the prodigal god

If you have a spare $20 and an extra 2 hours to go with it I have a great idea on how to use that cash and time.

Buy and read Tim Keller's little book, The Prodigal God. I read it on a return flight to Wellington last week. It has been around for a couple of years and is the author's second best-seller after The Reason for God, which I reviewed here.
And then if you have more money and more time there is a bit of an industry that has developed around the book. There is a teaching film on DVD ... also a step-by-step guide to offering the Prodigal God Church Experience ... the Prodigal God Curriculum Kit ... or, you could listen to Keller preach the Prodigal God series here.

But don't let the industry put you off. This is a seriously good little book and Keller is as close to a 'full of grace, full of truth' preacher as there is today. But as I read I found myself jotting down the things I'd love to chat with Keller about in an imaginary conversation about the book. I have a few questions for him! Here goes with a handful...

1. Yes, I can overhear Kenneth Bailey's material in your writing (as you acknowledge). The evangelical world took about two decades to wake-up to Bailey's work - but people got there in the end. But what I want to know is did you have an eye on Henri Nouwen's Return of the Prodigal Son and Marsha Witten's All is Forgiven as well? It is these two authors who have arrested me in more recent years, with Witten's book being a most uncomfortable read. She examines the finest sermons on Luke 15 from some of America's most unimpeachable evangelicals and finds more than a trace of pure secularism as the urge to be relevant has overwhelmed them.

2. What about the parable that annoys people the most today: The Labourers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20)? To what extent does it contain the same message as A Man had Two Sons in Luke 15? One parable set in the world of work and the other set in the world of family - but the same message? What do you think? I find the continuities in the messages to be intriguing - and maybe the discontinuities as well!

3. Yes, I understand the 'all is grace' message. There is nothing we can do to merit God's favour. Understood. The elder brother and the pharisees struggled to get this. If walking through the door marks the process/time of conversion then before the door there is nothing we can do to usher ourselves through the door. Yep. Got it. But what about after the door? How do we know we are through the door? This one troubles me deeply. I think the New Testament teaches that it is actually good works that demonstrate we are through the door. That is the reason James is in the New Testament, isn't it? Using a cricket analogy (which your English connections may help you to understand - kinda like baseball but far better - the New Zealand team is playing in Florida next month so keep an eye out for them) I tried to make a case for this here. I can't help thinking that in trying to expose the errors of the elder brother you have left this truth understated - apart from a few paragraphs related to Matthew 25 on p111f.

4. You close with the illustration of the plotline in the Danish film, Babette's Feast (by the way, your illustrations in this book are simply masterful). Ahh - a slow-moving movie of such beauty. But what do you think about Chocolat? Lacks the same charm - but does it cover the same plotline - or do you think there are significant differences?

5. As you did in The Reason for God, you put your finger on this problem of self-centeredness. We are at the centre of our world. Contrary to Rick Warren's opening line, Western Christianity points to the truth that "it IS all about me". But as you say, "We must learn 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." (78) How do we help people towards a deeper conversion so that their world revolves around God, rather than God being one of many who revolve around them?

nice chatting, in an imaginary sort of way



Ali said…
Hi Paul,

I don't know if you have had the opportunity to listen to many of Tim Keller's sermons, but he answers some of these questions to one degree or another throughout his preaching.

By all accounts, he's a better preacher than writer (his Prodigal God DVD doesn't really show him at his best, but the audio messages on that are better).

If you need a link, let me know. But they're pretty easy to find via Google.
Ben Carswell said…
I feel I've been commenting a lot lately, so I'll keep this brief!
Kenneth Bailey - why is he not known so much? In my opinion, he's a brilliant scholar & his books are some of the most helpful books to read in personal study & sermon prep.
Chocolat - very interesting. I've never read the book, and have seen the film once. However, I knew Joanne Harris (the author) in my school days - she was a French teacher at our school. She wrote the book based on our school - the plot is the tension between the French State & Religious authorities. She had a constant battle at school with the Religious Education teacher. There's a little old man with a dog - that was Mr Fry, the Physics teacher - an eccentric, delightful chap.

I could tell you more, but I'll save it for another time. I just wish as a 17 year old doing A-levels, that'd I'd paid more attention when Mrs Harris told us about this book she was writing & how she'd gone about it!
Mark Maffey said…
Hi Paul

It seems to me that for a Prodigal to come back there is amazing grace in place which saves the wretch, but there is also the choice to return, to repent, and to make a decision to turn-around to change from the wide way to the narrow way.

I have just been re-engaging with John 13-17 and in doing so have pondered afresh the imperiative "if you love me obey commandments", John 14v1 we have the call to trust, and John 14v15 the call to obey.

Jesus in his interaction with his disciples is clearly reinforcing the principle that their love for him should drive, impel them to serve, no more so than John 13.

It seems to me that the repentant, the journeying pilgrim is call to trust and obey, and to do such in light of God's grace and out of love for him
Paul said…
Thanks for the comments. Very helpful.

Yes, I have the links, Ali - just haven't listened to them yet :)

Ken Bailey is well-known now - but his magnus opus came out in the mid70s - and then it wasn't until the 90s (from memory) that they started pushing through the printings of the book. His brand of sensitivity to "literary-cultural" features was just ahead of its time. Ben, we must have a chat about Chocolat - I love the hints of the gospel in it.

And Mark? I reckon you are onto it (probably because you agree with me!!). I am not convinced that we are sounding the right notes about how we demonstrate that grace has transformed us by the good-works lifestyle which it provokes. Eph2.10 does follow Eph2.8-9, doesn't it? ... and, of course, John 13-17!

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