Book Review: Common Prayer

Book Review: Common Prayer

January 25, 2011
Written by Gregg Brekke

The list of recent titles extolling the virtues of daily/common/hourly/liturgical prayer could fill at least one tier of my bookshelf. Well, they nearly do.

The Book of Common Prayer, Celtic Daily Prayer, Phyllis Tickle's Divine Hours (all editions), A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God, Praying with the Psalms, Streams in the Desert, Praying with the Desert Mothers, and a dozen more - are all available to me day and night.

A new arrival on this ever-updating scene is not necessarily big news, but in many ways it is a refreshing surprise. The release of "Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals" by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro, is so unique in the list of liturgically oriented devotional books that it needs mention.

What Claiborne and crew have assembled is something of a postmodern Christian marvel. Ably weaving ancient and modern sources of prayer and liturgy along with a sensibility to current-day spiritual concerns, "Common Prayer" transcends denominational (or non-denominational) structures to present a useful – and relevant – guide to prayer.

And relevant is a key word to the entire work. Above all, its authors – respected leaders in the the emergent church and new monastic movements – have tirelessly promoted the need for Christianity to maintain and/or regain its relevancy. The question, "How can we live authentic Christian lives in our times and within our community?" is a primary concern of this ethos.

A little background on the new monastic movement may be helpful. While shrugging off a strict definition, a basic understanding is that these groups are intentional communities of Christians who follow a common rule and work together for the good of their communities. Emerging over the last several decades, the movement takes a cue from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's admonition that a new monasticism would restore the church and differentiate itself from older forms of monasticism by its "complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ."

The uniqueness of "Common Prayer" comes through when all these factors are considered. Postmodern Christians with a concern for community and sensibilities for justice and personal piety are driven together to hold a common rule that includes regular prayer and global responsibility. A tall order.

And for Evangelical Christians – the primary audience of this prayer book – it would seem an especially tall order given its penchant for individualistic "Jesus is my personal savior" brand of faith. Even for mainline Christians, the concept of communal prayer or liturgy outside the confines of Sunday morning worship, has become a foreign concept.

Co-author Shane Claiborne says he grew up in a church culture that didn't really grasp the concept that prayer was conducted in the context of the Church universal. "That created a lopsided prayer life," he says. " 'Common Prayer' is a correction to that – that there is a sense of praying with the whole Church and with the Church throughout history."

"Common Prayer" is not unique in its call for a new ordering of community by a rule and prayer – even in modern times. There are similarities to be found in lay monastic movements of "oblates" among Catholic and Anglican orders. It can be said that Ireland's Iona Community and the Northumbria Community of northern England have the same purpose, along with their associated prayer books.

But it can be said that "Common Prayer" is unique in its origins and within the context of the new monastic movement's spread in the United States and beyond. The authors readily acknowledges the many streams of new monastic thought and prayer guides that formed the book while allowing "Common Prayer" to take on its own form for the service-based communities and partners who will use it.

Gone is the King James English present in many previous prayer books; retained is the liturgical flow that these guides produced. Gone are prayers written hundreds of years ago; retained are celebrations of saints' feast days along with contemporary refections like remembering the passage of Roe vs. Wade (January 22) and the detention of Japanese American during World War II (February 19).

I appreciate that these reflections don't draw their own conclusions or make an overt moral pronouncement. You, the prayer, or better yet the community in prayer, is left to meditate on the event or remembrance – in the same way you are invited to consider the many biographical portraits drawn of spiritual saints during the morning prayer liturgies.

"Prayer isn't just about getting God to do what we want God to do," says Claiborne. "It's how we listen to and discern what God is saying to us, and how we act on it - that is important.

The book is organized in a readable fashion – the introduction describes the book's formation along with guidelines for its use, seven days of evening prayer, a year's worth of evening prayers, a midday prayer, prayers for special occasions and a songbook containing over 50 selections with piano and guitar chords.

Each month of morning prayers opens with a reflection on one of the twelve "Marks of New Monasticism." Interspersed throughout the book are sidebars that introduce the liturgical neophyte to concepts like Advent, Lent, Eucharist, Smells and Bells, Confession and Passing the Peace – an entirely beneficial use of ink given the intended audience of primarily young Evangelicals, to whom these concepts might sound foreign.

In its accessibility and content, "Common Prayer" delivers a useable and useful guide to daily prayer. For some it may be old hat, introducing concepts they have had ingrained in them since birth. For others it is an introduction to a type of Christianity that seeks to share a historic and communal understanding of liturgy – literally, "the work of the people."

"We tried to present a fusion of belief and practice – without cheapening the importance of theology – marrying theology with concrete practice," says Claiborne. He says the idea was to present a guide that would be seen as "radically orthodox and radically orthopraxic" at the same time.

"The idea of formation is really critical [in "Common Prayer"] and has been missing in the last few decades of Evangelical Christianity," he says. "We've been really good at making believers, but not so good at raising followers … who are transformed into different ways of living in the world."

And that is a sentiment to which we can all say "Amen."


Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals
by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro
Zondervan, 2010

Online content available at <commonprayer.net>.

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