Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Book Review: Praying with the Church

One of the blogs I read regularly is Jesus Creed, maintained by North Park University professor Scot McKnight. Some time back, his publisher, Paraclete Press, offered to send a copy of his book, Praying with the Church, for free to bloggers, on the condition that they would write a review of the book. The book arrived some time ago, and I was given roughly a month to read through it process my thoughts.

This book is not just about encouraging Christians to pray, or even to pray "more," but rather it is a tool for rediscovering the practice of praying at "fixed hours," and using specific pre-written prayers of importance to the Christian community. This was the common practice of the early church, but today is seen more frequently in the other Abrahamic religions: Judaism and Islam.

The first line of the first chapter spoke to me immediately: "Most Christians are not happy with their prayer life — they either don't pray often enough or well enough." (p. 1) I'm a strong believer in prayer, and do make it a point to pray at meals, when asked by a friend, when witnessing a situation that calls for it, etc. However, I've often felt that my prayers, as frequent and as intentional as they are, are often too shallow. With his first line, Dr. McKnight promised to speak to my concerns.

Now, I grew up in the PC(USA), which appears to have been a more liturgical tradition than Dr. McKnight's own (He comments on not being able to recall reciting the Lord's Prayer during a Sunday worship service . This has always been a part of my tradition.). Still, when he describes people's mistrust of using pre-written prayers, I can readily identify. I was always taught that prayer should be personal, and that it was too easy to "take it for granted" or "go on cruise control" if simply reading or reciting prayers that were pre-set for the entire congregation to read together.

My wife is studying worship and liturgy, in expectation of starting a PhD in this area within the next year. Through her, I have gained new respect for the concept of praying such "pre-written" prayers, and the value that such communal worship practice brings to the body of Christ. She introduced me to the concept of lex orandi, lex credendi, a latin phrase that describes the concept that how one prays influences how one believes. Dr. McKnight uses this phrase, as well, although he attributes a slightly different meaning to it, emphasizing the call to unity (p. 13-14). I have been led to understand that there are several such slight variations on how lex orandi, lex credendi is to be applied, so this isn't an accuastion that Dr. McKnight has somehow misunderstood the concept. In fact, I think he would probably agree with the interpretation I learned from my wife, as it really is quite compatible with the concepts explored in the book.

Dr. McKnight goes well beyond simply telling people that it's important to "pray with the church" in this way, but he gives concrete examples of how this is to be done, highlighting the practices of several different Christian traditions through their respective prayer books. I also especially appreciate the insight of using the Psalms as a "prayer book," which is a slightly different way of looking at them than the "Psalms as hymnbook" perspective I have grown up with. Generally speaking, all of Dr. McKnight's suggestions are rooted in Biblical exegesis and an understanding of first-century Jewish culture.

Any criticisms I have with this book are minor, but in the interests of full disclosure, I list them here, along with a few other observations:
  • Dr. McKnight encourages us to follow the pattern of Jesus in calling God Abba in prayer. While I am sympathetic to the intimacy that this instruction is intended to encourage, it must be noted that the word Abba does not have have the same meaning to 21st-century English speakers that it would have had for 1st-century Aramaic-speaking Jesus. Also, I am aware that, to pray to God as "Father" (arguably the closest English equivalent) is a very painful matter for many people who have had broken or abusive relationships with their human fathers, and no one would argue for importing those painful feelings into our relationship with God. In any event, I would suggest that Dr. McKnight goes too quickly from noting that the use of Abba is Jesus' own practice to suggesting that Jesus instructed his disciples to use the term (p. 43). Perhaps Dr. McKnight has additional exegetical reasons for making this claim, but I just don't see this as a command of Jesus.
  • Very mild problem, but in detailing certain ancient prayers that might be adopted for daily prayer (see p. 48), Dr. McKnight uses what I call "King James English" in the prayers. (i.e. "art" instead of "are," "thou" instead of "you," "thy" instead of "your," etc.) I believe this practice to be obsolete and confusing. God does not speak in a form of English that God's people haven't even used for hundreds of years! (In fact, this kind of language was already out of date in the 17th century when the KJV was translated. The translators apparently wanted to use archaic language to convey that the Bible itself was ancient....) Prayers should be prayed in the language of the person praying, not some outdated version that no one would use in conversation. If using a prayer originally written in another language, use a modern translation that one can readily understand.
  • Not a criticism, per se, but it bears special mention. Dr. McKnight argues that Jesus instructed his disciples to recite the Lord's Prayer as one of these repeated "pre-written" prayers. Although this is certainly the practice of my own tradition, and indeed of much of the Christian Church, I have actually been taught exactly the opposite: that Jesus intended the Lord's Prayer to be a model of the type of prayer he wished his followers to pray, not the exact prayer to be prayed itself. I'm actually inclined to agree with Dr. McKnight's reasoning here, but confess that this is something of a paradigm shift for me.
  • A confession: When I started reading this book, I attempted to put these ideals of fixed prayer to practice. I set the alarm in my Palm Pilot (which I carry with me almost everywhere) to remind me to pray at 7:00 am, 12:00 noon, and 5:00 pm, following Dr. McKnight's suggestion to set times that follow natural breaks in the day. Unfortunately, I have found it extremely difficult to maintain this practice consistently in the past few weeks. This will, obviously, be a new habit that will take some time to cultivate, a fact that Dr. McKnight himself acknowledges at the book's conclusion, encouraging people like me to take heart and to set realistic expectations.
Paraclete Press is offering a special promotion on Praying with the Church. If you order a copy through their web site by June 30th and use coupon code PRBLOG, they will send you a free copy of one of Dr. McKnight's other books, The Jesus Creed, from which his blog site takes its name (or is it vice-versa?). Paraclete specifically hopes that even people who already own The Jesus Creed might take advantage of this offer, and perhaps be inspired to give the extra copy as a gift to a friend. Also, I'd encourage you to check out the other blogs listed as part of the "blog tour." The list is on their main page.

2 comments:

  1. B-W,
    Thanks for your kind remarks. I'm glad the book is of use to you.

    You are kind enough to make suggestions, so I'll carry that on with you:

    First, the use of "abba" in Galatians 4 and in the Synoptics themselves indicates to many (including me) that this term was used by the early Christians because it was used by Jesus. I sympathize with your concern about the cultural differences, and also about the problems some have because of their fathers. I doubt those situations were any different at the time of Jesus, but we do need to exercise caution.

    Second, on KJV version: I use this only for Lord's Prayer, I think, and that is because my experience is that this is what Church folks have memorized.

    Third, Luke 11:1-4 actually teaches us to "say" the Lord's prayer. I translate "recite."

    Fourth, your last point is so important: changing our inner routines is a challenge, and it takes time getting used to. I've never been able to get midday prayers as a habit, but I've done well with morning and evening.

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  2. I too read and largely enjoyed the book [and reviewed it too].

    I think, though, that I would take a little bit of a different tack on the Lord's prayer. It may be that the Lukan version could be interpreted as to be recited [but then why use the Matthean version?] but the Matthean version, in context, seems intended to provide a pattern rather than a form of words. With that in mind I've been developing through my own conviction and consequent practice, lots of liturgies and other prayer ideas based on praying the pattern. You can see some of this, if you would like to pursue it further, at http://abbeynous.schtuff.com/

    It seems to me that the early church may have missed a trick first by being overconcerned with countering Jewish practice, then by emulating the meditational focus of early monastic prayer. The trick we could revisit is to devise patterns for office style prayer that takes seriously the Lord's prayer pattern.

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