The Prodigal Evangelical, Gerard Kelly, Monarch 2015. 159pp.
Some of my Tasmanian friends may recall that in July 2003 Gerard gave a series of seminars in Hobart & Launceston based to a great extent on his bestselling book Retro Future (2000).
He is a prolific writer of 14 books (so far), speaker/missionary/visionary/poet, a co-founder, with his wife Chrissie, of the ‘Bless Network’. Bless works alongside churches in the UK, France, The Netherlands, Croatia and Spain, empowering young people to encounter the God of mission and find their place in the mission of God. Over many years he has been an integral part of the success of Spring Harvest, Europe’s largest Christian teaching event and was formerly Pastor of Crossroads International Church in Amsterdam. Gerard currently lives in Normandy, France, where he and Chrissie have developed a centre for missional formation called ‘Bethanie’.
This book is subtitled Why, despite everything I still belong to the tribe! While he is addressing his evangelical constituency, in this ‘hard to put down’ work, he is speaking to the whole church by focussing on the great themes of forgiveness and grace in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. He shares his own story of being able to meet and forgive his father, who had abandoned his family when Gerard was eleven years old.
Forgiveness is not the gentle balancing of our small discrepancies. It is the cancelling of unpayable debt; the reducing to nothing of a burden too heavy to bear.
He says that Those who reject the Christian story as no longer useful to our age are too often missing the beauty at its heart.
He goes on to explore what he calls four notes of prodigality:
1) We are beautiful – masterpieces of God’s creation;
2) We are broken, but the good news is that we can be fixed!;
3) We are forgiven – God has chosen to unilaterally exercise that power and
4) We are invited – a party is planned and your name is on the guest list.
I found this book compelling. Here are a couple of notable extracts, which have a strong ‘Barthian’ ring to them:
A blonde girl goes walking in a dark forest and stumbles across a cottage with a small bed, a big bed, and a middle-sized bed. Her cousin, bright in her red cape and hood, heads off to take a picnic to Grandma. A boy trades a hungry cow for five magic beans. A pretty orphan has no choice but to live with her two ugly step sisters. Recognise the stories? It takes barely a sentence to identify Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella. There isn’t enough information here to tell the stories, but they are so deeply embedded in our shared memory that a few words are enough to invoke them. Familiarity breeds recognition.
Jesus begins his tale with “There was a man who had two sons”, and already bells are ringing. His listeners are Jewish. Better still his target audience is made up of Jewish religious teachers. These are not just people who have heard the stories from infancy- they are the people who tell them, passing on the treasures of the Hebrew heritage to the children of their tribe. Before the Prodigal is even under way, these teachers of the law are thinking. Because there was a man who had two sons. His name was Abraham. The divergent destinies of his boys Ishmael and Isaac are the stuff of legend. More resonantly still his son Isaac had two sons, and their two journeys shape the nation’s history. The words of the prophet Malachi hover over the dusty scene. “Jacob I have loved but Esau I have hated”. Jacob who became Israel gave the nation its name. Esau who became Edom and gave Israel nothing but trouble. These epic tales of sibling separation are the building blocks of Hebrew history. In every case God chooses the more worthy son. Everything these teachers believe about God is wrapped up in the idea of election: he chooses certain people over others. He blesses one brother and curses the other. Like all fundamentalists, these leaders insist not only that God has a preference, but that his preference is for them. People who believe in God’s specific election rarely suggest that they themselves might not be elected. God has his favourites, and thankfully they are us.
There are deeper echoes of an even more ancient legend. Cain & Abel: the two sons of the world’s first family. One accepted, the other rejected. One embraced, the other judged. All the best Hebrew stories begin with two sons, and all end in the same place. Until now. Jesus is about to rewrite history. In his version of the tale Cain is accepted; Ishmael comes home; Esau is loved. The predictable pattern of the Jewish election narrative is about to be publicly challenged. pp57-8.
The primary act of election in the Bible’s story is not God’s choice of one human tribe over another; it is God’s choice of humanity itself, first among all his many splendid works, to partner with him… The banquet we are called to is the celebration of that partnership; the seal on our election; the wedding feast that joyfully exults in making our cohabitation permanent. The invitation is to all of us. It stands open, each of our names engraved on it. It is unconditional, free; waiting only for our RSVP. p148.