Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Off the Shelf: a new book on prayer.

Full disclosure statement -- as a (begin self-directed sarcasm)highly respected and influential member of the new media reformation (end self-directed sarcasm), I was offered an opportunity to review Mark Roberts' new book No Holds Barred. Of course, since I'm always on the lookout for fine new reading material for my readers (and, more importantly, I cannot resist a free book), I accepted the offer.

I'll be honest -- I didn't expect much. I'd never heard of this Roberts guy out in California. And after all, he's only the pastor of Irvine Presbyterian, an exciting and active congregation of 800. He's only a Harvard Phd in New Testament Origins. He's only a professor at two seminaries (San Francisco and Fuller). He's only written four other books and countless articles. I'd never heard of him, so I shouldn't expect much (ok, end sarcasm again).

So, I received my copy of No Holds Barred and began to read. It's Roberts' guide to experiencing deeper, more intimate and personal prayer. Roberts grounds his work in scripture, a refreshing contrast from so many other contemporary books on spirituality that prioritize the subjective and the emotional. Here we turn to the Pslams as our guide for enriching our prayer repertoire. This isn't to say that Roberts devalues the subjective and emotional -- rather he shows that scripture is our authoritative guide to understanding, interpreting, and engaging in the subjective, emotional experience of conversation with the Father.

After all, the psalms show us how the Father gives us permission to bring before Him our full range of emotion: passion, giddy joy, brokenhearted contrition, vindictive wrath, and agonied despair, among others. One key to experiencing deeper prayer is in getting away from formulaic prayer where we repeat certain catch phrases or formulae, and instead lettting the psalms guide us in properly bringing our hearts before the throne -- our whole undivided hearts.

I've seen this done before -- using the psalms as a guide for prayer is not new. This is ground that has been well covered by CS lewis, Richard Pratt, and Stanley Jaki, among others. Roberts, however, brings a fresh voice to his treatment. He writes not as the scholar who has studied deep prayer (though he is a scholar). He writes as a loving pastor, trying to create a biblically grounded impression of what prayer is supposed to be like. The language he uses is more the language of the pulpit than the language of the textbook. He tells stories and focuses on the heart, rather than the intricasies of the exegesis of the passage. Thus, while his work on the psalms is solid, it is focused more on applicaion than on analysis.

Of particular note is his courage in tackling the thorny issue of the imprecatory psalms (those places where the psalmist prays for the destruction of his enemies). He shows how these psalms help us face the very real emotions that we have that we really don't like -- and remind us that to God alone belongs judgment and vengance, not us. It' a very nice, balanced treatment of some difficult passages.

All said, this less a book for biblical technicians than it is for people longing to go deeper in prayer. Read, and enjoy, and may you profit from the reading.

Soli Deo Gloria.