Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Rick Warren's Prayer of Invocation

Since I blogged about the controversy that had surrounded the choice of Rick Warren giving the inaugural invocation, I guess I should comment on the actual prayer. First, the controversy surrounded having someone who gave some rather ridiculous comparisons to gay marriage (like comparing it to pedophilia). Then the issue was whether or not he would mention Jesus or not. Would he represent his particular brand of religiosity, or in an event for all Americans represent all Americans. On that issue, I came down on the side that the most "American" thing to do is just be yourself and not try to water things down to vague generalities. If it were a Hindu giving the invocation, I would expect an invocation of Vishnu, Siva, or whatever god or goddess to which that particular person was devoted. If an imam, I would expect something on Allah. And so on... One objection was what would happen if Warren completed the prayer by "in Jesus' name we pray," in which the problem is not on Jesus--everyone should have a right to their own religion--but on the "we," which brought others who are not Christians under a Christian umbrella, in effect denying them of their own religions.

So what did he do? How does his prayer stack up? John Hobbins has posted the entire transcript, by the way, here.

He began the prayer with allusions to multiple religious traditions. He referred to "Almighty God," "God," and "Father." These are quite vague and include anyone who believes in some sort of supreme being--excluding atheists of course. He also referred to the opening lines of the Shema ("Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one"). You can also render that line, as "Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone" or as "Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one." I prefer the middle one. The Shema is the standard Jewish prayer, supposed to be said daily. Then he spoke of the "Compassionate and Merciful One." These words shout the Quran at you! God is always the Compassionate One or the Merciful One in the Quran. It runs all throughout. So, he's got Muslims covered. How Jews and Muslims feel about their "inclusion" or perhaps "appropriation" in this way might be something to discuss.

There were multiple other literary and cultural allusions as well. Mentioning MLK at the same time as the "great cloud of witnesses" brought together the Civil Rights Movement and the language of Hebrews 12:1. How could you not talk about Civil Rights and MLK today or at least allude to it?

He made an interesting note on diversity and religious diversity within the larger whole of our society: that we are not united by race, religion, or blood, but by a dedication to freedom and justice. In my commentary (although perhaps not what Warren meant), we all have our particularities which we do not want to nor should efface, but are united in a common goal of agreed upon ideals, such as freedom and justice. In this context, though, he also referred to the Great Judgment (see Revelation).

But the burning question is did he mention Jesus? OH YES HE DID. And in many ways:

I humbly ask this in the name of the one who changed my life, Yeshua, Issa, Jésus, Jesus, who taught us to pray, “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.

So, he refers to Jesus in four languages: Hebrew/Aramaic, Arabic, Spanish, and English. The second, Issa, is how "Jesus" is written the Quran. He did not say, "In Jesus' name we pray," as some feared, but kept to his own particular tradition, his right to his own religion, and even made clear that it was his particular view, as the one who changed his life. It was something HE asked in the name of Jesus. He avoided effacing difference while staying true to himself in that way, but may have let it slip in with the Lord's Prayer, since it is how Jesus taught "us" how to pray. But the Lord's Prayer itself is not said in "Jesus' name" but to "our Father." It is a good Jewish prayer said by a Jewish guy. At the same time, a foundational prayer for Christianity.

Who was "included" in this invocation? Ultimately, the allusions stayed within Jewish, Christian, and Islamic references. No polytheists here (unless Christianity counts). And no atheists--but it is a prayer!

Polytheists and atheists were brought into the event by Obama's own speech, when he said, "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers."

In the end, it seemed to be a highly forgettable prayer. It was not any more or less Christian or particularistic than the prayer of benediction, although that one might be memorable for its rhyming colors. It was not that exciting or interesting. And, I think, would have been entirely forgotten within a few hours by most of us if we hadn't made a big deal about it. Now it will be remembered for, eh, another few hours.

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