Timothy Keller, “The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith”

I read this book in one day, demonstrating that it is both well-written and short (133 small pages).  And, while I like Pastor Keller and have read much by him, I have also have to say that this particular book was largely disappointing.  Central to the book is a tendentious reading of the parable of the prodigal son, arguing that it is as much a condemnation of the elder son as anything else.

Also, and perhaps relatedly, the author here is very down on fear of punishment as a motive; he prefers the positive motivation.  See also pages 85-86 (to change “the inner workings of the heart … from a dynamic of fear and anger to that of love, joy, and gratitude …. [y]ou need to be moved by the sight of what it cost to bring you home”).

On the other hand, the section on “Salvation Is Communal” (124-27, footnote omitted) is good (and includes a lot from C.S. Lewis):

… Feasting is communal by nature. No reunion, family gathering, wedding, or other significant social event is complete without a meal. When we invite someone to eat with us, it is an invitation to relax a bit and get to know one another. In many cultures, to offer to eat with someone is to offer them friendship.

   We live in a culture in which the interests and desires of the individual take precedence over those of the family, group, or community. As a result, a high percentage of people want to achieve spiritual growth without losing their independence to a church or to any organized institution. This is often the meaning behind the common protestations “I am spiritual, but not religious” and “I like Jesus, but not Christianity.” Many people who are spiritually searching have had bad experiences with churches. So they want nothing further to do with them. They are interested in a relationship with God, but not if they have to be part of an organization.

   I have explained in this book why churches – and all religious institutions – are often too unpleasant. They are filled with elder brothers. Yet staying away from them simply because they have elder brothers is just another form of self-righteousness. Besides that, there is no way you will be able to grow spiritually apart from a deep involvement in a community of other believers. You can’t live the Christian life without a band of Christian friends, without a family of believers in which you find a place.

   C.S. Lewis was part of a famous circle of friends called the Inklings, which included J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, and also the author Charles Williams, who died unexpectedly after World War II. In his book The Four Loves, Lewis wrote a striking meditation on his death in an essay entitled “Friendship.”

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles [Williams] is dead, I shall never again see Ronald [Tolkien’s] reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him to “myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald…In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying, “Holy, Holy, Holy” to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.

   Lewis is saying that it took a community to know an individual. How much more would this be true of Jesus Christ? Christians commonly say they want a relationship with Jesus, that they want to “get to know Jesus better.” You will never be able to do that by yourself. You must be deeply involved in the church, in Christian community, with strong relationships of love and accountability. Only if you are 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.

Footnotes in the book include references to C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, and Tolkien.  One of the former includes a good discussion of sehnsucht (see pages 92-95 and, then, 97-98, which is, in turn, an interesting discussion of how exile and trying to get home is a repeated theme in the Bible — and speaks to all of us; cf. Walker Percy’s castaway in The Message in the Bottle).