Culture At Large

Prayer in culture

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

The best selling book of 1955 was Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. I recently read parts of the book as part of some research I was doing on that era. There are a lot of things about Peale’s version of Christianity that troubled me, and here is one example:
Just as there exist scientific techniques for the release of atomic energy, so are there scientific procedures for the release of spiritual energy through the mechanism of prayer… New and fresh spiritual techniques are being constantly discovered by men and women of spiritual genius.
Peale made prayer sound like a household appliance; make sure you’re using the newest edition. With something as ancient as prayer, I resented the idea that older forms might be less effective. On the contrary, I think new ways of doing Christianity obscure just as much as they bring new aspects of our relationship with God to light.

You can imagine my skepticism with this fresh in my mind when I saw this weekend’s NYT Magazine Headline: The Right Way to Pray?

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the article was an honest reflection of a number of different experiences with prayer, and not an interview with some self-proclaimed expert about how his prayers were superior to everyone else’s.  Instead, the author who grew up Jewish asks honest questions to people from a variety of Jewish and Christian traditions.  The different ways that people explain their prayer practices to a sincere seeker are really fascinating.

It made me wonder what I would say if an agnostic reporter asked me why I prayed and how I did it. I’d be tempted to start with my inadequacies, but I think it would be best if I told a story about a time when God changed me through prayer. In fact, those are the stories that I tell my agnostic roommate and colleagues when they ask. They may not believe that it was really God talking to me, but they never turn me down when I offer to pray for them. Maybe our evangelism would get further if we talked about prayer more and judgment less.

I was surprised, though, that there wasn’t more relational language in the article. Nobody spoke directly about listening to God. Perhaps that was too out there to say to a reporter, maybe it got edited out, but I think the listening portion is an important part of what it means to have a practice of prayer.

If you don’t want to read the whole article, I suggest that you skip to the last page, where the author talks to a group of kids at a church in West Virginia. Ultimately, he finds their stories about prayer the most compelling. Faith of a child indeed.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Evangelism, Prayer, News & Politics, North America