For a long time, I have planned to write a review of Timothy Keller’s book The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (my copy is published by Dutton and copyrighted 2008). One reason for not writing the review has been that I am late to the game. The book has been out for a while. However, with the recent passing of the author, the book has once again risen to prominence. To my astonishment, I have seen many people on social media recommending The Prodigal God in memory of Timothy Keller. I decided it was time to revive my long-delayed project.
In my next post, I will get into my actual critique of the book, but I generally find it necessary up front to make all the required balancing statements before the critique will even receive a hearing. For example, Christians have a hard time swallowing critique of a well-loved book by a well-loved author. I find that much of Keller’s material receives a free pass simply because Keller is Keller. But Christians should not be respecters of persons. Just as the Bereans checked out the teachings of the apostle Paul, so we too should double-check the teachings of an author – even Keller.
Whenever I offer a critique of a book, people shrug off my critique with the old maxim “chew the meat and spit out the bones.” In other words, no book is perfect. In order to benefit from any book, we have to develop the habit of passing over the flaws and enjoying the good points. I definitely agree with this outlook. I have read and benefitted from a lot of books I disagree with.
However, the real question is what does it take for me to recommend a book to someone else? For that, the book has to have more meat than bones. The good stuff has to outweigh the bad. I need to be able to say, “This book is pretty/very good. I don’t agree with everything, but I agree with most of it.” The major points of the argument should be sound. I may dislike a subpoint here or there, but I agree with the overall message. I should not be picking over the bones hoping to find a morsel of good meat here or there.
A book like The Prodigal God is supposed to be a comment on a text of Scripture, so it is especially not a matter of opinion. The author should at least get the basic facts of the text and the basic understanding of the text straight. The reader may quibble about some of the details or ambiguities of the text, but overall the author should get the basic biblical understanding straight. You have to remember that a book has undergone a lengthy publishing process. The author and the editing staff have had a lot of opportunity to get it right. There is no excuse for a book to be published with basic inaccuracies.
Sometimes if I offer a critique of a book, people accuse me of not giving the book a favorable reading. I agree that it is important to not maliciously misunderstand an author, but I also think it is important to let the author speak for himself. We should not reinterpret the author’s words to fit our perspective of what we think is right. The author says what the author says, not what we wish he says. This includes matters of emphasis. The author determines his main points. The author’s main points may not be what we find most important in his book, but we are not the author. The author’s main points should be the meat, not the bones.
A book like The Prodigal God becomes a cherished book for many people because for them it was the first place they hear of certain key truths. They read the book, and it communicates the truth in a way that makes sense at a critical juncture in their lives. However, it’s not the book that grabs hold of you. It’s the truth. What can often happen is that you learn the truth, but grow past the book. Before recommending the book, it is always wise to review it to make sure you still find it mostly meat rather than bones.
Not many authors or scholars will give a detailed response to a book like The Prodigal God. The book is written for a more popular audience, and since it is so well-loved, any critique will receive backlash. Keller was friends with many of the authors who might have been willing to critique the book, so there was a danger of relationship fallout. The book generally affirms the gospel, so critics would be loathe to put down a book that has accomplished so much good. Furthermore, the book is short, so a detailed response would be almost the same length. As a result, a book like The Prodigal God can stand uncontested, giving readers the false impression that pastors, teachers, and scholars are largely in agreement with the contents of the book.
Finally, many contemporary Christian authors and speakers fall prey to the logical fallacy of the false dichotomy. A case could be made that Keller has been the worst culprit. False dichotomies are one of his favorite rhetorical devices, ranking right up there with quotes from Tolkien. A false dichotomy makes something an either/or when it could be a both/and. Keller usually phrases it in the following format: “It’s not _______, but it’s ________.” However, in The Prodigal God, Keller uses false dichotomies in less transparent ways. The reason I mention it is that many readers glaze right over a false dichotomy, but false dichotomies can be very dangerous. They can warp your understanding of important truths.
Well, perhaps that is enough background. Now I can get on with my actual review.
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