Review of Tim Keller's Prayer by Rev. Joshua M. Knott
Tim Keller’s Prayer is a “coming out” of sorts. The first chapter or so (hard to tell in the audiobook) is what I would call typical Keller. By typical I mean well-written by a well-read student of Scripture and culture. It is also typical in that he tries, a bit too hard in my opinion, to contextualize a discussion of prayer to his secular and secularized readership in the opening portion of his book. Spending time in comparative religion and taking the spiritual pulse of the secular world in order to come to a definition of what prayer is (and isn’t) may be perceived by some as a cumbersome and roundabout way to getting answers Scripture freely offers. I suspect that Keller hoped his “New York Times Bestseller” status would help this book land in the laps of non-Christians more informed by Oprah than Jesus, and he accordingly staggered substantial interactions with Scripture until after interactions with the world’s views on prayer. That approach is classic Keller. Many Christians eager for insight into prayer will have to wait patiently until a chapter or so in, though, as usual, there’s something from these earlier apologetic chapters to be harvested and brought to the water-cooler or local coffee shop.
After settling on a definition of prayer, the book shifts to address the believer concerned to grow more in their understanding of prayer. It is here that Tim Keller “comes out” as a minister in the PCA. At almost every turn (even the slightly mystical and experiential turns which may make some folks uncomfortable) he roots the discussion of prayer in the Word of God. Not only this, but instead of mining contemporary Christian literature he (most surprisingly and refreshingly) turns to Augustine, Luther, Calvin, the Westminster Catechism, and John Owen. This Word-centered approach which heavily quotes and draws from primary reformed sources is one of the book’s great strengths and I rejoice that our brother is getting Christ-centered reformed theology into the hands of the church and his NYT Bestseller readers.
Unfortunately, these chapters are also the book’s greatest weakness. In them, Keller becomes more of a redactor and compiler of information following a typical format: topic of prayer, what someone said about it; new topic of prayer, what someone said about it, what someone else said about it, etc. This has many benefits for those not exposed to original sources who can meet Augustine and Luther for the first time. The problem, if we can call it that, is that what Keller actually has to contribute is very little until the last few chapters of the book, and, at times, it seemed to me he was simply presenting a menu of Word-approved time-tested options in prayer. I don’t fault him for that. In some sense anyone teaching anything on prayer would be like me trying to teach on parenting. I’m a young parent with young children who doesn’t feel qualified to say anything other than the few things I’ve learned from Scripture and from other people whose opinions I value. Ask me in 50 years and I might,…might, have something unique to say. So, I don’t fault him for putting less of himself in the book. I also don’t fault him for presenting options instead of prescriptions in prayer. The opposite approach is fraught with pharisaical and legalistic temptations. Keller does have some uniquely helpful things to say on prayer. What he does contribute, though infrequent, is quite valuable. He is vulnerable about his failures in prayer as well as his patterns and preferences in prayer. He is pointed in his criticism of much of what is ‘trending’ in prayer in evangelical circles these days. These moments were encouraging and quite helpful practically.
I’ve read a number of good books on prayer and, despite Keller’s attempt to be that one book that has it all, I still think the White Stag is only found in the sum total of many other books on prayer like The Heart of Prayer by Jerram Barrs, Call to Spiritual Reformation by Don Carson, The Hidden Life of Prayer by David McIntyre, Valley of Vision, and Paul Miller’s excellent Praying Life. Keller’s volume makes a great addition to the collection, but it does not stand out or stand alone. It is a good book that will get solid reformed theology into the hands of many and for that I rejoice. It also provides thoughtful correctives on much that is said about prayer in the broad spectrum of Christendom and for this I also rejoice. It provides those correctives through Scripture and classic Reformed theologians more than C.S. Lewis or Tolkien, and for this I greatly rejoice! At the end of the day though, and maybe this is Keller’s strategy, I think we would be better off heeding the spirit of the reformation and returning “ad fontes” to the fount of more Scripture study and to Luther, Calvin, Owen, as well as more works on focused aspects of prayer (mentioned above) instead of to a book on prayer which compiles them for us. If Keller’s Prayer leads to this kind of hunger, thirst, and to actual prayer then praise the Lord and get yourself a copy!