Context: Read this while feeling grim in bed in my grandmother’s old bedroom with her crucifix above me.
A friend (the same one who lent me the superb Knowing Me, Knowing You) lent me this just yesterday. It seemed an easy read and so I decided to polish it off this morning. It came with strong recommendations, but, I’m afraid, it didn’t really deliver as I had hoped.
I don’t read many Christian books. I find most of those that I have read promise to be “challenging,” “inspiring” and “life-changing.” Following the trend, these are all phrases found on the cover of The Prodigal God. I’d like to hope that it would be exactly that for most who read it but it wasn’t for me.
Keller’s premise is that we’ve completely missed the point of the Prodigal Son story. So much so, in fact, that we’ve given it the wrong title. Early on, he recommends that we call it the Prodigal God. While I do agree that our God is lavish and reckless in his expense towards his beloved, the first son was also prodigal in the same way. The only difference was that it was wealth that he shouldn’t yet have had and that the object of his love was himself.
Keller points out that just as important to the story as the first son is the second son and who this illustrates. The first son, of course, represents the profligate sinners who come humbly to Jesus in repentance. But the second son represents those religious among us who are trying to earn our way to Jesus and feel that we deserve to receive from him because of our good behaviour. He spends quite a bit of time elaborating on the differences between these two groups and comes to an important conclusion that they are, essentially, actually the same: both miss Jesus because their behaviour alienates them from receiving God’s grace.
This may be a stunning revelation for some and may make them realise that by dealing harshly with those who sin or who toy with liberality, they are acting like the second son. I hope they do. Thankfully, this is something I realised, or at least began to realise, back at university and so there wasn’t much here that I hadn’t heard before.
The book is basically good Biblical exposition and, the fact that it’s highly recommended, says less about Keller’s anointing than it does about the state of the western churchperson. Most churchgoers can’t correctly determine for themselves what a Biblical text actually means these days. Keller is faithfully performing his teaching role here and so it’s good that this message gets out.
But, worryingly, the impact of the marketing of the messages of such teachers on the contemporary church is revealed in an review quote from Christianity Today on the back cover:
“Fifty years from now, if evangelical Christians are widely known for their love of cities, their commitment to mercy and justice, and their love of their neighbours, Tim Keller will be remembered as a pioneer of the new urban Christians.”
There are already many many Christians are loving cities, committed to mercy and justice and loving their neighbours. This is particularly obvious when you experience church in its myriad forms around the world. Christians have managed to do this so far for centuries without Tim Keller and they’ll go on doing so simply because they know how to read the Bible for themselves and are inspired by the Holy Spirit to live as Jesus did. It worries me that the readers of Christianity Today would remember Tim Keller and not Jesus himself.
So, in summary, I appreciate Tim Keller’s exposition and wish more of us in the church could apply simple hermeneutic techniques to reach correct interpretations of Biblical passages. I remain worried, however, about bandwagon theology driven by the secular publishers that aim to make money out of the latest “new” thing we should all focus on. I appreciate the reminder of the stunning stories of Luke chapter 15 and also of the reminder as to why I don’t usually enjoy Christian books.
Most readings of this parable have concentrated on the flight and return of the younger brother – the “Prodigal Son.”
The LORD has spoken.
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