Eugene Peterson

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.

some friday link love

The biggest threat to science and scientific progress is not religion or religious believers, with our superstitious or supernatural beliefs, but the arrogance of those atheist fundamentalists among the scientific community who believe that science is the only legitimate and conceivable way to explain or understand the world – and who antagonise a sceptical public in the process.

Eugene Peterson on The Jesus Way

Eugene Peterson’s The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way will be released in paperback in a couple of weeks. Here’s the taster:

Here is a text, words spoken by Jesus, that keeps this in clear focus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). The Jesus way wedded to the Jesus truth brings about the Jesus life. We can’t proclaim the Jesus truth but then do it any old way we like. Nor can we follow the Jesus way without speaking the Jesus truth.

But Jesus as the truth gets far more attention than Jesus as the way. Jesus as the way is the most frequently evaded metaphor among the Christians with whom I have worked for fifty years as a North American pastor. In the text that Jesus sets before us so clearly and definitively, way comes first. We cannot skip the way of Jesus in our hurry to get to the truth of Jesus as he is worshiped and proclaimed. The way of Jesus is the way that we practice and come to understand the truth of Jesus, living Jesus in our homes and workplaces, with our friends and family.

A Christian congregation, the church in your neighborhood, has always been the primary location for getting this way and truth and life of Jesus believed and embodied in the places and among the people with whom we most have to do day in and day out. There is more to the church than this local congregation. There is the church continuous through the centuries, our fathers and mothers who continue to influence and teach us. There is the church spread throughout the world, communities that we are in touch with through prayer and suffering and mission. There is the church invisible, dimensions and instances of the Spirit’s work that we know nothing about. There is the church triumphant, that “great cloud of witnesses” who continue to surround us (Heb. 12:1). But the local congregation is the place where we get all of this integrated and practiced in the immediate circumstances and among the men, women, and children we live with. This is where it becomes local and personal.

The local congregation is the place and community for listening to and obeying Christ’s commands, for inviting people to consider and respond to Jesus’ invitation, “Follow me,” a place and community for worshipping God. It is the place and community where we are baptized into a Trinitarian identity and go on to mature “to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13), where we can be taught the Scriptures and learn to discern the ways that we follow Jesus, the Way.

The local congregation is the primary place for dealing with the particulars and people we live with. As created and sustained by the Holy Spirit, it is insistently local and personal. Unfortunately, the more popular American church strategies in respect to congregation are not friendly to the local and the personal. The American way with its penchant for catchy slogans and stirring visions denigrates the local, and its programmatic ways of dealing with people erode the personal, replacing intimacies with functions. The North American church at present is conspicuous for replacing the Jesus way with the American Way. For Christians who are serious about following Jesus by understanding and pursuing the ways that Jesus is the Way, this deconstruction of the Christian congregation is particularly distressing and a looming distraction from the Way of Jesus.

A Christian congregation is a company of praying men and women who gather, usually on Sundays, for worship, who then go into the world as salt and light. God’s Holy Spirit calls and forms this people. God means to do something with us, and he means to do it in community. We are in on what God is doing, and we are in on it together.

And here is how we are in on it: we become present to what God intends to do with and for us through worship, become present to the God who is present to us. The operating biblical metaphor regarding worship is sacrifice — we bring ourselves to the altar and let God do with us what he will. We bring ourselves to the eucharistic table and enter into that grand fourfold shape of the liturgy that shapes us: taking, blessing, breaking, giving — the life of Jesus taken and blessed, broken and distributed. That eucharistic life now shapes our lives as we give ourselves, Christ in us, to be taken, blessed, broken, and distributed in lives of witness and service, justice and healing.

But that is not the American way. The great American innovation in congregation is to turn it into a consumer enterprise. We Americans have developed a culture of acquisition, an economy that is dependent on wanting more, requiring more. We have a huge advertising industry designed to stir up appetites we didn’t even know we had. We are insatiable.

It didn’t take long for some of our Christian brothers and sisters to develop consumer congregations. If we have a nation of consumers, obviously the quickest and most effective way to get them into our congregations is to identify what they want and offer it to them, satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure, problem-solving, whatever. This is the language we Americans grew up on, the language we understand. We are the world’s champion consumers, so why shouldn’t we have state-of-the-art consumer churches?

Given the conditions prevailing in our culture, this is the best and most effective way that has ever been devised for gathering large and prosperous congregations. Americans lead the world in showing how to do it. There is only one thing wrong: this is not the way in which God brings us into conformity with the life of Jesus and sets us on the way of Jesus’ salvation. This is not the way in which we become less and Jesus becomes more. This is not the way in which our sacrificed lives become available to others in justice and service. The cultivation of consumer spirituality is the antithesis of a sacrificial, “deny yourself” congregation. A consumer church is an antichrist church.

We can’t gather a God-fearing, God-worshipping congregation by cultivating a consumer-pleasing, commodity-oriented congregation. When we do, the wheels start falling off the wagon. And they are falling off the wagon. We can’t suppress the Jesus way into order to sell the Jesus truth. The Jesus way and the Jesus truth must be congruent. Only when the Jesus way is organically joined with the Jesus truth do we get the Jesus life.


Encouragement for pastors to be pastors

eugene-petersonEugene Peterson is always worth listening to, and his writing on pastoral ministry is enormously encouraging. Here’s some snipperts from a Leadership interview with this pastor to pastors:

‘The most important thing a pastor does is stand in a pulpit every Sunday and say, “Let us worship God.” If that ceases to be the primary thing I do in terms of my energy, my imagination, and the way I structure my life, then I no longer function as a pastor. I pick up some other identity. I cannot fail to call the congregation to worship God, to listen to his Word, to offer themselves to God. Worship becomes a place where we have our lives redefined for us. If we’re no longer operating out of that redefinition, the pastoral job is hopeless. Or if not hopeless, it becomes a defection. We join the enemy. We’ve quit our basic work’.

‘I don’t ever want to convey that our primary job as pastors is to fix a problem. Our primary work is to make saints. We’re in the saint-making business. If we enter the human-potential business, we’ve lost our calling’.

‘I begin with the conviction that everything in the gospel is experience-able. As a pastor, whatever the person’s situation, you’re saying to yourself, This person can experience the gospel here. I haven’t a clue how it’s going to happen, but I’m willing to slog through whatever has to be slogged through and not give up. I will continue to keep the gospel clear on Sundays; I will continue to be a companion with this person on Fridays’.

‘You cannot go to a pulpit week after week and preach truth accurately without constant study. Our minds blur on us, and we need that constant sharpening of our minds. And without study, without the use of our mind in a disciplined way, we are sitting ducks for the culture’.

‘I get my job description from the Scriptures, from my ordination vows. If I let the congregation decide what I’m going to do, I’m as bad as a doctor who prescribes drugs on request. Medical societies throw out doctors for doing that kind of thing; we need theological societies to throw out pastors for doing the same thing. And if you give up prayer and study, you will soon give up the third area: people’.

‘Listening, paying attention to people is the most inefficient way to do anything. It’s tedious, and it’s boring, and when you do it, it feels like you’re wasting time and not getting anything done. So when the pressures start to mount, when there are committees to run to and budgets to fix, what’s got to go? Listening to people. Seeing them in their uniqueness, without expecting anything of them. You quit paying attention, and people get categorized and recruited. It doesn’t take long for pastors to become good manipulators. Most of us learn those skills pretty quickly. If you can make a person feel guilty, you can make him or her do almost anything. And who’s better at guilt than pastors?’

‘The person who prays for you from the pulpit on Sunday should be the person who prays for you when you’re dying. Then there’s a connection between this world and the world proclaimed in worship. Classically – and I have not seen anything in the twentieth century that has made me revise my expectation – a pastor is local. You know people’s names, and they know your name. There’s no way to put pastoral work on an assembly line … Pastoral care can be shared, but never delegated. If the congregation perceives that I exempt myself from that kind of work, then I become an expert. I become somehow elitist; I’m no longer on their level. Elitism is an old demon that plagues the church’.

‘The church is not a functional place. It’s a place of being’.

‘It’s odd: We live in this so-called postmodernist time, and yet so much of the public image of the church is this rational, management-efficient model. If the postmodernists are right, that model is passe; it doesn’t work any more. In that sense, I find myself quite comfortably postmodern. I think pastors need to cultivate “unbusyness.” I use that word a lot. My father was a butcher. When he delivered meat to restaurants, he would sit at the counter, have a cup of coffee and piece of pie, and waste time. But that time was critical for building relationships, for doing business. Sometimes I’m with pastors who don’t wander around. They don’t waste time. Their time is too valuable. They run to the tomb, and it’s empty, so they run back. They never see resurrection. Meanwhile, Mary’s wasting time; she’s wandering around. To be unbusy, you have to disengage yourself from egos – both yours and others – and start dealing with souls. Souls cannot be hurried’.

‘For me, being a pastor means being attentive to people. But the minute I start taking my cues from them, I quit being a pastor’.

‘Most pastoral work is slow work. It is not a program that you put in place and then have it happen. It’s a life. It’s a life of prayer’.

To read the whole interview: Part I; Part II.