I have recently finished the book, The Prodigal God, by Tim Keller. It was wonderful.
I find that I digest a book best this way: While I am reading, I am marking it up. I underline things in different ways with different emphases. I star particularly great passages that I want to write down, and I write notes of either outlining or summarizing words or questions or connected thoughts or references in the margins. And if I really like the book, I'll look back through the markings when I'm done. It's almost like studying for a final in school. That's when I digest it the most and see it all in the big picture.
Keller has written an easily accessible entry into some deep understandings of human nature. Kierkegaard, and a number of modern novelists build on the character traits of those in the story that we usually call the Prodigal Son. Keller himself uses the delineation a of these characters throughout his other works that I've read, whether they are works of ecclesiology (studying church dynamics) or theology and Biblical studies. There is a grand tradition of seeing people through the lenses of these three main characters - and it works. And Keller does a good job at explicating them in this story.
Keller begins his book saying, "This short book is meant to lay out the essentials of the Christian message, the gospel." (P. XI). It is for both seekers and Christians at all levels of maturity as it grounds everything in the good news of the Father's love for his sons and invitation to the celebration of life. Keller surprises us by proposing that the term "prodigal", which means "reckless", is as applicable to the father's extravagant love as it is to the wayward son. Thus, this is the story of the "Prodigal God."
The body of the book begins with the context of the parable. Jesus is surrounded by two types of people: sinners and Pharisees. They are mirrored in the characters in our story, and, as Keller writes, "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. 11). In the story, the younger son's alienation from the father is resolved, but the older son's isn't. Keller writes, "He is on the side of neither the irreligious nor the religious, but he singles out religious moralism as a particularly deadly spiritual condition." (p. 13). Jesus directs this parable primarily to the Pharisees, and challenges them directly with the older brother. They don't much like it. As a matter of fact, it appears that the irreligious are more drawn to be in relationship with Jesus than the religious.
It challenges us in the church as well. We have to ask ourselves the ground of our relationship with the Father. Do we rely on our own moralism, or do we simply rely on grace? Deep inside, what is our motivation to obedience? It means everything. There's a third way to live. It will be expressed through the rest of the book.
In coming days, I'll write more observations through the rest of Keller's work. For those who make their way to this blog, it is more than anything an invitation to spiritual conversation. Please respond with your thoughts. We have a great Sunday School class around scripture. I am hoping we can extend the conversation online and include more people. I also encourage you to be inspired to pick up Keller's book. It is a quick, easy, deepening read, and conversations around it would certainly enrich our bonds of community. My hope is, whether you pick up the book or not, let's pursue God together in our online conversation. And may the conversation continue offline as well.