January 23, 2019

Wednesday with Michael Spencer: My Problem with Prayer

Wednesday with Michael Spencer
My Problem with Prayer

Ok. I have this problem with prayer.

I’m not sure it’s a problem with prayer as much as it’s a problem with prayer as it is practiced in the revivalistic tradition that dominates much of my side of evangelicalism.

How can I describe that tradition? It’s a tradition of lengthy, eloquent prayers. Prayers using long-held recognizable code words about prayer. Spontaneous prayer. Pentecostal-Christmatic-Baptist prayer. Prayers of intercession that go on and on. Detailed prayers for missionaries. Wrestling in prayer. Being a prayer warrior. Spiritual warfare prayer. Prayer meetings that go on for an hour or more. Spiritual giants in prayer. Prayer athletes. Praying till revival comes. Praying till God breaks through and saves the lost.

This isn’t me and never has been. I’m such a loser at this kind of prayer that it’s comic. I respect this tradition, but it intimidates me. It leaves me behind. It often frustrates me into anger. I don’t feel this way when I’m praying with monks, and I don’t even agree with a bunch of their theology.

I used to feel bad about this disconnect from evangelical praying. When I was a young Christian, someone gave me a book called The Kneeling Christian, a call to intense prayer in the Christian life, and it about drove me nuts. I’ve listened to tape series on “prayerlessness” that I couldn’t finish out of guilt and hopelessness. When I am around “prayer warriors” and “intercessors,” I want to leave the room, and I often do.

I feel badly for some of my co-workers who are very oriented towards this approach to prayer. They are a lot more like Jesus than I am if this is the way Jesus wants his disciples to pray. They come to the worship and Bible studies I lead and they want to hear more about prayer than they hear. They want to pray more and differently than I do.

In other words, I’m the guy who is really glad the Lord’s Prayer is short.

Frankly, if it weren’t for the liturgy of the church, I’d have serious trouble in this area. Extended, spontaneous conversations with God aren’t my forté. I love the words of the Psalms translated into the prayers of the church. I can deal with prayers of silence better than listening to Christians make up spontaneous prayers. And if you want to torture me, put me in the standard revival prayer meeting or concert of prayer..

Is there something wrong with me? I am unspiritual, that’s for sure. A regular Luther who hangs out in the Boar’s Head Tavern when he should be in a prayer closet.

Am I a bad person? A bad Christian? A proof that American Christians are notably modernistic and rational, despising prayer because, in my heart, I doubt spiritual reality entirely?

Actually, I’m probably extremely normal. I’m convicted of my need to grow in prayer as a Jesus-follower, but I’m just through feeling bad about not being what evangelicals say I should be. I’m not in the prayer Olympics. I don’t have anything to prove by how many hours a week I log in prayer. I’m not seeking the applause of the prayer lobby or anyone else with a spiritual measuring stick handy. If someone wants to say that love for Christ and love for people is measured in prayer, then I may be a loser, but Jesus is for losers.

My prayers reflect my temperament. I need structure and regularity. Spontaneity needs to be minimal. The words of scripture need to be my guide. If I start trying to be someone I’m not or to “work up” a temperament that is “prayerful,” I’m going to be a phony, no matter how impressive my prayers sound.

My prayers will be greatly helped by using daily Psalms and guides for daily prayer. I’ll do better if I write down the things I most want to pray for and if I pray for them RIGHT THEN. In fact, all prayer requests will do much better with me if I pray as soon as I hear them, and then say “I have prayed for this” rather than “I will pray for this.”

I need to be careful with the contemporary models of Olympic prayer that are everywhere in evangelicalism. Much of it is faux spirituality. Some of it buys deeply into errant movements of spiritual warfare and prosperity. Prayer isn’t the wielding of a magical force. While God gives some people temperaments and gifts for prayer, he doesn’t give those to everyone any more than he gives the gifts and temperaments of preaching and leadership to every Christian. The prayers of the people of God are an expression of God’s faithfulness and our dependence on him, not a demonstration of our ability to make things “happen” through prayer.

Those who are convinced that the answer to the needs of the church lie in prayer are partially right, but not entirely right. Prayer stirred by the Holy Spirit need not resemble the latest prayer gathering outline sent from denominational headquarters. Being able to boast in the length and intensity of a prayer meeting is like any other kind of religious boasting: it’s the opposite of the “pray in your closet” approach of Jesus. It sounds a lot more like Jesus’ many critiques of lengthy prayer and showy prayer. But prayer must be real, a true expression of a living faith. It can’t be neglected and it can’t be devalued.

Every church needs to be prayerful, but every praying Christian doesn’t need to be measured by the athletes of prayer any more than the average person’s exercise program needs to be measured against a marathon runner. We need to be taught the simple ways of Jesus’ own model prayers and the reality of the prayers modeled by Paul.

All of us need to grow in prayer, but that growth needs to be in Christlikeness, not in Christianlikeness. Jesus laid out a model for prayer in his teachings and example that will occupy us for a lifetime. Those teachings create in us a need for radical dependence on the Holy Spirit, and never take us into the games and postures of the religious actor. Jesus teaches a way of prayer, but it is the way of reality; a way that takes root in an honest and vulnerable human personality.

I’m not satisfied with who I am in prayer. I am thirsty for more of the Spirit and of true spiritual experience. But I’ve lost my appetite for the pretended spirituality of much evangelical prayer gaming.

The truths that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us with groanings to deep to utter are precious and important to me as I move into the second half of life. My prayer is that the spirit of “Abba Father!” will consistently take the form of true prayer, praise and intercession.

The Learning, Conversing, Serving Community (1)

Snow Logs. Photo by David Cornwell

The Learning, Conversing, Serving Community (1)

This is two years overdue.

I told my friend Chris Smith back then that I would do some reflections on his book, Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish, and in my usual disorganized way, I have completely neglected to follow up on that promise.

So, with apologies to Chris, I’m taking it up now. And I think it’s actually a pretty good time in our culture to do so. We’ve had more than our share of punditry about the information glut, fake news, the death of truth, and the impact of all the screens we gaze into upon our ability for sustained concentration and personal interaction. It’s time for some antidotes, and that’s what Chris has given us in this book.

He suggests that churches should be learning communities. This does not simply mean that we should have good teaching in our pulpits and classes. He means that we should be engaging in the lifestyle of being disciples — learners, students, apprentices — and that we should be actively sharing what we are learning as individuals with each other. This learning should form us and lead us, personally and corporately, into the kinds of actions by which we follow Jesus into our neighborhoods. There we engage in further conversations with our neighbors in order that we might all flourish together as we love and serve one another.

That’s why I’m calling this series, “The Learning, Conversing, Serving Community.” Because it is more than simply about reading books. But books — all kinds of books — form a primary source material from which we draw.

In this book, we will view the local church as a sort of learning organization, in which both learning and action lie at the heart of its identity. We will explore the practice of reading — perhaps the most important component of learning in the twenty-first century — and consider how we can read together in ways that drive us deeper into action.

To imagine a church as a learning organization will require a dramatic shift in our understanding of the nature of church. Church can no longer be simply an experience to be passively consumed; rather, we are called into the participatory life of a community. Reading is a vital practice for helping our churches navigate this shift.

For Christians, of course, the Bible is at the heart and center of this reading. But this by no means is all that we are talking about here. As our family story, the scriptures give us an identity and a legacy. As we learn to find our place in that story, our minds, hearts, and imaginations become formed within the community of faith through the ages and around the world. We come to know who God is, who we are, and what our place is as his image in this world.

But, as Chris says, the Bible itself says that in Christ God is reconciling all things on earth and in heaven to himself (Col. 1:20). Though our minds will never be able to grasp “all things,” it behooves us to read and think broadly so that we might faithfully take our part in this reconciling work. In short, we are called not only to know God, but also to be wise about our world, not only to be literate about our faith, but also to understand our neighbors.

As Chris Smith testifies about his own church, Englewood Christian Church on the near east side of Indianapolis:

As we seek to live faithfully in our neighborhood, we have come to understand that our life together is composed of two essential and interwoven threads: learning and action. On one hand our life together is marked by discipleship: learning to follow more deeply in the way of Jesus and to bear witness more fully to God’s reconciliation of all things. On the other hand, we are engaged in a wide array of overlapping activities in our neighborhood: community development, economic development, early childhood education, gardening, alternative energy, caring for our neighbors (including ones that are often marginalized: the homeless, seniors, the mentally ill, etc.), publishing, extending hospitality, and many other types of work. Without learning, our action tends to be reaction and often is superficial — we act without comprehending the many factors that are at play in a situation. Without action, our faith is irrelevant, and most likely — to borrow a thought from the apostle James — dead. Although most churches tend to veer in one direction or the other, we need both learning and action in order to sustain healthy, flourishing communities. (p. 15-16)

• • •

Note: I will be using some of our friend David Cornwell’s pictures to grace this series. David is a big fan of Chris Smith and the work of Englewood Christian Church. For more of his wonderful photography, go to David’s Flickr page.

The Bible and the Believer (2)

The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously
by Mark Zvi Brettler, Peter Enns, Daniel J. Harrington

• • •

One of my tasks this year will be to work on answering the two questions that Pete Enns raises regularly in his writings and podcasts:

  1. What is the Bible?
  2. What is the Bible for?

First, we are taking up this theme by considering a book Pete co-authored with Mark Brettler and Daniel Harrington (a Jewish and Catholic scholar, respectively), called The Bible and the Believer.

The Jewish perspective on reading the Bible both critically and religiously is given by Mark Zvi Brettler. Brettler is a member of the American Academy for Jewish Research and the Council of the Society of Biblical Literature, is the Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University. He is a co-editor of the The Jewish Study Bible.

I learned a great deal that I either did not know or had forgotten about the history of Jewish experience with the Bible in reading Mark Brettler’s chapter.

Brettler says that it is the Bible as interpreted and not the text itself that has been the primary focus of the Jewish religious tradition. The plain meaning of the biblical text has not been as important as its “decoded” meaning, for the text was often viewed as a cryptic document written in special divine speech.

Religiously, one may rightly say that the Jews have been “people of the Book” because they hear the words of scripture routinely in their services and celebrations.

Yet Judaism is not interested in the Torah, or in the entire Bible, primarily in terms of what the text first meant and how it originated, namely, from a historical-critical perspective. Tikva Frymer Kensky notes that the “centrality of the Torah is more symbolic than real, more celebrated than maintained,” and Wilfred Cantwell Smith is correct in his contention in his comparative study of Scripture that “the Bible has not been particularly important in Jewish life.”

…Judaism is best understood as “the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people,”3 which takes, and has taken, many different forms. (pp. 21-22).

This was a surprising statement to me, but, as Brettler notes, in terms of critical engagement with the text, it is only in the last few decades that Jewish scholars have become actively engaged in critical biblical study. As a result, there is little that has been explored about how biblical criticism and Jewish religious practice might relate.

In terms of relating his Jewish perspective to Christians, Mark Brettler notes that one must remember that, in some ways, we are not talking about the same Bible. The Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) is the entire Bible. Though rabbinic tradition functions in ways that are in some ways comparable to the ways Christians view the New Testament, it does not hold the same status as “scripture” for Jews.

Jews also organize the Hebrew Bible differently — with the threefold division of Torah/Prophets/Writings rather than the fourfold Torah/History/Wisdom and Poetry/Prophet scheme of the Christian Old Testament.

Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, though the Hebrew Bible is the Jewish scripture, it has not always functioned in as central a fashion as the Bible has for Christians. The Talmud largely took over that function, and Jews, for a variety of historical reasons, did not begin to engage in critical biblical studies until after World War II in the mid-20th century.

However, in many ways, practicing Jews have had to face the same struggles as their Christian neighbors in coming to grips with critical approaches to the Bible. Though there is no “pope” or “magisterium” in Judaism, the thirteen principles of faith of Moses Maimonides (12th c) have often been considered as giving an authoritative approach to the Bible. These principles include confessing the divine origin and unchangeable nature of the Torah given by God to Moses. “I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah we now possess is the one given to Moses our teacher—may he rest in peace,” Maimonides’ eighth principle states (p. 25).

This is obviously at odds with a critical perspective, which examines the human element in the creation, transmission, purpose and use of the text. If Maimonides is followed, his article denies the very possibility of text and source criticism. However, as critical scholars (rightly) note, even when reading what the Torah itself says about torah, that word is never used to describe the completed text of the Torah itself. It is only in much later texts that anything resembling a finished “Torah” scroll is envisioned. As Brettler says:

The Bible contains strong internal evidence that the Torah developed over time, and the idea of the Torah as divine and Mosaic developed late in the biblical period. (p. 28)

In fact, Brettler notes that dogma has not been a hallmark feature of most of Judaism, Maimonides being a notable exception. At certain other times in history, doctrinal beliefs became important in some settings, especially as Jews engaged in disputes with Christians. Mark Brettler himself is convinced that Judaism is not a religion of dogmas, and that believing in such articles as those asserting the divine origin and unchangeable nature of the Torah is not required for one to be an observant Jew.

How then can a believing Jew say that the Bible comes from God as a product of divine revelation? Brettler cites Jon Levenson to answer this question:

God’s revelation of His Torah does not come in immediate form, but through (and not despite) human language and human culture, specifically the language and culture of biblical Israel and one of its several successors, rabbinic Judaism. The biblical books, for example, are, in part, products of history, and they abundantly display the conventions of composition, attribution, and historiography of the ancient Near Eastern culture in which they emerged. Given the mediate character of revelation, it is impossible to attribute some of the commandments of the Torah to God but others to human culture. All of them deserve to be respected, read liturgically, and studied in detail, for, in theory, they are all owing to divine revelation. (p. 38)

In terms of the various branches of Judaism — Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox — there is more openness to critical study in the first two, but a variety of views. And this is seen even within Orthodox Judaism. “Also,” as Brettler reminds us, “living an observant lifestyle, more than one’s beliefs, defines Israeli Orthodox Judaism—and many of these Jews are well educated through the religious school system to understand the diversity of positions concerning issues of dogma in classical Judaism” (p. 43).

Mark Brettler summarizes his own position in three points:

1. The Torah is a composite text that came into being over time.

2. Even when the Torah came together as a text, once it was compiled or redacted, most likely in the early Second Temple period, its text remained flexible. Only after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and perhaps as a reaction to that event, did the Torah text stabilize.

3. I was born Jewish and feel a deep devotion and commitment to Jewish tradition and practice. (p. 45)

In other words, being a practicing Jew does not depend upon one’s view of the Bible. For the observant Jew, it is the authority of rabbinic law as it has developed within the traditions of Judaism that is vital. And, since the biblical text is not the original or only source of rabbinic instruction, one’s view of its origin and nature has little bearing on actual practice. One can have a fully critical view of the text and yet continue to follow the dictates of rabbinic law.

There is more to Mark Zvi Brettler’s essay, but this is a sufficient overview for our purposes today. I will give him the final word:

The historical-critical methods and conclusions are important parts of my study of the Bible as an observant Jew. They represent the main, and often the only, position I use when I teach and when I write academic articles. They help form my identity as a Jewish biblical scholar who wants to understand what the Bible meant in its earliest periods and who tries to integrate those understandings, when possible, into my contemporary life.

As a modern Jew, deeply aware of the history of Judaism and Jewish biblical interpretation, I live under the influence of rabbinic interpretation. The Bible is an ancient text and must be updated—not through emendation or rewriting but through interpretation. In terms of practice, rabbinic law as it has developed, and continues to develop, informs my lifestyle. (p. 63)

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