John Dominic Crossan's newest book - besides offering tremendous literally criticism and poetic insight - provides much needed depth into a subject matter that those who ascribe to liberal theology sometimes struggle with.
Accustomed as we are to a Christian tradition that all too often reduces prayer to "asking God for things," but at the same time philosophically unable to think of God as a person-like being, we simply don't know what do to with prayer; or as Paul of Tarsus (quoted approvingly and used at length by Crossan) puts it "We do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom. 8:26).
Crossan shares a rejection of any crude anthropomorphic understanding of prayer, "it is an immature view of prayer that addresses a Supreme Being radically apart from us who thinks, and wills, knows and hears, grants and refuses more or less as we do, but with infinite broadband" (28).
Noting that the Prophets of ancient Israel seem to reject prayer and insist that God requires distributive justice (care for widows, aliens, and orphans) instead of prayer and ceremony, Crossan nonetheless does not think we are faced with some either/or. For him, prayer and justice are distinguishable but inseparable. Like two sides of a coin, we cannot have prayer without justice or justice without prayer (20-21).
From this starting point, Crossan turns to the most well known prayer in the Christian tradition, variously called the "Our Father," or the "The Lord's Prayer." This prayer, Crossan argues, expresses the heart of the message of Jesus. The prayer asks us to come together as equals, to become heirs of God, and to work together to establish the divine reign here on earth. We do this by sharing with each other fairly and equally.
Crossan spends much of the book describing the vision of an egalitarian justice found throughout the pages of the Bible. Most striking is his thouhtful examination of the use of the Sabbath tradition. Crosssan argues, persuasively, that the Sabbath is the crown of creation in Genesis Chapter one, and that the later traditions of the weekly Sabbath, Sabbath year (every Seventh year), and year of Jubilee (a kind of super Sabbath every fiftieth year), is designed to recall and enact a world of unity, non-violence, equality, and peace. His discussion of the Sabbath is among the finest I have read.
Prayer, Crossan argues, is meditation on the divine vision of a just, fair, peaceful, and non-violent world. The message of Jesus is a message that we can and must work together with God to bring about such a world. When we pray, then, "The Lord's Prayer," we remind ourselves that God and God's kingdom are present only when share our resources, forgive others their debts, and work together for peace, and that God's kingdom will only be fully present when ALL have enough, when ALL debts are forgiven and when ALL people are free to live together and live peacefully.
The book builds on Crossan's earlier work, especially God and Empire, and most of the themes are found throughout his writings. Yet there is a freshness to the presentation here, an application that warrants attention. Although most of the themes are not new for Crossan, how those ideas effect our prayers, and particularly how we say "The Lord's Prayer" is a novel application of them.
If you are open to non-traditional Christian theology and a faith informed by reason and historical method, this is the prayer book for you.