Review of "Four Birds of Noah’s Ark" by Thomas Dekker
Four Birds of Noah’s Ark: A Prayer Book from the Time of Shakespeare by Thomas Dekker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 176 pp.
reviewed by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
I begin with a confession: the point during the worship service when I am most likely to yawn, get distracted, find myself plagued by phantom itches, or decide I have to go the bathroom is during the Prayers of the Church. This makes me a terrible person and a worse Christian. Nevertheless, there it is: prayer bores me far more often than it should. Which is why Four Birds of Noah's Ark is such a delightful surprise: prayers that do not bore.
Thomas Dekker was a playwright around the time of Shakespeare, which must be the worst time in English history to be a playwright unless you happen to be Shakespeare himself (or maybe, maybe, Christopher Marlowe). However, Dekker did pretty well for himself, writing plays and all sorts of other things. This is his only explicitly religious work, and apparently it startled some of his contemporaries, who took him for a “rogue.” That may be exactly why his prayers are so satisfying. They have real texture and depth, personality and vigor.
The four birds are not all mentioned in the Noah’s ark story, not exactly. Actually, as far as I can tell, only the first bird, the dove, qualifies. No matter; piety has never been limited by such nit-picking considerations. The idea is that these birds are all messengers sent out from the ark of salvation to the sinner in need of assistance.
The dove comes first, humble pigeon of peace. The prayers of this section are of ordinary folks in their everyday vocations. You get the feeling that Dekker really paid attention to the people around them. The wonderful thing in praying these prayers is that as you share in their petitions you also feel yourself in their shoes, learning the evangelical skills of imagination and empathy. You get to be a schoolchild, a merchant, a midwife, a sailor, and a miner, among other things.
The eagle (who comes next) is loftier than the dove, but this means the stakes are higher for such as the queen (Elizabeth I) or the king (James I) or the nation’s council or the church or the clergy. Lawyers, magistrates, and universities learn to pray here, and everyone learns to pray for relief from famine, pestilence, and war. The scope is broader, for the life of the city and the nation.
Then comes the pelican, a favorite of medieval imagery, for this bird was thought to plunge its beak into its own breast to draw blood to feed its young—the christological connection is obvious enough. In these prayers, which are framed with ones for morning and evening, the penitent calls upon Christ’s help in fighting against the seven deadly sins and the temptations of the devil.
The final prayer section on the phoenix—who dies and rises again, another obvious christological symbol—takes off in a flight of glory and gratitude in prayers that praise God for all the ways we are saved by Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and coming in glory.
One last section is not prayers but edifying quotes from the greats of church history, which editor Robert Hudson charmingly entitles "Feathers."
To put the whole thing in catechetical terms: the work is one of the Holy Spirit’s guiding our prayers first through confession of sin and then mounting up to proclamation of the gospel. It is a trinitarian work with an implicit rubric of law and gospel. And the good theology is so beautifully expressed; no wooden constructions of rigidly accurate dogma here.
For one thing, the biblical allusions are constant and effortlessly interwoven, a confident example of figural exegesis, such as in the Prayer against Envy: “Purge, therefore, O Lord, our veins and let not the stinking poison of envy infect our blood, but following in the steps of Samuel, let us pray for King Saul, even though he is an enemy to your servants; and like Moses, let us not repine at the stubborn Hebrew children, even hough they rebel and threaten us with death.” Or the Thanksgiving for Sailors’ Safe Landing: “We were in the lions’ den, and yet did he deliver us. We were in the furnace, yet not a hair has perished. We were at the gates of hell, yet he fetched us back.” One more, from the Thanksgiving after a Woman Delivers Her Child: “Sanctify, O Lord, the breasts that must give suck to this babe, and, when it pleases you to fill her with understanding, feed her soul with the milk of your Word.”
Another wonder of the book is its sheer vividness. One of the things that loses me in church prayers (rightly or wrongly) is the repetition of bare petitions, working doggedly through all the topics that need to be covered in almost ex opere operato fashion. Dekker’s prayers engage all the mind and senses, so that praying is also seeing, struggling, learning, reflecting, and feeling. For example: “O let not, therefore, the gripping talons of covetousness seize upon our souls. It is a golden devil that tempts us to hell. It is a mermaid whose songs are sweet but full of sorcery. It is a sing that turns courtiers into beggars, and yet makes them wear monopolies on their backs, when the commonwealth shivers through the cold.”
Finally, it is wise. Dekker knows and believes the good news and is eager to give a musical voice to it. I’m happy to give him the last word here—hoping that training in his prayers will ultimately make me (and maybe others) a more attentive pray-er in church.
From the Thanksgiving for All Those Benefits We Reap by the Ascension of Christ:
Lift up your eyes, O you sons of Adam, and behold
your Savior ascending up into the clouds.
Bitter was his death;
his resurrection victorious;
but his ascension glorious.
He died like a lamb,
he rose again like a lion,
but he ascended like an eagle.
By his death did he quicken us to life;
by his resurrection did he raise us to faith;
by his ascension did he lift us up to glory.
The resurrection of Christ is our hope,
but the ascension of Christ is our glorification.
He ascended into heaven—but how?
He shut not the gates of heaven upon us
but went there on purpose to make
the way plain before us. His body is in heaven,
but his majesty abides upon earth.
Here he was once according to the flesh,
and here he is still according to his divinity.
Absent is Christ from us,
yet is he still present with us.
Would you see him?
Would you touch him?
Would you embrace him?
Your eyes have sight too weak
to pierce through the clouds;
his brightness is too great and
would strike you blind with dazzling.
Your hands are too short to reach
up to the seat where he sits;
and your arms not of compass
big enough to be thrown around his body.
But let your faith open her eyes,
for she can behold him.
Let your faith put out her hand,
and with the least finger she can touch him.
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is the Editor of Lutheran Forum.
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