Review: Prayer by Timothy Keller

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Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with GodDutton, 2014. 321 pp. $26.95

Prayer by Tim Keller“Writing a book in your 50s will go twice as fast and be twice as good as if you try the same book in your 30s. It’s just good stewardship to wait.”

That was Tim Keller’s advice to pastors who desire to write. And he would know, since by my count, Keller has written nine books in the last two and half years. Talk about prolific writing!

Keller’s latest work is simply entitled Prayer. As he explains in the introduction, his aim is to combine the theological, experiential, and methodological in one book (1). He wants to drive home that prayer “is both conversation and encounter with God” (5).

We must know the awe of praising his glory, the intimacy of finding his grace, and the struggle of asking his help, all of which can lead us to know the spiritual reality of his presence. Prayer, then, is both awe and intimacy, struggle and reality. These will not happen every time we pray, but each should be a major component of our prayer over the course of our lives. (5)

Keller begins by acknowledging that he “discovered” prayer in the second half of his life with a series of moments: his teaching through the Psalms, the events of 9/11 (his wife implored him to pray together every night), and after his treatment for thyroid cancer (9ff.). This book, then, is the fruit of what he learned and what over the years, in both reading and in practice, he has discovered. Rather than giving a thorough review of this work, I will simply offer a couple of points that landed powerfully on me.

Warmth and Light

Keller repeatedly emphasizes the need for both sound doctrine and vibrant devotion—or what John Murray called “an intelligent mysticism” that steers clear of cold assent to truth on the one hand and passion devoid of truth on the other. Keller writes,

That means an encounter with God that involves not only the affections of the heart but also the convictions of the mind. We are not called to choose between a Christian life based on truth and doctrine or a life filled with spiritual power and experience. They go together. I was not being called to leave behind my theology and launch for ‘something more,’ for experience. Rather, I was meant to ask the Holy Spirit to help me experience my theology. (17)

Prayer, according to Keller, is a way to experience one’s theology. Using the thought of John Owen, Keller writes that “we must be able to existentially access our doctrinal convictions. If doctrinal soundness is not accompanied by heart experience, it will lead eventually to nominal Christianity … and eventually to nonbelief” (180). Of course, there is also a danger in other direction where affections “outrun” light. Despite this caution, both Owen and Keller agree that it is better to have more light than truth. I was surprised by this point and suspicious at first.

If we are going to be imbalanced, better that we be doctrinally weak and have a vital prayer life and real sense of God on the heart than that we get all our doctrine straight and be cold and spiritually hard. (182)

Perhaps it was the inner Pharisee in me or the instinctive Protestant rejection of my childhood Roman Catholicism, but I squirmed at this notion, especially when Keller encourages us to read “the medieval mystics with appreciation but also plenty of caution” (184). But after reflection, I came to understand what he is saying. He quotes Carl Trueman: “If the theology [of the medieval mystics] often leaves much to be desired, it would seem that the answer is not to reject the ambition of the mystics but to combine this ambition with appropriate theology” (184).

Augustine, Luther, and Calvin

After constructing a theology of prayer in the first five chapters, Keller tackles the more practical components of prayer. For this he enlists three seminal figures—three “master teachers of prayer” (108). In chapter 6 he looks at the the letters of Augustine and Martin Luther on prayer and in chapter 7 he highlights Calvin’s 5 rules for prayer. These two chapters distill a treasure trove of historical wisdom regarding the practice of prayer. But perhaps most illuminating is chapter 8 wherein Keller focuses on each line of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. Like before, he incorporates insights from all three theologians. I will highlight one insight.

Calvin, in his concluding remarks on the Lord’s Prayer, notes that the prayer as a whole was given to us in the plural form—“Us.” As such, “the prayers of Christians ought to be public … to the advancement of the believer’s fellowship” (118). According to Michael Horton, Calvin believed “public ministry shapes private devotion, not vice versa” (118). Keller underscores this well:

Prayer is … not a strictly private thing. As much as we can, we should pray with others both formally in gathered worship and informally….

C. S. Lewis argues that it takes a community of people to get to know an individual person. Reflecting on his own friendships, he observed that some aspects of one of his friend’s personality were brought out only through interaction with a second friend. That meant if he lost the second friend, he lost the part of his first friend that was otherwise invisible. ‘By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets.’

If it takes a community to know an ordinary human being, how much more necessary would it be to get to know Jesus alongside others? By praying with friends, you will be able to hear and see facets of Jesus that you have not yet perceived…. Knowing the Lord is communal and cumulative, we must pray and praise together. (118-119)

This is a timely word in our individualistic age. Private prayers are to be shaped by the corporate worship of God’s people. Each Lord’s Day as we gather with the church, we are learning how better to seek the Lord in secret.

Conclusion

It is a disservice to leave the review here. Keller’s discussion on the “touchstones of prayer” (ch. 9) merit more attention. His final section on “doing prayer” (chs. 12-14) are chock-full of wisdom. His concluding chapter on daily prayer provides some helpful and varied patterns of prayer that all readers can incorporate into their lives.

Even his endnotes deserve mention. In almost all cases I prefer footnotes over endnotes, yet in this work I appreciated how the endnotes allowed for an uncluttered and undistracted reading. But I made it a point to read all 386 of the endnotes afterward and I learned several things: (1) Keller has thought about prayer for many, many years (hence there’s wisdom when he says to wait until your 50s to write books); (2) Keller has done extensive, eclectic reading on the topic of prayer and has gained wisdom from many streams; and (3) Keller is extremely thorough in his presentation without being cumbersome (some endnotes can be articles unto themselves).

I devoured this book in a matter of days. It is the kind of book that invites multiple re-readings since we never master prayer. Keller showed me how cold I often am before the Lord (seen in an impoverished and anemic prayer life), but he also pastorally pointed to a better way to truly experience “awe and intimacy” with God. Frequently I was compelled to close the book, apply its rich truths, and seek the Lord in secret—and with God’s people. If it has the same effect on others, I think Keller—and the Lord—will be pleased.

In accordance with FTC regulations, I would like to thank Dutton for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Language Claps Its Hands

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One of my favorite books of 2014:full_1408571351

“At the merely natural level, we are all dull and are served well when language claps its hands and wakes us up to pay attention….

“The point of this book has been that finding worthy words for worthy discoveries not only helps others feel their worth but also helps us feel the worth of our own discoveries. Groping for awakening words in the darkness of our own dullness can suddenly flip a switch and shed light all around what it is that we are trying to describe—and feel. Taking hold of a fresh word for old truth can become a fresh grasp of the truth itself. Telling of beauty in new words becomes a way of tasting more of the beauty itself.”

— John Piper, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Power of Poetic Effort in the Work of George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C. S. LewisCrossway, 2014

Owen Strachan’s Advice to Seminary Students

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Owen Strachan, professor of theology at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky, offers these great points of advice to men preparing for ministry:

strachan-owen201008_49870e1“Stay close to your family. Focus far more on being an excellent husband and father than anything else. You’d think this advice would be old hat, but I’m just 33 years old and have already seen numerous colleagues and friends fall out of ministry due to infidelity. It takes your breath away. It also makes you realize that you are not far from the same end.

“Luxuriate, exalt, and lose yourself in the life of the mind. Do not make the very common mistake of thinking that pastoral ministry is a retreat from thinking and pondering. It most certainly is not. The American church is in the midst of a theology famine. It needs excellent, soul-feeding preaching that is both theologically rich and boots-on-the-ground practical. See yourself as a small but vital part of solving this major problem. The pastor used to be a thinker. He should be again in our day.

“Preach well and study hard, but make sure you allot a good portion of your week to meeting with your people. You can by no means meet with everyone, so let that be said right up front. But if you lose that instinct, if you find yourself wanting to get away from the sheep, then hit the alarm. Pastoring is people work. It has to be. The pastor is not everyone’s personal discipler in a 1-on-1 sense. Preaching yields tremendous opportunity for discipleship in a group sense. But if a pastor is not doing some counseling and discipleship, something is off. Pastors are not theological resource providers; they are shepherds. If they are not directly shepherding some part of the body each week, I fear that they have transitioned out of biblical pastoral ministry.

“Feel no pressure at all to reinvent the ecclesial wheel. Gorge on the wisdom of the past like a hipster who was barred from their favorite foodie locales for a year and is now released to eat. Concentrate less on being the next Young Gun Pastor Sensation and more on attaching yourself to an ecclesial tradition that is tested by time, faithful to Scripture, and affords you opportunities to partner in the gospel to push the gospel to the ends of the earth.”

(via Am I Called)

Review: Trinity, Revelation, and Reading by Scott Swain

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Scott R. Swain. Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation. New York: T&T Clark, 2011. 168 pp. $27.95.

rinity, Revelation, and Reading by Scott SwainThis slim academic book is gold. It is well written and conversant with a wide-ranging collection of ancient and contemporary theologians (Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Owen, Barth, Bavinck, Vanhoozer, Webster, Gentry, Peterson, et al.). His discussion on the inspiration, clarity, and sufficiency of Scripture is grounded and precise.

One element I appreciated is his emphasis on the exegete’s own heart toward the Lord in the task of interpretation:

- “We do not stand over [the Bible] as interpretive lords. We do not sit beside it as interpretive equals. We kneel beneath it as interpretive servants. The Lord looks upon the one who trembles at his Word. Therefore, the stance of biblical interpretation is humble attentiveness and the goal of biblical interpretation is obedience: ‘speak, Lord, for your servant hears’ (cf. 1 Sam. 3:9ff).” – p. 76

- “There is a real sense … in which our capacity for understanding Scripture grows along with our capacity for obeying Scripture.”

Perhaps most helpful are the final two chapters on reading Scripture “as an act of covenant mutuality.” In these chapters he highlights the “rule of faith” and the “rule of love.” I wasn’t entirely convinced by the various “dogmas” we should subscribe to, but it was good fodder for thought. Swain’s presentation of the four “phases” of interpretation—prayer, explication, meditation, and application—ought to be instilled in every student of Scripture.

One final word: Swain identifies himself with the TIS movement (Theological Interpretation of Scripture). The movement as it currently stands is broad on the theological spectrum—it has Roman Catholics, liberal Protestants, and evangelicals. I’m wary of TIS and afraid that will move people away from “the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” but this work presents the movement at its best.

** Rob Plummer, professor at Southern Seminary, has a helpful chapter on TIS.

Eugene Peterson’s Advice to Seminary Students

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Eugene Peterson’s advice to seminary students:

Eugene_Peterson (1)“I’d tell them that pastoring is not a very glamorous job. It’s a very taking-out-the-laundry and changing-the-diapers kind of job. And I think I would try to disabuse them of any romantic ideas of what it is. As a pastor, you’ve got to be willing to take people as they are. And live with them where they are. And not impose your will on them. Because God has different ways of being with people, and you don’t always know what they are.

“The one thing I think is at the root of a lot of pastors’ restlessness and dissatisfaction is impatience. They think if they get the right system, the right programs, the right place, the right location, the right demographics, it’ll be a snap. And for some people it is: if you’re a good actor, if you have a big smile, if you are an extrovert. In some ways, a religious crowd is the easiest crowd to gather in the world. Our country’s full of examples of that. But for most, pastoring is a very ordinary way to live. And it is difficult in many ways because your time is not your own, for the most part, and the whole culture is against you. This consumer culture, people grow up determining what they want to do by what they can consume. And the Christian gospel is just quite the opposite of that. And people don’t know that. And pastors don’t know that when they start out. We’ve got a whole culture that is programmed to please people, telling them what they want.  And if you do that, you might end up with a big church, but you won’t be a pastor.”

(via Jonathan Merritt)

Interpretive Stance: Humble Attentiveness and Obedience

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“We do not stand over [the Bible] as interpretive lords. We do not sit beside it as interpretive equals. We kneel beneath it as interpretive servants. The Lord looks upon the one who trembles at his Word. Therefore, the stance of biblical interpretation is humble attentiveness and the goal of biblical interpretation is obedience: ‘speak, Lord, for your servant hears’ (cf. 1 Sam. 3:9ff).”

— Scott Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading (T&T Clark, 2011), p. 76.

Book Review: The Stories We Tell by Mike Cosper

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Mike Cosper, The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long For and Echo the TruthWheaton: Crossway, 2014.

StoriesWeTellThis is a brief review—mostly quotes to whet your appetite. Overall, I want to say I really enjoyed this book. I learned a lot about TV shows and movies I’ve never watched—or care to watch, really. Cosper shows how the stories we tell reflect—to greater or lesser degree—the grand story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. There are echoes of Eden all around us; and this books helps us hear them well.

Here are some great quotes:

“The world is like a faded beauty who looks in the mirror remembering her youth, mourning the long-gone glory of Eden. She is now battered and scarred, not merely by age, but by tragedy, war, and defeat. She feels all too heavily how far she’s fallen, and in her sadness she tells mournful tales of glory lost. Of heroes who fail and unravel. Of sin and consequences. Of evil that triumphs and prowls. Of darkness that swallows all who draw near.” — p. 34.

“God, in his wisdom, chose to give his image-bearers imagination, so that any time we get together, we can sit down, tell a story, and be carried away.” — p 56

“For centuries, people have gathered and told tales meant to inspire hope and shed light on the struggles of life. They’ve told about men who conquered dragons and raised mountains, who rescued damsels and rose from the dead. Our hearts swell when we hear and see the stories– when we see Frodo escape from Mount Doom, or Iron Man cut off a portal to intergalactic invaders. We cheer when Prince Phillip kisses Aurora and the kingdom comes to life again. We weep when Harry Potter rises for the dead, lifted by deeper and older magic than even the most powerful wizard in the world can conjure: love. Then the theater lights lift and we return to the harsh daylight of the real world. We can hear the stories of life, death, and resurrection, knowing in our hearts that it really did happen.” — pp. 190-191

“Storytelling is a great gift because humanity is a great gift, something God himself delights in. When we engage great stories, we engage with people, seeing ourselves reflected in their desires and faults. If the big story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation is the background of all our stories, then humanity is the common foreground— broken image-bearers trying to make sense of life.” — p. 216

Review: How to Read the Bible as Literature by Leland Ryken

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Leland Ryken. How to Read the Bible as Literature. Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1984.

41obmXXssiL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Since God is the author, many readers of the Bible often assume that one approaches all of it the same manner. Often missed, however, is the reality of the dual authorship of the Bible. The Bible is not a monolithic piece of work. The Bible did not come to us in a Koranic-like fashion with an angel dictating every single word. What we have instead is God the Spirit superintending the process of revelation so that men—with their own personalities, experiences, vocabularies, etc.—wrote down God’s words as he would have them (2 Pet. 1:20-21). As such, we have a rich diversity of God-breathed Scripture, all of it profitable for the people of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17). This diversity includes genres and styles, ranging from story and poetry to metaphor and proverb. Each of these genres require a unique interpretive approach so as to be faithful and clearheaded in our exegesis.

Summary

Leland Ryken, long-time and now retired professor of English at Wheaton College, provides in his book How to Read the Bible as Literature a guide on how to approach the various literary genres used throughout the Bible. Ryken reminds us that in addition to historical and theological approaches to the Bible, we will be well served and we will do honor to the Bible when we approach it literarily. As he reminds us, the Bible is not simply a truthful book but also an aesthetically beautiful work (9). This dual reality is expressed by the writer of Ecclesiastes as he tells the reader that he not only chose the words “with great care” but also “sought to find pleasing words” (Eccl. 12:9-10). The aesthetic, creative element is a handmaiden to the propositional content of the Bible and we should never pit them against one another. Instead, we ought to appreciate the Bible, with all its literary genres, and rightly handle it with care. Leland Ryken helps the reader do just that.

The first thing Ryken establishes is the literary nature of the Bible. By “literature” he means the imaginative or creative element in the Bible (12). He admits that there are also “expository” portions in the Bible. He is quick to make clear that in surveying the literary nature of the Bible he is not ignoring the more abstract or propositional elements. He writes, “I have no intention of building a ‘great divide’ that would make a biblical passage either literature or nonliterature” (12). Instead, he offers a “literary continuum” of portions that more or less literary.

In the opening chapter of the book, as Ryken examines various elements of a story, he is quick to remind the reader that he is not required to memorize all the “rules” to rightly interpret any given biblical story. He writes, “The sheer quantity of ‘rules’ for reading and interpreting biblical stories may seem overwhelming…. We tend to apply most of these rules intuitively, simply as close readers of the biblical text” (68). This caveat, on a book of rules and examples, is a welcome reminder for the reader at the very outset. One need not enroll in an English literature course to read the Bible, although I am sure Ryken would not discourage either. Ryken is a guide, not a heavy-handed literary taskmaster.

Another feature of this book is the exposure to the breathtaking beauty and diversity of Scripture. For example, when surveying the types of biblical poetry, Ryken highlights the types of psalms: lament, praise, worship, and nature. Again, this quick survey exposes the reader to the wideness and appeal of the psalms. The psalms cover the whole gamut of human emotions—delight (1:2), fear (2:11), anger (4:4), joy (4:7), peace (4:8), grief (6:7), gladness (9:2), love (18:1), loneliness (25:16), sorrow (31:10), hope (33:22), shame (44:15), and pain (69:29). The psalms are not a flat, one-dimensional hymnbook to casually read. To the contrary, the psalms invite the reader—every reader—to come to God at every point of human emotion. Ryken helpfully showcases this.

A few other topics deserve mention. The most helpful of the sections in this book are Ryken’s treatment of the parables (139-153) and apocalyptic or “visionary” literature (165-175), for they are two of the genres that most often confuse Bible readers. Ryken also includes an insightful five-page appendix devoted to the topic of allegory in the parables. And lastly, in classifying the various literary genres of the Bible, Ryken concludes his book by stressing the literary unity of the Bible. “Like other stories, the Bible has a beginning-middle-end pattern, a unifying plot conflict between good and evil, a focus on people in the act of choosing, and a central protagonist who is God” (179). In the end, this Bible’s great unifying theme is God. In studying the various genres of the Bible, the student of God’s Word would do well to not miss its main actor.

Critical Evaluation

There are various positive things worth highlighting. Ryken provides the Bible student with an invaluable resource in this book. He systematically works through various literary genres and guides the reader. Like any good teacher, he slowly reinforces what he teaches with various examples. The sidebar captions are invaluable as they concisely summarize what the paragraph is about. The wide margins allow the reader to dig in and gloriously destroy the book with marginalia—it is as if Ryken is inciting the reader to become a conversation partner in this process, not simply a detached and mechanical observer. Moreover, the “Further Reading” at the close of each chapter gives a snippet of more thought and information that a reader can pursue.

There are also a few negatives. At times the discussions can seem tedious. For a new student of the Bible, the many terms and words such as “correspondence” (99) and “encomium” (119) can seem intimidating if not off-putting. Moreover, perhaps this work could have been further shortened and thus made more accessible. An updated version with new recommended books would also be helpful to today’s reader.

And lastly, writing in the mid-1980s, it seems Ryken wished to counterbalance the excesses in those who insisted on a grammatico-historical method of interpretation and emphasized the propositional truths taught in the biblical texts to the exclusion of the literary. As mentioned above, Ryken does not wish to make an either-or separation between the literary and the expository elements in the Bible. But in recent years, it seems to me that the literary side has been so prominent a feature that the more propositional component has been eclipsed. Today’s emphasis on the story line of Scripture has been a welcome reminder that our Bibles fit together—there is one great redemptive thing from beginning to end. The Bible is not reductionistic in its message or simply a scattered collection of abstract truths. But, of course, this must be balanced with the other emphases. This is a perpetual problem for the exegete of any generation. Thirty years have passed since Ryken first published this book; perhaps there is a need for a revised volume—or an entirely new book—that presents a more full-orbed presentation of the Bible as literature and what that means and does not mean.

In the end, however, this is a classic work by a seasoned scholar. The fact that this work is still in print thirty years after it was first published testifies to its enduring value. I am sure that it will still be an invaluable guide for many more years to come

Mike Cosper: Tales of a Faded Beauty

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AdamEveCurse“The world is like a faded beauty who looks in the mirror remembering her youth, mourning the long-gone glory of Eden. She is now battered and scarred, not merely by age, but by tragedy, war, and defeat. She feels all too heavily how far she’s fallen, and in her sadness she tells mournful tales of glory lost. Of heroes who fail and unravel. Of sin and consequences. Of evil that triumphs and prowls. Of darkness that swallows all who draw near.”

— Mike Cosper, The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long For and Echo the Truth (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), p. 34.

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