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Prodigal sons: Part of the evangelical problem is knowing which brother we are

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As Tim Keller points out in The Prodigal God (Dutton, 2008), the parable of the prodigal son should have a plural in its name: sons. We all know of the younger brother's libertine living, but the elder brother has a more subtle problem: He is self-righteous and lacks joy.


Part of the evangelical political problem in contemporary America is that much of the press and public sees us as elder brothers. Sometimes we are that way in reaction to younger brothers. Sometimes younger brothers go their way in reaction to us.

In higher education, younger brother colleges are party schools that proffer sex and stimulants. Some Christian colleges try to avoid that by imposing tight rules in elder brother fashion. Those rules may lead to external conformity rather than deep belief. Both younger brother and elder brother colleges divert students from learning more about God.

In journalism, younger brother magazines ranging from Rolling Stone to People sell a continuation of younger brother college life. Elder brother reporters tend to be self-righteous fault-finders—and it's always someone else's fault. Elder brother journalism lacks love, charity, compassion, and a sense that all of us are in this mess together. Christian publications that look only at sin among secularists can also be elder brothers.

In the realm of "social justice," younger brothers want governmental redistribution so that everyone, regardless of conduct, gets part of the national inheritance. Some recipients of Washington's largesse are widows and orphans, but others are younger brothers or sisters who should go home but do not because government checks allow them to keep destroying themselves. Elder brothers, though, wax sarcastic about wastrels while they overlook the needy. "Social justice" turns into either social universalism or Social Darwinism.


The gay rights debate is another younger vs. elder brother combat zone. While covering Manhattan's annual humongous Gay Pride parade I didn't see any lip-locks except when the marchers observed a dozen souls from a church waving Bibles and screaming at them, "You're going to hell, sodomite" or "You're an abomination in the sight of God." The presence of elder brothers allowed younger brothers to feel self-righteous: ironically, ranting reminders about sin provided the opportunity to forget about sin.

Younger brothers who perceive self-righteousness or joylessness in their elders head toward mockery. On the Comedy Network, Jon Stewart is a snarky younger brother and Stephen Colbert pretends to be an elder as he parodies FOX's tut-tutting Bill O'Reilly. Elder brothers tend to forget that truth without love is like sodium without chloride: Poison, not salt.

What's rare on television and in life are third brothers who, because they know deeply that the Father loves them, have love for and patience with both elder and younger brothers. Third brothers, knowing they have been forgiven, are not prideful.

A third brother Christian college helps students to see that all people are made in the image of God and all people are sinners. Because of that, beauty shows up where we expect banality, and evil emerges where we anticipate excellence. At a third brother college students become bilingual and bicultural, able to move in both Christian and secular circles without ignoring the problems of the former or the knowledge generated in the latter, through common grace.


Third brother journalism rises out of the history lecture in chapter seven of the book of Acts: Stephen, with neither an elder brother's pridefulness nor a younger brother's sarcasm, realistically emphasizes the fallenness of his people and the holiness of God. He does not seek life's meaning in the formation of or adherence to a man-made religion that sets up a code of morality.

Third brother politics is also different. The Founders fought for both liberty and virtue: Elder brothers tend to forget the former, younger brothers the latter. Third brothers know that we can never have enough laws to banish sin. They tell the truth but do not rant at abortionists and gay rights activists. They control their tongues and lungs not because killing babies and killing marriage is right, but because their goal is to change hearts.

Third brothers ask pointed questions, and here are ones for each of us to answer: Am I a younger, elder, or third brother? Can we, through God's grace, leave behind elder- and younger-brotherism?

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