Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“The Five Books of Peterson” first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of Touchstone.
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CONTOURS OF CULTURE
The Five Books of Peterson
Until about nine years ago, I had never paid much attention to the many books written by Eugene Peterson. I knew that he had been a respected Presbyterian pastor for most of his career, and that he had later taught at Regent College in Vancouver, an institution for which I have much respect. But his books on devotional subjects had never gotten my attention. This may be due in part to the way his contemporary-language paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, had been marketed. It seemed too eager to project "relevance," and it seemed to dumb down Holy Writ.
Sometime in 2003, a friend suggested that I might be interested in Peterson's new book, called Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. I was told that a glance at the table of contents would persuade me to interview Peterson. The title of the book, I soon discovered, was from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem ("As Kingfishers Catch Fire"), which was definitely a point in Peterson's favor. When I obtained a copy of the book, I saw that it was organized in three large sections: "Christ Plays in Creation," "Christ Plays in History," "Christ Plays in Community." This was "spiritual theology" aiming to combat the dualistic temptation of so much of American Christianity.
Then I read on page 3: "It is the task of the Christian community to give witness and guidance in the living of life in a culture that is relentless in reducing, constricting, and enervating life." This was a book about the obstacles our culture puts in our way as we strive to be faithful Christians. I was hooked.
Under the heading of "Creation," Peterson focuses explicitly on the gnostic tendencies of many contemporary accounts of the Christian life. He argues that, by contrast, living out the gospel message begins with attending to the "Genesis-revealed gifts of time and place."
In the section on "History," he uses the backdrop story of Israel in Egypt as a paradigm for understanding our own salvation. Noting that the early Church was much more aware of the dangers of cultural captivity than we tend to be, he cites the third-century Epistle of Hippolytus, which gave instructions about how converts were to be taught the meaning of the faith before they were baptized. As Peterson summarizes:
When he comes to discussing the communal aspect of living out our faith, Peterson reminds us that in the new life that we have in Christ, "everything is personal but nothing is private." Toward the end of the book, he observes sagely that "the Christian life is the lifelong practice of attending to the details of congruence—congruence between ends and means, congruence between what we do and the way we do it. . . . We cannot participate in building God's kingdom but then use the devil's methods and tools."
Against Consumer Churches
In the early pages of Christ Plays, Peterson insists on the necessity of keeping "theology" and "spirituality" joined tightly together. But neither theology nor spirituality are for him merely interior abstractions; they are always lived out in everyday life and in the context of a culture that wants us to live in ways that are not fitting for who we really are. Peterson wrote four more books as sequels to this volume, and in each he has displayed a remarkably integrated concern for theological depth (rooted in the stories of Scripture), sincere and rich piety, and practical discernment about how the way of life our culture sustains and encourages is not (in the title of one of the later books) the "Jesus way."
In that later book, The Jesus Way, Peterson boldly condemns the common strategy of adapting the life of the Church to the ways and means of the world of commerce:
Peterson answers this common rhetorical question with stark declarations: "We can't gather a God-fearing, God-worshiping congregation by cultivating a consumer-pleasing, commodity-oriented congregation. . . . The cultivation of consumer spirituality is the antithesis of a sacriﬁcial, 'deny yourself' congregation. A consumer church is an antichrist church."
Wisdom from the Trenches
If he hadn't served as a pastor for decades (a story he tells in his recent memoir, The Pastor), Peterson might be dismissed as a cranky theorist who has no idea what it's really like out there in the trenches. But the wisdom and practical insights of these five books make it evident that he understands what it's really like better than most people who are actively accommodating our culture's disorder and confusion.
The four other titles in this series are: Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading; The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way; Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers; and Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ. •
Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
“The Five Books of Peterson” first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!
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