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Counterfeit Gods

by Timothy Keller
2009 / 240 pages

John Calvin once said, “The human heart is an idol factory. ” It makes sense that God’s prohibition of idolatry is the first commandment. The reason: we are all idolaters, and every violation of the commandments is also the breaking of the first commandment – desiring some created blessing so much that we are willing to do anything to get it, without caring how God wants us to use his blessings.

The brilliance of Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods is that it takes this plausible idea, and makes it compelling, by showing how idolatry in action has played out both in the Bible and in today’s world – and shows the solution.

Keller introduces the concept of idolatry as an explanation of the suicides of executives in response to the economic meltdown of 2008 and the utter disillusionment of Beatrice Webb and H. G. Wells after the rise of Hitler. The first chapter shows how the understanding of idolatry makes sense of one of the most puzzling stories in the Bible from the life of Abraham.

Keller also looks carefully at the lives of Jacob and Leah to analyze our own and our culture’s idolatrous attitude to sex and love. He examines how the first sight of Jesus casts down the idol of greed in the life of the tax collector Zaccheus – an idol institutionalized in our day as “the culture of greed.” Our culture’s idolatry of achievement and success as ways to validate yourself is critiqued through the Biblical example of the Syrian general Naaman. The self-glorification of Nebuchadnezzar foreshadows our own and our culture’s idolatry of power. Finally, Keller shows how the hidden cultural idols of profit, self, and nationalism can even subtly diminish our service to God, as the latter two did especially in the self-righteous ministry of Jonah.

All these exposures of the idols of our hearts would be merely disheartening (pun intended) if, as Keller shows, God did not provide a Way of escape in the person of Jesus Christ. Keller shows how setting our hearts, eyes, and ears on Him and His kingdom counsels and comforts us, in two main ways. Using counseling case studies, Keller shows how the fact that Christ has shared our suffering turns the loss of even the genuine blessings of loved one, prosperity, success, and the approval of others from causes of sinful despair to sources of sorrow in the midst of hope. Most of all, we can resist the incursion of idols into our hearts by learning to make Christ our true and lasting blessing – the Way, Truth, Life, food, drink, and love of our hearts.

I’ll note I cannot recommend everything that Keller has written. The Reason for God, in particular, shows a willingness to accommodate Biblical interpretation truth to the supposed authority of secular evolutionary scientific theory. I noticed that Keller used no examples from Adam to Noah in Counterfeit Gods, perhaps he doesn’t quite know how to fit them within his theistic evolutionary framework. However, the Biblical examples he does use are applied to ourselves and our culture in insightful, practical, and comforting ways. Thus, while I cannot recommend The Reason for God (because arguably, and ironically, it makes an idol out of secular science), I highly recommend Counterfeit Gods.

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Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

Prodigal God

by Timothy Keller 2009 / 240 pages My pastor recently concluded a series of sermons on a single 21-verse passage of Scripture. I was delighted to discover just how much God has to tell us in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. I felt that same delight while reading Tim Keller’s Prodigal God, which is also on Luke 15:11-32. Keller begins by explaining why he doesn’t call this passage the Parable of the Prodigal Son. He notes that the word “prodigal” means “recklessly spendthrift” and the term is “therefore as appropriate for describing the father in the story as his younger son” since the father “was literally reckless because he refused to ‘reckon’ or count his sin against him or demand repayment.” Thus Keller arrives at his book’s title, Prodigal God. But that is still not what he calls the parable. He calls it the parable of “The Two Lost Sons.” Two lost sons? Wasn’t there just one? After all, the older brother never left home! But as Keller explains, the older son was just as lost as the younger. The younger son’s rebellion was more obvious, but the older son shows that he isn’t interested in his father’s happiness either. If he had been, he would have rejoiced when his father rejoiced. Instead it becomes clear that he has only been obedient with the expectation of reward, so when that reward doesn’t come to him like he expected, he gets bitter. Keller argues there are a lot of older brothers in the Church. We all know we are sinners, but because we don’t fully understand how all we receive is a matter of grace, we still find ourselves looking down on “younger brothers” caught up in “big sins” like homosexuality or prostitution (we may be sinners, but at least we don’t sin like that!). This is rebellion of a more subtle kind – it is a form of works righteousness, because even as we acknowledge we aren’t sinless, our gracelessness to those caught in “big sins” shows we think ourselves in some way deserving of the goodness God has showered on us. Prodigal God is very engaging and quick read. I believe it is a very relevant and challenging book for our churches and would recommend it to anyone 16 and up. The only caution I would note is that Pastor Keller is a leading proponent of theistic evolution. That doesn't impact this book, but in his other writings Keller doesn't treat Genesis 1-2 with the same care, rigor and reverence with which he plumbs the depths of Luke 15 here. But a very enthusiastic two thumbs up for Prodigal God....