Choosing a Storyteller

An illustration of a scientific use of prayer is the experience of two famous industrialists, whose names would be known to many readers were I permitted to mention them, who had a conference about a business and technical matter. One might think that these men would approach such a problem on a purely technical basis, and they did that and more; they also prayed about it. But they did not get a successful result. Therefore they called in a country preacher, an old friend of one of them, because, as they explained, the Bible prayer formula is, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) They also pointed to a further formula, namely, “If two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:19)

Being schooled in scientific practice, they believe that in dealing with prayer as a phenomenon they should scrupulously follow the formulas outlined in the Bible which they described as a textbook of spiritual science. The proper method for employing a science is to use the accepted formulas outlined in the textbook of that science. They reasoned that if the Bible provides that two or three should be gathered together, perhaps the reason they were not succeeding what the they needed a third party.

-Norman Vincent Peale
Chapter 4: Try Prayer Power
The Power of Positive Thinking

As some of you know who have been reading this blog for a while, I’ve been considering going back to a church. Of course, there are many barriers to this goal, if it is even an appropriate goal for me, so I don’t know if I will end up at that particular destination or not. However, if I ever find myself sitting in a church sanctuary, and the Pastor delivers a message that sounds anything like the quote from Peale’s book I posted above, I would immediately start looking for the nearest exit.

Why?

I’ve commented on Peale’s book before, and now that I’m almost a quarter of the way through, I remain dubious of how he treats the Bible and prayer. Can the Bible be reduced down to a “textbook” and can one pray by a formula?

Actually, in Judaism, prayer is a highly formal and routinized matter, so on this point, I guess I can’t complain, since I find Jewish prayer beautiful. But Peale’s presentation makes it sound like some sort of scam. I feel like I’m listening to some slick, phony prayer service headed up by the likes of Benny Hinn. I feel like I’m listening to someone trying to sell me the “name it, claim it” philosophy of God; as if God were Aladdin’s genie and had to do what I told Him to do because of some “magic prayer” in the Bible.

No, really, I’m trying to like this book, but I don’t think it speaks my language. Let’s try a different approach.

During tefillah, you must focus your heart on the meaning of the words your lips are uttering. You must imagine G-d’s presence right there before you. Dismiss whatever thoughts are bothering you until you are left with a clear mind to focus on your tefillah…

This was the practice of inspired and legendary people; they would seclude themselves and focus on their tefillah to the point that they transcended their physical senses, and their mental powers dominated bringing them close to prophecy.

If an extraneous thought comes into your mind during the tefillah, stay quiet until the thought disappears.

It’s necessary to think about matters that subdue the heart and focus it on your Father in heaven. Don’t think about empty matters.

—Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 98:1
as quoted from Chabad.org

Really, what’s the difference here? Peale characterizes prayer as a “scientific formula” while the quote from Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 98:1 presents mediation and prayer as a transcendental and mystical practice. Who is right? Neither? Both? Does it matter?

Maybe it doesn’t matter which approach you take as long as it works for you. I’m not sure that Peale works for me, and maybe my continuing attraction to the various Jewish sages and their opinions is telling me something about what does work for me.

When I started reading Peale’s book, I did a bit of research on the man and, according to Wikipedia, he’s not exactly without critics. Given the various doctors and scientists and scholars to whom Peale refers to in the book I’m reading, there are concerns that these so-called experts may have just been fabricated by Peale for the sake of telling a story. But then, I’m not above telling a tale and having it interpreted as fact if there’s a good reason for doing so, and some moral or lesson is imparted that way. Milton Erickson was the absolute master of the “therapeutic tale” and, when I used to be a practicing family therapist, he was one of my “heroes”. The use of metaphor and storytelling in promoting psychological change can be amazingly effective, so I can hardly criticize Peale if that’s the way he chose to transmit his lessons in his book. It’s the way the tales of the Baal Shem Tov have come to us from ages past, still full of power and wisdom.

I think Peale’s book really has worked out well for thousands and perhaps millions of people, but the reason it doesn’t work for me is that it doesn’t say that thing I need it to say in a language that makes sense to me. One can tell the same basic story in a Saturday morning cartoon or an erudite philosophical tome, and one method or the other will work out better depending on the audience. I know now that I’m an audience looking for the right storyteller. I don’t think Peale is that guy, so I need to find someone else saying the same thing in a different way.

So was the practice of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as they sat in perfect awe beneath the star-speckled sky of the still desert night; so too, the ancient prophets in the Judean hills, strumming musical instruments as they gazed upon the mysteries of heaven and earth, awaiting the vision of prophecy as the morning’s horizon awaits the rising sun; so did the sages of the Talmud, the Bahir and the Zohar lift their souls on mystic journeys through orchards and palaces, chambers and pathways of the spiritual realms, never sure that they could return to their earthly bounds; so too the chassidim were lost in contemplation and the ecstasy of their prayer from early morning until the hours of night.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Meditation’s Hallway”
Chabad.org

But if Peale, as the Christian storyteller seems too “phony” and (as I’ve been told) the Jewish storytellers are just for Jews, where is my storyteller?

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12 thoughts on “Choosing a Storyteller”

  1. James, as I enjoy reading your daily blog, I too have read Peale. I remember him during the era, “if it feels good do it”, and his book (was the latest and greatest thing) to make one feel good. That was years ago, and I guess at the time it fulfilled its purpose in my journey of faith. I love reading the works by A.W. Tozer. Ever heard of him? I just finished one called “Knowledge of the Holy”. I loved it.

  2. I’m not sure what I’m asking for exactly. Apparently, I’m in need of a paradigm shift but I’ve generally found most “inspirational” books to be uninspiring (I was deeply disappointed in Chicken Soup for the Soul). I’ve also read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and while Covey seems like a nice guy, and what he presents obviously worked for him (and many others), it didn’t exactly “ring my chimes.”

    I really enjoy the “Chassidic tales” and thoroughly enjoyed Tzvi Freeman’s Bringing Heaven Down to Earth: 365 Meditations of the Rebbe, I don’t know if I can generalize the teachings of the Rebbe to a non-Jewish Christian (albeit a very unusual Christian). I’m not sure Christian works would “work” for me since, there are many differences between how the “traditional Christian conceptualizes their world and how I do so. I know that, in my “past life” as a family therapist, the specific therapeutic methods and metaphors utilized were only effective if the client “bought into them” and “owned” them. In that particular case, there were “many roads leading to Rome” so to speak, and it was simply a matter of choosing the road that fit the psychological, emotional, and spiritual “style” of the person involved.

    I guess that’s what I’m looking for. A good “fit”.

  3. I have some idea of the difficulties your search will entail. Yet there are many varieties of Christian approaches to piety; one may indeed be a good fit. You may want to take a look at Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain as an example of approaches you won’t find at the corner church.

  4. Wow. I haven’t heard someone mention (or type) the name of Milton Erickson in over a dozen years (exactly the amount of time I’ve been out of practice, as it is the age of my eldest). He was my hero too…I still regularly borrow a technique of his with my kids when they get hurt. Shhh. Don’t tell. 🙂
    ~Allison

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