Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A(nother) Book I Dislike But Am Supposed to Love

I admit it. There are some books and authors I just don't "get." John Piper and I probably share the same theological convictions on most items of substance, but his overwrought style (even in print) makes me want to buy him some quaaludes and tell him to go home, put on his bunny slippers, and chill out with a high gravity beer and a cigar. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's turgid prose makes my eyes glass over - does he just need a better translator? My aversion to John Eldredge is legendary and enduring, and had a lot to do with starting this blog and my website.

There are others. But today, I want to focus on Brother Lawrence and "his" book, The Practice of the Presence of God. I put "his" in quotes, because Brother Lawrence (hereafter to be referred to as BL) didn't even write this book. Some unnamed narrator(s) did. Since its publication around 1675, this book has been beloved by millions of Christians. I am almost the only person I know who hates it. I've read it at least three times over the last three decades, by the way - most recently in April of this year - so at least give me credit for trying.

What's my problem? Well, let's see:
  • BL comes across to me as a wacko social misfit who couldn't make it in the real world so retreated to a monastery which he seldom if ever left for the last 54 of his 77 years.
  • I have never understood how an eccentric monastic like this is supposed to serve as a role model for the rest of us who live in the real world, with all that living here entails.
  • The book is poorly written and ploddingly translated. I've read two different versions, and both were tedious.
  • The book is an organizational mess. In my version, there are two prefaces, a "conversation," a section of letters, and after a few other odds and ends, a character sketch, followed by "gathered thoughts," not to be confused with the "maxims" that were 25 pages earlier. Huh?
  • There's no coherence to all this, and no one takes credit for writing any of it. There are no details, such as when the letters were written or to whom they were (or weren't) sent. If this book were a high school project, the kid would get a "redo."
  • The book is a hagiography. BL seems more a caricature than a real person.
  • Most of the time, I can't figure out what the heck is going on or what point BL or the narrator are trying to make. The book is uncritical, unedited ramblings.
  • BL makes tons of unsupported assertions about God, prayer, our spiritual obligations, etc. The narrator seems to assume that if BL says it, it must be true. So this leads to goofy statements like times of prayer shouldn't be any different from other times, because we should always be tuned into God (p. 26 in my Spire version). Sounds good, but how does that explain Jesus's practice of withdrawing from ministry for times of prayer?
  • Is there any evidence that BL had any missional (i.e., evangelistic) interests whatsoever?
  • BL is in constant awareness of the presence of God, ostensibly, yet there are only 9 references in the entire book to God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. In my version, that means Jesus is mentioned once for every 12.4 pages. What's wrong with this picture?

In 112 pages, there were a small handful of thoughts I found valuable, but I remain at a loss to understand the belovedness of this book. Maybe I'm not really saved? Or, perhaps, is it that we simply like the title and praise the book on that account without actually reading it? Many years ago, I did read a book called Caring Enough to Confront. It was pretty boring and not very helpful, but the wonderful title has stuck with me for 30 years, and I still use the phrase from time to time in conversation. Perhaps Practicing the Presence of God is like that.

The LORD replied, "My Presence will go with you and I will give you rest." (Exodus 33.14)

"And surely I [Jesus] am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28.20)


  1. I read this book back a couple of years ago. I remember liking it okay but don't remember much about it. Thanks for your thoughts. I'm glad you blog.

    By the way, when did you and for what reason do you have a NC-17 rating?

  2. Thanks.

    The NC-17 comes from some web generator that analyzes the text on your site and then assigns a rating. I had too much violence, though not much sex.

    I should probably re-analyze, but the rating site is blocked at work.

    Here's the blog where I talked about the rating site:

  3. Kind of hard on a lowly 17th century monk, Arn. He seemed like a unexeptional, meanial labor guy who had a exceptionally intimate connection to God. I have known a few people like that. Men and women "least" in the eyes of us, but maybe very rich and valuable when viewed by Jesus.

    All this being said, I read the book about 2 years ago, and have to admit, it didn't trip my trigger. I figured at the time it was because I am too secular and cynical.