Book Review: The Prodigal God
By: Rob O'Lynn, MDiv*
The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith
New York: Dutton (Hardcover; 11/08); Riverhead Books (Paperback; 03/11)
Paperback $14.00; ISBN: 978-1-59448-402-5
During my clinical residency, I served as the chaplain for a local psychiatric facility that served a number of adolescents. One of my duties was to conduct a worship service on Sunday evenings for the behavioral therapy unit. Since the population changed over every couple of weeks, one of my favorite passages to use was the "Parable of the Prodigal Son" in Luke 15. I found that it resonated with many of them, or least those that allowed themselves to be pierced by the message of rebellion and reconciliation. They were young men and women who, due to nature or nurture, had gotten themselves into quite a lot of trouble. Rehabilitation was their sentence for their crimes. Several of them spoke about leaving home and engaging in riotous living. However, instead of returning home, they only spiraled further down until they landed "at the Park." Yet, through the story of the young man and his wayward ways, they found hope and possibility, that forgiveness and restoration was possible--if they were willing to seek after it. What is really ironic is that, after nearly 10 years in ministry, I firmly believe that these troubled youths understood the message of this parable better than those who have packed pews for years.
I will admit that I have been guilty of only preaching half of this parable. So often, because we want to focus on the younger brother's restoration, we will only preach his side of the story. However, as Keller points out, this is only half of the story. We really never know what to do with the older brother. In sermons and class discussions, I turn to the older brother in a kind of "Here's how I would end the story..." scenario. Yet, the reality is that the older brother is just as lost as the younger brother. Keller adeptly notes that the two brothers are symbols for two ways of living--irreligious and religious. The irony is that staying at home is often just as dangerous spiritually as leaving home: "His story reveals the destructive self-centeredness of the younger brother, but it also condemns the elder brother's moralistic life in the strongest terms. Jesus is saying that both the irreligious and the religious are spiritually lost, both life-paths are dead ends, and that every thought the human race has had about how to connect with God has been wrong" (p. 13).
Keller spends the majority of his brief book illustrating through the words of the parable and through real-life examples from the people who attend Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City how both approaches to life end up in lostness. What was most striking to me is his emphasis on the older brother, an emphasis that is lacking from most treatments of the parable. As one is more "older brother" than "younger brother," I found myself agreeing with the legalism that oozes through the older brother's comments to his father. In the words of Dennis Kenny's book The Promise of the Soul (Jossey-Bass, 2002), we "older brothers" have made a conditional agreement with God: "If I obey, then I will accepted by God." Keller, however, says that our agreement should be "I am accepted by God, therefore I obey" (p. 128). In the end, salvation is only possible through God's reckless abandonment of conditions to forgiveness. He becomes "prodigal" in that He showers us with grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The parable, then, is more about the Father than about either of the two rebellious sons.
In terms of an evaluation of this book, Keller is again spot on in his writing. When his previous book The Reason for God (Dutton, 2007) was released, Newsweek heralded Keller as "a C. S. Lewis for the twenty-first century." I agree with their assessment. Keller not only writes in a way that is both easy on the eyes yet strong on the heart, he does it in a way that proclaims that he is not ashamed to be an "educated" Christian. So much Christian writing today is simply fluff and a proverbial "flash in the pan." Yet Keller, with his conviction and charm, masterfully pulls the reader in with his carefully crafted words and lays the message of grace and truth bare before the reader. As Roy Zuck says in his review,^ "Keller frequently brings the reader back to the gospel" (p. 490). There is no "Pray this prayer and this will happen" sappy sentimentalism here. There is no "Here's how to live the best version of your life" bad pop psychology here. There is only the passionate plea of our finest orator to accept the grace of God.
If I have any critical word about this book, it would be this--I wish it were longer simply because I loved reading it so much. As I told Reverend Keller personally (well, in an email), because I am cheap, I wait with anticipation for the paperback release of his Counterfeit Gods and Generous Justice.
*Rob O'Lynn is Lecturer of Christian Ministries and Communications at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.
^Roy B. Zuck, review of The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Timothy Keller, in Bibliotheca Sacra 167 (October-December 2010): 490.