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Lauren F. Winner


Means and Ends

The spiritual theology of Eugene Peterson.

How do you understand the first two chapters of Genesis? As the story of the creation of the world? Maybe as key texts in a pitched battle over intelligent design. Maybe the Creation story was the first story you learned in Sunday School, and maybe it was the first Bible story you taught your kids.

In Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, the first instalment of a projected five-volume spiritual theology, Eugene Peterson tells us that he once read Genesis 1-2 as merely the story of the beginning of all things. He was "distracted" from the "personal immediacy" of those chapters for many years—years spent wrangling about evolution, years spent contrasting them to Babylonian and Sumerian cosmology. "Then I became a pastor, and gradually realized what powerful texts Genesis 1 and 2 are for dealing with life just as it comes to us each day." In the pastor's study, he learned to "pray and teach and preach these Holy Scriptures into" the ordinary lives of ordinary people, to help them raise their children and tend their fields and go to their offices and knit socks and bake bread and pay their taxes inside Genesis 1-2. He began to see that the beginning of Genesis was not simply an "account of the beginning of all things," but also a beginning of how "to live right now."

This description of learning to inhabit Scripture is not just a handy hermeneutic for Genesis 1-2. It is also an apt summary of Peterson's oeuvre; he could not have written his particular books had he not spent so many years in the pastorate. Even though he subsequently took an academic post, and even though he is now "retired," his writing comes from the parish, from the pulpit, from the pastor's study.

This is what he learned, in the parish: that we are living in conditions very similar to the Hebrew exile; that we are uprooted and lost and not grounded and that we do not have a center. "I felt that I and my congregation were starting over every week," writes Peterson. "There was no moral consensus, no common ...

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