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Timothy Keller is one of the prominent Evangelical thinkers and writers of our time. His first book 'The Reason For God' made him a firm advocate of apologetics, and also branded him 'a C.S Lewis for the twenty-first century'. Keller's writing is clear and inspiring, and his pioneering of new urban Christianity is thoroughly Biblical. The Prodigal God is a little different in that it focuses on one parable told by Jesus in the New Testament, and simply expounds it in short sections.
Keller explains in his introduction that he was led to the view that the Parable of the Prodigal Son contains the heart of the Christian message by a sermon he heard on the subject by Dr. Edmund P. Clowney. Keller has come to the belief that it is one of the most misunderstood of Jesus' parables, and that it contains the doctrines of grace and repentance more clearly than any other.
Firstly, it is important to understand that although this book is written for Christians, those who are interested in finding out about Christianity should read it too, because it explains, using just one story in the Bible, the lostness of humanity, and the need for God's forgiveness. The first misapprehension that Keller addresses, therefore, is the meaning of 'prodigal'. Even if you're not a Christian, you'll probably know the story of the Prodigal Son, or at least will have heard that turn of phrase, to describe someone who has returned after a long time. Prodigal actually means 'recklessly extravagant/ having spent everything', therefore it describes the lost son's going away, rather than his coming back. This is the reason for Keller's striking title. 'The Prodigal God' describes God's outstanding gift when he recklessly saved mankind on the cross, and this is the message that Keller intends to get across.
The second misapprehension that Keller addresses is that one of the father's sons is lost, and the other is a good son. In fact, Jesus told the parable to both kinds of son: 'tax collectors and sinners' (the outcasts of society who looked about as wild as they could be) and 'pharisees' (religious leaders, who looked good, but were in fact just as bad, if not worse). One of the central themes of the book, therefore, is that churches are full of 'older brothers': those who think they are justified by their religious excellence, and their 'goodness', and that great humility is required by Christians to realise that they are in fact older brothers at heart.
Keller therefore explains how Jesus redefined lostness and redefined sin in his parable. The second half of the book is application of these key doctrines, in seeing Jesus as the true elder brother, in redefining hope and in understanding God, the reckless father. I will not go into any more detail about this section, as it is something to be understood in the context of the first half. The chapters of the book are:
1) The people around Jesus - explains Jesus' audience and why he told this parable
2) The two lost sons - explains how when we dig deep, we see that both sons are 'lost', like the sheep and coins of the two previous parables
3) Redefining sin - explains the two ways of finding happiness described in the parable, and how they are both wrong.
4) Redefining lostness - what it means to be spiritually lost.
5) The true elder brother - explains Jesus' saving grace in 'finding' us.
6) Redefining hope
7) The feast of the Father
Apart from the already explained doctrinal excellence of this book, there are other significant strengths of it. Firstly, it's very easy to read, and doesn't use any long words, but rather explains everything very fully. Secondly, it's very short and well-divided so that it reads well and doesn't meander whatsoever.
Keller does refer back to the passage often, in order to back up his argument, however I do believe that occasionally, he stretches the text too far. For example, his chapter on Jesus as the true elder brother does not, I believe have any grounding from the text, although it is certainly true and relevant. I personally believe that he should have kept to expounding the text instead of drawing his own conclusions about parallels we can draw and thus stretching the metaphor too far. I also wonder if he went too far with describing the heavenly feast, since this doesn't bear too much relation to the passage, but I'm nit-picking really; the rest of the book is wholly convincing.
In conclusion, The Prodigal God is suitable particularly for growing Christians, who need to have the gospel message described to them freshly, and it really can be life-changing, as it suggests on the back cover. If Tim Keller does succeed in recovering the heart of the Christian faith by this book, then he has chosen his parable well. I do believe that the Prodigal Son has much more relevance than Christians usually admit, and I am a firm advocate of clearly defining sin, as Keller insists. That's why this book is also suitable for those interested in finding out what Christianity is, since Keller writes incredibly clearly and uses Jesus' own gospel explanation, instead of one he has fabricated himself. Because of Keller's occasionally stretching the metaphor too far, in my opinion, I would give it 4.5/5 stars if I could, but since I can't, I'm rounding!
You can buy The Prodigal God in paperback for £4.99 (reduced) from Amazon, and in hardback for £10.98.