The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, by Timothy Keller. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008. 155 pages.
Timothy Keller was educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary. He started and continues to pastor Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.
In the last few years it’s become fashionable in the entertainment world to offer up “reboots” of various movie franchises. Batman was remade as Batman Begins, James Bond was given a fresh take with Casino Royale, and the blockbuster Spider-Man has been replaced by The Amazing Spider-Man. Given this trend, one can hardly be surprised by Keller’s effort to “reboot” the message of Christianity. His intention is to “lay out the essentials of the Christian message” (xiii) for both those who don’t know it and those who do. He does this via the parable of the prodigal son, which he spends the first five chapters explaining. In the first chapter he identifies the younger brother with those who are “free spirits,” rebels against the established order, in other words those who place an emphasis on independence and freedom (14). By comparison, older brothers are conformists, moralistic, and religious (13-15). Following this identification, Keller stresses that “the real audience for this story is the Pharisees, the elder brothers” (32). Most of chapters three and four focus on the “sin” and “lostness” of elder brothers, or as Keller identifies them—the religious. Such people use their morality as a way of getting what they want from God (45-47). Ultimately the problem he identifies for these “elder brothers” is this: “the good life is lived not for delight in good deeds themselves, but as calculated ways to control their environment” (58). The only solution to this type of selfish life is the selfless love of Jesus (96-98). After dispensing with the parable itself, Keller goes on to try to show that its message of being lost and then found is really at the heart of all of Scripture. “It is no coincidence that story after story contains the pattern of exile. The message of the Bible is that the human race is a band of exiles trying to come home. The parable of the prodigal son is about every one of us” (109). He concludes the book by using the analogy of a feast to speak about the impact Christianity has on people. This impact is experiential (tasting not just believing God’s grace, 121-122), material (Christians do physical good in this life, 126-127), individual (we reflect on the grace of God and that impacts our actions, 138), and communal (“only if you are a part of a community of believers seeking to resemble, serve, and love Jesus will you ever get to know him and grow into his likeness”, 143).
One of the great strengths of the book is that Keller correctly identifies the focus of the parable. This parable is addressed to “the second group, the scribes and Pharisees. It is in response to their attitude that Jesus begins to tell the parable. The parable of the two sons takes an extended look at the soul of the elder brother and climaxes with a powerful plea for him to change his heart” (11). One can’t help but appreciate Keller’s ability to correctly pick up on this from context.
However, a fatal flaw runs throughout his entire treatment of the parable. This flaw is connected to his identification of the elder brother. Keller’s favorite term for identifying elder brothers is that they are the “religious.” A striking example of this is found on pages 76-79. Here he asserts that “churches in the heartland” are “dominated by elder brothers” on the basis of his experience starting his church in New York (76). In the very first chapter he even goes so far as to assert that Christianity is not actually a religion (15-17). Part of this problem is that this use of the word religion creates confusion. For example, Keller argues that the religious were the ones offended and turned away by Jesus while the irreligious weren’t (17-18). This misses the point that the real issue wasn’t whether people were religious, but rather that they were self-righteous. Keller’s failure to make this distinction leads him to contrast Nicodemus with the woman at the well, saying that Nicodemus was a religious person who was turned off by Jesus while the woman who was a “sexual outcast” was attracted to Jesus (17-18). Occasionally Keller correctly labels the problem that got between people and Jesus as self-righteousness (38), but more often he is interested in trying to make the label “religious/religion” apply to this problem (44). This even leads him to assert, “A fundamental insight of Martin Luther’s was that ‘religion’ is the default mode of the human heart” (128). The truth is, such a loose way of citing Luther only works if you accept the complete redefinition of the word “religion” that Keller tries to make.
If one would simply go through the book and replace every instance of the word “religion” with “self-righteous” it would go a long way to improving the clarity and content. Nevertheless, it would still fail to solve another critical issue. In the sixth chapter Keller makes a commendable effort to present the heart of the gospel, the selfless sacrifice of Christ. Unfortunately after placing the gospel right in front of his readers he literally takes it away in the seventh chapter. He actually says, “If you are filled with shame and guilt, you do not merely need to believe in the abstract concept of God’s mercy. You must sense, on the palate of the heart as it were, the sweetness of his mercy. Then you will know that you are accepted” (122). This emphasis on experience over faith runs completely counter to the simple answer of Paul to the jailer at Philippi “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Later in the same chapter as Keller talks about the communal nature of Christianity, he asserts strongly that a Christian cannot grow spiritually, come to know Jesus, or live a Christian life without being part of a Christian community (140-143). In explaining why this is he makes no reference to the means of grace. Rather he shares a section of an essay from C.S. Lewis where Lewis makes the point that “it took a community to know an individual. How much more would this be true of Jesus Christ” (142).
In replacing the means of grace with nothing deeper than community one finally sees the root problem to which all the others connect. Keller’s attempt to present the Christian message is mired in postmodern thinking. It is both postmodernism’s disdain for organized religion with its objective truth and also postmodernism’s acceptance of personal meaning trumping objective meaning that permits the abuse Keller makes of the term “religion.” The emphasis on an experience beyond simply believing is entirely in line with postmodernism’s stress on personal experience as the standard for all else. Thus also the objective truths and teachings of Scripture naturally take a back seat to the shared experiences of others in how one comes to know the Savior.
While Keller’s book is a relatively quick read, in this reviewer’s opinion, there are plenty of other books a busy pastor would find more edifying. If you find yourself in an area where you deal regularly with people who have an interest in Jesus but hate religion, this book will certainly give you some insight into how some churches play to that concept. However, you could probably save yourself the trouble of reading Keller’s book to learn about that issue if you simply watch the Youtube video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” by Jefferson Bethke. If you check out that video, you should also watch the Youtube video “Freestylin’: Jesus = Religion” by LCMS pastor, Rev. Jonathan Fisk, which offers a useful deconstruction of the argument that pits religion against Jesus.