A Review of
Four Birds of Noah’s Ark:
A Prayerbook From the Time Of Shakespeare
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2017
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Reviewed by Colin Chan Redemer
Recently a young mother said she wanted to start praying with her kids but didn’t know how, or what to say. Had I known then about the new edition of Thomas Dekker’s Four Birds of Noah’s Ark: A Prayerbook From the Time Of Shakespeare edited by Robert Hudson I perhaps would have been more helpful to her. It is easy for folks who’ve spent roughly a seventh of their life in a church pew to say “well just speak to God.” But prayer isn’t quite the same as chatting with a friend over coffee; it is spiritual food. I can image Jesus looking down at us and, echoing Mark 6:37, saying “you, give them [words to say].” Well this prayer book from the 1600’s offers many such words which, hundreds of years later, are fitting. The day I started reading the book was in my son’s first season of kindergarten. There I read the first prayer titled “For A Child Going to School” and I realized the value of being instructed in prayer even as my son was heading off to class. “Be my Schoolmaster to instruct me,/ that I may repeat the rules of true wisdom.” It is a striking prayer, that God would be the one who instructs us. If he uses the teacher in my son’s public school, so be it. And if that teacher fails in her cosmic duty: have faith, God will make a way. That alone is worth the price on the back.
But it doesn’t stop there, all the various aspects of human life are covered here, and it is a healthy reminder that human life— the aspects of life that make us human— haven’t changed at all. There are no less than three prayers for pregnant mothers and their caregivers and the unborn: “And when the time comes that you will call the child/ out of this house of flesh,/…set that sacred seal of baptism,/ that it may be known as a lamb of your own flock.” There are prayers for farmers, for soldiers, servants, merchants, sailors and pastors. And if there isn’t one for the modern office worker then one of the two prayers for those in jail will have to do: “I am now entangled in the chains/ of captivity; yet, O my God, bestow upon me/ the freedom of my soul.” That’s a song to make the desk-bound sing.
There is a question standing between you and this modern edition which is: who would read this version of it? I imagine the ideal audience for Dekker to be someone who’s into English literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Not casually into it, but really into it. This is the guy who’d corner you at a party to explain why “The Wild Goose Chase” by Fletcher is funnier than “The Isle of Dogs” by Johnson. If you asked this person what version of the bible they read they’d drag out the old Dangerfieldesque saw: “well the authorized version was translated by people who didn’t know Greek or Hebrew, but modern translators don’t know English… Am-I-Right?!”
I could imagine someone like that seeking out to read Dekker’s obscure book of prayers. The problem is I can’t imagine that person either needing or being at all pleased with the “updated” language provided by Hudson. Wouldn’t the slight archaicism be part of the pleasure? We may never know.
I, however, am not that person. And having read this book I can say without qualification: it is a delight. Dekker manages in a brief book to do what hundreds (thousands?) of American pastors fail to do every week either from the pulpit or from the covers of endless piles of self-help books. He speaks directly to people where they live and work in a clear voice that elevates the reader and edifies their soul. And this edition smooths edges that might otherwise be overly sharp to the general audience. The beauty of the layout, font, paper, and pictures adds to the experience as well. This is a book that was made to be returned to. Like prayer itself.
The American audience might be put off by the extensive set of prayers for the King, Queen, and other Royals. But it can be instructive to remember that the reason for such prayers, and indeed for such roles, is for our good. After all, someone is going to rule me here on earth and I sure hope they are like Methuselah, Solomon, Abraham and David, while not “fall[ing] into David’s sins.” The alternative is bleak. Better to be ruled “for the benefit of your church,/ for the honor of this kingdom,/ and for the peace of your people” than the opposite. But if the #resistance types would prefer something political but less hagiographic Dekker writes to please. Try out “A Prayer For The Confusion of Those Who Would Harm Our Nation By Violence” in which there are truly #woke lines like “O God, in your just wrath, smite the rocks/ and send the whirlwinds forth to blow the dust/ of their wicked counsels into their own eyes.” I can’t wait to read that on a picket sign at the next protest. If that line strikes an Augustinian tone in your ear that makes sense too, at the end of the book he includes some aphorisms worth meditating on for your spiritual development. Half of them are from Augustine.
One aphorism however is from Seneca, the ancient Roman pagan philosopher. This is just absolutely perfect, from my reading, because Dekker is so clearly not a trained philosopher or theologian. From my brief study he doesn’t even seem to be a particularly committed Christian. Dekker was a playwright who spent a lifetime in debt, in and out of prison, and his craft was born of necessity. In this work he’s someone who is struggling. He’s struggling to see God clearly and communicate what he’s seeing. But he’s also struggling to make a quick buck. This book was written with the marketplace in mind. During an outbreak of plague in 1608 no one was going to the theatre out of fear. Dekker likely wrote this to make ends meet.
Would that we lived in a reality where the best writers in the world were financially motivated to compose fitting prayers for common people. Or one where the average reader might know the name Seneca. I don’t want to be nostalgic, but if I’m nostalgic I need to bring that boldly before God; that’s something Dekker is teaching me. There’s a prayer for every aspect of human life, so don’t shy away from your life, lift it to God.
The climax of the prayer book is a set of meditative prayers on the death and resurrection of Christ. And so we see that, while this isn’t quite Dante, the move from my common experience towards God is ultimately a move up to a beautiful vision that draws all our experiences into itself. I imagine most people will die not having read Dekker’s prayer book— even among those who do read his plays. That’s a shame because while “the wombs of our mothers/ are the first lodgings that we lie in,/ and the womb of the earth is appointed/ to be the last. The grave is a target/ at which all the arrows of our life are shot,/ and the last arrow of all hits the mark.” Our one lasting hope remains in Jesus that we can “go into our graves/ in peace; so shall we be sure/ to come from our graves in gladness.”
Colin Chan Redemer is a professor at Saint Mary’s College of California and a fellow of the Davenant Institute. His writing has appeared in the Evansville Review, Sojourners Magazine, and the Tampa Review.
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