by Gary Neal Hansen
IVP Books, Downers Grove, Ill. 237 pages
This is a wonderful book and one that is unique in some very valuable ways. There has been an enormous amount of grousing about the apparent separation between the history of Christian doctrine and the personal search for a vital spiritual life. And when people sense the existence of this gulf, everything shrinks. Christian doctrine gradually sinks into a kind of memorial abyss. People begin to talk about the major doctrinal components as though they were no more than a collation of symbols. And then a concern to fit these doctrinal symbols into our stylish and newly designed psychological shoes begins to tempt our spirits mightily. The upshot is that we lose everything. The distinctive intellectual event that rests within these doctrines erodes, and the unique power that opens up to us with prayer in the name of Christ is weakened.
Hansen stitches all of this back together. Without spending too much time on the ways Christian doctrines emerged from the gardens of Bible study, liturgy, apologetics and contemplative prayer, he invites readers to accompany him as he walks among people who could think as well as write about their experiences of prayer. He has selected a unique variety of writers. Ignatius, Luther, Calvin, Teresa of Avila, Puritans such as Thomas Hooker, the anonymous author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” and Agnes Sanford, among others, provide a very inviting seminar. But here is what is important: Anyone could provide thumbnail sketches of these folks. The key to this book’s value, however, is that Hansen writes about their inner lives. But there is more to it than simply biographical curiosity. He doesn’t dwell on historical facts or romanticize about their moods. Actually, he subjects them all to piercing examinations.
Hansen separates the wheat from chaff. He discovers valuable nourishment in each of their approaches to prayer. In the process he also demonstrates how he does this and thus helps us to approach other volumes in a similar way. He teaches us how to pull the weeds and harvest the crop.
There is still more. And this is where this volume becomes particularly warm and personal. Hansen is uniquely qualified. As a historian, professor and pastor, he integrates the fruits from all of these backgrounds. In addition, he speaks of his own experiences in prayer as well as those of groups in which he has guided others. He provides suggestions for study groups as well as individuals. He also points out that his publisher provides a volume of readings that are drawn from the work of these prayerful writers.
One could, of course, make a few slight suggestions about the book but why bother? It achieves what few others dare. Hansen goes a long way toward bridging the gap between doctrine and faith. And he does it with simplicity and an invitational spirit.
RICHARD RAY is general editor for Kerygma Bible Studies, director of the Children’s Trust Society of the Grandfather Home for Children and chairman of the board of directors of the Presbyterian Heritage Center in Montreat, N.C.