by Katie Stringer
You can’t help but come away from this book longing to look into the great works that inspired it. Luther, Cranmer, Augustine and Calvin are some of the names that pop up again and again and Keller credits the writing of these authors as instrumental in helping him in his thinking on prayer and in his own prayer life. By including their famous writings, personal stories, and thoughts in language that speaks to us today, this book uniquely prepares the 21st century Christian for meatier things.
As Keller humbly admits in the introduction to this book: “The best material on prayer has been written.” (p.1) When I read that line it made me think of Calvin’s, “Thoughts on Prayer”. (Helpfully sliced out from his giant Institutes of the Christian Religion and printed in a pocket size ‘mini classic’ once published by Matthias Media.) This I had been carrying around with me through January, nibbling off bits here and there as ‘research’, while I awaited Keller’s book in the post. How, I thought, could Keller possibly top that? He doesn’t attempt to. In fact I knew this was going to be an excellent book when I flicked through and could see Keller had included large chunks of Calvin’s “Thoughts on Prayer”, paraphrased in a modern style, (Chapter 7, Rules for Prayer) as one of his ‘masterclasses’ on prayer. Reading Calvin might feel like reading Shakespeare to some but to have it laid forth in plain English makes it accessible. And once you’ve gotten a taste for it in this manner you might feel brave enough to read it in all its old-fashioned glory.
Narrowing my focus on great Christian thinkers of the past these are the books and authors Keller shone a light on in this book and made me want to read more of:
• Augustine’s Confessions, written at the turn of the 5th Century, Keller refers to it again and again for honest and heartfelt reflections on becoming a Christian and what that meant for the author. It contains this beautiful line on its opening page, "For Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee."
• Kirsten Birkett’s The Essence of the Reformation (published by Matthias Media) is not directly referenced by Keller but I have included it as it helpfully contains three primary texts by Luther, Calvin and Cranmer: Martin Luther on Freedom, John Calvin on Prayer, and Thomas Cranmer on Salvation.
• The Collects of Thomas Cranmer. Keller writes, “They are...without peer, many think, outside of the Bible itself.”(p.272)
• Matthew Henry’s A Method for Prayer: Freedom In the Face of God - Many may be familiar with Matthew Henry’s amazingly detailed commentary on the whole Bible and I couldn’t go past this recommendation from Keller: “I have found that you can easily spend an entire day in prayer with this guide and help.” (p.271)
• Martin Luther’s “A Simple Way to Pray” and “Personal Prayer Book” in Luther’s Works: Devotional Writings II - This little extract, Keller enthuses, is practical and profound and worth reading annually. (p.271)
The Best Book to Read
The best book to read is always the Bible. As wildly excited as I get about the most recent thing I’ve read it’s essential to compare it with the Bible. Keller has copped some criticism for being soft on judgement, not Presbyterian enough, and too focussed on apologetics, amongst other things. These aren’t criticisms I share, but there are essays on some of these topics in a thin book of criticism entitled, Engaging with Keller: Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical (Edited by I. D Campbell & W. M Schweit) if you are interested in exploring these ideas further.
In the light of this criticism I think it’s worth remembering what it is Keller is on about: engaging with the culture of the day in a vernacular they will understand whilst remaining faithful to the Bible. I think that about sums him up. You would have to say he is achieving that goal through his preaching and writing ministry with remarkable success. I’m not saying he shouldn’t be critiqued, we should all be critiqued, but we shouldn’t expect him to undertake this task with perfection. The best book to read is not the latest Tim Keller or any other author. It’s the Bible. And I’m sure he’d say the same.
For my money I think Keller spends an appropriate amount of time centred squarely on the Bible in this book and in particular, as this is a book on Prayer, much time in the Bible’s prayer book, the Psalms. If you only go away from reading this review with one new old book to go and check out, it’s got to be the Psalms! At our local church there is a tradition of doing summer Psalms and it is always a good reminder to meditate on and pray through a Psalm a day.
Every Prayer Will End In Praise
Keller ends his book the way he began it: with self-effacement. The product of his research and self-discovery is devoted ultimately to revealing God in his glory, that we might give Him the praise he so richly deserves. In chapter 12, as Keller looks at how we praise God in his glory, he comes finally to the end of the Psalter, to the Omega Prayer, Psalm 150, where he can’t help but note the unbroken praise. Every line of Psalm 150 is praise in the highest, with trumpets, dancing and loud crashing cymbals. Why does it end this way he wonders? He quotes Eugene Peterson who believes that in the end every prayer will end in praise:
All [true] prayer, pursued far enough, becomes praise. Any prayer, no matter how desperate its origin, no matter how angry and fearful the experiences it traverses, ends up in praise. It does not always get there quickly or easily-the trip can take a lifetime-but the end is always praise (p. 202 Peterson, Answering God)
Like anybody I’ve had my share of hard things that have made me wonder why God chose to answer my prayer with a ‘no’. There have been times when I have stopped praying altogether because I was stunned by God’s response. But I thank him for being merciful to me and hanging on to me in the silence, until I could lift my head again and praise him once more. I know for sure that it’s only by the power of the Holy Spirit that I am inclined to do that. May I do it all my days, may my prayers end in praise and go on for eternity.
Ultimately this topic opens up a world of riches so deep, you could blog all year on this book and the reading that inspired it. I hope that this book and these reviews have encouraged you in your walk with God: To be active in daily prayer, and to continue to search for His face.