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Issue Date:  November 11, 2005

By Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski
Houghton Mifflin Company,
416 pages, $28
The particular context of prayer

Authors study religious practice from a variety of traditions

Reviewed by DENNIS DOYLE

Prayer: A History is a smart, sharp book that approaches its subject armed with a cutting-edge version of the academic study of religion. Its narrative style builds upon a strong research base. Its religion-friendliness and fundamental empathy never asks for a naive credulity but only a good-willed suspension of disbelief. The Zaleskis are impressive in their knowledge, and they share what they know in an entertaining way. The first two-thirds of the book, with its examination of various religious figures, is more entertaining than the last third of the book, with its consideration of more academic figures and issues, but the entire work is full of intelligent insights into questions about which the general public often does not have a clue.

The Zaleskis are particularly good at arguing and demonstrating that the phenomenon of prayer cannot be understood outside its particular historical, social and religious context. They briefly but expertly weave together stories that explore the background of the prayer of Jabez, the De profundis of Psalm 130, the S¸ala¯t, the Jesus Prayer and the Dhikr used in Islam; of works such as The Cloud of Unknowing, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Millet’s “Angelus”; and of figures such as Thomas Aquinas, Samuel Johnson, Alcoholics Anonymous’ Bill Wilson, Salvador Dali, Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Ramana Maharshi, Matsuo Basho¯, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Sts. Teresa of Ávila, Antony of the Desert and Thérèse of Lisieux. The richness of details from a variety of traditions, cultures, time periods and disciplines is sure to tell all but the rarest of savants things they never knew they never knew.

In addition to helping the reader grasp the history of many figures, traditions and practices, the authors also help to sort out some of the confusions that result from living in a culture that is permeated by religion but holds to a separation between church and state. On matters such as the place of prayer in public school and in the public square, the Zaleskis make many basic helpful distinctions and suggestions. They miss, in my opinion, an opportunity to comment on the valuable role of private and parochial schools. Their discussions of why public prayer is so important and yet so fraught with difficulties is extraordinarily fruitful. They are able to explain empathetically why pray-ers of different faiths cannot easily come to terms.

The Zaleskis vindicate traditional prayer practices that have not always been valued in standard academic approaches to religion. They battle against reductionisms that avoid taking prayer seriously as interaction between the human and the divine. The only religious groups whom they directly criticize are certain faith-healing traditions that they say rely on techniques that are overly formulaic and self-assured.

The authors do not pursue an explicit critique of liberal versions of religion whose adherents perhaps represent a large portion of the audience that they would like to coax gently along. Such a critique, however, would not be difficult to tease out from between the lines.

The work can be called theologically friendly, but it never crosses the line into either theology or confessional literature. It retains, intentionally and respectfully, a kind of voyeuristic distance. At the same time that I reviewed this work, my confessor had assigned me as a penance (for completely unrelated reasons) to read Simon Tugwell’s 1975 Prayer: Living with God. As I told him later, this may have been a penance, but it was no punishment. For those who want a sense of the difference between works on prayer that are theological and/or confessional and those that are not, I recommend comparing these books. Still, readers should be cautioned that reading the Zaleskis’ book may lead to experimentation with various forms of prayer, even eventually of the harder varieties. Be warned!

The theories that inform the Zaleskis’ studies are more sophisticated than the theoretical basis that the authors explicitly admit to as underlying their work. Over against the approaches of Sigmund Freud, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor and Sir James George Frazer, they praise William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience for its nonreductionist, empathetic openness to religion. Yet the postmodern narrative approach that the Zaleskis in fact employ, one that grounds practices always in their historical and social context, is 100 years ahead of James. To one familiar with The Varieties of Religious Experience, the Zaleskis’ method makes James himself look relatively modernist, individualist and reductionist.

I pray that the Zaleskis may be forgiven this one theoretical fib told in the midst of what is otherwise a wealth of much-needed religious truth-telling. And, although I will not pray that this work become a bestseller, I find it a luscious read and think that it very well might deservedly become one.

Dennis Doyle is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Dayton.

National Catholic Reporter, November 11, 2005

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