The Week in Books 2009, No. 51

The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by NYC pastor Tim Keller is a short but fantastic book. I was deeply struck by Keller’s exposition of the familiar parable of the Prodigal Son, and I think any Christian who reads this book could not fail to be convicted on several points. Keller points out that the original audience of the parable was made up of “sinners” (the “younger brother” type of the parable) and Pharisees (the “older brother” type), and that with the parable Jesus actually upends their cultural self-conceptions, redefining sin not as “bad stuff” you do, but as bad stuff OR good stuff you do to try to wrest control away from God in order to be your own savior. Jesus pointed out that BOTH brothers were equally lost, and their father loved them BOTH prodigally (with reckless extravagance).

The book goes on to discuss how most people tend toward either the younger brother or the older brother mode and what it means for the institutional church that most younger brother types view the church with suspicion because it seems full of older brother types. There was some interesting food for thought there, especially in light of Keller’s particularly illuminating point that the underlying point of the parable is that Jesus is our perfect “older brother” – who gave up his rightful inheritance that we could be welcomed by the Father as the younger son was. Keller emphasizes that the older brothers that fill the churches need to be convicted of their need for Christ and to be driven to be more like Him for His sake, not out of some moralistic need to do all the right things, and that such a change would help people outside the established church to see Christ more clearly.

As I mentioned, The Prodigal God is a short book, but it is packed full of great insights. I wholeheartedly recommend it to you.

Parenting Is Your Highest Calling: And Eight Other Myths That Trap Us in Worry and Guilt is an honest and mostly on point reminder that in our zeal to defend the family and our choices about our families we ought to remember that parenting is a noble calling but it is not our HIGHEST calling – our highest calling is to relationship with God and bringing glory to Him. Fields rightly points out the dangers of making parenting our highest calling, from looking to our kids to give us validation and bring us happiness, to becoming slaves to one parenting method or another, to getting completely wound up over our responsibility for how our kids turn out (as Fields points out, a key lesson in parenting is that YOU ARE NOT JESUS; you can’t BE Jesus to your kids, you can only NEED Jesus and try to point them to Him.)

I found a lot of this to be really refreshing, especially because Fields goes to great lengths to draw her conclusions from the whole counsel of Scripture, rather than just cherry picking verses from here and there and extrapolating all sorts of hard and fast rules from them. I think it’s often hard as a mom of young kids to figure out which of the myriad conflicting parenting styles and rules you’re supposed to be using, and when you don’t get stellar results right away it’s easy to get discouraged. At that point, it can be MOST discouraging to hit the mommy blogs and read about all these chipper Super Moms who seem totally serene even though they have twice as many kids as you have and they haven’t gotten two hours of consecutive sleep in twelve years and their second grader is in med school already and so on and so on.

That sort of thing can be really inspiring most of the time, but sometimes it helps to be reminded that parenting is difficult, even for Christians, and it’s ok to be overwhelmed and admit that you’re inadequate for this job because that reminds you that you need Christ and that God is sovereign in your family. I loved this quote from a passage in which Fields examines the messed up families we read about in the Bible: “Here is what I learn from this: I am not sovereign over my children – God is. And God will use every aspect of my human parenting, even my sins and failures, to shape my children into who He desires them to be, for the sake of His kingdom.”

My one reservation about this otherwise good book was that in a few spots the author expresses a disagreement with a commonly held parenting belief and doesn’t back up her opposing view with any particular reason or Biblical point. I found that sort of odd given how thoroughly she examines Scriptures in the rest of the book – to just sort of toss off a point of view as wrong without considering it in light of God’s word seemed discordant, as though she should have just left that opinion out if she wasn’t prepared to deal with it at length in the book. That only happened once or twice though, and overall I thought this was a helpful and encouraging book.

I’m sure everyone has a few authors that they look forward to reading, and Anne Tyler is one of mine (Michael Chabon and Margaret Atwood are two others, just off the top of my head). My aunt actually gave me A Patchwork Planet last Christmas, but I kept putting it aside the way you set aside a piece of special chocolate you know you’re going to enjoy for such a time as you really need it. Christmas Day during the kids’ naptime I felt I really needed a rest to just relax and enjoy something well written and engaging, so I finally picked up this book and was not disappointed.

Tyler writes exceptionally interesting characters, particularly notable for their ordinariness. I love how she shows the ways that even random boring people can actually be fascinating. I also love that she always seems to deal with two of my favorite literary themes: identity and the search for where you belong. In this particular book Tyler focuses on the black sheep of an upstanding family (now that I think about it, the character is a good representation of the younger brother type from the prodigal parable I talked about in the first review this week) and how he goes about defining himself, being defined by others, and working out who he is going to be and where he fits in. The book also deals with different concepts of aging and various ways people deal with getting old and with old people in general, which I thought was well done and quite thought-provoking.

I would say this is not my favorite Anne Tyler book, but it was good and satisfying and I’d recommend it.

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