Yep, it was quite a surprise when our central Pennsylvania bookstore here in Dallastown got a call from an executive of the internationally known The Washington Times. I almost didn’t believe it, that this important media outlet from DC was asking me to write for them. They were doing a special insert that goes to newsstands and on an on-line portal at their website on prayer and wanted me to compile a short list of the best books on the topic.
The feature had lots of famous civic and faith leaders involved and was going to be written mostly by evangelicals — Max Lucado, Shirley Dobson, and other important figures — but offered to a fairly wide readership.
One of the team leaders of this project had seen one of our BookNotes reviews a while back and valued my writing and recommendations. What an honor! What a blessing to be appreciated by a national figure who is obviously quite a reader himself.
I was more than willing to compile this list of some of our favorite titles on prayer. It had to be relatively brief, so — for those that know our large selection here at the shop and my own tendency to revel in a lack of brevity — you can imagine it was hard trimming it down to size. The widely-distributed print copy had to be even shorter than the on-line edition, which couldn’t be lengthy. What you see below is an expanded and slightly longer list then what made the final cut at The Washington Times. We hope it is helpful for you.
A final note about the list: when tasked to curate a list of overtly Christian books, offered for a very wide audience, I felt it was wise to offer both beginning level titles, and more in-depth suggestions. Some of these recommended volumes are long, some are shorter; some delightfully accessible, some a bit more demanding. On my list a few authors are Roman Catholic, most are evangelical in orientation, a few are what might be considered mainline Protestant. One is even written by a slightly charismatic Quaker, another by an Orthodox priest (himself a medical doctor and son of a Russian diplomat.) A couple are old-school, staunch, a few are upbeat and fun.
As a list it is, I might suggest, a bit more ecumenical and socially diverse then many of those who contributed to the special edition at the Times. Naturally, their own orientation is notably conservative, the faith leaders exceptionally passionate about revival praying. I appreciate much of that, but our list is at once a bit more basic and a bit more broad.
We hope this list draws you into the best and most interesting books about prayer and, more importantly, draws you to the One who calls us to pray: the Triune God of the Bible, revealed in Scripture, known in the person of Jesus Christ, whose incarnation as the true King we will soon celebrate. May these books help you know Him and — as some of His earliest disciples were known to have said — thereby become more fully alive, more human, more like Jesus Himself.
Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference Philip Yancey (Zondervan) $16.99 Mr. Yancey is respected as one of the finest evangelical writers working today, a good journalist, and author of many fine books telling of the many ways in which people find meaning in faith, and search for God’s grace in a complicated world. Here, he asks a perennial question — does prayer really matter? — and not only reports his findings in captivating writing, but invites us all into a life of deeper, more fruitful prayer, even though there is great mystery. It asks questions that most people have — is God listening? Does it change what happens? Why does it sometimes seem to “work” but not always? Very thoughtful and honest.
Too Busy Not to Pray: Slowing Down to Be with God Bill Hybels (InterVarsity Press) $15.00 A very approachable, nicely-written and quite helpful primer — which has sold over a million copies! This is ideal for those who feel too stressed to take time to pray regularly, or for those who need guidance in the basics. It is deceptively simply, but quite profound, a joy to read, and compelling in very practical ways. Hybels is the renowned pastor of the large Willow Creek Church near Chicago, known for its upbeat services aimed at the unchurched, so he knows how to write for an audience that may not be used to deep theology or heavy Biblical studies. Very highly recommended.
Prayer Ole Hallesby (Augsburg) $8.99 This is a small sized book, yet an enduring classic of the 20th century and one of the best-selling religious books of our time. Written by a Norwegian Lutheran clergyman (who had been imprisoned by the Nazi’s for his outspoken resistance to their fascism) Prayer offers in eleven short chapters truly helpful guidance for beginners and sturdy spiritual insight for those who have spent a lifetime praying. Simple as it seems, even deep and reliable authors such as Richard Foster have said it is one of the very best. A nice study guide makes it ideal for small group use.
Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers Anne Lamott (Riverhead) $17.95 This brief book shares the author’s colorful anecdotes about her own journey to learn about prayer; as her many fans know, she is far from a conventional Christian and her writing is more clever and spicy and honest then most contemporary spiritual memoirs. Emerging from her own struggle with addictions, dysfunctions and urban angst, this well-known novelist and bohemian writer insists that there really are just three main words needed to express the deepest things of our hearts: help, thanks, and wow. Seriously theological readers will know these by perhaps deeper more sophisticated-sounding names (supplication, gratitude, awe) and will want to bring greater depth and nuance, but it is hard not to appreciate Lamott’s candor, charm, and good-hearted simplicity. Good for those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” or who are allergic to formulas or techniques that promise easy answers.
Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God Timothy Keller (Viking) $26.95 Timothy Keller is renown for his conventional evangelical emphasis on Biblical truth and sound theology combined with cultural savvy, astute apologetics, and concern for the professional and public lives of his mostly young, sophisticated flock in Manhattan. Out of his work at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York have come many serious and valuable books, but this is his first to directly teach about prayer, knowing God more intimately, and the best ways to deepen one’s habits of talking and listening to God. It is recent, comprehensive, clear and great gift to us all.
Part One of Keller’s Prayer offers insight about why we should desire prayer. Part Two helps us understand what prayer is, Part Three offers several chapters on “Learning Prayer” while Part Four is called “Deepening Prayer.” Part Five offers several wise chapters on actual praying, moving from awe to intimacy, and how to ask God for help. This is particularly thoughtful, theologically reliable, Biblically-informed, and very clear. A must-read. Rev. Keller’s first ever daily devotional was just published in mid-November, a year’s worth of Biblical meditations on the Psalm’s entitled The Songs of Jesus. Co-written with his wife Kathy, it is very nicely done, intimate and helpful.
The Heart of Prayer: What Jesus Teaches Us Jerram Barrs (Presbyterian & Reformed) $14.99 This is one of the best contemporary studies by a serious, beloved theology professor at Covenant Theological Seminary in Saint Louis. Dr. Barrs is the son-in-law of Francis Schaeffer, the late evangelical cultural scholar and missionary who in the 1960s started L’Abri, a movement in Europe reaching out to disaffected youth and others with serious questions about traditional religion; this naturally gives this book a tone which is at once socially aware and philosophically astute. Still, it firstly is a lovely study of the ways in which Jesus prayed in the first century, and how we can learn from Him. The exceptionally eloquent evangelical thought leader Os Guinness writes that “Jerram Barrs is a wise and gentle guide to the way of prayer shown and taught by Jesus. I have benefited enormously from this profound yet simple and helpful book.”
A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World Paul E. Miller (NavPress) $14.99 As an ecumenical Christian bookstore we have sold hundreds of different books on prayer over our 33 years of book-selling; we enjoy helping people learn about the different sorts of books about this topic. This one may be the most talked about book in this field in decades, in part because it combines a deep, orthodox Biblical perspective with a profound sense of the goodness of God’s great mercy shown in Christ’s grace, but also because the author is himself a learner, sharing stories and anecdotes from his own struggle to deepen his relationship with God through prayer. In this very engaging work, Miller offers wise, but down-to-Earth advice, tells humorous stories about his own daily life. Endorsements come from respected evangelical leaders such as Timothy Keller, J.I. Packer and Dr. Philip Ryken, the President of Wheaton College.
With Christ in the School of Prayer Andrew Murray (Whittaker House) $8.99 Andrew Murray was an intense but popular South African evangelist in the early 20th century, who preached all over the world. This is his most well-known book, considered by many to be one of the most significant books on the topic written, at least in the last hundred years. Written with a vocabulary and tone from another era, there is a reason this is one of the biggest selling religious books of all time.
Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home Richard Foster (Harper) $23.99 Few authors have shaped the late 20th century Protestant world’s understanding of spirituality more than Richard Foster, a lively Quaker who, in his legendary Celebration of Discipline reminded us that one of the great dangers of contemporary life is shallowness. “We need deep people,” Foster implored, as he guided readers unfamiliar with medieval mystics and Roman Catholic monastics and contemporary contemplatives into deeper spiritual waters, igniting an ever-growing trend of fresh interest in classic spiritual disciplines. Many think this second of his many books is his best, offering 21 different ways to pray, from the most quiet and meditative to the robust and lively to ways to encounter God in the ordinariness of the mundane, as we learn to “practice the presence of God.” One of the more important books on prayer written in the last 50 years!
Daring to Draw Near: People in Prayer John White (InterVarsity Press) $15.00 There are books about how to pray written by those who are experienced with various prayer practices, and there are those who draw didactic lessons from random Scriptural instructions. This is one of the rare books that studies the actual prayers and pray-ers of the Bible, and, by exploring the longings and words of these ancient pray-ers, offers glimpses into how we, too, can approach the Divine in words. Every chapter is the prayer of a different Biblical pray-er. It studies the prayer and the insights about God that the person who prayed came to know; as such it is a window into God’s character, a view of eternity.
Great Prayers of the Old Testament Walter Brueggemann (Westminster John Knox) $14.95 Dr. Brueggemann is perhaps the most esteemed, if provocative, Old Testament scholar in our generation, recently retired from the Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur Georgia. His dense and evocative prose has unlocked the social and historical context of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, and he has done scholarly commentaries on many portions of the Older Testament. In this popular work he construes imaginative, thick readings of Israelite faith that has endlessly rich implications for our understandings today. Not a practical manuel on how to pray, but a mature story of relevant Hebrew texts.
Beginning to Pray Anthony Bloom (Paulist Press) $9.95 This is a handsome, slim book, written plainly by a beloved Russian Orthodox monk. Bloom was the son of a respected Russian diplomat, himself a physician and Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain. This is not only a fine introduction to the life of prayerfulness which has helped thousands of readers since its publication in 1970, but is a very accessible introduction to the great spiritual insights of the Orthodox tradition, written nicely for anyone who, as Bloom puts it, wants to move “Godward.”
Living Prayer Robert Benson (Tarcher) $14.95 This author has a remarkable way with words, a writing style that offers both simple storytelling and a rare economy of language; he is a master of clear and moving prose. In this tenderly told faith journey he writes of leaving his fundamentalist background, learning to experience God through more ecumenical, liturgical practices, attending his first silent retreats, and entering the world of writers, artists, mystics and laypeople exploring contemplative spirituality. For his experiment taking up the monastic practice of “fixed hour” prayer see his very moving and quite lovely In Constant Prayer, part of the Ancient Practices series edited by the late Phyllis Tickle (published by Thomas Nelson; $12.99.)
Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers Gary Neal Hansen (InterVarsity Press) $16.00 Few who develop a meaningful and mature life of prayer do so without learning from others; who better to learn from then the giants of the Christian tradition, those who have come before and have written the most enduring, classic works about their spiritual practices? In this remarkable book, Hansen offers a key insight in each chapter about a particular way to pray, drawn from spiritual giants of the past. As a good guide, he reminds us that the point is not just to learn about these famous pray-ers and their books but to actually pray and experience God, as did they did. Hansen, a Presbyterian seminary professor, helps us by explaining, for instance, St. Benedict’s insight on using the Divine Office, Luther’s teachings on The Lord’s Prayer, Calvin’s studious meditations on the Psalms, St. Teresa of Avila’s experiences of recollecting the presence of God, or even learning how and why the Puritans wrote out their prayers. From the ancient “Jesus Prayer” to evaluations of Agnes Sanford’s The Healing Light, this covers a very wide array of material. There is an appendix on using the book in small groups or church classes as well as a final reminder called “Putting Prayer into Practice.” Very thoughtful and highly recommended for those serious about deepening their journey into prayer.
Soul Recreation: The Contemplative-Mystical Piety of Puritanism Tom Schwanda (Wipf & Stock) $35.00 This may not be for beginners, but it wonderfully studies the colonial American Puritan thinkers, debunking some of the popular stereotypes and inviting us to appreciate their deep and nearly mystical spirituality. This historical study is itself deeply spiritual, warm and insightful, brilliant, even, by a serious scholar of the period and a helpful spiritual guide in the evangelical and Reformed tradition. A lovely forward by J.I. Packer.
Thoughts in Solitude Thomas Merton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) $14.00 Merton was certainly one of the most colorful and well known of twentieth century Roman Catholic spiritual writers and while his dense memoir of leaving Columbia and a promising literary career to become a Trappist monk (Seven Story Mountain) was famously on the New York Times bestseller list in the 1950s and his New Seeds of Contemplation help launch a lasting trend of exploring mystical theology and meditative practices, this little volume is one of his most beloved and accessible works, and great introduction to the prodigious writer. This reminds us of the need for silence, prayerfulness and solitude, and what happens to a society were a frenzied pace makes such solitude rare. For another brief introduction to how he drew upon classic, medieval insights developed by monks and women religious, offering no-nonsense spiritual wisdom for modern people wanting to learn ancient prayer practices, see his brief Centering Prayer, published in 1956 (Image Classics; $13.00.)
Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation Ruth Haley Barton (InterVarsity Press) $18.00 Ms. Barton, who runs the Transforming Center in Wheaton, Illinois, is a lovely writer, one who has absorbed the best insights of broad streams of church renewal and who also knows how to explain these contemplative practices to ordinary, contemporary people with our fast-paced lives; she jokes that she herself was an over-booked, busy soccer-mom while writing this book. An earlier book — it’s quite wonderful — called Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence — was widely appreciated, but many readers said they just didn’t have time to make time for solitude and prayerfulness. The beautiful and helpful Sacred Rhythms was her answer, guiding readers on a rule of life that allows us to make room for God to work in our lives by practicing transforming disciplines and, as the subtitle so aptly puts it “arranging our lives for spiritual transformation.” Very highly recommended.
Invitations from God: Accepting God’s Offer to Rest, Weep, Forgive, Wait, Remember and More Adele Ahlberg Calhoun (InterVarsity Press) $16.00 Another great book in the impressive “formatio” line of books, this, while not exactly on prayer, is about how to live a prayerful, spiritual life by realizing God is speaking to us, nudging, wooing, leading us — inviting us — and that we can be more human and whole by attending to that which God is calling us. In her wonderful attention to divine invitations she offers extraordinary insight about wise and spiritually- alive lifestyle choices and habits of the heart that allow us to be transformed from the inside out. Her practical advise, offered in moving, poignant prose, helps us respond to God, aware that the God of the Bible, known in Jesus Christ, is not merely interested in our so-called “spiritual” lives or praying habits, but about all of life, real life in the here and now, and our Creator intended it to be. As Calhoun says, “what we say yes to and what we say no to form the terrain of our future.”
Fingerprints of God: What Science is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience Barbara Bradley Haggerty (Riverhead) $17.00 What an extraordinary book, an engaging and wide-ranging survey by a seasoned journalist, a National Public Radio correspondent, who explores the emerging field of neurobiology, brain science and religious experience. Haggerty talks with cutting edge scientists, interviews those who have had extraordinary religious experiences, and attempts to give a lively account of the relationship of religion and science, and more specifically, the neuroscience of faith. One chapter is entitled “The Biology of Belief” and another explores the mind/body connection. Although she is not the only one saying it, the final chapter calls for paradigm shifts in how we approach faith, science, spirituality and more. Fascinating.
The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves Curt Thompson, MD (InterVarsity Press) $22.00 This is not a book on prayer, but it does explore the psychiatric benefits of a coherent understanding of the Biblical teaching about sin and shame, about how modern science and neurobiology explains what happens (even in the body itself) when people are struck by toxic emotion. With verve and plenty of real stories, Thompson explains the ways in which spiritual experience can help bring restoration and healing as people learn to “dare greatly”, taking risks of relational vulnerability. Thompson is a psychiatrist with interest in brain studies and a dedicated follower of Christ who integrates his faith and scholarship in meaningful, insightful ways. His earlier book laid a good groundwork for these themes: see the very readable Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections Between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships (Tyndale; $15.99.)
Reprinted from Booknotes.