...entrust to reliable people... 2 Tim. 2:2


Contextualization in action: a video review

by Al, serving with Entrust in Asia

Tim Keller video
Video: Tim Keller's "Our Identity: The Christian Alternative to Late Modernity's Story"

In his brief 35-minute message, Dr. Keller does an excellent job critiquing the way modern western culture would have us find our identity, which is especially relevant given the public debate in recent years regarding sexual identity. He then suggests a Christian alternative as being the only viable solution in our quest for finding our true self. In this article, I will discuss some of the ways Keller contextualizes his message for his audience.

Dr. Keller begins by defining identity as both a sense of self (that durable inner core that remains the same in different circumstances) and a sense of worth (that which makes us feel significant and valued). He then presents his main overarching thesis: We all need someone outside of us whom we esteem to name us (give us our identity), and Jesus Christ is the only one worthy of doing that, due to the fact that he died for each one of us. Keller uses John 10:1-15 as scriptural support.

According to Keller, more “traditional” cultures would have no problem accepting the claim that we all need someone from the outside to assign us our unique place (i.e. identity) in society. In these cultures, the individual is given an identity and expected to sublimate his or her personal agenda for the good of the community. But modern western cultures would be appalled by such a notion. They would maintain that it’s up to the individual to find his or her own identity. Self-assertion is the extolled virtue in these non-traditional cultures, whereas self-denial is valued in traditional cultures. In traditional cultures, the members make money and procreate in order to build up the community. In modern non-traditional ones, they are a means to establishing each person’s individual identity.

"Keller speaks to his audience
where they live.

As a result, they are eager to listen to what he has to say."

Now let’s turn our attention to how Dr. Keller contextualizes his short message for his audience of young students at a Christian college:

1. He chooses a topic extremely relevant to young people today. Keller speaks to his audience where they live. As a result, they are eager to listen to what he has to say.

2. Keeping in mind that he is speaking at a chapel service, he realizes his hearers have probably heard countless Bible messages. He immediately puts them at ease by stating he won’t be giving an extended expository address. Throughout his talk, he does not overwhelm them with scripture passages.

3. In light of Wheaton’s academic reputation, his presentation is well organized with points and subpoints. He also makes several references to books, poetry and magazines. His clear logic is inescapable as he methodically argues his case.

4. Given the age of his listeners, Keller also ties into the world of film, even mentioning Star Trek … twice … which makes us wonder if Dr. Keller is a closet Trekkie!

5. Since good illustrations are appropriate for just about any learning context, Keller uses them liberally. He includes at least three personal examples from his family background, a memorable meeting with a well-known Christian leader, and the struggles of a 15-year-old girl in his former youth group.

Dr. Keller is a master contextualizer. He firmly holds his audience in mind as he chooses his subject matter and selects the most effective way to present his arguments. Those of us seeking to further the cause of Christ in various cultures around the world can learn a lot from him. Thank you, Doctor!



This article first appeared in the summer 2018 Engage.