Friday, August 7, 2015

Book Review: Pray Like a Gourmet

In a hard contrast to my previous review, I really wasn't expecting to like this one, I don't even remember why I requested it, other than maybe a vague "Jesus is your jam, food is your jam, you can't not request this book" knee-jerk.

For one thing, the title. It rhymes! What's that about?? Also, book-long metaphors hardly ever hold up: they look good for two chapters, and by the halfway point you're ready to throw the book through the nearest window. The book arrived, and there were all these colors and different fonts... Oh, it was going to be a mess. I sat down and prepared myself to be annoyed and underwhelmed by Pray Like a Gourmet: Creative Ways to Feed Your Soul by David Brazzeal.

My first heart in the margin (shorthand for "love this") is on the second page. My first exclamation point (good point/review note) is on the fifth, and it just never stopped: I loved this book. Brazzeal expertly uses his meal metaphor, drawing lines between lingering over or rushing through food or prayer, repetition versus exploration, alone or with friends, simple or elaborate. (It bears mentioning, he also knows when the metaphor doesn't stretch, and doesn't force it.) "Does your prayer life feel like you're eating the same food over and over every day--mixing the same ingredients but hoping for a new, more enticing dish? ... We, too, can push back and engage in seeking authentic, calm, and refreshing nourishment for our soul--each one of us, of course, with our own flair" (7, 8).

My initial reaction to the look of the book has fully turned on itself, too. Like a simple but carefully assembled meal, it is organized and beautiful but not distracting from the content. Swaths of watercolor highlight specific prayer ideas, while brief shifts in typeface and color draw attention to particular moments without overdoing it. (My only real issue is that a font color frequently used is a soft golden yellow on white paper, difficult to see even with my reasonably unaged eyes. Possibly purposeful, meaning to slow you down to notice, but potentially problematic for some readers.)

With a brief intro on how he came to ponder and experiment in prayer so much, and a closing couple chapters on using these practices even when rushed, and bringing them into a group ("Eating on the Run" and "Dining with Friends," of course), the majority of the book is organized by "courses" or types of prayer. Some are old standards, others equally established but less commonly practiced, but for all Brazzeal makes a solid case for the purpose and use of each. The weakest chapters--Confessing and Asking--are understandably so. Confession is a complicated thing to get into, especially trying to be as open to a potential reader as possible; Asking is, as he points out, what most people think of first when it comes to prayer, but his downplayi of it comes off a little too strong--just because it's an automatic response doesn't make it a bad one. But while the finer points of our theologies differ occasionally, it's never off-putting--his ideas, like good recipes, are made to be adapted.

As I was thinking on this review, I could see two potential non-ideal reactions from a reader, both of which I started to have as I read:
   1) This Is Too Much. In the same way that few of us have time to prepare a seven-course meal every day for our loved ones, who has the time and energy for all of this? While Brazzeal hints at this, I wish he was a little more blunt with it in both introduction and epilogue: to continue the metaphor, no, you rarely make a seven-course meal. But, in an effort to keep things interesting, to learn and stretch and experience, you might have soup and a sandwich one night, a salad the next, steak and potatoes and pie after that. You do a little of this and a little of that. You have your favorites, and you have those that you don't always like, but you explore every once in a while just to play. You try something new with an open mind. You vary.
   2) This Is a Bunch of Eastern Religion Hippie Dippie Hoohah. With chapters like Observing (primarily but not exclusively nature) and Meditating, I found myself starting to have a predictably American Christian reaction of "ehhhhhhh this doesn't feel like me." Here, Brazzeal does confront the issue head-on, and well. He gives brief examples of meditation from Scripture, and points out that "meditation is a spiritual human activity like mourning, fasting, or praying, and is not limited to one religious group while remaining unavailable to others" (103). Well done, well said.

I'm looking forward to keeping Pray Like a Gourmet on my night stand with my prayer journal. And turning to it frequently to stretch myself, to find new ways of communing with my God, since, as Brazzeal speaks for Him in his intro, "Wasn't this supposed to be a relationship, just you and me--not a group project?" (13). I look forward to using it to break me out of the routine, to step up and sit down at the table with my God and snack, share, feast.

I'll wrap up with a blessing of sorts, from me and from David:
"I highly encourage you to experiment and find out what works for you, but also to leave your comfort zone, to be open to trying things you never thought you were good at or even associated with prayer before" (40).

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through  the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Fedral Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255.