I have read a ton of books on prayer. About a year ago, some book that I don’t remember suggested that we as Christians should stop reading about things we are not prepared to put into practice immediately (because it can inoculate us against actual change.) So I have tried, somewhat successfully, to lay off of Christian Living books and focus on Christian history, biography, informational non-fiction and fiction. Roughly 2/3 of the books I have read this year have been either fiction or Christian History/Biography.
But after virtually universal 5 star reviews, when I saw Prayer by Tim Keller as an audiobook on Scribd’s subscription program I picked it up. It would have been a very different read if I had not just read Rowan Williams’ book on CS Lewis and Narnia. Williams was such a good example of generous reading that I really was conflicted about how often I was frustrated by this book.
I want to start positively. Toward the end of the book there is a significant section about prayers of repentance and confession. I do not think I have ever read a general book on prayer that also spent time on confession and repentance, and Keller did it well. I was convicted, but also I think Keller did a great job helping to illustrate what it means to truly repent.
That was followed up by an even better practical section on how to actually pray and put into practice the theological reflections of the majority of the rest of the book. It was practical, still based in theological understanding of what we are doing and why we are doing it, and I think what many were probably looking for when they picked up the book. The problem is that many of the people that were looking for the practical prayer suggestions, probably did not make it to the end of the book.
Much of the rest of the book was also helpful but it was not without frustration. Keller is known for being a likable and irenic pastor. He has a significant role at the Gospel Coalition, a group that is not known for being irenic.
I was encouraged when Keller quoted three different catholics in the first chapter. It is clear that Keller has read widely on prayer. But I was disappointed though that throughout the book when Keller moves into a teaching mode, his quotes tend to be from John Owen, Martin Luther, John Calvin or occasionally Augustine. It felt to me, and maybe I am just not being a generous reader, that teaching roles in the book needed to be from ‘safely’ Reformed or Reformed Friendly theologians.
One of my favorite books on prayer is Richard Foster’s classic that is also simply called Prayer. Both survey the wide range of prayer that is a part of a variety of Christian traditions. While Foster is content to just survey and speak of the benefits of different types of prayer, Keller feels the need to evaluate different types of prayer. According to Keller prayer is best when it is word based (he is not a fan of centering prayer or other apophatic prayer traditions) and he is concerned that short repetitive prayers like the Jesus Prayer (Lord, Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner) can be misused by becoming mantras or incantations.
So while Foster would point out how a prayer could be misused, Keller seems to suggest that a prayer type that he is not in favor of should be avoided completely instead of used properly.
I may have understood Keller’s position too harshly. He repeatedly lays out a path and give illustrations of what veering too far one way or another looks like. He is attempting to keep to the balanced middle. That is more my personality, but in prayer I am just not sure that is a helpful position. Prayer is in large part God’s work that we participate in. If we feel called to a particular type of prayer, it is worthwhile to understand how that type of prayer can be misused, but we should not be rejecting the work of the Spirit if the Spirit is calling us, just because some people misuse a particular type of prayer.
Keller’s definition of prayer did not help. Keller defines prayer as a “personal, communicative response to the knowledge of God”. This allows Keller to account for the universal nature of prayer, without needing to say that all prayer is either the same or equally valid. The problem is that he seems to be suggesting that right theological (academic) knowledge is essential to right prayer.
However, most of the people I have known that are praying saints are not theologically trained. They are orthodox Christians, but there is not enough nuance for me to be clear what Keller means when he says that that right knowledge of God leads to better practice of prayer. This seems to be a part of his reformed bias toward theological correctness as most important (and minimizing fruits of the spirit or other manifestations of the Christian life that are not academic or theological).
Keller explicitly says that he is not writing anything new here. His intention is to take what is good and important from many of the classics on prayer and make it accessible to modern readers. I support the goal, but maybe not the actual way it is worked out here. Keller is incessantly quoting. I understand that he does not want to portray other’s ideas as his own. But the method makes this seem much more like a textbook than is necessary.
My final point is that prayer, more than any other spiritual discipline I know, is something that must be done. Preferably with mentoring and/or in a group. Near the end of the book Keller talks about the Book of Common Prayer and how Cranmer was attempting to create a liturgy that was for the laity, soaked in scripture, with prayer as a central part, so that a culture of prayer and worship could be absorbed into the people.
This is one reason that I think that James KA Smith’s work has been so important at helping us Christians understand how worship helps to form us into Christ-like creatures. It is repetition and habit over time that help us be transformed. It is not in the end simply better knowledge or even wisdom that leads to a transformed life. (Smith uses the helpful phrase, we are not brains on a stick.) But it is practice (and repetition of the spiritual life and liturgy of worship) that opens us up to wisdom that helps speak into our lives through the Holy Spirit that creates transformed Christians.
I do not want to suggest that this is not a helpful book. There were many sections that were helpful. I think something about the conception of the book missed the mark. It is too intellectually focused (and I say that as someone that I think it too intellectually focused on my Christian life.) It is too oriented toward right theology over and against right practice. It is too focused on the Reformation theologians and not enough on those known as people of prayer throughout Christian history. It is also fairly disjointed trying to cover a wide swath of material without fully connecting all the pieces to the whole.