Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: MYSTICALLY WIRED by Ken Wilson [Vol. 3, #31]

“Humanizing Prayer

A Review of
Mystically Wired: Exploring New Realms in Prayer
By Ken Wilson

Reviewed by Joshua Neds-Fox.

Mystically Wired: Exploring New Realms in Prayer.
Ken Wilson
Hardback: Thomas Nelson, 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

MYSTICALLY WIRED - Ken WilsonKen Wilson’s Mystically Wired: Exploring New Realms in Prayer is either a practical manual for mystic prayer or a mystical manual for practicing prayer, depending on whether you emphasize the ‘Wired’ or the ‘Mystically.’  Wendell Berry might argue that applying language like ‘wired’ to our biology is a bad idea, since equating human beings with electrical systems is, at the very least, dehumanizing, and probably not the best theology. But Wilson is the pastor of the Ann Arbor Vineyard, a community squarely in University of Michigan territory. For strong left-brain thinkers, mystical prayer looks a lot like a neuro/genetic coping mechanism for anxiety and stress.  It could use a bit of demystifying, and Wilson, a good pastor, is willing and able to extend grace to his community and see things through their eyes.  His message to them (and us) is that a receptivity to what we commonly think of as mystical prayer is actually strongly supported by our neurobiology.  He’s humanizing prayer—and by extension, faith—for the scientific set.

Wilson takes the ‘wired’ metaphor seriously: he places prayer in the Trinitarian reality, which he characterizes as a network of love:

“God is a connected and connecting Being. When we are brought into relationship with God through Jesus, we are, as Jesus said, grafted into a vine as branches are—an early network metaphor to describe the kingdom of heaven (John 15:1-17)… Prayer is a powerful way to put us in touch with the reality that we are profoundly connected, that to be alive is to be embedded in a network of connections.” (70, 82)

He backs that assertion up by referencing science—neuroscience, primarily. To cite just one example: Wilson notes that praying for our loved ones has been shown to strengthen neural pathways in the anterior cingulate cortex, “the portion of the brain that is activated when we see others suffer, enabling us to feel compassion” (p. 81).  That is, prayer neurologically strengthens our capacity for compassion. Over and over, Wilson turns to research that suggests that what we feel when we pray is supported by our biology.  It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem: does reference to science tend to prove that what we feel as connectedness to God is really just neuro-chemical biology? Or does the underlying biology suggest that God has designed us to pray?

Wilson takes the holistic approach, asserting that our biology strengthens rather than repudiates the case for a loving God. Far from a Gnostic, Wilson continually characterizes himself as a regular guy, even spiritually reticent (“I consider myself a slow learner in these matters. Some of my intensely spiritual friends call me ‘slow fizz.’” 5).  By explaining prayer in the language of neuroscience, he’s simply advocating the bodily-ness of prayer, giving us permission to be human beings while we pray.  As a counterpart to the neuroscience, Wilson offers prayer practices, drawn from scripture, that activate those areas of the brain responsible for things like stress relief, compassion, and a sense of connectedness with God and others.  He compares prayer to a golf swing, “one fluid motion with three components: the address (orienting your heart Godward), the backswing (making your requests known), and the downswing with pivot (pivoting your focus from the threat to the blessings present in the midst of the threat)” (92), giving unpracticed pray-ers a ‘how-to’ of sorts.  He advocates, among other practices, holding loved ones in memory in God’s presence; focusing on one thing for a long time; and scheduling fixed-hour prayer. “Prayers that are entirely self-generated (the criteria for authenticity that least applies to Christian prayer) sometimes require enormous effort” (p. 123), he avers, suggesting the use of a prayer manual of some kind.

It’s this two-fold approach—the science of prayer coupled with suggested practices—that make this book so practical, especially for those who want to “kick the tires” before fully embracing mystical aspects of Christian prayer (as Wilson puts it).  What I find especially refreshing about his approach is its obvious compassion for the specific community with whom he shares his life and faith.  His love for his people has led him to explore and explain prayer in ways that are mutually beneficial.  The nature of that community—theologically liberal, scientific, skeptical—leads Wilson to conclusions in the final chapters that may, I fear, sour many mainline evangelicals to this clear-headed book.  That those conclusions are reached in the context of a practical love for a real, local community that has shaped Wilson’s thought and action is (I hope) an encouragement to the general reader to push through and digest what’s truly good about Mystically Wired.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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  1. This is a superb review of a truly important book. Thanks to Joshua Neds-Fox for having so carefully and eloquently brought it to the attention of an even wider readership.

  2. Phyllis —

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a word (comment?) of encouragement!

    I am definitely looking forward to reading this book!

    And thanks for all your work, especially THE DIVINE HOURS, which daily teaches us how to pray.

    Chris Smith
    The Englewood Review of Books