Earthy Spirituality: The Books of Eugene Peterson

     Cooperative relations and giddy goofiness aside, we all know that much of what makes the CCO distinctive are our theological biases. Many para-church campus ministries admit that we should do something to help students honor God in their classroom work, but we actually put it in our job descriptions! What campus minister worth her salt doesn’t at least think about preparing seniors for the temptations and rewards of serving God in the work world? We, though, build our campus ministry year around the Jubilee conference. Service learning, experiential education and wilderness trips are quite in vogue now, but our staff specialists are nationally-known to be on the cutting edge of such work and their insight is central to CCO’s approach to authentic learning. And while everyone is interested in spiritual formation these days, how many evangelical organizations have a spiritual director on staff? CCO takes these things seriously. It may be a very good sign that we take these diverse emphases (reformational cultural action and the inner life of authentic, experienced spirituality) as happy partners. Still, given the disastrous way worldviews and denominations have developed in Christendom, we must admit that for many of us, there is an uneasiness, even an outright suspicion, of one or all of these emphases.

     Some of us gravitate towards one emphasis (reading Henri Nouwen and Don Postema with relish, attending prayer meetings and journaling our lives away) while ignoring the call into social or cultural action. Or, we cite Walsh & Middleton and organize workshops on vocation and social action and – prayer? (“You’ve got to be kidding! I don’t do that dualistic stuff. All of life is spiritual, after all.”) Those who sense discomfort in these caricatures are on to something. Some Christian activist literature does seem out of touch with personal formation issues and the centrality of corporate worship. A more common problem is the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle!) dualism that does pervade much of the spirituality literature. There are notable exceptions. Richard Foster’s new book, Streams of Living Water, is a plea for balanced spirituality. His stunning book, True Prayer has some great chapters on the interface of spirituality and mundane daily experience. Parker Palmer’s The Active Life hits this topic head on, struggling to integrate what Thomas Merton called “contemplation in a world of action.” Former Jubilee speaker Celeste Snowber’s delightful book, Embodied Prayer opens up a specifically non-dualistic approach to prayer. And of course, we have been telling everyone about the tremendous The Life You Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People by Willow Creek’s ever seeker-sensitive John Ortberg (who, by the way, is a colleague in their work of spiritual formation with Ruth Haley Barton!).

     Despite this good trend towards holistic spiritual formation, that old devilish dualism has done its work. (Serious students of this might want to consult Matthew Fox’s anthology of what he terms “creation-based spiritual writers” throughout church history.) Without this emphasis, though, we are all generally out-of-whack, unbalanced and consequently, less than fully faithful in much of our lives. Our healthy desire to do spirituality leaves us less engaged, less involved and, sadly, less human.

     The best ally, I believe, for developing a reformational, creation-affirming, life- enhancing, gritty spirituality is Presbyterian pastor and exquisite wordsmith, Eugene Peterson. All of his books are worthy of your serious attention, and many are great for your students. All resonate with the sense that our walk before God, our experience of a life lived well with and in God, must unfold smack in the middle of the daily grind. Although Eugene may be best known for his colorful biblical paraphrase, The Message, his greatest contribution, I think, is his remarkable and rare sense of Christ’s Lordship over ordinary stuff which we experience in a grace-filled life. This wise man is a good biblical scholar and I think his vision is just what we need to deepen our CCO perspective.

     Peterson writes several different kinds of books. One kind is ideal for students; in fact, his reflections on some of the Psalms of Ascent (the ones used by the Jews as they pilgrimaged to Jerusalem each year), called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, is one of InterVarsity Press’s bestsellers for college students. It was my first Peterson book and I literally couldn’t believe my eyes. (“Where did this guy come from?!”) A sequel to Long Obedience is Where Your Treasure Is. It, too, is a series of easy-to-read reflections on a handful of Psalms-this time, Psalms that were used in public ceremonies of Israel. The subtitle speaks volumes: “Psalms That Summon Us From Self to Community.” It is a wonderful book, one I dip into regularly. Similar in style to these are his meditations on Jeremiah (Run With the Horses) and Galatians (Traveling Light); somewhat more dense studies of Psalms (Answering God) and Revelation (Reversed Thunder); and, what may be his crowning achievement, a marvelous work on the life of David. Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians takes us in brief chapters through the long and complex narratives in what he calls “the David story.” Peterson, quite a poet and literary critic himself, reminds us (regularly) that narrative, that is story, is the primary way in which the revelation of God is given to us, and why that is so important. It is “the Holy Spirit’s literary genre of choice” as it matches our human experience.

      Peterson brilliantly helps us appreciate the relevance of these stories, always linking them to the broader biblical story and specifically to the life of Jesus. With fresh imagination and solid historical knowledge, he frames and retells these stories in powerful ways. And good stories these are. From David & Goliath to David & Jonathan, stories about reigning in Jerusalem and running in the wilderness, about betrayal and sin and sex and grief. (The “Absalom, oh my son, Absolom.” of 2 Samuel 18.33, he suggests, “have got to be among the saddest, most heart-rending words ever spoken.”) Peterson tells them all well, mines them for deep riches – not moralistic precepts, but layered insight about being fully human in a God-drenched, sin-stained world.

     Consequently, it is a book about us. As Richard Foster commented, “Leap Over a Wall is the human story in all its wonder and terror and pity.” More than the ecstasy and energy of the mystics or charismatics, this is truly what our students need. Apparently God, too, thinks that this is what we need. God wanted us to pay attention to David and his poetry and there is plenty to learn and consider. Peterson is the best guide to David I’ve found, and I commend him (and his other wonderful works) to you and to your students.

     Next month we’ll continue this discussion of “earthy spirituality” by looking at another sort of book for which Eugene Peterson has become well-known – books about vocational holiness for pastors, ministers and spiritual directors. Although most of your students won’t read this grouping of titles, you definitely should! We may not be ordained clergy, and our work is situated largely on campus and not in the parish, but we are ministers. These books will give you insight into what that is all about.