Chalice Press (publisher of Sabbath in the Suburbs, still available at fine online retailers) has some great stuff in the works these days. There's Who's Got Time? Spirituality for a Busy Generation, which I featured a few months ago. Traci Smith's book Seamless Faith was also featured here recently. Coming next year will be a book by Frank Schaefer, the United Methodist pastor who was defrocked after he performed the wedding for his gay son. Today we feature Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get To Work by Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson. I've known these guys online for a few years and find them to be provocative, yet humble and good-humored---and I think the latter two qualities are ideal in order to fully engage the former, eh?
Anyway, here's a little Q&A that will give you a sense of their book:
1. How did this book come about? What was the initial impetus to write it?
We don’t intend to imply that she supports the book, but we can kind of blame it on a heady cocktail of Unco11, insomnia and Sara Miles. We love what she does with Take This Bread, nailing down liturgical practice to concrete activity in the world, and we were brainstorming ways to do similar things. Sara Miles clearly articulates that her experience of communion was a call to feed her community, out of which grew their food pantry. It’s crazy to us that a church can celebrate communion, and talk about sustenance and welcome, and yet have starving people across the street, and whole populations who are anything but welcome.
So we came up with prayer, which to us was emblematic of this tendency. We pray to God to forgive us, and feel better without having to reconcile with people we’ve hurt, or who have hurt us. We praise God, but look down on people who don’t achieve success by our standards. We pray prayers of thanksgiving, but Christians are famous for being poor tippers, and we often fail to thank the many people who make our lives possible.
We went through a common liturgical structure, which is punctuated by various forms of prayer, and organized the book in that way. We picked the title Never Pray Again at first to be as attention-grabbing as we could, but by the end of the writing, we have a greater sense for prayer as being one among many spiritual practices, and in itself no more necessary than liturgical dance. Notice that the title isn’t stop-praying-because-you-are-doing-something-bad, because that is not our argument. It is our belief that you can do something so much better in following Christ which will naturally lead you to Never Pray Again. Ultimately this book is about how we are called to act, more than whisper things in love.
2. I can tell you all have the pastor's heart. You are very clear at the beginning, "If this book is not for you, put it down." Who is this book for? Who do you hope will read it?
We imagine people who struggle with the efficacy of prayer, or with the constant assurance from other Christians to just “pray about it” when things go wrong, will get a lot from this book. People who are open to progressive ideas and who want to be challenged in various areas of their practice will be challenged by this book, we think in a good way. People who are already consistent pray-ers will find many other resources and ideas that, we think, will only strengthen them. We also found that our crowd-funding efforts with the Never Pray Again coloring book caught the attention of a number of members of an atheist community, and people who heard about us from that community made up about a third of our backers. For non-believers, I think the challenge will be that this book is stuffed full of Biblical allusions, stories and quotes. So we’ll say things they agree with about prayer, but the challenge will be that the direction we go is deeper into Christianity, rather than away from it.
3. You do a good job building a positive case for a very active life of faith, and you spend less time critiquing prayer itself and why it's bad. That's a good thing--it makes the book ultimately more constructive and useful. But is it possible to "get to work" AND to be actively engaged in a life of prayer? Or do you see something problematic about prayer itself, as it's currently practiced?
This question comes up a lot, and we anticipated it. In theory, one can be living an active practice of Christianity and also pray regularly. Many of our personal heroes were pray-ers (though many others were not). We make the case in the book, however, that there are plenty of situations where prayer can be an impediment to Christian practice, and as Christians in community we are surrounded by examples of this, and have impeded ourselves as well plenty of times. Aric said it really well, that if there is a situation where you can have a ‘good’ prayer life and ‘relationship with God’, but a poor relationship with other people around you, then you are deceiving yourself about your prayer life and relationship with God.
One thing we definitely want to challenge is that Christians must pray. Our experience is that prayer is presented as a panacea, and as such, it doesn’t work very well. We disagree that prayer is a sine qua non of Christian practice. So far we have found, unsurprisingly, that the idea of being Christian and not praying is challenging to a lot of Christians. But if we put all the Bible passages about how and what to pray in one column, and all the Bible passages about how to treat people in another column, we would find many things that are more central to Christian practice than prayer.
We also hear things like “Well, anything done for God is a form of prayer,” which might be true, but if everything is prayer, then does the word prayer mean anything? We don’t think so. In that case, we aren’t talking about the same thing. In Never Pray Again, we are talking about what people mean when they say something like “Let us pray.” What happens next is most often that we close our eyes, bow our heads, clasp our hands, or put them up in the air, and say words in our minds or aloud which are directed at God. This is what the word prayer means 99.9% of the time, and this is what we are challenging. And we are not merely saying ‘pray a little bit differently.’ We are saying that it is fruitful to at least consider that we Never Pray Again.
4. How do you understand the Sermon on the Mount in light of your book? Jesus has a lot to say about how we pray (in your closet, etc.), but he also lifts up the Lord's Prayer as a template.
So, in Matthew, 5:1 through 6:4 is about things we talk about in the book at length. Matthew 6:5-13 is about prayer, and then we’re back to other concerns in 6:14 through the end of chapter 7. Interestingly, there is very little Jesus says about prayer in this passage, and this is the most he talks about prayer in any of the Gospels, as you pointed out. But the way he describes prayer is such that a person who prays regularly will look no different from someone who doesn’t pray at all, because he admonishes his followers to pray in secret. We think that this reflects Jesus’ concern that prayer can take the place of action - a concern we share.
So how is it that, for Christians, prayer is necessary, but the other things Jesus talks about are optional? Subversive blessing, being salt and light, fulfilling the Law and doing what’s right, extinguishing hatred and sexual objectification, truth-telling, integrity, nonviolence, loving enemies, giving to the needy, fasting, non-worry and courage, giving up certainty of food and drink and clothing, being non-judgmental - these are also things Jesus talks about, but they occupy far less of an average Christian’s time and energy than prayer, and few seem to see them as absolutely necessary to Christian practice. Why is this?
We have a challenging theory - Christians focus on prayer because prayer is easy. If on the one hand I can pray, and on the other hand I can be a homeless pacifist truth-teller who loves his enemies and judges no-one, prayer is the easy choice. And we wonder, with this focus on prayer, do we make ourselves feel better about consuming, hating our enemies, judging others and being hypocritical? Our experience is that taking prayer off the table, so to speak, leaves us bare to the fact that our practice is lacking, and that we use prayer to make ourselves feel better about that. Think about the criticisms of millennials of the church - that it is judgmental, exclusive, hypocritical, that it does harm to vulnerable people, etc. These are all instances where we are failing to live up to everything in the Sermon on the Mount, including prayer, because we don’t focus on prayer in secret. We even push the Supreme Court to rule on prayer at public gatherings! Jesus would say don’t pray at public gatherings at all.
5. How has the book changed (or has it changed) the way you engage in prayer with the folks in your congregations? What fruit do you see or hope to see with your faith communities?
This is a more of an individual question, so we will answer individually.
(Aric) Writing and publishing this book has definitely changed the way I pray in and with my congregation in that it has forced me to address some areas of real hypocrisy in my life. Where the phrase “I’ll pray for you” had previously served as a sort of lazy stand-in for almost any expression of compassion, I now have to consider in each case what the best way to express my sympathy and solidarity might be. I find myself saying “I love you” a lot more and to a wider array of people, because that is what I really meant by offering prayer. The fruit I already see within the congregation I serve is people having to think through their reasons for praying. I have had many discussions with people about “why” they pray, which for most of them isn’t something they’d ever even considered. Prayer was just “what you do.”
(Nick) The collaboration and challenge of the book as an idea started changing me, which I’m sure has influenced my own prayer life and that with my congregation. From that initial conversation the underlying challenge of directness asks more of me. Last night I was gathered with our college ministry, Disciples on Campus, for a final meal to end the semester, and we closed with group prayer, but we were also eating at a Mexican restaurant who had stayed open late to accommodate us. I found myself walking back into the kitchen (a few of the students even followed me) to thank our cooks, and server who stayed late for us before they could start to close up. Before this book I don’t think I would have taken that action.
(Doug) The process of writing this book, a year and a half of research and struggle and discussing and revision, has changed me a lot. It has given me a chance to think through my commitments more thoroughly, and has strengthened my sense of the call of the Christian life. My hope is that a big part of my ministry is encouraging people, and modeling as much as I can, not to let outward religious practices replace true commitment to living a Christ-like life. For me, it’s all about Isaiah 58, and that line of thinking has informed me from the moment I thought I might do ministry as a career.
Excellent responses, guys! I hope your book is a great success.