoven…” I don’t know what an eight-year-old kid would get out of this. But he said, “When you listen to Beethoven, you feel that something is right in the world, something that checks out thoroughly, something that follows its own laws consistently, something that you can trust, something that will never let you down.”
Now, what’s Bernstein saying? You know what he’s saying? He’s saying if you ask me intellectually, do I believe that there’s really meaning in life, do I believe that there’s a God? Do I believe that there’s something that I can trust? Do I believe that I’m more than chemicals and tissue? Do I believe that when I die, that’s it? Do I believe there’s more to it than that? He said, intellectually, I don’t know that I believe any of that. But when I get in the presence of great art, I feel there’s meaning in life. I feel there’s a bigger reality than just what I taste, touch, hear, see, and smell. I feel there’s meaning in life and that there’s life beyond the grave and that I’m more than just chemicals and beauty is real and love is not an illusion.
When you get into the presence of art, it tells you there’s something more to me. I’m more than just an animal. I’m more than just a set of chemicals. But intellectually, Bernstein says, “Even though I get close to that realm, I sense that there’s a realm like that out there, a bigger world than just nature, yet I don’t believe it, yet I feel it.” That’s really true what art does to you.
Goethe talked about Sehnsucht, blissful longing, that when you get in the presence of art, you sense that there really is another world, that there’s something I’m cut off from. There’s a gap I’m trying to bridge, but I can’t get back to it. Well, now the question comes up, why? Why do we feel that way? Why do we feel that way?
The Christian answer is because we were made in the image of God. Like God, we’re rational, so we need a reason for things. Like God, we’re personal, so we have to have love. Like God, we’re eternal, so we need to last and feel we last and count. And like God, we are creative because God’s a creative, and therefore we need beauty, and we need to see that we can bring something out of nothing. Now that’s the Christian answer. What’s the only other answer? The only other answer is that all of these feelings that the animals don’t have, that we are eternal, that we are creative, that we are personal and rational are complete illusions.
On September 19, 1931, on Addison’s Walk at Magdalen College in Oxford, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien took a walk. Lewis, and talking to both professors there, Lewis was a complete atheist, but he loved art. Tolkien was trying to get across the importance of Christianity. And on the way, Tolkien asked Lewis, “Well, let me ask you something. How do you feel when you read the best literature that you know of?” And, of course, Lewis’s favorite literature was Northern Myths, the Norse Myths, the Germanic, the Icelandic epics. And he said, “Well, when I get in the presence of these things, when I read these things, these great myths,” he says, “I feel that there’s something right in the world. I feel that there really is meaning. I feel that I’m more than just biology. I’m more than just tissue and chemicals.”
And so Tolkien says, “Well, how do you know that world doesn’t exist?” And he says, “Well, art makes you feel it. Art shows that I desire it, but just because I desire it doesn’t mean that it’s there, right?” Tolkien says, “Yeah, but let me tell you something. What if, what if there was one myth that actually became a historical fact? What if, at some spot, all art does is get you close to that realm? But what if, at some spot, that realm actually broke into history? What if there was a historical fact that was also a myth? What if there was a myth that was also a fact?”
And Lewis says, “Well, that would be something.” Tolkien says, “That is what the gospel is. That’s what Christianity claims happened when Jesus was born. Our great captain has opened a cleft in the pitiless walls of the world and he bids us come through.” Well, at that point, Lewis wasn’t convinced, but Lewis suddenly realized the magnitude of the claim of Christianity, that there really is a world out there that art makes you feel is there, but you can’t know just through art. And there’s a place where you could get in. Lewis began to realize, well, if that’s true, and so he began to study the historical case for Christianity, and within a few weeks, he had become a Christian. And he changed his mind about one thing, and he wrote this later on.
He said, “Originally, he knew through great art that you felt like there was meaning in life. You felt like there was a bigger world out there. You felt like you weren’t just going to rot when you died. There was something beyond the grave. You felt that there was something about me that’s eternal. You felt all these things, but I thought just because you desired them doesn’t mean that they existed.” Then he began to realize he was wrong. “If you’re hungry, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get food, but it does mean that you live in a universe where there are eatable substances. And if a duckling wants to swim, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be able to, but it does mean there’s such a thing as water.” And if we find in ourselves and we especially see it in our desires for things that no natural happiness can actually fulfill,” he says, “that means that you must have been created for a world beyond the nature, beyond nature, a world beyond the world that you see right here.”
Artists, whether they’re believing or disbelieving, whether they’re in despair, whether they’re in hope, whether they know it or not, they’re witnesses to the reality of that other world. And if, whether you’re an artist or not, you finally come to understand that you are a work of art and not an accident, that you have been created by a love that created the worlds, and if that one who loves you, that great artist loves you with all the kind of venerable and exacting love of an artist for his or her work, and if you put yourself in his arms through Jesus Christ, that’s where the hole is between that other world and this world, he’ll continue to make you even more and more a thing of beauty. Art bears witness to the gospel. Christianity says art is extremely important, and that’s the reason why. Thank you.
Allen Wolf (12:31):
If you appreciated Tim’s thoughts, I suggest you check out his many books or his talks where he explores faith. We’ll include links in the show notes. If you work in entertainment, check out the complimentary courses and other resources available at navigatinghollywood.org. Please follow us and leave us a review so others can discover this podcast. You can find our other shows, transcripts, links, and more at navigatinghollywood.org. I look forward to being with you next time.