Eugene Peterson on Stories

‘Just as there is a basic human body (head, torso, two arms, two legs, etc.), so there is a basic story. All stories are different in detail (like all bodies) but the basic elements of story are always there. For the purposes of sharpening our recognition of and appreciation and respect for the essential narrative shape of Scripture, we need to distinguish only five elements.

First, there is a beginning and ending. All stories take place in time and are bounded by a past and a future. This large encompassing framework presumes both an original and a final goodness. We have an origin, way back somewhere, somehow, that is good (creation, Eden, Atlantis); we have a destination, someplace, sometime, that is good (promised land, heaven, utopia).

Second, a catastrophe has occurred. We are no longer in continuity with our good beginning. We have been separated from it by a disaster. We are also, of course, separated from our good end. We are, in other words, in the middle of a mess.

Third, salvation is plotted. Some faint memory reminds us that we were made for something better than this. Some faint hope lingers that we can do something about it. In the tension between the good origin and destiny and the present evil, a plan develops to get us out of the trouble we are in, to live better than we find ourselves, to arrive at our destination. This plan develops with two kinds of action, the battle and the journey: we must fight the forces that oppose our becoming whole; we must find our way through difficult and unfamiliar territory to our true home. The battle and journey motifs are usually intertwined. These battles and journeys are both interior (within the self) and exterior.

Fourth, characters develop. What people do is significant. Persons have names and dignity. They make decisions. Persons are not lead soldiers lined up and moved about arbitrarily; personalities develop in the course of the conflict and in the passage of the journey, character and circumstance in dynamic interplay with each other. Some persons become better; some become worse. Nobody stays the same.

Fifth, everything has significance. Since “story” implies “author,” nothing is in it by accident. Nothing is mere “filler.” Chekov once said that if a writer puts a gun on the table in the first chapter, somebody has to pull the trigger by the last chapter. Every word connects with every other word in the author’s mind, and so every detail, regardless of how it strikes us at first, belongs – and can be seen to belong if only we look long enough at it.

All the world’s stories have these characteristics. The five elements can be more or less implicit or explicit, but they are there. With variations in emphasis and proportion, with shifts of perspective and invention of detail, they develop into tragedies, comedies, epics, confessions, murder mysteries, and gothic romances. Poets, dramatists, novelists, children, and parents have developed millions of variations on these elements; some of them have been written down.

What was written down in the Bible is a huge, sprawling account that contains subject matter from several cultures, languages, and centuries. There are many things and people in it, written about in many different ways; but with all the seeming heterogeneity, it comes out as a story. Northrop Frye, coming at Scripture as a literary critic and not as a believer or theologian, in his careful study of it is convinced that this is its most important feature: “The emphasis on narrative, and the fact that the entire Bible is enclosed in a narrative framework, distinguishes the Bible from a good many other sacred books.”

The Bible’s basic story line is laid down in the Torah, the first five books. Creation is the good beginning, worked into our memories with the rhythmic repetitions, “and God saw that it was good.” The promised land is the good ending as Moses leads the people up to the border of Canaan and then leaves them with his Deuteronomy sermon ringing in their ears. In between is the catastrophe of the fall, succeeded by the plot of salvation worked out in pilgrimage – from Eden to Babel to Ur to Palestine to Egypt to wilderness to Jordan – and in fights with family, Egyptians, Amalekites, and Canaanites. Character development is shown in Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses in major ways, and in numerous others on a smaller scale. The significance of every detail of existence is emphasized by including genealogical tables, ceremonial regulations, social observations, and rules for diet.

This story is repeated in the Gospels. The virgin birth is the good beginning, the ascension the good end. Catastrophe erupts in the Herodian massacre and threatens in the wilderness temptations. The salvation plot is worked out on a journey from Galilee to Jerusalem and in conflict with devils, disease, Pharisees, and disciples. The person of Jesus is prominent in the story, with Peter, James, and John in strong supporting roles. Much care is given to the details of geography, chronology, and conversation: nothing escapes signification – not a sparrow, not a hair of our heads.

The same story is told with a tighter focus in Holy Week. The hosanna welcome launches the good beginning, the resurrection marks the good ending. Judas’s betrayal is the catastrophe. Salvation is plotted through the conflicts of trial, scourging, and crucifixion and on the journey from Bethany to upper room to Gethsemane to trial sites to Golgotha to the garden tomb. Jesus’ words and actions exhibit the working out of the life of redemption, everything that he says and does being presented as revelatory. No detail is without significance: Mary’s perfume, the centurions comment. The narrative that is explicit in Torah and Gospels is extended over the entire Scriptures by means of the canonical arrangement of the diverse books. The Hebrew canon is formed in three parts. The Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) sets down the basic story. The Prophets (Joshua through Malachi) take the basic story and introduce it into new situations across the centuries, insisting that it be believed and obeyed in the present, not merely recited out of the past. This involved a good deal of disruption and controversy. The Writings (Psalms through Chronicles) provide a reflective response to the story, assimilating and then responding to it in wisdom (Job and Proverbs) and in worship (Psalms).

The New Testament has a parallel shape. The Gospels tell the basic story in a new Torah. The Epistles correspond to the Prophets as the story is told in an expanding world, preached and taught through continuing journeys and conflicts across multiple geographical and cultural settings around the Mediterranean basin. (Acts plays a double role here, part Torah, part Prophets; Luke, by writing a two-volume work, nicely expands the four Gospels into a five-volume Torah at the same time that he introduces the prophetical/apostolic lives of Peter and Paul.) James and the Revelation are equivalent to the Writings, summing up in wisdom (James) and worship (Revelation) the response of a people whose lives are shaped by the story that they have heard and told in faith.

What must be insisted upon in exegesis is that the Scriptures come to us in this precise, canonical shape, a deeply comprehensive narrative framework gathering all the parts – proverbs, commandments, letters, visions, case law, songs, prayer, genealogies – into the story, a unified structure of narrative and imagery.

It is fatal to exegesis when this narrative sense is lost, or goes into eclipse. Every word of Scripture fits into its large narrative context in one way or another, so much so that the immediate context of a sentence is as likely to be eighty-five pages off in words written three hundred years later as to be the previous or the next paragraph. When the narrative sense is honored and nurtured, everything connects and meanings expand, not arbitrarily but organically – narratively. We see this at work in the narrative – soaked exegesis of a preacher like John Donne whose texts always lead us “like a guide with a candle, into the vast labyrinth of Scripture, which to Donne was an infinitely bigger structure than the cathedral he was preaching in.”

At the moment words are written down they immediately become what has been called “context free.” The tone of voice, the smell in the air, the wind on the check – these are gone. Yet, when we carefully observe the way language actually works in our practice of it, we know that this living context in which we speak and hear words is critically important. Setting, tone, inflection, gesture, weather – all of this matters. Most of this context is lost in the act of writing. But one thing is not lost: the basic narrative form itself, language shaped into story.

Since this is the one part of the context that we do have, we must not let any part of it slip from our attention: the Genesis to Revelation context, the basic story laid down in Torah and Gospels, the intrusion of story into history by means of Prophets and Epistles, the gathering response and anticipation of closure in Psalms and Revelation.

Most misunderstandings come not from missed definitions but from missed contexts. Why do we miss another’s meaning so frequently – in marriage, in international relations, in courtrooms? It is not because we do not understand the language; it is because we do not know the context. Professional listeners (counselors and therapists) spend hours listening to a person’s story before they even begin to understand. They get the message in the first twenty minutes – why then does it take so long? What are they listening for? In a word, context: all the contexts of family and work, school and sex, feelings and dreams that intersect in the human. A word used in one context reverses meaning in another. Understanding another person intimately takes years; a lifetime is not enough. The more context we are familiar with, the more understanding we develop.

Whether in reading Scripture or in conversing around the kitchen table, an isolated sentence can only be misunderstood. The more sentences we have, the deeper the sense of narrative is embedded in our minds and imaginations and the more understanding is available. Matthew is incomprehensible separated from Exodus and Isaiah. Romans is an enigma without Genesis and Deuteronomy. Revelation is a crossword puzzle without Ezekiel and the Psalms’.

– Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987), 120–25.

6 thoughts on “Eugene Peterson on Stories

  1. ‘All the world’s stories have these characteristics.’ I’m not sure. Surely there are counter-examples to point 4: ‘Persons are not lead soldiers lined up and moved about arbitrarily; personalities develop in the course of the conflict and in the passage of the journey…’ So, e.g., Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona might be thought of as an example of a story in which the personalities of the chief protagonists do not develop. At the end of the film the voice-over tells us that Vicky and Cristina are precisely the same people they were at the beginning. No one has changed. And that is the central joke of the film: the life-changing experience doesn’t change anyone. Re: point 5: ‘Every word connects with every other word in the author’s mind, and so every detail, regardless of how it strikes us at first, belongs…’ Doesn’t a great deal here depend on what exactly we mean by ‘the author’s mind’? A straightforward reading of Peterson’s comments seems to imply that the author has a kind of clarity about his or her work which many authors would, I think, claim they lack. Perhaps ‘every word’ does connect (although how would we know?), but the manner of that connection is often lost even to the author. And I’m not entirely sure what it means to say that ‘everything [in a story] has significance’. There are plenty of stories which readers find to contain features that are not disciplined by the main structure of the work: a character that doesn’t quite fit; a sub-plot that seems indulgent and un-related to the main plot; an intrusive narrative voice which the author uses to editorialize. Finally, ‘Persons are not lead soldiers lined up and moved about arbitrarily’… but isn’t the end of Sophocles’ The Women of Trachis (‘everything you see here is Zeus’) precisely an affirmation that the characters in the play are ‘lead soldiers lined up and moved about arbitrarily’? Sophocles is, I think, raising here an enormously difficult problem which needs to be faced.

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  2. Andre,

    Excellent points, especially about the questions of authorial intentionality and the significance of storied detail. Like you, I’m leery of talking so universally about the nature of story.

    On the question of character development, however, I think the “joke” of Allen’s film only works because we know what should happen to the characters given their life-changing experience. So I’m not sure this example, by itself, really disproves Peterson’s claim—although it does trouble it a bit. In any case, I’m sure we can find stories that do.

    I wonder if even biblical stories hold up to all of these marks? Do the parables count as stories?

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  3. One question here, Chris, would be: why do have this expectation that the characters should change. And I suspect that at least one possible way of answering this would be to point to a particular tradition of story-telling, rather than to something intrinsic to narrative as such. And here we might point to something like the influence of the Christian notion of ‘conversion’ on e.g., novels written in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. One could trace out the connection between the idea, so fundamental to the political liberalism that in many ways provided the conditions that allowed the novel (or a particular kind of novel) to flourish, that human beings can change, and the tradition of conversion narratives that go all the way back to St Paul. But even this, it seems to me, is enormously complicated, in part by another strand within the Christian tradition in the West, associated with the notion of predestination. So, the novelist Marilynne Robinson (and it is fascinating to me that a novelist – who, if we take Peterson’s criteria seriously – is ex professio concerned with the ways in which people change) once suggested in an interview that one way of beginning to see part of what was at stake in Calvin’s talk of predestination was to realize that the question of whether people really do change was an enormously difficult question to answer. The question is – or ought to be – a source of perplexity for us – or perhaps, a way of naming a certain sort of perplexity. As I say, it’s interesting to me that a person who spends much of her working life telling stories believes this to be a far from easy question to answer – and (I hope I am not misrepresenting her), to the extent that she can answer it, falls on the side of those who believe that human beings don’t change. It would be interesting to approach modern literature with these sorts of questions in mind. I’m thinking here even of a novel like Dicken’s Great Expectations, which takes a kind of stock narrative of personal development and manipulates it into something far more unsettling. Pip might grow in his understanding of himself, but what he learns of himself has, in some significant sense, something to do with the limits of his ability to transform himself, and the inescapable burden of the effects of the pseudo-transformation that he had engaged in by going to London (how is it that Joe knows who Pip is, at the very point where Pip is doing his best to transform himself out of recognition?)
    Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying might be worth exploring here too. In some ways, the only person who changes in that novel is Addie, and this because she dies. But to say that death changes someone is to say something that we don’t know the sense of (if, that is, Wittgenstein is right to say that death is not an ‘event’ within life. The whole notion of the development of personality requires a continuous subject, and this is precisely what we are denying when we talk of someone dying.).
    Finally, I was thinking a little more about Sophocles’s play, The Women of Trachis – and it seems to me that perhaps the play itself is in a strange way a repudiation, or at least a qualification, of those last lines that seem to invite a facile determinism. It may be all Zeus, but the fact that we are invited to attend to the actions of Deianira and Herakles and so on, is a testimony to the dignity of human actions: they matter. The gods might determine everything, but protest of human beings against their arbitrariness is an index of human dignity. So perhaps Peterson is right here.

    Yes, it would be fascinating also to look at the parables, which (I’m following MacKinnon here) are themselves far from straightforward stories.

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  4. Thanks for this Jason. Much to think about from these words. “Most misunderstandings come not from missed definitions but from missed contexts.”
    So maybe caution is a good idea at times, especially if there is a history of conflict.

    “O perplexed discomposition. O riddling distemper, O miserable condition of man.”
    John Donne

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  5. Andre, I agree that it’s difficult, even impossible, to know if character development is intrinsic to narrative as such. Suppose, though, that the Christian account of the End of all things turns out to be more or less right. Would that not support Peterson’s claim? At least at some remove?

    I was thinking, too, that Peterson’s account of the story really tell us a lot about him as a reader. He wants there to be meaning in every detail; he expects characters to develop. Couldn’t one argue that he came to be such a reader by reading Scripture with just such an expectation?

    Excellent points about the relationship of predestination and story-telling, by the way. Perhaps this is one of the forces animating Moby Dick. Anyway, I’m going to chew on that for a while. Any idea where Robinson said that?

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