Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Orinary Radicals

As I’ve been thinking about worship, liturgy and youth ministry (see here and here) I’ve also been reflecting on my own practice of prayer. As I’ve mentioned before, this summer I decided to seriously expand the practice of prayer in my own life. As we were talking with students about Christian practices it just seemed right that I ought to continue to develop those practices in my own life.

I had experimented with fixed-hour prayer in the past. I’d primarily used Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours, though I’ve also used the morning and evening prayer rites from the BCP. At the beginning of the summer I added compline to my normal prayer routine, and by midsummer I decided to expand to morning and evening prayer. As I was looking for a simple, helpful, manageable prayer book I stumbled upon Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro.

As it turns out, Common Prayer is pretty much all the things I was looking for in a prayer book. I’ve found many of the side-bars personally challenge, which is nice, but the primary reason I find the book so helpful is that it sets out to be a simple prayer book that can be used either individually or corporately. I’ve been using Common Prayer for several weeks as my primary prayer book. To be honest, at times I find it challenging to force myself to take a chunk of time and pray. It’s one of the reasons I’ve found fixed-hour prayer a helpful practice. As I’ve recited the prayers in this book there has not been a time when I haven’t come away refreshed–lest I give the wrong impression, this is entirely a work of the Holy Spirit, not Shane or the other authors, nevertheless that means this book is doing what it’s supposed to: helping me connect with God and then getting out of the way.

Common Prayer is split into several sections. The first is a lengthy introduction to the book, liturgy and the practice of fixed-hour prayer. The introduction is well written and helpful to those who have never attempted the practice of fixed-hour prayer before as well as those who have found it to be an important part of their spiritual lives. Next is a section of seven evening prayers, one for each night of the week. That means that each Sunday one recites the same prayer, each Monday the same prayer, etc. I find this immensely helpful since it establishes a weekly rhythm in my prayer life. Next is a section of morning prayers, one for each day of the year with a small section devoted specifically to Holy Week (which will fall on various calendar weeks). Following this there is a single Noon time prayer, to be said each day. I’ve personally found noon prayers to be the most difficult of the commonly practiced hours to establish in my own life, but I haven’t given up hope. The book concludes with a brief selection of prayers for various occasions and a songbook.

If you have never tried developing a practice of fixed-hour prayer, I highly recommend Common Prayer as a place to start. If you are familiar with fixed-hour prayer and find the practice helpful, I highly recommend this book. I’ve actually begun using selections from the evening prayers during our Wednesday evening worship time with students. So far, they have been quite helpful.

P. Kyle McCarter’s Textual Criticism: Recovering the Text of the Hebrew Bible

I fully realize that this book is from 1986, so it may seem a bit late to be writing a review. However, you’ll have to forgive me since I was only 2 when the book originally appeared. This is one of the required texts for my Textual Criticism seminar at Harvard this semester. I’m looking forward to the seminar, and this book was short so I decided to go ahead and review it before the semester gets underway. I should also point out the fact that I am hardly an expert when it comes to textual criticism. Keep in mind that this review is very much from a student’s perspective.

The first thing that deserves comment is the size of the book; less than 100 pages, including appendices. As a student I’m extremely thankful. The book is good, it says what needs to be said and then moves on. McCarter excels at being concise in his statements. These are all things that hit the mark, as far as a student is concerned. At the same time, it means that McCarter’s book will never be the only text in a graduate seminar on textual criticism. This is fine though, since it serves well as an introduction (which is really all its supposed to do).

Something else that jumped out at me in the book is that McCarter is quite witty. Having an author who is easily able to inject wit into a textbook always makes for a more enjoyable read. In Textual Criticism this is done with style. I lost track of the number of places I chuckled as I read through the book. A question for any of you Johns Hopkins students, is McCarter this witty in class?

I should also mention the appendices. These short addendums are quite helpful. A glossary is the first to appear, and defines some of the basic vocabulary of text criticism (witness, codex, haplography, homoioarkton, etc). The second appendix is a bibliography of primary sources. For someone who has not done much in depth work with textual criticism, this is a gold mine of information. If this information wasn’t already available on the Internet, its inclusion alone would justify the purchase. Even so, it is still convenient to have the information in one easily accessible place. The final appendix deals with the textual characteristics of each book, or section of books, in the Hebrew Bible. This is another extremely helpful resource for beginning students, and one I’m sure I’ll consult often this semester.

In my opinion, the negatives of Textual Criticism are few. Obviously, because of its brevity, it doesn’t touch on every issue imaginable in textual criticism. It is, after all, more of an introduction than a monograph. You’ll have to move on to Emanuel Tov’s Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible for a more thorough treatment of the various issues. The only other negative is one that I’m not entirely sure I’m educated enough to give at present. However, with that disclaimer, I’ll go ahead; McCarter appears to be quite in love with LXX, and often makes very little mention of the DSS. Conversely, Tov mentions the Qumran materials often and even accuses McCarter’s Textual Criticism of adopting “the approach of the period before the discovery of the new data [ie, the DSS]” (Tov, Textual Criticism, 14).

Those caveats aside, I think McCarter’s Textual Criticism is a helpful introductory textbook. It certainly doesn’t offer the depth of Tov, but it provides a way to quickly get oneself up to speed on the necessary material. It’s worth reading, especially for those who only desire an introduction.

Ooze Book Reviews: A Short and Easy Method of Prayer

I had the opportunity last month to become a member of the Ooze Select Blogger network. If you aren’t familiar with The Ooze, just click here. I enjoy many of the articles and discussions that take place over there. I’ll admit I’ve had less time than I’d like during the semester to keep up to date, but I digress. As part of this network, I receive books to review, which is an absolutely incredible thing. The first book review that I’m doing as part of this blogger network is A Short and Easy Method of Prayer by Madame Jeanne Marie Bouvier de La Motte Guyon. Now, the question is: does this book have anything going for it beyond the incredibly cool name of the author?

The answer is: sorta. First, any reader needs to keep in mind that this is a translation of the original French. Beyond that the original book was written in the 17th century, so to say that it is legacy would perhaps be an understatement. I’ve developed an interest in reflective practices over the past several years. In that regard, Madame Guyon’s book serves as a decent introduction to contemplative prayer. She has several absolutely pithy statements throughout the book. One of these is plastered on the back cover: “Prayer is the application of the heart to God, and the internal exercise of love.”

I found myself vacillating as I read the book as to whether or not it was worth reading. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that it is worth reading as an introduction to contemplative prayer, though perhaps that really isn’t the correct designation as she advocates a complete ceasing, and normally contemplative prayer, although advocating ceasing, at least begins with some type of contemplation of, er, something. There are a few things I do disagree with strongly:

1. She likes the internal a bit more than I do. That is to say, I think reason and contemplation work together, hand in hand, each informing the other. Madame Guyon would like us very much to throw reason out the window, or so it would seem. Take for instance, this comment, “Compose catechisms particularly to teach prayer, not by reasoning nor by method, for the simple are incapable thereof; but to teach the prayer of the heart, not of the understanding; the prayer of God’s Spirit, not of man’s invention.” Strong words indeed! Words that I fundamentally disagree with. I think the heart and understanding, reason and contemplation, can — indeed must! — work hand in hand as we live our lives. I think it is simply wrong to draw such a strong dichotomy between the head and the heart.
2. She was thrown into prison shortly after this work was originally completed. Normally that would be an almost immediate “buy it yesterday” in my book. However, my guess is that she was thrown into prison for her views on union with God. Those views are, shall we say…interesting. To be concise, Madame Guyon basically says we need to get rid of our own soul and be filled with God’s. To some extent I agree. We do need to give up ourselves, and in so doing allow the Holy Spirit to mold and shape us into the image of Jesus Christ. However, I got the feeling that Guyon didn’t mean what I want her to mean — though I could be wrong.

I need to mention some of the positives of the book though. Not because I’m required to, but because I think that some really do exist. For starters, the manuscript really encourages the reader to rest. To just stop being, stop doing, and rest in God. I think there are few things that the American church needs more than learning to stop and rest in God (I suppose one of those things would be getting a bit of that “reason” and “understanding” that Madame Guyon dislikes). For that bit alone the book is worth about half the Amazon price. She also has a section that is insightful in regards to confession. It’s almost, though not quite, insightful enough to make up the rest of the Amazon price.

Ultimately, should you buy this book? Eh. That depends entirely on what you’d like to read. If you’ve an interest in contemplative prayer or 17th Century French mystics, than sure. But if you already have a basic idea of what contemplative prayer entails, there are probably better books out there to purchase.