[Okay, I know this review is far, far too long, but I guess this book struck a few chords with me. Besides nobody said that anybody had to read all of this. Gosh!]
To my delight, I was recently approached by Mike Morell from http://theOoze.com. Mike offered to send me a few free books every month, so long as I would be open to (honestly) commenting on those books on my blog. I agreed to this arrangement for three reasons:
(1) Given that ‘the Ooze’ is known as an ’emergent’ website, I thought that this would give me some further insight into the so-called ’emergent conversation’. That is to say, I am suspicious of much that goes by the name ’emergent’ but I have read little that has been written (or supported) by those who belong to that conversation, and I saw this as an opportunity to change all that.
(2) Similarly, I thought that this would provide me with the opportunity to see what sort of books are being read and written at the popular Christian level. Until recently, I had no interest in reading any popular Christian writing. However, I was challenged in this regard by the ways in which Žižek and Lacan handle Freud. Freud, as we all know, was pretty much completely wrong about everything (if you think otherwise, spend some time reading his books and essays). However, Žižek and Lacan read Freud and come to some brilliant and stimulating conclusions. Perhaps, I said to myself, what we do or do not take from a book is more limited by our own intelligence, rather than the intelligence of the author. So, with this thought in mind, I felt ready to attempt some readings in popular Christianity. Besides, it is always a grounding experience to recall what it is that so many Christians think and believe in America today (although quite frequently that grounding feels more like Icarus falling into the ocean, than it feels like an airplane coming in for a smooth landing!)
(3) Who can say ‘no’ to free books?
Therefore, the first book, from Mike, that I have chosen to review, is Six Prayers God Always Answers by Mark Herringshaw & Jennifer Schuchmann (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008). I will begin by summarising the book and will then conclude with some points of critical reflection.
It seems to me that Mark Herringshaw and Jennifer Schuchmann have three primary hortatory reasons for writing this book. First, they want to encourage their readers to approach prayer as a conversation that occurs within a genuine relationship with God (rather than approaching prayer as a technique or formula). Second, they want to reassure their readers that God always answers prayers. Third, the authors want to remind the reader that, although God always answers our prayers, God doesn’t always answer them in the ways we might expect (the book jacket tips the reader off to this point; Six Prayers God Always Answers is followed by an asterisk, and a smaller font, below the title, reads as follows: *Results may vary).
Therefore, after an initial chapter which emphasises that prayer is (1) authentic conversation with God; (2) instinctual and something that all people engage in at some point; and (3) effective, the authors move into their discussion of the six prayers God always answers: bargaining prayers (Chpt 2), questions prayers (Chpt 3), prayers for justice (Chpt 5), desperate prayers (Chpt 6), audacious prayers (Chpt 8), and prayers for beauty and happiness (Chpt 9). Interspersed throughout these chapters, are three further prayers: “why” prayers, or prayers ‘God rarely answers’ (Chpt 4), inauthentic prayers, or prayers that ‘God doesn’t want to hear’ (Chpt 10), and prayers for independence from God, or prayers ‘God hates to answer–but will’ (Chpt 10). In the concluding chapter, the authors return to their point about the significance of prayer being a relationship, for it is through this relationship that prayers are answered (for it is God, not prayer, that ‘works’), and through this relationship that we come to see how prayers are answered.
So, let’s explore these in a little more detail. The first type of prayer that God always answers is ‘bargaining’ or ‘haggling’ prayers. All of us, the authors argue, have tried to bargain with God at some time or another, and God, out of his grace, puts up with our haggling and answers these prayers. Yet God desires that we come to a place where we simply ask and receive from him. So why does God tolerate our bagaining? Well, the authors suggest, perhaps it is through this bargaining process that we will be led to the place where we are willing to trade ‘our all for God’s all’.
That said, the authors also suggest that there are some ‘rules of bartering in God’s kingdom’: sometimes we get more than we ask for, sometimes others get more than we ask for, and sometimes God doesn’t hold us to our end of the bargain. All of this demonstrates that God’s generosity is greater than our ability to ask, and it should, lead us to the place where we simply ask and receive (rather than leaving us jaded by the observation that God seems to have made better deals with other people).
The second type of prayer that God always answers is ‘questioning’ prayers. Questions, the authors assert, function like a ‘spiritual sonar’ in our search for belonging, love, and meaning. Thus, in addition to understanding our own motives in asking questioning prayers, it is important to make sure that we are asking the right questions and understanding the answers that we (always) receive. For example, that authors assert that asking the question, ‘Is there a God?’ is asking the wrong kind of question, because, in order to answer that question, we would require a proof of existence that always eludes us. Instead, they suggest that we are better served by asking, ‘Are you there, God?’ because this requires a proof of presence, which can be found in our experiences. Furthermore, this second question ‘raises the stakes’ because how it is answered could significantly impact our daily living, rather than simply being a topic in an abstract philosophical discussion.
However, the authors then note that we frequently don’t seem to experience God, or find God’s presence as much as we would like. This, they suggest, is because God is ‘flirting’ with us. God is ‘courting’ us and trying to draw us into deeper intimacy, because he is a ‘master romantic’. ‘After all,’ the authors suggest, ‘if we were not separate from God, how could we come to love him, and how could he come to love us?’ They then go on to suggest that ‘maybe God’s elusive nature and our unquenchable yearning for him are themselves the biggest proof of his presence.’
The third type of prayer that God always answers is justice-oriented prayers. Noting that an awareness of in/justice is ingrained in all of us, the authors suggest that our prayers for justice are a sign of our moral health and of our movement towards God. The problem is that our prayers for justice are often ‘shortsighted’, ‘mean-spirited’, and blind to our own guilt. This is why God does not answer our prayers for justice in the ways in which we desire. Consequently, we must ‘leave room for the wrath of God’ and wait in faith to see justice enacted, even if we have to wait ‘all the way to eternity.’
However, there is more to this. Because God also suffers and mourns the injustices of the world, when we cry out for justice we come closer to God, and this ‘partnership in pain’ is itself ‘a form of answer to our prayer.’ Therefore, the authors conclude, God’s answer is his ‘intimate tear-laden friendship’.
The fourth type of prayer that God always answers is desperate prayers, which arise from our location in a broken world, full of danger and unintended harmful consequences. In this regard, the authors suggest that God seems to work by allowing things to get desperate, so that we will call out to him. Thus, God uses evil (although he doesn’t cause it) in a pragmatic way, in order to lead us to ‘the end of ourselves and the beginning of him’. Here, again, the role of faith is important for it is faith that allows us to believe that God answers our desperate prayers, if not now then in the hereafter. Thus, the authors conclude:
God always answers desperate prayers.
We have to believe that. Not just to get the answers, but to believe that God has answered—that he has responded in some way… faith helps us to see answers that are beyond an immediate yes…
If not here and now, then in a not-so distant Tomorrowland.
The fifth type of prayer that God always answers is audacious or selfish prayers. This may seem confusing to the reader, but the authors say that is is natural for us to desire something more, or something better, than what we have now. That is to say, ‘[m]aybe being selfish isn’t a part of our sinful nature, but rather comes embedded as original hardware’. Indeed, if we track characters from the biblical stories, we notice that those who go to God the most, and who demand results from God, tend to get what they want more than others. So, why does God reward this sort of ‘persistance’? Because, once again, it lays the foundation for a deeper relationship. Thus, the authors argue, the fact that we bring these desires to God is a sign of our dependence upon him. This, then, leads to the conclusion that ‘[o]ur most selfish prayers are our truest form of humility.’ Using their own aspirations as an example, the authors show how praying to be best-selling authors would bring benefits to many others — the charities they support would gain more recognition, they could increase the fortunes of those around them, they would aid in the employment of those in the book industry and so on and so forth — and so they ask: ‘When looked at from this perspective, could it be that asking for riches and fame is a noble prayer after all?’
Additionally, the fact that the act of prayer is, itself, beneficial to the pray-er should make us feel less discomfort with selfish prayers. Highlighting the (utilitarian) perspective of J. S. Mill, the authors argue that even our most altruistic prayers can be described as selfish — Mother Teresa found pleasure in seeing prayers answered for the sick people with whom she worked and so, yes, even those prayers could be termed as selfish. Ultimately, the authors conclude, this should lead us to demand nothing less than what God made us for (and so we also shouldn’t be surprised if God gives us something even greater than that for which we asked).
Finally, the sixth type of prayer that God always answers is beauty and happiness-oriented prayers. These are the prayers which arise from our encounters with breath-taking, wonderful moments. Generally, the authors argue, our instinctive reaction is to say something like, ‘Thank you!’ quickly followed by a prayer for ‘more!’ It is this prayer for more that God always answers — not by repeating the wondrous event (for that would pervert the event, and end up taking away from its beauty) and not be completely satisfying our demands (for that might lead to idolatry) but by continuing to provide us with hints and glimpses of beauty and wonder throughout the world. Ultimately, the authors argue, God works through these hints in order to ‘ruin us from ever being content with life here on earth’ so that we will only be satisfied in our future life with God.
So, what then of the other three prayers: the prayer God rarely answers, the prayer God doesn’t want to hear, and the prayer God hates to answer–but will?
Accoring to the authors, asking God ‘why?’ is a prayer that is rarely answered. The reason for this is that ‘why’ is a ‘bottomless pit’ and would require an answer too long, and too complex for our human comprehension. Besides, the authors say, asking why is frequently not a question at all; rather, it is our passive-aggressive way of scolding God. More significantly, they assert that knowing why doesn’t really change anything. Instead, the authors suggest, it is better to ask: ‘How?’ That is to say, rather than asking why there is evil and trouble in the world, it is better to ask how we can act to change those things (indeed, the authors suggest that this is the approach Jesus takes — in Luke 4, Jesus doesn’t ask why people are sick, imprisoned, poor, and oppressed, instead he changes those circumstances). However, despite all that, the authors say that we can continue to ask why (although earlier in the chapter they had ‘Don’t Ask Why!’ as a subheading) because this process of asking can bring us closer to God (even if God doesn’t answer).
According to the authors, posed prayer, prayer performed with ulterior motives, prayer that is inauthentic, is the sort of prayer that God doesn’t want to hear. This is so because such artificial prayer ‘isn’t prayer at all’. True prayer, and the prayer God wants to hear, is that which is earnest, authentic and genuine. However, the authors also remind us that only God can be the judge of what constitutes authentic prayer (while also reminding us that authentic prayer is usually accompanied by authentic action).
Finally, the prayer God ‘hates to answer–but will’ is our own prayer for independence (from God). Because, as the authors argue, free will is the greatest gift God has given us, and because God answers all of our genuine prayers, God also grants prayers that lead us away from him. God seeks genuine love relationships with us, and choice must be a part of that. Therefore, the authors conclude, God leave that choice in our hands and will allow us to be separated from him (even for eternity) should we so choose. Thus: ‘God hates our prayers for independence, but he loves us enough to answer them.’
What, then, are we to make of all this? Positively, I believe that the authors should be commended for highlighting the importance of pursuing a relationship with God through prayer. Although they neglect some of the positive aspects of more formulaic and ritualistic approaches to prayer (which understand prayer as a discipline that develops virtue within the character of the praying community), they are correct (although not particularly original) to highlight some of the risks involved with formulaic approaches to prayer. Secondly, without wanting to read too much into the authors intentions, I believe that they are trying to do a good thing — they are trying to encourage and affirm the faith of everyday Christians who struggle to communicate with God, and who are trying to understand the importance or relevance of prayer. This, too, is commendable. Thirdly, in engaging in this process, they do raise some tough questions — questions concerning justice, desperation, (apparently) unanswered prayer, and so on. This is important for it is these tough questions which we must confront if we are to have a living faith in Jesus — or an intimate relationship with God — in today’s world.
Unfortunately, I think that the authors, after posing these tough issues, take the easy way out and refuse to fully confront them. Rather than pursuing their confrontation with reality through to its end (wherever that may be) they retreat from the crises reality poses, and flee into mystifications, and spiritual explanations based upon ‘faith’, which is understood as that which affirms things that cannot be affirmed by any of our other senses. This is most evident in the ways in which the authors continually assert that God can, does, will, and must answer all of these prayers.
The problem is that I am not convinced that God does answer all of our prayers, be they bargaining, questioning, justice-oriented, desperate, audacious, or beauty-oriented. In fact, I am quite certain that God frequently does not answer these prayers, but before I get into that, let me demonstrate how the authors pose non-answers to prayer, as though they were genuine answers (and thereby avoid fully confronting the issues raised).
First, the authors note in passing that ‘no’ can constitute a real answer to prayer. This is an handy way to get around the issue, but leaves the fundamental problem unsolved. A ‘no’ results in exactly the same situation as an unanswered prayer so, from the perspective of material events and their outcomes, positing a ‘no’ simply avoids the issue (and it reminds me of an article from ‘The Onion’ which shows how absurd this sort of reasoning can be; cf. http://www.theonion.com/content/node/28812). Besides, how do we know when God says ‘no’ to our prayers? Is it when they appear unanswered? Or is that God just flirting with us? Or has God answered the prayer already in some other way we do not yet recognise? However, the authors don’t spend much time on this type of answer (it is mentioned briefly once) so we will press on.
Secondly, the authors posit that ‘partial’ answers constitute real answers to prayer. Unfortunately this is also only briefly mentioned, and so I’m not exactly sure how this works. So, let’s try to ground this in reality and walk it out. When he was very young, my oldest brother was diagnosed with a chronic and painful illness. Throughout his teens and early twenties, my brother’s illness got progressively worse until he was emaciated and, despite his prescription painkillers, unable to eat or sleep due to the pain. At that time, a good many of us were praying for my brother to be healed. Instead, my brother had an emergency surgery that momentarily reduced the severity of his illness and saved him from imminent death. However, my brother is still ill, and it appears as though the pain has been returning with more frequency recently. Is this the ‘partial’ answer to prayer that the authors or talking about? Is this the ‘answer’ to our prayers for my brother’s healing? Am I supposed to be satisfied with this? Unfortunately, the authors don’t tell me.
Thirdly, the authors emphasise that God frequently answers our prayers by giving us something greater than that for which we asked. Now this is easy to accept in some scenarios — say we pray for a Nissan but end up with a Porsche, or something like that. But it is more difficult to understand when it comes to other scenarios. Take Job’s experiences as an example. Job, as a faithful and religious sort of fellow, likely prayed for the well-being of his children. But his children all died. Of course, at the end of the story, Job seems to receive new and improved children… does that mean he got something better than what he originally asked for? I don’t think so.
You see, I believe that there are situations wherein there is nothing better than that for which we are praying. The best thing for my brother would have been for him to be healed. Granted, he didn’t die, but can his added years of life, and his ongoing battle with his illness, be termed something better than a complete healing from his illness? Not in my books. So maybe we get ‘something better’ when it comes to inconsequential prayers related to ‘stuff’ but the idea doesn’t seem to carry much relevance when it comes to life or death issues. Of course, the authors tend to focus a lot on the idea of praying for (more) stuff, so that may be part of the reason why they miss this point. (Actually, related to this point, I found myself frequently thinking that the book reflected a great deal of the middle-class, bourgeois environment of the authors.) Not all of us are just praying for more and nicer things, you know? Some of us are praying for freedom from addictions, healing from illnesses, liberation from bondage to the powers of Sin and Death, and the new creation of all things. I can’t think of anything better than that, so when those prayers go unanswered, I’m not saying it’s because God gave us ‘something better.’ Tell me God has given me something better than the new life that I wish for my friends, and I’ll tell you that you are blindly propogating religious ideology (or, if I know you a little better, I’d just call bullshit).
Fourthly, and most frequently, the authors emphasise that God does answer prayer, but that God’s answer usually looks a lot different than we imagined it would. Hence that following string of quotations:
If God always answers our prayers for justice, it must be that he answers them differently than we expect or desire…
A prayer that appears to be so obviously ignored is granted in some way that we can’t see here and now…
If we feel like our prayers aren’t being answered, perhaps it is because we don’t see the answers. We don’t recognize God’s responses. The way to correct that is not learn better techniques, but to learn more about God…
[F]aith helps us to see answers that are beyond an immediate yes… If not here and now, then in a not-so distant Tomorrowland.
The problem for these authors arises from the fact that the assertion that God always answers these prayers is not a conclusion, but an a priori assumption that they then must go on and affirm in every given situation. Hence the quotation I provided in my summary above:
God always answers desperate prayers.
We have to believe that.
Actually, we don’t have to believe that. But, the authors seem to be unable to believe in a God who does not answer desperate (or many other) prayers, and that is why they take the easy way out and argue that God always answers all these prayers (regardless of what the evidence tells us). Look, then, at the lengths to which they go, in order to try and cling to this idea. In their exposition of the ways in which God always answers questioning prayers, specifically, the question “Are you there, God?” they argue that God’s elusiveness is the proof of his presence. Essentially they are saying that, if we pray “Are you there, God?” and don’t experience God’s nearness to us, precisely this is the sign of God’s presence! Thus, the feeling of separation from God is converted into a sign of intimacy, and that we don’t feel closer to God shows that our prayer has been answered!
The authors refer to this as ‘flirting’, ‘courting’, and signs of God as a ‘master romantic’, but this needs to be challenged. Again, let’s bring it down to earth. Some tease, some distance, something of the unknown, all of these things can be exciting in a relationship. But there is a time and place for these things. For example, if I was married to a lover who didn’t answer me, who chose not to come (tangibly) closer to me, when I was going through a terribly rough moment in life, I wouldn’t call her a ‘master romantic’, I would call her an asshole! Similarly, if God tells me he stayed away from me, and those I know, when we were going through our hardest times, because he was ‘flirting’ with us, I’ll probably call him an asshole as well. Because that, my friends, is not a a part of an healthy love relationship; in the real world, we call that abusive (if it’s deliberate), or sick (if it stems from a mental health problem). Further, although there is some romantic truth in the idea that absence ‘makes the heart grow fonder’ ( or, as the authors ask,’if we were not separate from God, how could we come to love him, and how could he come to love us?’), the truth is that if all one has in a relationship is seperation and absence, the result isn’t deeper love, the result is a nonexistent or fictional relationship.
Therefore, pace Herringshaw and Schuchmann, I believe that the true challenge for believers, and the place where faith is truly born, is in the recognition that God does not always answer these prayers. Faith is not that which we cling to for answers that we cannot see in the material here-and-now of life; rather faith truly comes into its own as faithfulness when we choose to continue to follow Jesus Christ, even when our prayers go unanswered, and even when we are abandoned by God.
Thus, my most fundamental objection to the authors is to their assertion that God always answers the prayers listed above. Maybe Harringshaw, as a well-situated pastor of a 7000 member church, and Schuchmann, as a well-established writer, simply haven’t seen enough of the real world. Maybe their places of privilege and comfort have blinded them to what goes on in the lives of so many. Because I can tell story after story of men, women, boys, and girls who have had these sort of prayers — desperate, questioning, prayers for justice — go unanswered.
Let me provide just one real life example. Surely the nineteen year old girl crying for help while she is being sexually assaulted is praying a desperate prayer for justice.
It goes unanswered.
Or did God just say ‘no’?
Or did he ‘partially’ answer her prayer by keeping her alive?
Or did God have something ‘better’ planned, and that’s why he didn’t intervene? Not after the first guy. Not after the second. Not even after the third. Boy, God sure must have something real good planned.
Or, wait, maybe God did answer the prayer but not in a way that is obvious? Like… um… you know… um… how exactly?
Get my point? Offer any of these ‘answers’ to this girl and all you will do is alienate her, and, more often than not, drive her away from Christianity. Indeed, if anybody even considered offering these answers to this girl, that would simply demonstrate how incapable they are of moving from suburbia to the inner-city — from places where people pray for more ‘stuff’ to places where people pray for life to conquer death.
Which leads me to my second major objection to this book — the way in which ‘prayers for justice’ are treated by the authors. You see, the authors continually assume that our prayers for justice are punitive prayers for vengeance. They align prayers for justice with punitive prayers oriented around the fate of the one who has caused harm (i.e. ‘God punish this evil-doer’, that sort of thing). What they altogether fail to consider are prayers for justice, on behalf of victims and survivors. Praying for a traumatised person to stop having nightmares has nothing to do with ‘spewing vengeance’; praying for an abused child to develop a sense of self-worth has nothing ‘shortsighted’ or ‘mean-spirited’ about it; praying for a person dominated by the powers of Death to break free into new life in Christ isn’t at all punitive. Therefore, when one prays for justice in this way, and those prayers go unanswered, we cannot simply say, ‘well, our understanding of justice is perverse’ so we’ve got to ‘leave room for God’s wrath’ or whatever. That sort of thinking doesn’t apply here. Unfortunately, the authors appear incapable of, or unwilling to, imagine a person praying for justice in the ways I have described and so the fact that so many of these prayers (appear to?) go unanswered is unaddressed.
My third major objection to this book is related to the comments the authors make about God answering audacious and selfish prayers. Here, especially, the middle-class — dare I say ‘health-and-wealth’? — sentiments of the authors come through. After all, selfish prayers are said to be the ‘truest form of humility’ and considering the good we can do with money, ‘asking for riches and fame is a noble prayer’. Further, an utilitarian perspective is adopted, wherein all our good actions are seen as expressions of selfishness, and selfishness itself is posited as part of our original good human status.
On this point, it is important to distinguish ‘desire’ from ‘selfishness’ (something the authors never do). Certainly God has created us with desires, and in such a way that we only find our sustenance and fulfillment in things and beings outside ourselves. However, affirming the goodness of desire, is a far different thing than affirming selfishness or Mill’s utilitarian perspective. For example, here are the first two entries found under ‘selfish’ in the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
(1) concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others;
(2) arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others.
If anything, Christianity teaches us the opposite of this way of behaving. Granted, we are aware that our own well-being is caught up in the well-being of others, but this leads us to concentrate ‘excessively’ on others, not ourselves. It even leads us to disregard ourselves out of concern for the ‘welfare and advantage’ of others. I know that this is a hard thing for suburban Christians to hear, but it is an unavoidable point made, time and again, within the bibles read by those Christians.
However, we also need to recognise that even our desires have been perverted — some would say by original sin, others would say by socio-cultural influences, but I don’t think we need to distinguish between the two — and so we cannot adopt an utilitarian perspective. Our desires need to be disciplined, so that we learn to want to do that which we should be doing. Consequently, there are times when we do what we would rather not do because, rather than seeking our own happiness, we are seeking to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. This, after all, is the fundamental tension of the Christian life. God offer us new life, and life in abundance, in his world, through his Church, in the power of the holy Spirit… but that new life in abundance is only encountered by taking up our crosses and traveling the via dolorosa. The authors of this book seem to want to affirm the first part of that sentence, while ignoring the second half. But, hey, don’t we all? That’s why we need pastors and writers who, unlike Herringshaw and Schuchmann, continue to challenge and remind us of the cost of disciple.
These then are my three major objections to this book: (1) God does not answer all these prayers; (2) the authors never address prayers for justice that focus on new creation and redemption; and (3) the authors are mistaken to affirm selfishness in life and in prayer.
Apart from these, I have six other objections to this book. First, I challenge the extent to which God really does answer ‘questioning prayers’ according to the authors — they essentially narrow all questioning prayers down to the question ‘Are you there, God?’ Further, given that most of our (or at least my) questioning prayers are ‘why’ questions — ‘Why didn’t you stop Steve from overdosing?’ ‘Why didn’t you stop Nancy from jumping in front of that train?’ ‘Why didn’t you stop Jackie from being assaulted?’ ‘Why don’t you come for your shattered, broken, children, children who are longing for you, and make them new?’ — it is rather convenient for the authors to bracket out these questions. Really, in saying that God answers ‘questioning prayers’ they only asserted that God answers the question ‘Are you there, God?’ and, as mentioned above, sometimes God even ‘answers’ that prayer by not showing up!
Thus, implicitly, there are a whole load of other questioning prayers that God doesn’t answer — although the authors simply seem to suggest that God doesn’t answer these because we’re asking the wrong questions. This seems to start pushing prayer back into the ‘technique’ approach the authors seem to dislike so much — God only answers questioning prayers, if we ask the right questions? That sounds rather formulaic. Oh, and it also sounds like ideology.
Second, while I find myself in agreement with the authors when they assert that God rarely answers ‘why’ prayers, I find myself in disagreement with them regarding why this is the case. The authors assert that answers to ‘why’ prayers don’t really change anything, and they argue that it is better for us to focus on ‘how’ issues. Simply put, rather than asking why something went wrong, it is better for us to figure out how to fix the problem. Indeed, the authors quote Luke 4 in order to argue that this was precisely the approach that Jesus took.
Unfortunately, what the authors miss is that the ‘why’ of an issue can be crucial to the ‘how’ of our response. Take another real world example. I meet a lot of homeless young men with missing teeth. Now, granted, I can refer those men to dentists who will fix their mouths for free, or for a reduced rate… but what if I want to try and stop homeless young men from losing their teeth? Then I need to ask why those young men are missing their teeth. To know how to solve the problem, I need to know why the problem keeps showing up. Consequently, when I discover that the police who work in downtown Vancouver (and Toronto) like to zip-tie young homeless men, take them to a secluded area, and beat them up (thereby knocking their teeth out), I also learn that, to address this problem, I need to address the systemic and consistent abuse of power exercised by police officers. Thus, the ‘how’ that I end up practicing — speaking out against police corruption and sending the young men to caring dentists — becomes far more useful and significant than simply approaching a problem from the more superficial perspective taken by the authors of this book.
Indeed, I would suggest that the approach Jesus takes is much more in line with the example which I have provided. Jesus didn’t ignore ‘why’ questions after his Luke 4 manifesto, when he went about engaging in acts of healing, liberation, and solidarity. Rather, Jesus spoke out against the corrupt socio-political and religious structures that perpetuated abusive cycles of illness, bondage, and marginalisation. This, after all, is why Jesus was put to death. The people who killed Jesus, didn’t do so to save the world from sin (although that may have been an unintended consequence). They killed Jesus because his ‘how’ of liberating communal activity, was intimately connected to a ‘why’ which highlighted the corruption and violence of the powers-that-be.
Of course, when authors are comfortably situated in proximity to the powers-that-be, rather than in proximity to those who suffer under those powers, it is easy to forget, or overlook, this point. Asking ‘why’ questions lead to searching for systemic sources of problems, and might end up challenging the very position in which they find themselves, so it is only natural that they would rather focus on other things.
Third, I would also like to register my disagreement with the point that the authors make about free will being the greatest gift God has given us. The authors write the following:
Christians might argue that the greatest gift we received from God was the gift of his Son, who died on a cross to save us from our sins. But perhaps that wasn’t the greatest gift.
To accept the Cross as the greatest gift, to be the recipient of salvation, one has to choose to believe in the saving power of Jesus at the Cross. Without making the choice, it is an unopened gift.
Perhaps the greatest gift God has given us isn’t the Cross. It could be that the greatest gift is free will.
If, as the authors assert, our salvation really does come down to the decision that we choose to make, then perhaps free will is the greatest gift (and greatest curse!) of all. However, I continue to think that those who would base our salvation upon our decisions have fallen into a popular and persistent form of Pelagianism. If we wish to affirm a God of grace, and a God who has overcome all the powers of Sin and Death, then that which is revealed upon the cross truly is the greatest gift given to us — for is shows us a God who refuses to allow us to damn ourselves to hell. The cross shows us a God who descends into hell, and in his solidarity with the damned and the godforsaken, bursts the gates of hell and sets the catives free. Of course, this then leads us into discussion regarding ‘universalism’ so I’ll simply refer the authors to the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jürgen Moltmann and Gregorgy MacDonald.
Fourth, I was also disconcerted by the naïveté the authors exhibited in relationship to themes of American and British patriotism and military conquests. I counted ten different examples of this — from speaking of the role prayer played in the formation of the American constitution, to speaking of prayer in American after Sept 11, 2001, to speaking of the prayers of American marines in Iraq (a particularly interesting passage: ‘Paul [the marine] gave up wussy prayer, and when he prayed selfishly, he bound out God was strong enough to hold his own’), to speaking of how patriotic music makes the authors ‘weep for God and country’, to speaking of how God heard the prayers of Protestant England, and destroyed the Catholic Spanish Armada, to speaking of how God heard the prayers of Columbus and allowed him to fulfill his destiny and take ‘the gospel of Christendom to heathen ports around the world’ — all of these show a shocking degree of historical and political naïveté — or just plain, good old ideological blindness (after all, one can only assume that God answers the prayers of Protestant England in the 16th century, if one also assumes that God did not answer the prayers of Catholic Spain… because, you know, Catholics are bad or something). If one is even a little critical of America and Europe’s, military conquests, if one has even a little familiarity with post-colonial studies, then one would likely speak differently about these subjects. Of course, that comfortable, middle-class American authors fail to see the importance of these things is not surprising, but it is unfortunate.
Fifth, although I am glad to see the authors pressing the point that prayer should take place within the context of a genuine relationship, I sometimes think that the authors overstate, or misrepresent, this point. In particular, I was bothered by their assertion that relationship with God ‘ensures special consideration’ of our prayers. I was equally bothered by the way in which they illustrated this point: ‘Prayer is the equivalent of having a few drinks with the boss after work. It doesn’t ensure favor, but it ensures face time.’
What exactly is it that they are saying here? On the one hand, they appear to be saying that God does privilege the prayers of those who have a relationship with God (a point I must disagree with — it smacks too much of elitism, and neglects the fact that God is Lord over all creation and all people), but on the other hand they seem to suggest that relationship doesn’t ensure favour… so what’s going on? It seems to me that what they are really saying is this: God doesn’t show special favour to those who believe in God the way that we do, but those who believe in God the way that we do will be better equipped to see how God answers prayer (this, I think, is what they mean by ‘face time’). This, then, leads us full circle to my first major objection.
Oh, and prayer is much, much more than face time with the boss over a few drinks. Prayer is also a process of individual and communal discipline and formation. And the communal emphasis is important. Prayer is something Christians are to do together. Unfortunately, when the authors talk about prayer, they only seem to talk about an individual talking with God.
Sixth, and finally, the authors display an odd reliance upon popular psychology — and child psychology in particular. Hence, when speaking of the six prayers God always answers, they always try to argue that these prayers — like prayer itself — are somehow instinctual and grounded in our psychological make-up as humans. Of course, this leads to some interesting problems for them. For example, when speaking of ‘why’ prayers, they suggest that although asking ‘why’ appears to be instinctual, in actuality it is a learned behaviour (besides, they go on to say, child psychology teaches us that kids who ask ‘why’ are just looking for attention, and not for an answer — so, of course, this lets God off the hook for not answering our ‘why’ prayers!). Essentially, I am at a loss as to why the authors display such a dependence upon popular psychology. Personally, I would hope that Christian pastors and writers were a little more informed by theology, biblical studies, or social theory… but maybe that’s just me.
By way of conclusion, let me say that I am happy to have read this book. This is not because I find myself agreeing with much of what the authors say. Rather, it is because it has given me a glimpse into popular Christianity and allowed me to formulate my own responses to some of the issues being presented there.
[Okay, I know this review is far, far too long, but I guess this book struck a few chords with me. Besides nobody said that anybody had to read all of this. Gosh!]