by Timothy Keller
Riverhead Books (Penguin group) 2010

It’s rare to find a book of this sort among those narrow-minded ‘evangelicals’. Timothy Keller blows his shofar loud and clear to awaken such supine, passive ‘christians’ to direct action to bring about ‘social justice’ which, he contends, is an integral part of the mandate handed down to the disciples of Yeshua Mashiach.

This, of course, must come as sweet music to the ears of those who believe that ‘social justice’ is a central aspect of any political agenda. But Keller is careful to qualify that the mandate he speaks about is different from that proposed by strategists of cultural and political gain. In fact, he labours the point that the ones fulfilling G-d’s mandate to facilitate ‘social justice’ must be careful to keep an arm’s length distance from those who would hijack the notion of ‘social justice’ for ‘secular’ reasons and purposes. In other words, he expects the efforts to bring about ‘social justice’ to be an act of Divine Love that does not expect anything in return other than the betterment of one’s fellow being and communities.

Nishkama Karma is how Indians would understand this. But Keller’s underlying argument, of course, is that there is no better manual to bring about ‘social justice’ on the late great Planet Earth than G-d’s Word (The Bible). He can be excused for taking a religious, fundamentalist position because, as one reads through the book, one can yet access the ‘ring of truth’, a deep sincerity and commitment towards seeing ‘social justice’.

Keller, to drive his point home, draws the readers’ attention to several passages in Old Testament books like Deuteronomy to excavate verses and principles that indicate G-d’s concern not just with enabling a change of heart in people but also in ensuring the creation of a just society.

For instance, though we have moved from the hunter-gatherer or pastoral societies and economies to information, knowledge and technology-driven societies and economies, he dredges up the principle behind an injunction in the Old Testament to leave the peripheral areas of a field being harvested as spaces in which the poor can ‘glean’ grain. In today’s world, perhaps, this notion of allowing the poor to ‘glean’ from the fields of the rich might be seen as, unintentionally, what is usually termed Corporate Social Responsibility! And prior to the Congress party’s ignominious defeat in the Lok Sabha elections, the government had come up with a compulsory formula for corporates to contribute more funds towards CSR.

Salvation, in Keller’s view, is not just about individual understanding or ecstasy through knowledge of the vicarious sacrifice of Yeshua Mashiach but also about bringing about justice on earth, especially for the oppressed, downtrodden and poverty-stricken. Apart from quoting famous preachers like Jonathan Edwards and sundry theologians, he also highlights professors discussing the theme in prestigious intellectual journals like the Harvard Review.

What’s more, proving a rare ability to be intellectually honest while holding fast to his religious beliefs and quite unlike the standard paranoid evangelical leaders, Keller is not unafraid to cite the example of Walter Rauschenbusch who discovered that his “inherited ideas about the inerrancy of the Bible became untenable” and doubted the substitutionary atonement; “it was not taught by Jesus; it makes salvation dependent upon a trinitarian transaction that is remote from human experience; and it implies a concept of divine justice that is repugnant to human sensitivity.”

Rauschenbusch practiced what came to be known as the ‘social gospel’ – which pushed the emphasis from salvation from personal sins to deliverance of the community from social sins. The six social sins which led to the crucifixion of Yeshua Moshiach were, according to Rauschenbusch, “religious bigotry, the combination of graft and political power, the corruption of justice, the mob spirit (being “the social group gone mad”) and mob action, militarism, and class contempt”. Keller’s work, one discovers, is in deep ‘solidarity’ with Rauschenbusch in all these aspects. Their approaches on the ‘how’ of dealing with the social sins will, naturally, differ. For Keller is duty-bound to keep the tension between proclaiming the vicarious sacrifice of Yeshua Mashiach and social alive!

Another figure Keller refers to is Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Peruvian Catholic priest and founder of Liberation Theology, who also crossed religious boundaries to cross-pollinate insights gleaned from leading Catholic and Protestant theologians in combination with direct experiences and encounters with the marginalized and oppressed poor in Peru and other countries. In his oft-quoted words: “I desire that the hunger for God may remain, that the hunger for bread may be satisfied… Hunger for God, yes; hunger for bread, no.” Keller and Gutiérrez are once again in ‘solidarity’ when they return to Old Testament tenets and James who does not spare the rich in his epistle for their exploitative ways.

Keller brings his thesis down to earth with examples from his own church in dealing with down-and-out individuals in their neighbourhood. His book includes a very powerful exegesis of Luke 10 wherein a lawyer asks Yeshua ‘Who is my neighbor?’ and the Mashiach responds with the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Dealing with problems of justice that affect the individual, families and communities is not a cakewalk, of this Keller is sure. He use the example of a hard-pressed woman living in the neighbourhood of his own church and how his congregation had to take a long and winding road to bring her out of poverty. The church faced its first challenge when the money it had given the lady to enable her to pay off debts and piled up bills was instead spent by her taking her children out to restaurants and buying them new bikes. Some in the church argued against her being supported further, but wisdom dawned. She couldn’t be blamed for giving her deprived kids a taste of happiness like other ‘normal’ people. Over time, the church could steer her out of her debts and empower her with a job and, what’s more, confidence and hope.

Keller ventures further abroad by citing more examples of Christian leaders who have sought to bring about social justice by identifying with and working within communities and peoples’ groups to bring about socio-economic uplift on a broad front. For instance, he points out, sexual trafficking is not just about the oppression of an individual trapped in the culture of crime or the business, but also about discovering and laying the axe to the root of the system that allows for trafficking and that has forged it into a multi-million dollar industry.

One of the examples of success he cites is the community of Sandtown, being rebuilt since 1986 by New Song Community Church, with blacks and whites working together in harmony. New Song is at the heart of “Christian community development,” a movement founded by the Rev. John M. Perkins that espouses black and white Christians working together to mend America’s poorest urban neighborhoods.

To conclude, I want to mention a couple of things I learnt by reading this book.

One, I had not known that the ‘deacons’ are the ones trained in the churches to be involved with and to facilitate community needs and disparities. Also, while deacons may be in the forefront of empowering the impoverished using church resources, Keller suggests that churches set up humanitarian institutions like Habitat for Humanity to get involved with ‘social justice’ actions. This would allow the churches themselves to focus on the spiritual aspect of bringing souls to Christ’s salvation. In any case, more power to the ‘diaconate’ which has existed since apostolic times!

Two, the extended meanings of the Hebrew word for peace – Shalom – is ‘harmonious community’ impossible without a critical mass created via the transformation of the individual through the atoning sacrifice of Yeshua Mashiach and the involvement of groups of transformed people with the neighbourhood and community at large.

This is going to be a major challenge for Indian Christian churches in the coming decade and meeting it will involve Indian Christians understanding their neighbours, their belief systems, their stories, their deepest needs, and interacting increasingly with them instead of retreating into ‘christian’ ghettos with lines drawn between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Keller writes of how the Old Testament enjoins G-d’s people to protect the rights of the immigrant and the homeless. Communities-in-harmony would necessarily be pluralistic and multicultural, with riches and opportunities being redistributed in varying seasons to strengthen the ‘whole’.

If ruled by ‘Shalom’, the ‘peace that passes understanding’, one can imagine that Christians who are the ‘salt’ and the ‘leaven’ and the ‘light’ of the world, have done a good job in following in the footsteps of the Mashiach. Utopian? Not necessarily, if one begins with small steps in the direction of ‘social justice’ for, as Yeshua put it, ‘a little leaven leaveneth the whole.’
(c) A V Varghese 2014


The Book: THE PRODIGAL GOD – Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith

Published by: Dutton (the Penguin Group) 2008


Two things tempted me to read ‘The Prodigal God’ by Timothy Keller. One, the title! Few Evangelical books have intriguing titles but this one did. Two, the inner sleeve read: ‘Newsweek called New York Times bestselling author Timothy Keller a “C S Lewis for the twenty-first century’. And that Keller is surely not!

And then I want to get to the marrow of the book by mentioning a couple of personal experiences. In the late 80s, as a so-called ‘leader’ of the Thiruvananthapuram Evangelical Union, a branch of the umbrella Union of Evangelical Students of India, I received a summons to a ‘trial’ by three ‘overseers’. The charges included issues like my wife and I wearing exactly the same type of jeans and t-shirts (women shouldn’t dress up like men and vice-versa, or were they just confused entirely?); instigating believing students to go to filthy theatres to watch films (I had indeed encouraged students to go see The Ten Commandments in a city theatre and thereafter distribute tracts inviting people to receive Jesus as Saviour!); instigating students to read ‘secular’ books (one leader had attacked my brother for reading sci-fi and I defended his reading habits!); suggesting that water baptism is a matter between the individual and the Lord Himself and the possibility that the baptism of the Holy Spirit and distribution of His gifts including tongues was extant; and, finally, bringing in ‘division’ in the fellowship by means of such ‘sinful’ actions and behaviour. The verdict, of course, was: Get thee hence, Satan! The curtain was thus drawn on my role upon the UESI-EU stage!

Fast forward to a couple of years later. I am at a ‘Christian’ conference in Bangalore during which a leader directly asks me, suspiciously: How did you become a Christian? Followed by: Who told you that you are a Christian? Followed by: If you say so, why aren’t you baptised (by immersion)? There is a moment of deep hurt, and the inner resolution is made that such boors cannot quench my love for Jesus.

But many years later, as a local ‘leader’ of a ‘holiness’ and ‘works’ cult out of Norway that believed that Jesus overcame sin in His flesh and became ‘god’, it dawned on me that I had appropriated the very same persona (it rubs off easily on those who have high spiritual ambitions!) of those who sought to harm me and hurt me in my spiritual journey with Jesus and that I was leaving a series of people I had hurt similarly in my wake. It all came to a startling end when the Cosmos or G-d organised a set of circumstances about which all I can testify is Isaiah 53:10: Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.

Down the line, this ‘leader’, back bent under the legalistic requirements of the ‘gospel’, also took the route of the Prodigal! And, a little later, it was even more surprising for him to discover that even if one confessed to ones sin(s), forgiveness would not be forthcoming from those who claimed to be the Body of Christ! That was the last straw on a drowning camel’s back and it became clear that one need only to somehow believe in and follow Jesus Christ while taking Christianity, its adherents and its bizarre formats, especially the Evangelical versions, with more than a pinch of salt if one was to retain one’s sanity and sustain one’s faith in the Saviour and His goodness.

In other words, the religion of Christianity had become suspect as well as the notions of ‘fellowship’, ‘church’ and ‘community’. The journey was meant to be undertaken alone, I understood, and, occasionally, one would encounter another lonely pilgrim as myself and there would be singular moments of joy, understanding and a sharing of stories! Keller understands something of such experiences!

There are two unique aspects that the writer highlights. One, he rechristens the ‘Parable of The Prodigal Son’ as the “Parable of the Two Lost Sons’. Two, he emphasises ‘prodigal’ as ‘recklessly extravagant’ and ‘having spent everything’. In a reversal of roles, he points out that it was not the Prodigal Son alone who was ‘recklessly extravagant and had spent everything’ but that his Father was even more ‘recklessly extravagant’ and willing to spend everything in terms of his material wealth, forgiveness and love towards not only the Prodigal Son who had returned but also the Elder Brother who resented the celebration of the Prodigal’s return.

The Father in the parable, of course, is a picture of G-d that Jesus was painting for his listeners. But the more important picture that Jesus had painted was one that made the Pharisees and Scribes angry and offended. They were the Elder Brother. Worse, they understood that Jesus was singling out ‘religious moralism as a particularly deadly spiritual condition’. While the Younger Brother might have been irreligious and debauched, the Elder Brother was in a worse condition. And, Keller doesn’t mince words when he says that the ‘churches’ are filled with ‘elder brothers’, all patting each other on the back and condemning those who were dissimilar.

Therefore, the ‘younger brothers’ avoid the ‘churches’ and Christianity although they are naturally drawn to Jesus, more so than the moralists. Both brothers were out of the Way, as it were, but the Elder Brother was in graver danger. “The tax collectors and the prostitutes enter the kingdom before you.” (Matthew 21:31)

Keller’s attempt is to draw us towards a ‘real’ Christianity at the centre of which is a Father who out of a ‘recklessly extravagant’ love ‘spent everything’ in letting His Son, Jesus, to be sacrificed for the sins of the individual, all humanity and the material planetary whole in his Plan of Redemption. He contrasts this ‘costly grace’ with ‘cheap grace’ and attempts to draw the reader towards the Love of a Father who has the unenvious task of persuading both the Elder Brother and the Younger Brother about its authenticity and overflow. And it is only by being convicted of such a Love and the Sacrifice behind it, that one can come upon a new way of life and into a new community made up of those who have been gripped of this reality, Keller says.

The spiritual path that posits that one can earn salvation by good and moral works and the path that seeks to come to salvation by following ‘the philosophy of individual fulfilment and self-discovery’ are both deficient, Keller asserts. What is needed is a ‘new perspective’ that can be found in and through Jesus Christ.

So far, so good. But Keller stumbles when he tries to draw a distinction between ‘conventional Christianity’ and ‘real Christianity’. The very word ‘Christianity’ implies a religion, a doctrine, a dogma, organisation and the mechanics of proselytisation, warts and all, or otherwise. What he has missed is that it is one thing to be called ‘Christian’ by ‘others’ (Acts 11: 26b And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch) who noticed the goings-on individuals-in-community that had come into the Love of the Father through the Sacrifice of the Son in the Holy Spirit. But, it is another to claim to be a ‘Christian’ with the sub-text that one is ‘elect’ while others are ‘damned’. The former bears witness almost unconsciously and naturally by means of a “Way of Life’ that cannot but be noticed by ‘others’. The latter seeks to draw attention to oneself with the objective of ‘proselytisation’ and garnering numbers. Not always, one might argue. And, yet!

Salvation, Keller notes, is experiential, material, individual and communal. Spiritual giants have often appeared in different cultures who have emphasised these layers of the one whole of what in India is considered as Moksha. The ‘exile’ yearning to ‘return home’ is also a universal theme in stories and a very present meme. And, if salvation is experiential and individual, then it is important to not reject the ‘others’ who, like authentic Christians, claim to have experienced G-d’s love, to have experienced ‘Moksha’ or ‘Samadhi’ or ‘Satori’ or ‘Nirbana’. And to remember that, that which is individual and experiential is not exactly verifiable – a certain subjectivity enters in. The hermeneutics of suspicion might not exactly be a virtue always!

The cultural context, tradition and milieu also matters. Keller sticks to the cultural, theological matrix he is most familiar with and offers a ‘universal’ solution that emerges from that space, intellectually speaking. But he is using a Western construct, one that has never seriously engaged itself with alternative spiritual constructs that relate to the pursuit of G-d and His love and to becoming ‘one’ with Him. Or, in simpler terms, ‘other’ constructs that also address ‘the return of the exile’ to the Father’s ‘Home’. John 10: 16 And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.

Keller also surmises that the central Eastern thesis about matter and the material world is that it is Maya or ‘illusion’ without exactly unfolding the metaphors contained within the idea. I am curious as to why he does not relate it to the ‘Christian’ idea of the flesh (matter/material) being ‘useless’ (John 6:63), or Peter using the metaphor of ‘striking tent’ when one has to leave one’s body behind at death, or the glorious hope and promise of a New Earth and New Heaven, signifying that the old earth and heavens is ready to be disposed off, materially! The Eastern idea of Maya encapsulates such notions and cannot be dismissed blithely or in passing!

Further, the highest Eastern traditions also pay attention to the material, to preserving the ecological balance, ‘worshipping Mother Nature’ instead of denuding her, and so on. The issue is always one of emphasis or neglect. Remember Francis Schaeffer’s book Pollution and the Death of Man (1970), possibly the first time an Evangelical recognised how Christianity, perhaps indirectly and unconsciously, had contributed to the destruction of ecosystems because its adherents had opted to emphasise ‘dominion’ over ‘stewardship’.

Finally, coming to the idea of salvation being ‘communal’, I am wary of the word ‘communal’ which has a pejorative connotation, especially in a country like India. To be ‘communal’ today means to be biased towards one’s own crowd while criticising or finding fault with and looking down on ‘other’ groupings. I would rather believe that salvation is about creating a ‘community’ – not just of ‘aye-sayers’ and which touts exclusivity – that is inclusive.

The critical question here, also implied in Keller’s book, pertains to the nature of the Father and the Son. Is it inclusivist or exclusivist? If Jesus died for ALL, then the nature and being of the Trinity is inclusivist. Is anyone excluded from the death of Jesus on the execution stake? Was that death on behalf of all human beings intended to create an exclusive community that could boast in its own individual and collective salvation but rejoice over the annihilation of the ‘prodigal’? Keller, it seems to me, trumpets a resounding NO to that thesis!

If the sacrifice of Jesus is the sign of G-d’s prodigality, His ‘having spent everything’ for the sake of Humanity and his ‘extravagant recklessness’ towards every human being, the beasts and the material world, and if one has come to the ‘revelation’ or ‘enlightenment’ or ‘zazen’ about how one has been included in that uttermost act of forgiveness and generous giving, what is left?

John 13: 34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

It means: Love an Other.

(c) Ampat V Varghese 2014

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: