Book Review: Prayer, A Guide for the Perplexed

Prayer a Guide for the Perplexed Ashley Cocksworth

I begin this review with some words from the end of the book: “Prayer is revolutionary. As Christians stand before God in prayer, they stand for the flourishing of common life.” This rather beautiful phrase captures a lot of the heart of this book, and by implication the theological and prayerful heart of its author, Ashley Cocksworth. Regular readers will know that I have read and reviewed a large number of books on prayer, but this is one that crosses two conversations that often don’t happen near each other: the theology of prayer, and the prayerfulness of theology.

Prayer is both a complex topic and something often neglected in academic theology. Cocksworth has written a book that beautifully puts forward an argument for what prayer is, as well as an argument (which I wholeheartedly agree with) that prayer is integral to the work of theology. As he writes in his introductory chapter, “Prayer is not any old human practice. Instead… prayer is the vastly complicated practice of God’s into which we are drawn. It is much more than the thing that I do, though it is that too“. This emphasis on the theological nature of prayer runs beautifully throughout the book, and finds expression particularly in a fascinating section on pneumatology and prayer, wherein Cocksworth notes that “there is liturgical evidence to suggest that the divinity of the Holy Spiritwas part of the practice of Christian prayer long before it recieved full doctrinal affirmation“, a thought that is traced through the early church and reinforces a robust trinitarianism. Similarly, the chapter ‘Christ the Pray-er, Christ the Prayer’ offers (in his own words) “a full-bodied Christology of prayer [that] accounts for Jesus’ activity as prayer and the more demanding Christological notion that Jesus Christ is prayer itself (the very embodiment of what it means to pray: to participate in the divine life)“. The influence of the Lord’s prayer is seen throughout this book, but it goes deeper than that, thus my point about it being a properly theological book.

The practical aspects of this book should not be overlooked, however. Cocksworth is keen throughout to end the divorce between church and academy, and models a way of doing theology as someone with their own personal faith – taking his cue from key figures throughout church history. His fifth chapter, ‘Petition and Providence’ is a theologically rich answer to some of the perennial questions of people of faith regarding God’s answers to prayer. The final chapter, ‘The Christian Life and the Politics of Prayer’, from whence the quote at the beginning of this review is drawn, is also deeply practical. Here, in amongst the way that the Lord’s Prayer speaks so radically and profoundly to our present political turmoil, Cocksworth also notes the importance of our posture in prayer. How we use our bodies matters – “Although we began on our knees, we end this book with an exhortation to shift the posture of our praying bodies from kneeling to standing and then to walking (and dancing!) in solidarity with others. We end, in other words, with a call to adopt the ancient, revolutionary attitude of ‘orans’.” Cocksworth interacts positively with the work of James K. A. Smith, noting that “Christian formation… ‘is not didactic; it is kinaesthetic’, in which the movement of the body is intrinsically related to the ways we think, pray and act in the world“. Amen!

This book, it is worth saying, is not an easy read for everyone but for those willing to do the work, it truly does unpack some of the mystery and majesty of prayer. I can see it being of particular use to students and ordinands wrestling with the theological issues raised, but I wonder if it would also be of value to leaders of churches and organisations wrestling with ‘how prayer works’, as well as what it means to ‘do prayer’. I can only pray, with the author, that it might ignite something of a renewal within academic theological writing for the place, practice and pursuit of prayer.

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