Dr. Craig Keener, renowned New Testament scholar at Asbury Seminary, joins me on the Thrive with Asbury Seminary Podcast today. In this episode, we talk about it all: his journey from being an atheist to experiencing the undeniable presence of God, how he became a scholar, his almost impossible romance with his wife Médine, their work with racial reconciliation, and after writing more than 20 books, why he keeps writing.
*The views expressed in this podcast don’t necessarily reflect the views of Asbury Seminary.
Dr. Craig Keener, F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Seminary
Before coming to Asbury in July 2011, Dr. Keener was professor of New Testament at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University, where he taught for 15 years; before that time he was professor at Hood Theological Seminary.
Craig has authored 28 books, six of which have won book awards in Christianity Today, of which altogether more than one million copies are in circulation. His IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (1993), now in its 2nd revised edition (2014), has sold more than half a million copies (including editions in several languages, including more than fifty thousand copies in Korean). The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, for which Craig authored most of the New Testament notes (and which John Walton and Craig edited), won Bible of the Year in the 2017 Christian Book Awards, and also won Book of the Year in the Religion: Christianity category of the International Book Awards.
His recent books include Galatians, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Spirit Hermeneutics (Eerdmans, 2016); The Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking (Baker Academic, 2016); Acts: A Exegetical Commentary (4 vols., 4559 pages; Baker Academic, 2012-2015); Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011); The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Eerdmans, 2009); The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Eerdmans, 2009); Romans (Cascade, 2009); 1-2 Corinthians (Cambridge, 2005); The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Hendrickson/Baker Academic, 2003).
He has written for various journals, both academic (e.g., Journal for the Study of the New Testament; Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus; Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism; Bulletin for Biblical Research; A.M.E. Church Review) and popular (e.g., Christianity Today; Charisma; Christian History; regularly, A.M.E. Zion Missionary Seer; Christian Trends). He has published more than 70 academic articles and more than 170 popular ones. He wrote “2 Corinthians” in The New Interpreter’s Bible One Volume Commentary, the article on the Holy Spirit for The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, and has published other popular materials with Abingdon, InterVarsity, and Zondervan. He is coeditor of the New Covenant Commentary Series and of Global Voices: Reading the Bible in the Majority World, is a consulting editor for the Africa Study Bible, and is the New Testament editor for The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Zondervan, 2016). He is editor of The Bulletin for Biblical Research (2015-2019) and recently served as program chair for the Institute for Biblical Research (2010-12).
Craig is married to Médine Moussounga Keener, who holds a Ph.D. from University of Paris 7. She was a refugee for 18 months in her nation of Congo (their story together appears in the book Impossible Love, Chosen Books, 2016), and together Craig and Médine work for ethnic reconciliation in the U.S. and Africa. Craig was ordained in an African-American denomination in 1991 and for roughly a decade before moving to Wilmore was one of the associate ministers in an African-American megachurch in Philadelphia. In recent years he has taught in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and in connection with various denominations.
Heidi Wilcox, host of the Thrive Podcast
Writer, podcaster, and social media manager, Heidi Wilcox shares stories of truth, justice, healing and hope. She is best known as the host of Spotlight, (especially her blooper reel) highlighting news, events, culturally relevant topics and stories of the ways alumni, current students and faculty are attempting something big for God. If you can’t find her, she’s probably cheering on her Kentucky Wildcats, enjoying a cup of coffee, reading or spending time with her husband, Wes.
Heidi Wilcox: Hey everyone, welcome to this week’s episode of the Thrive With Asbury Seminary Podcast where every other week we bring you conversations with authors, thought leaders, and people just like you, to help you connect with where your passion meets the world’s deep need. This week on the podcast we’re talking with Doctor Craig Keener, F. M. and Ada Thompson professor of biblical studies at Asbury Seminary. In this episode, we talk about his journey from being an atheist, to experiencing the undeniable presence of God, how he became a scholar, and after writing more than 20 books why he keeps writing. Let’s listen.
Heidi Wilcox: I’m really excited to get to talk to you today, and I want to talk you, a lot of people know you as a New Testament scholar, that’s what you’re known for. And so, I want to talk about that too. But I also want to talk to you about what makes you you, and just kind of get to know you as a person, because a lot of people they don’t have the opportunity sit down with Doctor Craig Keener, or they haven’t had you in class, and things like that. And so, we’ve talked a little bit in different interviews and stuff, so I know a little bit, but I’m excited to get to share that with other people.
Craig Keener: I actually think people will be … The books and Craig Keener the New Testament scholar will be more useful for them than Craig Keener the person. But I don’t mind sharing about me as a person, because brothers and sisters share.
Heidi Wilcox: Yeah. Yeah. Let’s get started. Tell me how you came to know Jesus, because you were an atheist before?
Craig Keener: Yes.
Heidi Wilcox: What started your faith journey, and how did you come to know Jesus as Lord?
Craig Keener: You know, I had some Methodist cousins who were praying for our family, and somebody in our family had warned them off from trying to witness to us, so they were just praying. And I can see it really goes back further than what I saw at the time. But at the time, I said I was an atheist, because I thought I could explain everything naturalistically. I think I was maybe around 11.
Heidi Wilcox: So, you knew this from the very beginning?
Craig Keener: No. No, I wouldn’t say from the beginning. I mean, I didn’t think about it in the beginning. I think at least around age nine I thought that was the smart thing to be. And I thought I could explain our existence without recourse to the hypothesis of a God. That’s how I put it, which is really … I realize now, I was just a nasty little brat. I wasn’t an advanced atheist or something. Anyway, around 11, my grandmother, who was Catholic, she gave me a good historic argument. She said, well what about a first cause? I said, no, if you have infinite time, it is postulated infinite regression. You can keep going back further and further, and of course modern physics we know that there isn’t infinite time. But anyway, I didn’t know that, I was 11. I kept this up. Around the age of 13, when I started reading Plato, I started-
Heidi Wilcox: Wow, that’s amazing.
Craig Keener: Well, I was reading him in English. I wanted to read Greek, but I couldn’t get anybody to teach it to me, so I was just learning pieces here and there. I was reading Plato, and he was talking about the immortality of the soul. And at the same time I was reading some stuff in mathematics about infinity. And thinking about eternity, thinking about immortality, Plato’s argument based on the pre-existence of the soul I did not find persuasive. And therefore, I was left with a big conundrum, because I thought I could explain the rest of the universe without recourse to the hypothesis of a God. But I couldn’t explain my own consciousness as an individual being.
Craig Keener: Here I am, I’m made in the image of God, but I didn’t perceive it that way. And I didn’t see anyway that is as a finite being, which I clearly was, I could be immortal. And at the time, I was also hanging out around this medical lab, and they wheeled a dead body past me. I’m starting to think about death and the reality of these things. So I started saying, if there’s a God, Gods, or anything, please show me. And yet, the best I could come to based on my reasoning, which I think there was grace involved in that reasoning, but the best I could come to in my own thoughts was the only way that a finite being could have immortality was if it was somehow connected to something infinite that would guarantee that immortality.
Craig Keener: And the infinite would have to be really loving to even care about a finite being. And wow, even if that being was loving, why would that being love me seeing that I was an atheist, and I had already blasphemed that being? So one day I was on my way home from school, and there were a couple Fundamental Baptists who stopped me on the street corner. And I argued with them for 45 minutes, because what they were doing, they were trying to show me from the Bible. I was trying to be polite, that’s why I didn’t walk off at that point. They were trying to show me from the Bible how to be made right with God.
Craig Keener: And finally, I didn’t want to be rude, but I said you guys, you keep quoting the Bible, but I don’t believe the Bible, I’m an atheist. So why are you quoting this to me? I thought 80% of the people in this country, at that time it was about 80%, 80% of the people in this country claimed to be Christian. And yet, I can’t tell by how they live that it makes a difference in their lives.
Heidi Wilcox: Right. Right.
Craig Keener: I was distinguishing nominal and real, that wasn’t on my map. I said well, if I ever believe there is a God, I would give God everything, and it looks to me like nobody … Most of the people around me don’t take God that seriously, some of them actually did, but most of them didn’t.
Heidi Wilcox: Right. Now, were your parents Christians?
Craig Keener: No.
Heidi Wilcox: No, okay.
Craig Keener: No. No, my mom was an agnostic, and my dad was against organized religion, but I didn’t even know those things yet, because we just didn’t talk about religion at all.
Heidi Wilcox: Right. Right. Right.
Craig Keener: They weren’t trying to impose it on me, they just didn’t … We just didn’t talk about religion.
Heidi Wilcox: Right.
Craig Keener: Now, my grandparents were Christians. My mothers side were Catholic, and my fathers side were Methodist.
Heidi Wilcox: Okay.
Craig Keener: I was arguing with them, and when I saw they didn’t have anything other than the Bible to hit me with, I said okay, if there’s a God, where did the dinosaur bones come from? Because I didn’t know.
Heidi Wilcox: Right. That’s a good question.
Craig Keener: I didn’t know much about Christianity, except I knew they believed in the Trinity, they believed in Jesus, they believed in creation, and they believed in gargoyles. I didn’t know a lot. You ask a stupid question, you get a stupid answer. They said the devil put them there to fool us. Yes.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh my.
Craig Keener: But they weren’t trained in paleontology. They also weren’t trained in apologetics, but they weren’t paleontology, and they weren’t the right people to ask that question. But they were the people who were available to bring the Gospel. I’m eternally grateful that they were out there. What they had shared with me from the Bible that I didn’t believe in actually was really the Gospel message. And so I said, I’m out of here. I’ll see you later. I started walking away. And they gently, one of them … I could give his name, but one of them gently called after me, you’re going to burn in hell forever because you’re hardening your heart against God, you’ll become incapable of repentance.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh my goodness.
Craig Keener: That’s what I needed. But you know, that’s not that recommended way to do friendship Evangelism or something.
Heidi Wilcox: Right. Yeah, no.
Craig Keener: But I was walking home trembling, and I got to my bedroom, and I’d studied different religions. I’d made fun of Christians before. I had been more respectful towards some religions than others, but not towards Christianity. But I was there in my bedroom, and the Holy Spirit was working me over. I had wanted empirical evidence, and that’s great, I mean that’d make for a great testimony too if I could say like C.S. Lewis, or somebody, or William Lane Craig, or other people I think who work their way through evidence. But for me, the kind of evidence God gave me was something that humbled my intellect. He gave me the evidence of his presence. It was an existential encounter, and it was something that was completely undeniable. It was something I’d never experienced in my life before, and yet it was something that I couldn’t really use to persuade somebody else who hadn’t experienced it. I could only invite them into the same experience.
Craig Keener: I struggled maybe 45 more minutes, struggled there back and forth, but the presence was undeniable. God wasn’t going to let me alone until I made a decision. There’s no way, when I’ve already thought if there is a God … I gave Christianity maybe a 2% chance of being real, but I didn’t want to stake my eternity on even 2%. And so, here it turns out is God has revealed himself in the Gospel of Christ to me, and I have a choice, and there’s no way I’m going to tell him to get lost, and take a chance for all eternity when God is revealing himself to me. Finally, my knees buckled out from under me. I said God, okay, I don’t understand how this dying and rising again of Jesus can save me, but if that’s what you say, I’ll believe it. I mean, they talked about being saved, they talked about being right with you, I don’t know how to do that. So God, if you want to save me, you’re going to have to do it yourself.
Craig Keener: And all of a sudden I felt something rushing through my body like I had never felt before. I jumped up, scared out of my mind. And I thought, either God just came inside of me, or he’s mad at me for being an atheist for so long that he threw a gargoyle into me. My theology wasn’t instantly changed.
Heidi Wilcox: I love how God’s grace … It doesn’t meet everyone like it met you, but it meets all of us how we need it the most.
Craig Keener: Yes. Yeah. I would love to have been raised in a Christian home, and have that background, which I had to work harder to absorb later because I didn’t have it in my childhood. I said, well okay, I don’t know if I’m saved or not. I really think I was at that point, but my theology of it wasn’t sound.
Heidi Wilcox: Well, you had no foundation or anything to go on.
Craig Keener: Yeah. So I said, I don’t know if I’m saved or not, but God … Anyway. I’ve always said, if I know that there’s a God, I’ll give God everything, because you made me, I belong to you, so I’m going to be a Christian no matter what. And so, back then Gideon’s used to give out pocket New Testaments. I had it from years earlier, I’d not done anything with it. But I kept rooting through my room until I found it, so I could start reading it, and start finding out about this God. And then I also decided I’d better find a church. There was this one pastor who used to see me sometimes running to school in the rain, and he would give me a ride. And so, I always thought if I ever visit a church just out of courtesy to the Christians, that’ll be the one to visit. It was also the nearest one to my house.
Heidi Wilcox: Yeah, but what a simple act of kindness to you that later had such a profound influence on you.
Craig Keener: Yeah. I mean, nowadays you don’t want to accept rides from strangers. But he was taking his daughter to school. She was a year behind me in school. Yeah. Anyway, there’s more details. So, I visited the church that Sunday, and everybody was friendly. They invited me back that night. I was a little strange. I was … I mean, I had socks that didn’t match, I was half shaven, now of course I have a beard. But when I went there, I got there too early at first, and then came back later and Sunday school was in progress. My big thing was I wanted to be an astrophysicist. I was afraid that if I became a Christian I had to dismiss science. That was so hard on me. The Sunday school lesson was on how science backs the Bible. Now, whether or not they got everything right on that-
Heidi Wilcox: I love that.
Craig Keener: … it was an encouragement to me that I could still love science, I could still pursue science. I didn’t turn out to be an astrophysicist.
Heidi Wilcox: Right, but one does not preclude the other.
Craig Keener: Right. One does not preclude the other. I did get to learn more about astrophysics since then. But anyway, that encouraged me. They invited me back to church that night. I came back. And that night people were praying after the service at the alter. I just was doing it like … I didn’t know what it was supposed to look like, and I didn’t know if I was really … If I really counted as a Christian yet. But I was committed to follow it. So, I had my hands folded, because I thought that’s the way you’re supposed to pray. The pastor tapped me on the shoulder, and he said now, are you sure that you are saved? I said no.
Heidi Wilcox: I love the honesty.
Craig Keener: I was so glad he did that, because I thought okay, maybe this is what a hypocrite is, somebody who tries to be a Christian, but they’re not. I don’t know if I’m real or not. He took me aside and prayed with me. It was basically what had happened two days before. This time I felt the same overwhelming sense of God’s presence. There was no way that I could praise him enough unless he gave me the words to do it. And God knows lots of languages, right? So, it starts coming out in another language. It could’ve come out in English, it would’ve been … But it starts coming out in another language. And of course, I hadn’t read the Bible. I didn’t know what that was. I didn’t know there was a name for that.
Heidi Wilcox: That’s amazing.
Craig Keener: It was punctuated with this deep cathartic laughter. This was before people started talking about that phenomenon, but it was just joy, the joy of the Holy Spirit, joy like I’d never experienced in my life before. It was a total different … Again, I know it doesn’t happen to everybody, but I needed something to be able to look back on.
Heidi Wilcox: An anchor point.
Craig Keener: Yeah. Oh, I had so much growing to do from there.
Heidi Wilcox: I think everybody who becomes a Christian does. I’ve had similar feelings, am I sure? I’ve asked Jesus, but I don’t always feel … So, that was a-
Craig Keener: Oh, I don’t always feel.
Heidi Wilcox: Yes. You know, but I can identify in some ways with what you’re saying.
Craig Keener: It was just overwhelming right up front at the beginning. Then there were other things, like when people would pray for the sick and they’d actually get healed. That blew my mind, because it’s one thing to believe God does spiritual things, but to believe he does material things, that was another level. It took me a long time to get a hold of that. I started sharing Christ with people.
Heidi Wilcox: And you were 15 when this all happened?
Craig Keener: I was 15. Yeah. I was 15. I started sharing Christ with people, and people actually started accepting Christ.
Heidi Wilcox: Yeah.
Craig Keener: About 50 of them before I finished high school.
Heidi Wilcox: That’s amazing.
Craig Keener: Now, a few of them were my peers, most of them were not in the high school. I didn’t really know exactly what I was doing. I did try to follow up, but I didn’t really discipled them that well. I discipled a few of them, but how am I going to disciple them when I don’t know what I’m doing?
Heidi Wilcox: Right.
Craig Keener: But, I also after a while, and especially in a crisis time in my life, I realized okay, I don’t know the Bible that well. The little kids in Sunday school knew it better than I did. So, I started studying it really intensively. I got to a place where I realized, if I read 40 chapters a day I can read through the New Testament every week, or I can read through the Bible once a month. So, I’m trying to catch up with the kids in Sunday school. But that laid a good foundation, and eventually … After a few weeks of reading through the New Testament every week, the isolated verses that I had started memorizing were no longer isolated. Like, here’s an important verse, and here’s another one with blank space in between. I began to think in context, think of the whole flow of this letter of Paul, or this Gospel, or whatever. Yeah, it was wonderful. But eventually, what that also provoked was a recognition that I needed some background information.
Heidi Wilcox: Right. So, is this what led you to want to be a scholar?
Craig Keener: Eventually.
Heidi Wilcox: Okay.
Craig Keener: I mean, initially I was intuitively reading the New Testament in light of the ancient Greek and Roman things that I’d read before, before I was a Christian, which I gave up after I was a Christian for a long time until I realized I could use these.
Heidi Wilcox: Right, because they’re helpful. Right?
Craig Keener: Yeah. Yeah.
Heidi Wilcox: To different writers, you know …
Craig Keener: Oh, Tacitus, which I read when I was 12 was so valuable. Plato, I read too much of Plato into Paul, got some things wrong that way, came out with a semi caustic state for a while. But Greek mythology, I was reading the Iliad when I was 12 also, that didn’t help me so much. The first time I’m reading Acts 14, and there’s this … The people in that area are calling Paul and Barnabas, Zeus and Hermes, because they’ve done a miracle. The thing I’m thinking immediately is of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Baucis and Philemon. And then I get to Genesis 6, I’m like oh no, this was plagiarized from the Greek myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha. Of course, it’s older than the Deucalion and Pyrrha myth, and the ancient near eastern forms of it are older than the Greek form. I’m struggling with all this as a young Christian, but these are intuitive things. I’m saying I don’t need background initially, because that would be added to the Bible, but it’s not really adding to the Bible, because we intuitively read it in light of our context. What I needed was the original context, because there’s some things that the writers didn’t explain to their audience, because they didn’t have to.
Heidi Wilcox: They already knew it. Yeah.
Craig Keener: Yeah. I mean, it’s like Mark explains a Jewish custom in Mark Chapter 7, pharisaic custom, and then Matthew, who’s writing to a Jewish audience in Matthew 15, has got the same material, but he lives out the explanation, because they don’t need it. Often writers presupposed this information, it’s actually part of the meaning. Now, not all background is that important, but some of it really helps us understand it better.
Heidi Wilcox: Why is it so important that we read the Bible in context as 21st century people? And how can we do that too?
Craig Keener: Yeah. I mean, in a lot of cultures their intuition may be closer to right. If you live in a rural African village, which probably most hearers of this podcast don’t, but if you live in a rural African village, or you’re a pastoral nomad, Genesis is going to make more sense to you in some terms. I mean, the ancient [inaudible 00:21:59] background is important, but there’s some things that my wife growing up in a small African visit understood intuitively. When we were doing devotions together in Genesis, she was able to explain to me these weird child births. I was like, I believe in the Bible, but how could a baby come out like that? She’s like, babies do come out like that.
Heidi Wilcox: Yeah. Wow. That’s amazing.
Craig Keener: There’s some things that if you’re part of that culture it makes sense. There were things that from the Greek world I understood intuitively in the New Testament, because of my background in Greek literature. But in terms of the Jewish context, oh I had so much to learn. And like the symbols in Revelation, I had not the slightest idea what to do with Revelation initially. I mean, obviously reading the Old Testament helps, that’s a major part of the background, and then reading some Jewish apocalyptic literature, like First Enoch. Yeah. I had so much to learn.
Craig Keener: What eventually … Initially, I was like okay, we can’t say we need background, but that was like saying okay, we don’t need translations, we just read it in the Greek and the Holy Spirit will give us meaning. Initially, I was saying okay, women have to wear head coverings, everybody has to greet one another with Holy kisses, and my parents need to arrange my marriage, although I’m not going to tell them that yet. But the more I read through the Scriptures, the more I realized they were taking certain things for granted.
Craig Keener: And it really hit me one day as I was rereading Romans, got to Romans 1:7, and Paul says he’s writing this to the church, to the Saints in Rome, to the believers in Rome. I’m like oh boy, if I take this verse as seriously as I take 323, or 623, or whatever, if I take this verse seriously, this is a letter to the church in Rome and I need to read the rest of the letter that way. I need to take into account that Paul is addressing things in the church in Rome. When Paul, toward the end of the letter, commends Phoebe, or greets his friends in Rome, I don’t have to allegorize those, and make those into some symbols for today. These are his friends. That gave me a new window on how to take all of the text seriously, and try to begin to read it consistently.
Craig Keener: To do that, I realized okay, I’m going to really have to dig into the background more. I read one book on Judaism hoping that would solve everything, and everything was fine until I read my second book on Judaism, and they contradicted some things in the first one. By this time I was in Bible college, I called my professor at home I was so distressed. I don’t recommend you do that, now that I’m a professor. I think it’s the only time I did that with a professor in college, or seminary, or doctoral work. But he said, oh just keep reading, you’ll eventually learn enough. Oh boy.
Heidi Wilcox: Right. So, up until the time you went to Bible college, were you learning all of this on your own?
Craig Keener: I started learning Greek. I’d been starting to learn some on my own, but I really started learning it more deliberately at this point. I got a Greek interlinear, which helps with the vocabulary, not necessarily with the grammar. But then I started Greek and Hebrew my freshman year at Bible college. And the first three weeks, I knew all the Greek words.
Heidi Wilcox: Wow. Wow.
Craig Keener: That helped me, but I still had a lot to learn. It was so much. I started seeing the need for the background. I realized okay, the teachers don’t know all the background, so they can’t teach it to me, somebody needs to supply it to the teachers. All I wanted, I wanted a commentary that would just give me the background. I could figure out the context on my own. Just give me the background verse-by-verse, or passage-by-passage, and then I’ll just go out and preach. That’s all I need. I wasn’t going to go to seminary or anything.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh, wow.
Craig Keener: But no, I shouldn’t say that, right? I’m a seminary professor. That’s the way I felt. I just wanted to go out and preach, but I needed the background. And so, I ended up doing some graduate work at the state university on ancient near east, and then my Greek being much better than my Hebrew I ended up in New Testament, so I went to seminary, went from there to Duke University to do my PhD. And so, toward the end of my PhD at Duke in New Testament, where I minored in Greco-Roman antiquity and in early Judaism, so I really put the focus on the background. I decided by the time that I finish this, if nobody has produced a background commentary like that, I’m going to do it.
Heidi Wilcox: And you did it, right?
Craig Keener: I did. Yeah. I proposed it to InterVarsity Press, I was involved with the InterVarsity fellowship there, and I wrote an article for Evangelicals for Social Action on James and non-violence. And then somebody read that from InterVarsity and contacted me. So, I wrote … I proposed the background commentary to them. But, I was really getting nervous toward the time that I was about to graduate, because I didn’t have a teaching position yet. There were not a whole lot of teaching positions available. One major denomination had just purged its seminary, so there were a lot of senior professors out looking for jobs, and there were-
Heidi Wilcox: Tough job market.
Craig Keener: Yeah, it was not too good at that time. And none of us who were graduating with our PhD in New Testament at that time had a teaching position yet.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh, wow.
Craig Keener: And this was Duke.
Heidi Wilcox: Yeah.
Craig Keener: I’m sure they would get them now. Well, pretty sure. But anyway, I couldn’t understand. It was like God, you’ve provided for me year-after-year, and I mean the day before I was going to call Duke and tell them I couldn’t come, the money was provided.
Heidi Wilcox: Wow.
Craig Keener: Key moments in my life, it wasn’t because of my great faith, it was God protecting his calling and looking out for me, knowing that … I’m ADHD. So, working in a department store probably would’ve frazzled me.
Heidi Wilcox: It would frazzle me too.
Craig Keener: I mean, a pastor, I would’ve maybe been all right with that, but I still would’ve been pretty frazzled, especially being a big introvert.
Heidi Wilcox: That would be tough.
Craig Keener: Yeah. Although, a lot of pastors are introverts. But, I was like God, what am I going to do? And then one Sunday, a friend told me well, just tell God how much you need. Figure it out, tell God how much you need, and pray specifically. I’m like yeah, I don’t think it works like that. But anyway, I did figure out how much I needed to live on that year, and I thought God, there’s no way I can do this.
Heidi Wilcox: And this was after you graduated?
Craig Keener: Yeah. Actually, it was after … May was graduation, although I was an associate pastor in an African American Baptist Church at that time, so I didn’t-
Heidi Wilcox: Oh right, I want to talk about that if there’s time too.
Craig Keener: I didn’t end up going to my graduation, because it was on a Sunday and I had church responsibilities.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh, wow. Yeah.
Craig Keener: But, I was … So, this was like … I think it was maybe July. I could go back and look in my journal and get the exact date. But somewhere around there, in a Sunday evening, I figured out how much I was going to need to live on that year to keep my apartment, so that I wouldn’t be on the street, and my research files, I had a lot of research, wouldn’t be on the street. Back then, you couldn’t put it all on your laptop.
Heidi Wilcox: Right. Right.
Craig Keener: I didn’t have a laptop. Anyway, I was just … I didn’t know what to do, and I’d been trying to have faith, trying to have faith, but at this point I was like God, unless you do a miracle I’m going to be on the street this year. Less than 24 hours later, InterVarsity Press calls me back, and says we want to do the book, and we’d like to offer you an advance.
Heidi Wilcox: Amazing.
Craig Keener: And it was to the dollar what I decided the night before I needed to live on that year.
Heidi Wilcox: God is so good.
Craig Keener: Yeah.
Heidi Wilcox: Amazing.
Craig Keener: I mean, I don’t experience things like that every day. I mean, God is with me every day, but a lot of days are tedious work. It’s just beautiful when you see God’s faithfulness to what he’s called you to do. That year, I didn’t have a teaching position, because I needed to get that background commentary written.
Heidi Wilcox: But you wrote, yeah.
Craig Keener: Yeah.
Heidi Wilcox: And so, now you’ve written I think 25 books, is that the latest count? That’s what I found.
Craig Keener: Something like that. I haven’t updated it lately.
Heidi Wilcox: Okay. I remember one Summer I was writing press releases, and I felt like every couple weeks you had a new book out, and I was like this is amazing. So, after so many books Doctor Keener, why do you keep writing? I’m not being … What message do you still hope to get out there?
Craig Keener: Well, by the way, the Acts commentary took me about 10 years.
Heidi Wilcox: Yeah.
Craig Keener: So, the books are coming out fast now, but they weren’t coming out fast then, and that was before I was in Asbury. But that was at Palmer Seminary. I know this is an Asbury broadcast, but I do want to give them credit, because they-
Heidi Wilcox: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Craig Keener: … had to put up with me spending 10 years writing one book. I did have a few come out then. But yeah, I don’t know if you’re allowed to say this on a broadcast, but it was like they were constipated for a while, now they’re all coming out.
Heidi Wilcox: I love that.
Craig Keener: Anyway, why do I keep writing? I mean, the background commentary was just something I felt needed to be done. And then, some of the other books … Well, some people said, how do we know the background commentary is accurate? You don’t give us all the documentation. Which I couldn’t give all the documentation or people would actually read the book. I said okay, well I need to start producing the commentaries with all the documentation. And also, the more I dig into it the more I find. And that enabled me to revise the background commentary in 2014. Also, there was some things in prayer I felt I needed to deal with. One of them was my first book, it’s really not well written, but it served a purpose for the time.
Craig Keener: The second one … The first one was on divorce and remarriage. The second one was on Paul’s teaching on women. That came, partly I felt it in prayer, but partly also because I had so many women friends who were called to ministry, and they were just being dissed by people, and put down, and struggling with that in some of the circles that I was, circles that actually … Sometimes circles that affirmed women in ministry on paper-
Heidi Wilcox: To a certain point though. Yes.
Craig Keener: … but didn’t really support it. But also, it was an apologetics issue, because at Duke, there were feminists, some of them were Christian, some of them were not, but the big … It was a big apologetics issue, because my work in the Bible is especially … Well, of course I do literary work, because the Bible is literature. I mean, it’s more than literature, because it’s God’s word, but it’s also given to us in textual form, so you pay attention to its literary form. But also in background that’s the thing that people don’t just get automatically reading it themselves, so that’s what I call background, so I work especially in that.
Craig Keener: But the big apologetics issues at Duke at that time were not historical reliability. I mean, it was with some people, but most of the undergraduates I knew, and some others, the issue was Christianity was racist, sexist and imperialist. And so, answering that sexist issue was like … That was one of the key … This is another reason I wrote it, because that was one of the places where I thought background really makes a big difference in interpretation of the text.
Heidi Wilcox: Yeah, it kind of takes down those arguments, and shows that it wasn’t.
Craig Keener: Yeah. No, Paul was … I mean, for his day, it’s not he was the only progressive voice in his day, but he was on the very progressive end of the spectrum on these questions. And I know I’ve been blasted for that from both sides sometimes. That was actually the most controversial book I ever wrote right there at the beginning of my career.
Heidi Wilcox: Way to start off.
Craig Keener: Yeah. Yeah. And the background commentary, which I had been working on before, actually came out after that one. But then, there were also a couple books I wrote with one of my students there at the African American Seminary where I started teaching once I … After that first year of writing. He and I both had a vision. He had been about to convert to Islam when he heard a voice saying, I am the way, and the truth, and the life. He didn’t even know that was in the Bible.
Heidi Wilcox: Wow.
Craig Keener: He became a follower of Jesus, and he and I worked together on a couple books that were apologetics for say with the nation of Islam, and some other words, were doing. I was teaching there at an African American campus, and these were live issues there. The idea that Christianity is a white mans religion, that’s just not true.
Heidi Wilcox: Right. Right.
Craig Keener: I mean, Aksum in East Africa converted to Christianity about the same time the Roman empire did. It’s just a Eurocentric presentation of the evidence, which I mean today we’ve moved mostly beyond that, but back in the mid 90s that was still a live issue.
Heidi Wilcox: Yeah. Yeah. So, let’s go back to Duke a little bit. That was where you met your wife Médine, although you didn’t know she was your wife at the time.
Craig Keener: Oh, if I’d known she was my wife it would’ve scared her out of her mind. I would’ve gone up, and kissed her, and proposed to her. And she would’ve said, you are out of your mind.
Heidi Wilcox: Tell us a little bit about your story together.
Craig Keener: Yeah. Well, Médine … Yeah. Well, there’s a long backstory to it. But I’ll just start there at Duke. I was praying for my future wife, and when I met Médine … She was an exchange student, she was doing her PhD in history at University Paris 7. She was doing her PhD dissertation on African American history after reconstruction ended, African American women after reconstruction ended.
Heidi Wilcox: Which kind of went along with your book that you wrote.
Craig Keener: Well, later.
Heidi Wilcox: Later. Okay.
Craig Keener: But before we got married, but after I met her. I also had African friends when I was in seminary from Ghana and elsewhere. And my next door neighbor where I first lived when I was at Duke was from Nigeria.
Heidi Wilcox: Okay.
Craig Keener: And so-
Heidi Wilcox: And you went to an African American church too?
Craig Keener: Yeah. And I was ordained in an African American church. Now, the African American culture I felt at home with. The African cultures were not … I mean, those were still kind of … I had friends from those cultures, but considering a relationship like marriage, that was like a step beyond what I felt capable of. I understood there were cultural differences. I’d done a lot of work in intercultural studies in seminary. So, when … But we met through University. Our graduate group then was pretty small. She had come over to study us, study Americans, or more technically to look at primary sources on African American women after reconstruction. So, she was doing research while she was in the US for those eight months. But, the first time I saw her I knew she was lovely, but that doesn’t automatically mean anything. But, it did mean I was open on that level.
Heidi Wilcox: That’s where it starts, right?
Craig Keener: Yeah. That’s the first thing you see. And also, she was really smart. And she was Godly. We also, for the graduate group, each of us would contribute something from our own discipline. A couple of the students who were scientists would contribute science and Christianity discussions, and somebody from the English department did something on literary criticism, and the ethics of certain kinds of literary criticism, which I found very enlightening. And I was going to obviously do something from the Bible, and I thought everybody is doing something from their own denominational backgrounds.
Craig Keener: We had Catholics, Orthodox, a range of denominations there, and I was attending a Pentecostal church at that time, where I prophesied pretty much every week. Just so everybody understands what that means, it’s not adding to the Bible, it was mostly … I mean, the same kind of message you have in the Bible, but just applied to the local situation. As the Spirit would move me to speak out what I felt the Holy Spirit was saying. So in any case, I did the Bible study on tongues, because that was a precious experience to me. I wasn’t saying everybody had to do it. I was just saying, because I figured most of the people there didn’t know much about it.
Heidi Wilcox: Right, and it was from your experience, and when you first met Jesus.
Craig Keener: Yeah. And Médine started … Actually, we’d had a really good conversation on the way there, but then she starts arguing with me about it. Now, what I didn’t understand was that she had been in a church where everybody … They said you have to speak in tongues or you’re not spiritual. So, that’s where her resistance is coming from. She wasn’t against the gift, she just was against-
Heidi Wilcox: The requirement.
Craig Keener: …. everybody having to do it. And so, we got into a debate, and I’m thinking she’s against speaking in tongues, this can’t be a relationship, because we are … I pray in tongues. But then I felt bad afterwards, because we’d been debating. And she didn’t see anything wrong with a friendly debate, but the kind of setting in which I’d grown up arguments often were expressed in anger, and sometimes I got beaten, and things like that. So, I took it more seriously.
Heidi Wilcox: Well yes, of course.
Craig Keener: And there’s an advantage of taking things seriously, because you go back, and you check yourself, and you make sure you’re right, or you change. And so, it was good for me as a scholar in that sense, but it wasn’t good for me at that time when I thought that it expressed hostility. I had gotten some Free South Africa t-shirts, this was during the era of apartheid, and I gave her one as a gift.
Heidi Wilcox: That’s nice.
Craig Keener: And she thought that was a nice gesture. I sat with her. Gordon Fee came and lectured at the Presbyterian … It was an Evangelical Presbyterian church, Evangelical PCUSA church at that time, where she was attending while she was there. I was attending black Baptist church. Well actually, I talked about Pentecostal. I shifted to the black Baptist church, was that before … It was either before she came, or about the time she came, because I felt like the Lord wanted me to do that. But we stayed friends. I was really impressed with her other ways, because I’d witnessed to somebody on campus, and they’d say oh yeah, Médine Moussounga told me the same thing.
Heidi Wilcox: Wow.
Craig Keener: So I figured okay, she’s fired up for the Lord. And she went back to France to finish her PhD.
Heidi Wilcox: Did you guys keep in touch then?
Craig Keener: Oh yeah, yeah we did. I always loved hearing from Médine. I was very fond of her, but I felt like it couldn’t go beyond that unless the Lord did something dramatic.
Heidi Wilcox: Right, you couldn’t have a relationship, you just had to stay friends.
Craig Keener: Yeah. Friendship, relationship, brother and sister, but the friendship developed over time, became very close, until she wrote in one letter I was her best friend. And then she … Well, finally our feelings started coming out, our fondness for each other. And I said, I have fond feelings for you, but I’m not implying it should go anywhere, because I just don’t think that’s going to work. I’m called to ministry, I need somebody who’s called to ministry, has a passion for ministry, or they’re not going to understand me.
Heidi Wilcox: Right. I mean that makes sense, you have to be on the same wavelength.
Craig Keener: And she said … Well, she expressed her fondness to me, and said I’m not called to ministry, and I skipped to the end of the letter, because I could see where this was going. And so, somehow … See, I was so busy. I was writing books, I was doing all this, somehow I forgot to ever come back to the middle of the letter where she described … Yes.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh, no.
Craig Keener: Those of you who are listening, you should see the horror in my interviewers face.
Heidi Wilcox: And the middle of the letter explained more.
Craig Keener: In the middle of the letter … She was on the leadership team of a church that she helped to plan. She was doing open air Evangelism in Paris. She was doing door-to-door Evangelism in some neighborhoods. She was counseling people on drugs to get them off drugs. She was doing all sorts of ministry while she was working on her dissertation. But she thought by ministry I meant pastor or missionary.
Heidi Wilcox: I see.
Craig Keener: I was defining ministry a whole lot more broadly than that.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh, yes. It was just a miscommunication. Does she give you a hard time about not reading the middle?
Craig Keener: Oh, now she does. Yeah. Once in a while, she does. Yeah. I say well, okay, we shouldn’t pursue anything, we’ll just be friends, but I’ll be praying that God will give you a good husband, and you can pray that God will give me a good wife. You know? We were brother and sister. But she got the letter back, she had felt like I was her future husband, and she felt crushed.
Heidi Wilcox: Yeah.
Craig Keener: She said, well God, because in her culture the woman is not allowed to express anything, unless the man does it first, which I was at Duke. The feminism, let the woman do it first, it might be sexual harassment if the man does it.
Heidi Wilcox: Wow.
Craig Keener: Yeah, I mean it was a little bit overstated, but in that context … One time I held a door open for just whoever was behind me, it happened to be a woman, she glared at me like how dare you? That wasn’t the usual response, but it made me wonder, how can I-
Heidi Wilcox: Just different perspectives on how you perceive things. Yeah.
Craig Keener: Yeah. And this isn’t saying everybody at Duke is like that. That was one person. But anyway, well war broke out in her country, and she was about to go back. I said no, no don’t go back if there’s a war there. Look, I think I can get you a job here where I’m teaching.
Heidi Wilcox: And you decided just to be friends at this point?
Craig Keener: Yeah. Yeah, just friends. She said no, I think I need to go back, and be with my family, and help them. What she didn’t tell me was that she was afraid to be near me and not be able to express her heart. It saved her families lives though. She was the one who was healthy enough, sometimes the only one, to be able to walk five miles a day during war through snake infested swamps, and fields of army ants-
Heidi Wilcox: I’m terrified of snakes.
Craig Keener: … having to pick the ants of her body, and the snakes they were poisonous, to get the food for her family. I mean, it was just cassava roots a lot of times was all they had to eat. They were refugees for 18 months.
Heidi Wilcox: Wow. Did you hear from her at all during … You knew she was going back, and then did you hear anything else?
Craig Keener: I did between two times. I mean, she actually became a refugee from Brazzaville at one point. But that was quick, right from Brazzaville when she had to flee there. She could’ve died in that situation. But I’m skipping a whole lot. It’s in the book Impossible Love.
Heidi Wilcox: Yes, and we’ll have it all linked in the show notes, all of Doctor Keener’s books, and I would recommend that you get all of them.
Craig Keener: Right. Well, different people might … Different books might be more relevant for certain people. But, scholars might want Acts commentary. Well, anybody might like Impossible Love, it doesn’t take that long to read. But Médine was … She wrote me after she got to her town. But then when her town came under siege, the last letter I got from her she didn’t know if she was going to live or die, because government troops had just started … Or actually, the mercenaries working for the government troops had just started invading the city. She sent this letter out by somebody who was leaving town, and they mailed it from another country. She said her cousin had just been shot dead. He’d been shot in the night, and was crying out during the night, and everybody was scared to come out in the part of town where he was shot. He was trying to defend his girlfriend from being harassed by soldiers. And by morning he was dead.
Craig Keener: Her brother and father had nearly been shot dead. And so she said, I don’t know if I’m going to live or die, please pray for me. She knew that whatever else, I was going to pray for her. And actually, I got a lot of other people to pray for her too. That was the last I heard from her for 18 months. I didn’t know if she was alive or dead, and that gave me some time to deal with my feelings. But I felt like Lord, if I had married her, she wouldn’t be going through this. And I felt like the Lord said, my child, I know you did what you thought was my will, and I will do what is best for her, and what is best for you.
Heidi Wilcox: It’s so hard to trust in that moment.
Craig Keener: That’s my Father, my Heavenly Father speaking. That was all I had to go on. And a few days later I felt like … She’d always invited me to visit Congo, and she’d translate for me if I preached there. So a few days later, I felt like the Lord just spoke to me. I’d been praying, but this didn’t happen when I was praying, this happened when I was fixing lunch or something. I just felt like the Lord spontaneously spoke and said someday you’ll minister together in Francophone Africa. And I was like, oh, that means she’s going to survive. I wasn’t thinking we’d get married. But then …
Heidi Wilcox: Just thinking about her, and her safety.
Craig Keener: Yeah. Yeah. And praying for her and her family. There’s certain things in the Bible I knew we were allowed to pray for, but safety, I had to mine the Psalms, and learn some prayers … Learn some things about praying about that. And of course there’s plenty in the Bible about praying for that. But sometimes you see things in the Bible when you look for them. That was the case with ethnic reconciliation. Because when I joined an African American Baptist church, of course I believed in ethnic reconciliation, but I didn’t know that the Bible had much to say about it. But of course, all the stuff in the New Testament about Jew Gentile, or Jew Samaritan; if God would summon us to surmount a barrier that he himself established, how much more would he summon us to surmount all other ethnic barriers? It’s all over the place. And so, I began really growing in this. Yeah. So, Médine and I were … Well, both fond of each other.
Heidi Wilcox: And you knew she was going to survive. At what point in the 18 months did you feel that God had answered your prayer?
Craig Keener: Well, sometimes I struggled to believe, because all I had to go on were those two first words from the Lord. And also, when I would pray about my future wife, sometimes I’d name particular people. And there was one friend I had where I felt like the Lord said it could work, but that’s not my best plan for you. And then there were some other people that I thought would be great. He said, no. Or I just didn’t feel at peace about it. And then I prayed about Médine and I just heard silence. I wasn’t hearing anything either way, which I thought, well at least it’s not a no.
Heidi Wilcox: Now, when you say hear something, what do you mean?
Craig Keener: It wasn’t an audible voice. Actually, I’ve never had an audible voice. I’ve never had a vision. But trying to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit. Sometimes things have been clearer than others. My coming her to Asbury, some things were clear in retrospect, but that was a …
Heidi Wilcox: But in the moment it was more kind, this seems-
Craig Keener: But she heard clearly. That was after we were married. She heard clearly we were supposed to move to Asbury.
Heidi Wilcox: Interesting.
Craig Keener: So, thank God for her sensitivity to the Spirit there. And since then, sometimes we’ve had dreams that are very clear, very clear direction. That’s another story. At that time, I was just praying for her, I was asking people in church to pray for her, I asked my students to pray for her, because I was really concerned for her safety.
Heidi Wilcox: So you were back to teaching?
Craig Keener: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I was teaching. At that time I was teaching at seminary in Philadelphia. I was on staff with an African American megachurch there. And it wasn’t as megachurch initially when I joined it, but it grew and grew, and became the largest in Philadelphia, which was a great place to teach. But for the familial type setting of New Testament house churches we had to have small groups.
Heidi Wilcox: Yes, absolutely.
Craig Keener: But Médine had been going through all this. Well finally the war ends enough after 18 months, and so I’m checking my mailbox, as I did every day, looking for a letter from Médine. Even though I knew very well that if her town had been burned to the ground, which it was after she had sent the letter, by the time the letter reached me her town had been burned down, or most of it had been burned down. And so, her house had been destroyed, their family home, everything they had was destroyed, family pictures, almost all the pictures. They found some in a plastic bag under some ashes, thank God. I don’t know how the Lord protected some things.
Heidi Wilcox: Yeah, what a gift.
Craig Keener: But she … Anyway, finally one day I opened my mailbox. Even though her address book had been burned, she found a way to find my address of the Craig Keener who writes books. Now, that could have been dangerous, because there’s another Craig S. Keener who writes books. He writes on Native American archeology, which is a great subject. I hope he’s not embarrassed about my book. I hope he doesn’t get blamed for what I write. But anyway, she could’ve married the wrong guy, I joke to her.
Heidi Wilcox: Written the wrong guy and be accepted.
Craig Keener: Yeah. But anyway, she wrote to me and I was so elated. The letter started out, I’m alive. I’m Médine Moussounga, I’m alive. And it progressed from there. Meanwhile, I was suppressing my heart. There was a lot of pain in my heart. I was just running from it, burying myself in my work, and I mean I still work a lot, but I enjoy my work, but at that point I was burying myself in my work. And sometimes I was sleeping just three hours a night.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh my goodness.
Craig Keener: And I knew people who did that, they seemed to get along fine. It doesn’t work for me.
Heidi Wilcox: No, it wouldn’t work for me either.
Craig Keener: I ended up in the hospital.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh no.
Craig Keener: I collapsed in the middle of a class.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh my.
Craig Keener: It was a morning class. I’m not a morning person. That was one of the reasons for the three hours of sleep. It was that time when I was flat on my back, after I got out of the hospital, flat on my back in my efficiency apartment, I get a note from Médine where she went beyond what was considered appropriate for an African woman. She shared her feelings again.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh, good.
Craig Keener: And this time though, she decided, she didn’t say this, but she decided that if I said no, or if I didn’t respond favorably, for the sake of her heart she was going to quit writing. I got the letter and my heart leaped. I was like, I really love Médine, but I can’t think I can do this. I would have to hear from God to step out on this, because I just don’t know if she can share my calling. The one thing I know for sure is my calling, I have to do that, and anything doesn’t fit with that I can’t do.
Heidi Wilcox: Which is admirable, because sometimes people fall in love and give up their calling.
Craig Keener: Can’t do that. And so, I said I’d better write her, and tell her not to get her hopes up. Better write her and say probably this is not going to work. But meanwhile, I’ll pray about it, and that way I won’t get her hopes up, which would’ve been … She never would’ve gotten another letter from me, because she would’ve … She actually had to move to a particular part of Congo to be able to get the mail.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh.
Craig Keener: Yeah, it was a pretty rough situation. Yeah. Anyway, I had somebody who was walking with me through that time. I couldn’t do any work actually for months. I was so dehydrated and everything else. Another reason I collapsed was that the heater in the apartment had been going full blast, and I couldn’t turn it off, and I couldn’t … Well actually, I didn’t take time to ask maintenance to come fix it.
Heidi Wilcox: Because you were so busy working.
Craig Keener: Yeah. So, it was my fault. Anyway, some things you don’t put off even if you’re busy.
Heidi Wilcox: But you don’t realize that sometimes until after.
Craig Keener: Right, exactly. You don’t realize which things are which. I was told, I actually feel like you shouldn’t do that. You shouldn’t say-
Heidi Wilcox: Oh, shouldn’t tell her don’t get your hopes up?
Craig Keener: Yeah.
Heidi Wilcox: Okay. Good. I’m glad you had-
Craig Keener: I’m praying about this and trying to be open. And I said okay, well there’s a way I can organize my thoughts about this, and look at if the callings can work. And I went back through all the letters I had from her, plus I had on my computer the letters that I’d sent to her. Because by the time I graduated from Duke computers existed and ordinary people could have them.
Heidi Wilcox: Okay. Yes.
Craig Keener: So, I arranged them chronologically, went through that, went through my journal every place that talked about Médine, which was a little harder at the beginning, because I was misspelling her name at the beginning. And then discovered, to my horror, that I had skipped the middle part of that letter.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh, yes. I was wondering when you were going to find that.
Craig Keener: And that our callings actually were not incompatible at all. Our hearts were not incompatible at all.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh, good.
Craig Keener: She was ready to do whatever for Jesus.
Heidi Wilcox: I mean, I know the end of this story, but I’m excited hearing it.
Craig Keener: I fell off my chair, I’d been laying on the ground most of the time anyway. But I fell of my chair, and so I wrote to her and I said, yes, I think this is the Lord. I sent her an email. I didn’t know that she’d moved to Pointe-Noire and she was living in a tin roof shack that flooded when it rained too much, the water level came way up on the floor. There were all these things that would attach to your body.
Heidi Wilcox: Ew.
Craig Keener: Yeah. Living things that would attach to your body.
Heidi Wilcox: Ew, like leaches?
Craig Keener: Yeah, leaches.
Heidi Wilcox: Ew.
Craig Keener: She’d moved there and was selling charcoal. She has a PhD, but she was selling charcoal to make a living so she could be in touch with me. I didn’t know she was going through all this. So, that she could have access to a cyber café where she could … I didn’t know what she was going through. I’d sent her a bunch of money, but I didn’t know the conditions in which she was living. So, she’s at the cyber café, and the nosy workers, they’re the ones who print out the message, and they’re like what did your American brother say? It was in English and they didn’t read English.
Heidi Wilcox: Which didn’t help their nosiness since they couldn’t …
Craig Keener: Yeah, that didn’t help. She said oh, it’s a nice letter. She’s walking out reading it, and she starts laughing in the streets. She was so skinny from war, she’d lost so much weight. She was just like bones.
Heidi Wilcox: Skin and bones. Yeah.
Craig Keener: Yeah. And so everybody knew … Because Pointe-Noire was the one place that hadn’t gone through war in that region. People looked at her, they knew she was a refugee, and she’s laughing, she’s crying, and they’re like well these refugees they’ve all lost their minds. So, we started-
Heidi Wilcox: She just got the best news of her life.
Craig Keener: Well, she felt that way.
Heidi Wilcox: Yeah, which is good.
Craig Keener: We start making plans, but we didn’t know that international governments don’t give way easily to romance.
Heidi Wilcox: Right.
Craig Keener: Her country’s new government had invalidated all the former passports.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh, no.
Craig Keener: She didn’t have a valid passport, she couldn’t leave the country. She’d been a refugee in another part of the country, internally displaced. And so, now she needed to get a passport, but it was dangerous in the capital for people from her region.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh my.
Craig Keener: And so, she sent a friend, but then she never heard back. She sent the friend with her identity documents she’d kept during the war and the fee, and she never heard back.
Heidi Wilcox: Then she really was stuck, because she lost her documents.
Craig Keener: She lost her documents. And plus, there was no US consulate in her country, it had been closed during the war, so she was going to have to go to another country even to go to a consulate. And this other country … She could either go to Congo DRC, the other Congo, or she could go to Cameroon. She had to have a passport to go either place. Finally, after a couple months, she ventured into the capital. She went to the passport office. There was no record that her passport had ever been filed for her. And she was … We were both like this is terrible, when is this going to end.
Heidi Wilcox: Right. You waited so long.
Craig Keener: And I was praying together with a sister from Ghana, and some other people, and the sister from Ghana was a Baptist. A bunch of different denominations all involved in this, this is across the board.
Heidi Wilcox: I love that though. The ecumenicalism.
Craig Keener: Very ecumenical. And the seminary was very ecumenical, like Asbury, we have people from a lot of different places. And so, she said, I feel like the passport is done. I said, you’re crazy. I didn’t say you’re crazy. I said, it’s not done. Don’t you see? That’s the problem.
Heidi Wilcox: Right.
Craig Keener: She was insisting it’s done. And I’m like okay, charismatic stuff can get really wacky, really subjective, really out of hand, this is crazy. And I told Médine, because now she was able to go to a friends house where there was a phone. She went the next day in faith, she went to the capital … I’m sorry, she was in the capital. She went to the passport office again, and she was pestering people. They kept sending her, giving her the runaround, sent her to this one office.
Craig Keener: And the guy said, what’s your name again? Médine Moussounga. Oh, of course there’s no record of it down there, it’s been here in my desk. Why didn’t your friend come back for it? She found out later the friend had fallen sick. So, the passport was done. The next week she flew to Cameroon, because one of my students was trained in law from Cameroon. He’d come to do seminary. He was my student, and I think was a doctoral student by that point. So, he had a friend she could stay with there. I flew to Cameroon the next week. We were finally reunited. We hadn’t seen each other in person for like 11 years.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh my goodness.
Craig Keener: I didn’t know what she looked like, except for in the pictures she’d sent. So, this definitely was … I mean, I knew she was pretty the first time I saw her, but this wasn’t based on physical attraction. But she still was quite pretty. But once she got to Cameroon it still took … Let’s see. She got to Cameroon I think in May, April, and it still took until February … No, it still took until March until she could get a visa to come to the US.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh my goodness.
Craig Keener: So she was stranded there, and this time away from her parents, away from her siblings. She’s lonely. I can visit during the summer-
Heidi Wilcox: But during the school year-
Craig Keener: During the school year I couldn’t. Things would’ve gone much more smoothly except that right about the time we filed 9/11 happened.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh yeah, and then that made everything-
Craig Keener: Oh, everything. Yeah. Visa situations changed over night.
Heidi Wilcox: And there was a lot of fear about everything.
Craig Keener: Backlog. Yeah. The Vermont service center, which was the one that serviced our Philadelphia area at that time, was shut down due to an anthrax scare, probably most people don’t remember that. Everybody remembers 9/11.
Heidi Wilcox: I remember it. Yeah.
Craig Keener: And probably some of the listeners are like, I wasn’t born yet.
Heidi Wilcox: That’s always shocking to me, because I’m starting to talk to people who are adults, and I’m like oh you don’t remember? Okay.
Craig Keener: Yeah. Thank God it worked out. We have been married since March 13, 2002.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh, wow. I love that story. What a romance. I love that. I want to back up for a minute and talk about … Because I know you guys do work with … And we only have just a few minutes left, but you guys do work with racial reconciliation. And so, if we could briefly go back and talk about your work in the African American community, and what that was like, and then go forward just a little bit to what that work looks like now, because I’m really curious. I’m not sure this is a politically correct question, what was it like to be white in a black community?
Craig Keener: Oh, everybody welcomed me.
Heidi Wilcox: Yeah?
Craig Keener: It was no problem at all. Now, the white person needs to be willing to humble themself and work under black leadership.
Heidi Wilcox: Absolutely.
Craig Keener: The African American … I mean, the pastors, they knew their community. I was there as a guest. And over the years of course I learned, and I lived in the African American community. So, when I was in North Carolina, most of the time in North Carolina, I lived in the African American community. Yeah. And in Philadelphia I lived on campus, so it was an integrated community, it was black and white, the school was about half black, 40-50%, depending on the year. That became actually my home culture. But still, I’m not from there, I didn’t grow up there. So there are differences.
Heidi Wilcox: Right, but you have a connection to there.
Craig Keener: Yeah. That’s where I felt at home, most at home. I felt really welcome. Of course, when I’d go into a new community, and people didn’t know me, people would look at me. But that would always break down in time. Even with somebody who had really been hurt by white people. In time, I could always break through that by loving, humbling myself, being a servant. Now, I’m so busy now I can’t invest in that same interpersonal way. And I’m married, I’ve got a family.
Heidi Wilcox: It makes a big difference.
Craig Keener: Yeah, it makes a big difference. I was single back then, so I could always just hang in there until I broke through. Yeah. I was welcomed in those churches. And the first one, the one in North Carolina, that was the one … Some of the people in that church knew people who had grown up in slavery. Some of the people in that church had been in the sit ins, had had the flour thrown on them in the restaurants and stuff. So, for them to accept me, for them to love me, and my pastor, he’s giving me this reading material, the slave narratives, the autobiography of Malcolm X, and by the time I’m done with it I’m so ashamed of my skin color. I wanted to take a knife and rip my skin off.
Craig Keener: But my pastor every week kept preaching how we’re all made in the image of God, and it got through to me. Yeah, that’s me too. But I had to first get through that by realizing this is something my people did to their people. It wasn’t me personally, but I’ve profited from what my people did to their people. I’ve had advantages because of what my people did to their people. Once I got through that, it was … Eventually, I was able to integrate everything in my heart, and just be me, and just be happy there. Actually, it took me a while to reintegrate in the white setting. I mean, of course now it’s been years since then.And then Médine and I … I would speak off an on on racial reconciliation, especially in white circles.
Heidi Wilcox: Yes. Much needed.
Craig Keener: Yeah. And I spoke on it more back then than I do now, because I had more time back then.
Heidi Wilcox: But your season has changed now too.
Craig Keener: Yeah. Yeah. But, Médine and I spoke on ethnic reconciliation to 1700 pastors in post war [inaudible 01:15:01], because they had been through war. It was ethnic strife, one people group against another. That was really important there. We spoke on it together in South Africa. So, it’s been outside the country as well as inside the country. Sometimes we do it here too, although I don’t speak as much … Well, I just spoke on ethnic reconciliation actually in Kenya too for the Africa Society for Evangelical Theology, their annual conference a couple weeks ago. But, I don’t … Well, I can’t travel to churches that much to speak, because I’m just so busy, so usually academic conferences, or university lectures, or something like that, because I figure most of the preaching that I could do somebody else can do just as well. But, since there are fewer of us who are preachers who also have PhDs who also are seminary professors, that’s where I’ve put more of my time now. And of course the writing takes a lot of time.
Heidi Wilcox: Yeah. What are you working on now? Is there a new book in the works or something else?
Craig Keener: Right now I’m indexing a book called Christo Biography, which is on the nature of the Gospels as ancient biography, which is dealing with the historiographic implications of the genre. That book I’m just indexing, it should’ve been out already, but-
Heidi Wilcox: It takes time. Yeah.
Craig Keener: It wasn’t the indexing that delayed it. Anyway, there’s also my Galatians commentary with Bakers about to come out, the one with Cambridge came out last year. Also, I’m doing a one volume condensation of my four volume Acts commentary for Cambridge.
Heidi Wilcox: Okay.
Craig Keener: Cambridge New Testament Commentary Series. Cutting 85% of a book, I didn’t think it would be that hard, but it’s been kind of hard.
Heidi Wilcox: That’d be hard, yeah. To weed out what … I mean, because you thought it was important, so you put it in there, so how do you take it out? Yeah.
Craig Keener: Yeah. I mean, some of it was easy to cut out. Anyway, I was probably supposed to cut out 95%, but I’m hoping they’ll accept it with 85% cut.
Heidi Wilcox: Well, that’s very exciting. We look forward to those coming out, and whatever God leads you to produce in the future. Thank you so much Doctor Keener-
Craig Keener: Thank you for having me.
Heidi Wilcox: … for taking the time. I mean, you’re very busy, taking the time to come and be part of this today. And as I wrap up, I have three quick questions.
Craig Keener: Don’t worry about the time, because it is so much easier to do an interview here on campus, or by phone, than it is to have to travel somewhere. That takes lots of time.
Heidi Wilcox: Yes.
Craig Keener: We don’t have the biggest airport here. I mean, it’s a nice airport we have in Lexington, but it’s not the biggest.
Heidi Wilcox: That’s true. Well, I appreciate it just the same. So, as we wrap up I’m going to be asking each guest that we have three questions. They can just be brief answers. The first one is, what’s a practice that you do, spiritual or otherwise, that has really helped you thrive in your life?
Craig Keener: I spend about an hour a day in prayer. I do it different ways. Sometimes I’ll really be aware of God’s presence, and sometimes I’ll hear the Spirit speaking. But, I also spend a lot of time … I have a list of prayer, because I’m ADHD, it’s the only way so far I’ve found to be able to keep my mind on track.
Heidi Wilcox: I have a hard time focusing. Yeah.
Craig Keener: And also, I pray through a lot of the Psalms. Of course, I’ll adapt them, parts about kill my enemies. In my Jesus teaching I try to … Lord, please draw my enemies to you. Whatever. But the prayer keeps my spiritual life fresh.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh, good.
Craig Keener: And of course, that influences how I appropriate scripture personally too.
Heidi Wilcox: What book are you reading right now?
Craig Keener: Well, right now I’m reading the Acts commentary while I’m indexing it.
Heidi Wilcox: Yes. Okay. That makes sense.
Craig Keener: Oh, no. No. Sorry. I’m reading Christo Biography while I’m indexing it, and I’m reading the condensed Acts commentary as I’m editing it. Those are the ones I’m really reading. Or do you mean-
Heidi Wilcox: Anything besides … Anything for fun, or just for your own edification?
Craig Keener: For fun. When I have time, I read … I like to read biographies. Now actually, I’m listening to Ryan Reeves, he has these church history podcasts, I guess. So, while I’m indexing, I can listen to that and keep my church history fresh.
Heidi Wilcox: Okay. Okay. And then, one more question, this one’s just for you. I’m curious about your comics, because we see them. What inspires your comics?
Craig Keener: Demented mind. What inspires my comics? My mom is an artist, and she cultivated that in me when I was growing up. She cultivated everything. I mean, she would get me … I was interested in book. I was interested in Plato. She got my Plato.
Heidi Wilcox: What a good mom.
Craig Keener: Yeah, I had a great mom. She got me … Yeah. So, she had cultivated my artwork. She does more abstract art. I like to draw people. I like to draw comics. And I don’t have time to do it very often. Once in a while on the Sabbath I’ll do it. But usually on my Sabbath I have to try to catch up at least on the few of the emails, I’m so far behind. But also, once in a while my brain is just too fried to do work.
Heidi Wilcox: I would imagine. Yeah, it needs a break.
Craig Keener: So, it’s a break. And I actually write down ideas when they come to me, silly ideas when they come to me.
Heidi Wilcox: Okay. I wondered.
Craig Keener: So, I have this backlog of all these ideas. When I get the time, or my brain is too fried to do anything else, which doesn’t happen as often as it used to, I will draw the cartoon, the comic. And then, eventually, I have enough of them, I send them off to the Asbury to run them.
Heidi Wilcox: Yeah, we always enjoy them. We were talking today actually that we should put them in a book, and we could get a collection of them.
Craig Keener: Oh, GlossaHouse actually has been doing that.
Heidi Wilcox: Oh, really? I didn’t know that.
Craig Keener: Yeah. Well, they’ve done the first 100 of them. They’ve got a few hundred others that they haven’t done yet.
Heidi Wilcox: I love that. I love that. Well, thank you Doctor Keener. It has been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
Craig Keener: It has been my privilege. Thank you so much.
Heidi Wilcox: Thank you.
Craig Keener: Bless you.
Heidi Wilcox: Hey y’all, thank you so much for joining me for today’s conversation with Doctor Keener. Grateful for his taking the time to share his story with us. I hope you enjoyed it as well. This is our last podcast episode of the semester. We really appreciate you listening and hope you enjoyed the first season. Our second season starts on January 14th, and I’m really excited about our lineup of guests. So, you won’t want to miss out. Subscribe in iTunes or wherever you listen to your podcasts. You can also follow us in all the places, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @asburyseminary. Have a great day y’all, and go do something that helps you thrive.