Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Review of "How to Pray When You're Pissed at God" by Ian Punnett (Harmony Press, 2013)

If the title of this book makes you angry, that’s okay. One of the main arguments of the book is that anger is a healthy emotion, if it is dealt with in a healthy way. So free to say, “I feel angry when I see vulgar language used in a religious context”. You know, say it in the phraseology that therapists use. What? Using the stilled jargon of psychiatry is sometimes not satisfying way to express anger? Yeah, well, that’s another argument that Ian Punnett makes in this short, but helpful book about prayer.
Though Punnett is ordained in the Episcopal Church and he writes in the acknowledgements that “the main intention of this book was to honor God” it is not strictly a Christian book. He wanted to write a book about the appropriateness and benefit of angry prayer for everyone, even atheists and agnostics. He cites medical studies that show that prayer and meditation are healthy and other studies that show healthy expressions of anger are healthy and argues that therefore anyone could benefit from expressing their anger through prayer.
I found it interesting that though he thinks angry prayers are helpful to all, he also mentions that Islam has no place for such prayers. The Koran notes Job was righteous, but doesn’t say anything about his railing against God. The angry Psalms are not a part of the Koran. But angry prayer is a rich part of the Jewish tradition and Punnett interview various rabbis that make that point.
Punnett also makes it clear that anger can be very unhealthy, in fact dangerous, when it is misdirected or is habitual. One of the reasons expressing anger in prayer is important is that it may allow us to move one from our anger. If we are angry about something that takes place in the workplace, it is not healthy to kick the dog or yell at our children or even kick the children and yell at our dog. The healthy response is to stand up for ourselves in a respectful manner at the workplace AND bring our anger before God who can handle it better than dogs and children.
One of the best features of the book is the use of the Psalms from Scripture as a model for praying out our anger. Punnett writes about an experience from his days as a hospital chaplain. A mother asked Punnett to help her son stuck in a hospital bed to “turn to God”. Punnett talked to the boy, and found that the boy was not thrilled with not sick and not being able to play with his friends and especially with the hospital needles. Punnett assured the boy that there were times Jesus wasn’t pleased with His situation either. He taught the boy the words, "Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?" (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) And the boy found strength in shouting out those words when he was given a shot (the nurses hated it.)
Punnett has a wonderful section where is reworked Psalms for people in different situations, such as “An Angry Prayer for Somebody Suffering with Depression During the Holidays” and “An Angry Prayer for a Victim of Bullying by the More Popular Kids”. I did think though that he overdoes it in using the violent language of the Psalms (the knocking the teeth out kind of stuff.) It makes sense for the angry prayers about street gangs and child abusers, but not so much for the angry prayers for those who cut you off in traffic or make campaign commercials.
Oh, and I wasn’t too keen on the title when I first saw it on the shelf, after reading the book I came to see that the “Pissed” was not gratuitous. Punnett makes that case that some pretty harsh language can be found in Scripture and that sometimes people need to pray freely without worrying about their vocabulary. I think he’s right when he says that God can take it.

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