Does Prayer Overstep?

The book title Prayer as Transgression is catchy. I instinctively assumed it referred to the possibility of nurses and other healthcare providers imposing their prayer practices on vulnerable patients.

Throughout this book, however, nurse scholar Sheryl Riemer-Kirkham and her interprofessional team of a sociologist, a religionist, and an anthropologist unpack how prayer between people within various healthcare contexts transgresses—or “go[es] beyond limits and conventions, to deny and affirm differences, to move against and beyond boundaries.”

To give a simplistic summary, these authors observe that prayer does transgress—in a myriad of ways; in so doing, it often also allows transformation. That is, prayer fosters intra-, inter-, and trans-personal relationships that go deeper. Prayer allows mystery and transcendence during times when care recipients and providers yearn for comfort, beauty, connectedness, and an existential settling—even if they are nonreligious or in a secular setting.

While the authors explore the form, substance, process, and function of prayer within healthcare, they recognize that their study of prayer is a lens for understanding how people in a diverse and changing society “live well together.” To answer the question their title poses, the writers conducted a critical ethnography. This study, for which this book is a report, was well informed by considerable social theories and qualitative methods (e.g., participants keeping diaries, investigators doing “walking interviews” with participants).

Their fieldwork was conducted in Vancouver, BC, Canada, and London, United Kingdom—both cultures funding national health systems and experiencing a diminishment of institutionalized religion and Christianity. Hence, the data provide an excellent look at how increasingly pluralized societies housing healthcare in the public sphere negotiate prayer.

Prayer as Transgression is a brilliant example of interdisciplinary social science led by a nurse. It reads as such, with its exquisite observations well organized, precisely described, and integrated with prevailing social theories. The nurse clinician, however, may wonder if the book would provide practical information to guide nursing practice.

This resource contains a short appendix with recommendations (i.e., make prayer person-centered, legitimize chaplaincy, offer space for diverse prayer, and create organizational cultures that support spiritual health).

What may provide the most practical guidance for a nurse, however, are the illustrative data frequently used to explain constructs. Those who enjoy a theoretical unpacking of what may be their quotidian experiences will enjoy this read. Those who are able to make the leap from the abstract to the concrete, or from illustrative data to their own nursing practice, will benefit from this book. 

Prayer as Transgression? The Social Relations of Prayer in Healthcare Settings. (2020). McGill-Queen's University Press.

Elizabeth Johnston Taylor, PhD, RN, FAAN, is a JCN contributing editor and a professor of nursing at Loma Linda University in California.

This review appears in the current issue of the Journal of Christian Nursing in the Reading & Resources column. NCF membership includes both print and online subscriptions to JCN, including CE (and free CE through quarterly Journal Club live events).


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