Prayer: A guide for the perplexed, by Ashley Cocksworth 

by
11 January 2019

More why than how to, says Lavinia Byrne

THIS book hits a sweet spot in the market. By providing a framework for understanding the theological backdrop to prayer, the author seeks to fill a gap. Much has been written within Christian circles for practitioners. Here is a book that steps back a pace and tries to analyse what an understanding of doctrine can bring to the party, integrating prayer and theology in a historical analysis.

Ashley Cocksworth lectures in Theology and Practice at the University of Roehampton in London. His previous works include Karl Barth on Prayer, and he was a tutor in systematic theology at the Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham. His contention that “Once prayer was seen to be utterly central to the intellectual task of theology” sends him in an original direction.

This is a thoroughly modern book: the author does not shy clear of words such as “tricky” and “zany”, “showcase” and “revolutionary”. His sweep, however, is both historical and amazingly broad. From Evagrius of Pontus — whose treatise on prayer is examined in chapter one — to the Latin American Leonardo Boff, and Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Cuban activist and theologian; from Gregory of Nyssa to Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, practitioners of “ecclesial ethics”, Cocksworth pursues his arguments. Reassuringly, one of the best aspects of the book is the nine-page appendix, which gives a well-researched bibliography of selected sources.

So, what are his arguments, and what is the shape of the book? In turn, the author examines particular teachings “through the lens of prayer”: the Trinity, Christology, providence and creation, and the Christian life, as the book unfolds doctrinally, “enlarging our minds”. Interestingly there is a delightful subtext as the reader is led from kneeling to standing prayer.

A final question: were the publishers correct to add this book to their admirable list of Guides for the Perplexed? The word “guide” suggests that this might be a “how to” book. Far from it: the author has done a lot of the heavy lifting for the reader, but the task remains: to understand this clever, complicated text and its implications.

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.

Prayer: A guide for the perplexed
Ashley Cocksworth
Bloomsbury £19.99
(978-0-567-22667-9)
Church Times Bookshop £18

 

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