Calvin Miller: Rethinking Prayer, Retelling Christ's Story
- 2009 16 Apr
When you think of a typical seminary professor, what words come to mind? Intelligent. Godly. Knowledgable. Trustworthy. Studious. And boring.
Boring??? Yes, I confess that I have formed a stereotype and usually think of the word boring when it comes to those in higher education. But when I recently met with author and seminary professor Calvin Miller, he turned that notion on its ear. Artsy, right-brained, engaging and conversational, Miller had me at "hello." From the moment the interview began to the end, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing from the heart and mind of this truly Renaissance man.
The Oklahoma born and bred theologian began his lifelong career in ministry at Plattsmouth Baptist Church in Plattsmouth, Nebraska before continuing to Westside Church in Omaha, where he served as senior pastor for 25 years. Miller then served as Professor of Communication and Ministry Studies and Writer-in-Residence at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, before joining the faculty at Samford’s Beeson Divinity School where he is currently the Professor of Preaching and Pastoral Ministry.
As the author of more than forty books of popular theology and inspiration, Miller took time to share about two titles from his literary repertoire that are fresh takes on timeless truths and traditions: The Path to Celtic Prayer and The Singer.
What made you interested in Celtic prayer and want to write about it?
I think books themselves sort of breed books within us. One of the things that happened to me was I had been involved with reading all of Thomas Cahill’s books—On the Hinges of History—one of which was How the Irish Saved Civilization. And the funny thing is, even though it’s a secular book, you can’t write about fifth or sixth century Celts without talking about God because that’s all they were interested in. It had a religious ring to it, even though it was a secular book. I just got so intrigued with it because Western seminaries don’t usually have much going on in the study of the Celts and Irish revival. In seminary, when you study church history, you tend to study European Christianity and what’s going on with the various popes and bishops across the centuries. But you don’t really intersect these ideas.
I picked up Esther de Waal’s book next—The Celtic Way of Prayer. And I think when I began reading that, it just really interested me. It came out in the secular market. And then I read other books. I found some fascinating devotional books from the fifth, sixth centuries on. The most impressive to me was one by a man named Alexander Carmichael who was a British tax collector. As he was trying to collect taxes, he would listen to the prayers and songs of the people. And he’d say to them, “Where did you get these songs?” And they’d say, “Well my mother taught it to me.” Or “my father taught it to me.” He was on to a whole new strain of what we would call oral tradition. These things weren’t written down. And this was kind of customary among the Celtic peoples. They didn’t trust the written word.
When I got into that book—it’s called Carmina Gadelica and “Gaelic songs” is what it really means in the Latin—it was such a beautiful thing … the praise that came from these ancient peoples across the centuries. At this time I didn’t have much of an understanding that the word Celtic among people who are anti-New Age or anti-humanist … well, I had no idea at that time that there was a backlog of disrespect toward the Celts. That came later when I began to realize how many Wiccan meetings were being held on the island of Iona. But what I discovered was, these people on Iona are kind of latecomers. It was during the time of Patrick in the Irish Revival, when thousands of people came to Christ and were swept with passion across Europe. And people were hungry for the Gospel. And that whole way of life began to just really catch hold in Europe. This passion they had to spread the Word of God was consuming. These were some of my things, and I moved through this kind of literature. And there were such beautiful things written about Jesus that I fell in love with the whole movement.
What did the Celts do when they prayed and what makes their way stand apart from how Christians pray today?
Well, first off they always were more Trinitarian. Probably more than we are. They saturated their prayers with the Trinity. They would say, “I’m rising this morning to serve the God who created me, to serve his Son who redeemed me, to serve his Spirit who fills me.” This was typical. It wasn’t a rote thing that they did. They addressed all three persons of the Trinity. That was a huge thing for me, because I don’t generally hear of that among evangelicals. We generally pray in Jesus’ name only—not that there’s anything desperately wrong with that since Jesus and God and the Spirit are all one. Nonetheless, it’s kind of a partial theology. It’s kind of like Saint Anselm who said, “God is within himself a sweet society.” I love that. And the Celts really believed that.
You also can’t miss the fact that they prayed Scripture. Some evangelicals do it, but not many do it. For example, the Celts would take the Psalms 119 and they would pray those passages each day. They had it memorized, because they were largely illiterate. It’s the longest chapter in the Bible, so it’s quite a feat to memorize.
And then they prayed to be free of sickness. That doesn’t sound like it’s unique, but these are called the “Breastplate Prayers.” And these are very common among the ancient Celts. The lorica was the breastplate. When Paul says in Ephesians 6 about putting on the breastplate of righteousness he’s talking about the lorica. In a world where there was no aspirin or doctors, everybody died at 27 with no hope once they got sick. So these “Breastplate Prayers” became very important to them.
Another kind is the prayers of confession. And then the long-wandering prayers. [The Celts] were always on pilgrimage. Once they became born again, they began these pilgrimages but they never returned home again. You know, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales the pilgrims are all going to Canterbury. They had their rituals and said their prayers and went on home. But the Celts were different. They moved and went out into the world and never came home again. The shrine was always ahead of them. It was never behind them, and they never went back. They believed that while they moved forward, they should talk to God. And they did it in wonderful ways. They often broke off the rudders from their ships. They let the sails go slack and committed their boats to God for him to let the wind push them wherever he would have them go. So there’s a lot of mysterious trust and wonder about the Celts.
Do you think that Celtic prayer is the highest form of communication with God?
I think it’s a real way of seeing prayer and not necessarily the highest. Christian have prayed primarily in terms of intercession. We all memorize the little outline--adoration, confession, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication—as a five-fold outline for prayer. But the only book on prayer recently that sold in a big way was The Prayer of Jabez which is totally supplication. It ignores adoration, it ignores confession, it ignores contrition and it ignores thanksgiving. It focuses on “Lord, extend my territory,” as Jabez said. In other words, it’s really a selfish prayer if you look at it. It’s not that it’s wrong. Jesus said to ask your Heavenly Father for what you want. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are four other things that are great, too. Like adoration. Do you adore the Father? Do you speak to him with this adoration? And contrition. Are you sorry for your sins? Not just as a believer coming to Christ for the first time, but daily in our lives.
There’s been a shift in recent years toward a more “casual” faith or approach to worship. But there also seems to be a number who are reverting back and looking to add more reverence and order. Any thoughts?
I think the tide might be turning a little bit. When I go to heavily liturgical churches, there are some things about them I don’t like. They’re not good at spontaneity. Episcopalians have never been really good at spontaneity. But Pentecostals and Baptists are. So we like that feeling of spontaneity, but also the Episcopalians are good at formulaic praying. There are some beautiful things in their Book of Common Prayer. What is written there is often out of the Scriptures. So there’s lots there. Another thing you pick up from the Celts—and from the Episcopalians—they use the Bible more than evangelicals do. It’s an interesting thing. Evangelicals talk about being people of the Book, but you go to church and the pastor may only use two verses and you don’t hear any more. But if you go to an Episcopal church, you can guarantee you’re going to hear from the Old Testament and from the New Testament, the Gospels, the Epistles. They have lots of reading from the Bible within a single service, and I think that’s what people really want.
One of the great things that happened in my recent travels to Ireland was that we went to Glen Stall Abbey, and we stayed among the Benedictines who are kind of the evangelicals in the Catholic church. The Benedictines don’t have statutes all around, don’t have pictures on the walls of popes or saints. They just don’t. And what happened to us there was that I had about fifteen masters-level students with me, and we went to church five times a day and listened to the Bible being read. Nobody built a sermon around it or said, “Let me explain this from my commentary, because there’s a Greek word we need to look at.” We just read the Bible, and we read it and read it and read it. And I was amazed at how much power there was. The word is lectio divina. It is a simple reading of Scripture with no commentary. Is there power in it? I think there is, but we’ve lost that. We feel like we have to read a verse and then explain it for thirty minutes.
All my life I’ve been an evangelical. And we’re known for talking and expounding the Scripture. But we’re not really known necessarily for letting the Scripture speak to us—just Scripture. I think that’s what really came through to me when researching for The Path to Celtic Prayer … how little we read the Bible.
Let’s switch gears and talk about another of your books, The Singer, which was first published in the mid ‘70s. What inspired you to write this retelling of Christ's story?
There were several things that happened. At the time, I was trying to plant a church and believe me, that is hard work. There was lots of criticism, lots of pain. And I found myself in need of a lot of Jesus at one point. Another part of it was that I’d been having a large-scale reaction to Jesus Christ Superstar or Godspell which were very popular musicals in the ’60 and ‘70s. And finally it seemed to me that I kept trying to say to God, “I love Jesus, but these musicals really don’t do him very well.” They weren’t a good picture of who he was. And it seemed to me that I heard God say, “Well, maybe you ought to write something.” And so I thought about it a long time, and one morning at about 2:00 a.m. I was awakened from my sleep and I walked down to my study and typed the first line: “When he awoke, the song was there.”
Oddly, it was happening to me when I awoke. The song was there! I just wrote it down. And then I wrote a few more pages and went back to sleep. A few nights later, I had the same experience. And this continued until the storyline became set, and it began to take over. I tried to portray Jesus as I believed the New Testament would. As a healer, but more than that. As a Savior, but more than that. As the Son of God, but more than that. It’s written with a lot of sense or largesse about the greatness of Christ, and yet the word Christ never comes up in the book. The word Jesus is never used. And the word God is only used once or twice. God is called “Earthmaker” in my account. And so I really think it was just taking the Gospel and putting it in new clothes that made it so popular.
It doesn’t take place in modern day. And in fact, I did my own early illustrations and often drew the characters nude as a Renaissance painter might of done it. Nothing lewd there, but I do often think clothes indicate a period somehow. Once people are in clothes, they suddenly look as if they belong in some era. But the illustrations eventually were redone in a more Medieval setting. And I like that. It’s clear that the Singer is a man for all seasons, but the drawings in the book have to do with a more Medieval approach.
Since The Singer is now a classic, I’m sure you have some stories of how it has impacted lives over the years. Any that have stood out to you?
The one thing that always amazed me is when someone would say, “I’ve come to understand my calling in Christ after reading the book.” Or, “I actually came to know Christ because of The Singer, and I accepted him as my Savior because of it.” And oddly, the people I heard from the most were Jewish. I think it’s because the word Christ isn’t used. They didn’t have to overcome that, because if you see the word Christ and you’re a Jew you just back up. And since it wasn’t there, I think they got into the narrative before they realized it was about Christ.
Did The Singer raise a few eyebrows at the time of its release or was it controversial like the The Shack has been recently?
The Singer probably was controversial at the time it came out. There were people who didn’t get it: Why do we need to retell the story of Jesus? The thing I liked about The Shack was that I found it a lot more accessible than The Singer. I don’t think it’s as beautiful, because The Singer is all poetry. [Readers] are slower to get into it. They just don’t get it as fast as they pick up on The Shack, and I give [The Shack] a good grade for its accessibility. I don’t know about endurance, though. A guy told me a long time ago, if you have any book in your library more than twenty years it’s either poetry or really good prose. And I think that’s true. We don’t throw away books of poetry.
The Singer is free verse, and it doesn’t rhyme. It’s very metrical. “When he awoke the song was there. It’s melody beckoned him and begged him sing it.” It’s got a lyrical quality which I intended for it. And there are some sections in iambic pentameter like “The Star Song.” The tone has a dignity to it.
If I had any criticism of The Shack, I would say that God suffers a little bit in dignity. I don’t necessarily object to him being portrayed as a woman, not at all. But there’s also a flippancy about that. Where is the majesty?
Since the time of The Singer, you’ve written over 40 books. But in your day job, you’re a seminary professor. Do you ever find that your two worlds collide?
In some sense, I think a poet is more apt to enjoy his life most if he’s not just writing, but also reading it to people. We write to be read. There’s a wonderful thing about reading and having people like it or making friends over a paragraph. I think that’s good. It’s connection. In my particular case, I teach Spiritual Formation and I’ve taught The Path to Celtic Prayer in seminary. I’ve taught courses on C.S. Lewis. So, I have a tendency to bring up literature and writing a little more.
When I approach the Bible, I think of the Psalms. I think of crusty old Paul, the lawyer, and he writes all of these books of the New Testament. But even he occasionally breaks into something like 1 Corinthians 13. Also, when you hear Jesus, he’s very story oriented.
You know, we all teach what we are, don’t we? You get a guy who’s real left-brained, and he’s probably going to teach a real left-brained seminary course. People are going to be yawning and probably lots of sleeping will be going on. You get somebody who’s in love with Jesus … probably more right-brained. Lots of poetry, lots of music. Passion.
Is there a literary genre that you haven’t tried writing yet that you’d like to tackle?
Probably. I don’t know. I do know that I’ve had unusual success in children’s poetry and then in the poetry of The Singer. Some of my serious books, The Book of Jesus … that was popular and never in the Christian market. It came out from Simon & Schuster in New York, and it sold in Doubleday Book Club rather than in the ECPA. So a lot of people in the ECPA probably still don’t know that I wrote it. But it was in a marketplace that did kind of count. That’s where we’d all like to be with our writing, I think. In the secular market, if we can.
The Greek god Proteus was a god who could change his form to meet every occasion. He could be an animal or a bird or whatever. And in terms of genre, there are not too many people who can change very successfully. A novelist only usually writes novels well. Occasionally there’s a man like C.S. Lewis who can do children’s books who can do Surprised by Joy who can do theology and popular thought, who can do all of that. And when he comes along, you’re so grateful because it’s a huge balancer.
I’ve found one of the things that’s bad about not being able to change genres is that it seems that no matter how good a novelist is, pretty soon if I’ve read ten of their novels and they start sounding alike. And it’s kind of like my friend Madeline L’Engle. She always wrote novels, but she said they always sounded just alike. And she used to say [to the publisher], “Well what are you calling it this time?” So I think the good thing about being able to skip from genre to genre is that you lose that predictability that you get if you only stay in one form.