June 4, 2001
Revelations from The Prayer
-- Martin E. Marty
Though debates over prayer in school have turned out to be very much a public affair, in historic reckoning the practice of prayer has usually belonged to "private religion" in America. But, now and then, prayer itself becomes a public presence. The religious and secular press both have to pay attention the wildly best-selling book by Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez.
If you are out of the loop, here is the prayer by the otherwise unknown Jabez, from a corner of Chronicles: "Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!" Voila! "So God granted him what he requested." And God will do the same for you, says Wilkinson in his teeny but huge book.
Mark Galli in Christianity Today and Carol Zaleski in the Christian Century, being nice people who probably don't want to come across as crabby or sneering, went critically light on Wilkinson. They both seem happy that publics are buying any kind of book on biblically cited prayer, or perhaps pleased that Wilkinson the evangelizer does not direct attention to just the material world.
Others, however, sound more like theologians in a prophetic mode, demonstrating how this book on prayer is quite revealing about American public life. In the Wall Street Journal (May 25), Damon Linker notes that Wilkinson assures pray-ers that they will "experience prosperity." Linker is uneasy that the book says God will happily "credit your account." There is "almost exclusive focus on praying to God for personal benefits."
According to Linker, this makes The Prayer of Jabez "a book of New Age spirituality -- a gospel of personal empowerment," something that will "make folks feel good about themselves." The book thus amplifies "what is arguably the least Christian aspect of contemporary American popular culture," using "God as a means to their worldly satisfaction," and thus teaching us "something important about American Christianity today -- and thus something essential about America itself."
Judith Shulevitz in the New York Times Book Review (May 20) works the same vein. There is some "snake-oil" selling here. Wilkinson writes: "If Jabez had worked on Wall Street, he might have prayed, 'Lord, increase the value of my investment portfolios.'" And Shulevitz analyzes: "The Jabez prayer grants the supplicant full access to the American cult of success, an adoration of power and material satisfaction untroubled by any sense that the world may be a tragic place." She thinks Reinhold Niebuhr would have called it "American idolatry."
In any reading, The Prayer of Jabez is indeed a "public religion" book. If Wilkinson or any other gifted popularizer could write and publish a mild best-seller on what Isaiah 58 has to say about prayer and justice and blessings, THAT would be revelatory of a very different America. We'll watch for such.