Book Review of THE PRODIGAL GOD by Rev. Timothy Keller, Ph.D.

The Prodigal God (Riverhead 2011, Dutton 2008), 149 pages with 4 pages of notes.

This book took me less than five hours to read.  The parable is familiar, but the author’s ultimate conclusion–that Jesus is a prodigal God–is new.  This book discusses the parable of the prodigal son.  (Luke 15:11-32)  Here is the parable:

The Parable of the Lost Son

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”  (BibleGateway.com, NIV)

Jesus shows us a solution to the human dilemma of being experientially-driven humans who feel, need and desire, yet want to live a life that is in harmony with God.  We want to live at peace with God and people, while still enjoying our sensual nature.  How do we do that?  The prodigal son parable shows the two extremes to the dilemma through the older and younger brothers.  Most of us are neither as self-involved as the younger brother—wishing our parents were dead so we could have our inheritance.  Nor are we as dutifully moralistic as the older brother—serving his father because it is the right thing to do, but feeling no love for his father or his younger brother.  Most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes.  We all grapple with the dilemma of reconciling our two basic selves: sensory and moral.  How can we successfully satisfy both sides of our human nature?  Dr. Keller suggests the same thing Jesus suggests, that we repent in order to know God better and to be fully renewed as God’s people.

“What must we do, then, to be saved?  To find God we must repent of the things we have done wrong, but if that is all you do, you may remain just an elder brother.  To truly become Christians we must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right.  Pharisees only repent of their sins, but Christians repent for the very roots of their righteousness, too.  We must learn how to repent of the sin under all our other sins and under all our righteousness—the sin of seeking to be our own Savior and Lord.  We must admit that we’ve put our ultimate hope and trust in things other than God, and that in both our wrongdoing and right doing we have been seeking to get around God or get control of God in order to get hold of those things.  It is only when you see the desire to be your own Savior and Lord—lying beneath both your sins and your moral goodness—that you are on the verge of understanding the gospel and becoming a Christian indeed.  When you realize that the antidote to being bad is not just being good, you are on the brink.  If you follow through, it will change everything:  how you relate to God, self, others, the world, your work, your sins, your virtue.  It’s called the new birth because it’s so radical.”  (pp. 87-88)

Dr. Keller is saying that in order to be made right with God through Jesus Christ, we need to surrender our hurts, our vanities, and our desire to control our world.  We have to surrender today and tomorrow and repent of everything in our past that did not begin and end with God.

Timothy Keller titled the book The Prodigal God.  The implication is that Jesus Christ laid down his majesty in heaven.  He left his Father’s house and went to live among sinful men to find his way in the world.  Sinful men took everything from him.  In fact, they beat and crucified him.  They killed him.  Why would Lord God Almighty, who has the power, resources and time to do anything choose to send his only begotten son to earth to live and die among sinners?

“Christianity, therefore, is perhaps the most materialistic of the world’s faiths.  Jesus’ miracles were not so much violations of the natural order, but a restoration of the natural order.  God did not create a world with blindness, leprosy, hunger, and death in it.  Jesus’ miracles were a sign that someday all these corruptions of his creation would be abolished.  Christians, therefore, can talk of saving the soul and of building social systems that deliver safe streets and warm homes in the same sentence.  With integrity.  Jesus hates suffering, injustice, evil, and death so much, he came and experienced it to defeat it and, someday, to wipe the world clean of it.  Knowing all this, Christians cannot be passive about hunger, sickness, and injustice.  Karl Marx and others have charged that religion is ‘the opiate of the masses.’ That is, it is a sedative that makes people passive toward injustice, because there will be ‘pie in the sky bye and bye.’  That may be true of some religions that teach people that this material world is unimportant or illusory.  Christianity, however, teaches that God hates the suffering and oppression of this material world so much, he was willing to get involved in it and to fight against it.  Properly understood, Christianity is by no means the opiate of the people.  It’s more like the smelling salts.”  (pp. 126-127)

Dr. Keller is saying that God created the earth and all its fullness as an act of love.  God created a good and beautiful world, but man wrecked it.  So God sent Jesus, His Son, to earth to restore to God what man had wrecked.

Our prodigal God is Jesus Christ.  Jesus is unique among all other gods in that he became one of us, in order to save us all.  If my God loves me so much he was willing to leave paradise to come to earth to pull me out of the muck and mire of this world, to set my feet on solid ground and to restore this fallen world to its original God-given glory, then surely there is hope.  Jesus truly is the light of the world, because he became a prodigal just like me. Isn’t that an amazing story of love?

I liked this book.  I recommend it.  It gave me plenty of things to think about.  This book review originally appeared on jaynechaseloseke.com on September 16, 2016.  You can find out more about Rev. Timothy Keller, Ph.D. at his website at http://www.timothykeller.com/.  You can listen to his sermons at Redeemer Presbyterian Church on iTunes.  His books include:

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering

Every Good Endeavor

Center Church

Jesus the King

The Meaning of Marriage

Generous Justice

Counterfeit Gods

The Reason for God

Preaching:  Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism

Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions

The Prodigal God

Romans 1-7 For You

Romans 8-16 For You

Galatians for You

Judges For You

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness

Ministries of Mercy

King’s Cross

The Songs of Jesus

Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical

Hidden Christmas:  The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ

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Book Review of THE MEANING OF MARRIAGE by Timothy Keller

The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller (Dutton 2011), 283 pages.

This book furthers our national discussion about marriage.  The Kellers look at marriage from historical, biblical, contemporary and philosophical perspectives.  This book has 24 pages of end notes.  It is a deep look at marriage and it took me all of my library renewals to read this book, but it was worth the time.

The conclusions the authors arrive at are that marriage is universal, has always been a part of known societies, and will probably always be a part of society.  Furthermore, Dr. Keller claims marriage is a spiritual journey of friendship whose true purpose is to help two married partners mature into their true selves.  Rev. Keller believes this can only be done with massive help from God.

Here are four of my favorite passages from The Meaning of Marriage:

  1. “How do we love each other so that our marriage goes on from strength to strength rather than stalling out in repetitive arguments that end in fruitless silence?  The basic answer is that you must speak the truth in love with the power of God’s grace.”  p. 136.
  2. “Marriage by its very nature has the ‘power of truth’—the power to show you the truth about who you are.  People are appalled when they get sharp, far-reaching criticism from their spouses.  They immediately begin to think they married the wrong person.  But you must realize that it isn’t ultimately your spouse who is exposing the sinfulness of your heart—it’s marriage itself.  Marriage does not so much bring you into confrontation with your spouse as confront you with yourself.  Marriage shows you a realistic unflattering picture of who you are and then takes you by the scruff of the neck and forces you to pay attention to it.  This may sound discouraging, but it is really the road to liberation.  Counselors will tell you that the only flaws that can enslave you are the ones that you are blind to. If you are in denial about some feature of your character, that feature will control you.  But marriage blows the lid off, turns the light on.  Now there is hope. Finally you can begin dealing with the real you.  Don’t resist this power that marriage has.  Give your spouse the right to talk to you about what is wrong with you.  Paul talks about how Jesus “washes” and “cleanses” us of stains and blemishes.  Give your spouse the right to do that.”  p. 140.
  3. “The Bible does not counsel sexual abstinence before marriage because it has such a low view of sex but because it has such a lofty one.  The biblical view implies that sex outside of marriage is not just morally wrong but also personally harmful.  If sex is designed to be part of making a covenant and experience that covenant’s renewal, then we should think of sex as an emotional ‘commitment apparatus.’  If sex is a method that God invented to do ‘whole life entrustment’ and self-giving, it should not surprise us that sex makes us feel deeply connected to the other person, even when used wrongly.  Unless you deliberately disable it, or through practice you numb the original impulse, sex makes you feel personally interwoven and joined to another human being, as you are literally physically joined.  In the midst of sexual passion, you naturally want to say extravagant things such as ‘I’ll always love you.’  Even if you are not legally married, you may find yourself very quickly feeling marriage-like ties, feeling that the other person has an obligation to you.  But that other person has no legal, social, or moral responsibility even to call you back in the morning.  This incongruity leads to jealously and hurt feelings and obsessiveness if two people are having sex but are not married.  It makes breaking up vastly harder than it should be.  It leads many people to stay trapped in relationships that are not good because of a feeling of having (somehow) connected themselves.  Therefore, if you have sex outside marriage, you will have to steel yourself against sex’s power to soften your heart toward another person and make you more trusting.  The problem is that eventually, sex will lose its covenant-making power for you, even if you one day do get married. Ironically, then, sex outside of marriage eventually works backwards, making you less able to commit and trust another person.”  Pp. 226-227.
  4.  Note #52, p. 253.  “…the human race cannot remember a time in which marriage did not exist.  There have been some efforts to make the case that this or that remote culture or small ethnic group has existed without marriage, but none of these efforts are widely regarded as successful.  One example is the argument some have made regarding the Mosuo (or the “Na People”), a small ethnic population in Southern China.  In this society, marriage partners do not live together in the same home.  Brothers and sisters live together in households and raise the children of their sisters.  Men are held most responsible to support and raise their sisters’ children—their nieces and nephews, not their biological children.  This family arrangement is highly unusual, but that does not mean that marriage and family mores are not in existence and, indeed, they are strongly enforced.  Fathers are definitely part of their children’s lives even though they do not live in the same household.  Women form long-term relationships with their partners.  Some married couples practice cohabitation as well.  See Tami Blumenthal’s 2009 report, The Na of Southwest China’s.  Debunking the Myths, at web.pdx.edu/~tblu2/Na/myths.pdf.”

 

Dr. Keller references the book Premarital Sex in America:  How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying.  (Oxford 2011)  by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker as a source for much of the research claims in The Meaning of Marriage.

 

The Meaning of Marriage, by Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller (Dutton 2011).

The book review of The Meaning of Marriage originally appeared on jaynechaseloseke.com on December 26, 2013.