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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 memory, all of us far removed from where we had grown up. The lives of my parishioners seemed jerky and spasmodic, anxious and hurried." And so he began preaching the prophets of Israel, Isaiah among them. And he noticed that one of Isaiah's favorite themes is creation. And he noticed, further, that in Scripture, only God creates. This is, in essence, what separates men and women from God: God creates; we can't. God is the Creator, we are creatures. "When the conditions in which we live seem totally alien to life and salvation, we are reduced to waiting for God to do what only God can do, create." And in that key, Peterson found himself returning to Genesis 1–2, asking not what the texts had to tell him about Darwin but rather "How can I obey this? How can I get in on this?"

What he has given us in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (the somewhat awkward title comes from a Hopkins poem) is an investigation of, and an invitation to, "the Christian life as lived." Peterson opens with some housecleaning: there is some vocabulary we have to get clear on, some words that, like false cognates, mean one thing in contemporary American, and another thing in classical Christian. Spirituality, for example, and Jesus, soul, and fear-of-the-Lord. With this basic vocabulary in place, Peterson spends the bulk of the book exploring three stages on which Christ plays: creation, history, and community.

The first section moves through a reading of the Gospel of John to a reflection on the importance of Sabbath. The second section, "Christ Plays in History," confronts sin. Human history exposes the Whiggish lie that humanity is on an upward, forward march, getting better and better and nearer the realization of Heaven on Earth in each succeeding generation. The event that defines Christians' entry into human history, says Peterson, is the Cross. Here, our central texts are Exodus and the Gospel of Mark, and Peterson leads us from an account of the Crucifixion into the practices of Eucharist and hospitality.

But we come to the table not to stay at the table. We come to the table so that we might leave, equipped to work and love and live in the world. Ergo, the final section of the book, "Christ Plays in Community," counters today's regnant individualism. Peterson is clear: "there can be no maturity in the spiritual life, no obedience in following Jesus, no holiness in the Christian life apart from an immersion and embrace of community."

Community is popular in certain, Wendell Berry-reading Christian circles these days. (I include myself in those circles. Peterson, too, reads Berry, and he quotes him, and, indeed, Berry's shadow lies over this whole book.) Peterson's musings on Berry are rooted and built up in biblical witness. This is, in some ways, a more energizing and useful vision than Berry himself provides, because it allows for translation into our daily lives where Berry leaves us guessing. We can't move to Berry's Port Williams, but we can count on the church and the Holy Spirit being nearby.

Peterson grounds his discussion of community in Deuteronomy—which teaches, he says, how to be formed into the People of God—and in Luke-Acts, culminating in a meditation on the love command. Attempts to isolate just what is original and distinctive about Peterson's take on community will fail, because to think there is something unique about his communal ethos is to fall back into the habit of which Peterson is calling us to repent. He is simply telling us to love our neighbor; not to do any thing fantastic or extraordinary, but simply to love.

There are, says Peterson, two basics to the Christian life that we North Americans find difficult. First, the Christian life is about God, not about us. This cuts to the heart of much of the vaunted spirituality of contemporary America. Why do we leave one church for another? Why do we dabble in spiritual practice, creating a bricolage of these prayers and those disciplines? Because it suits us. The bricolaging suits us. The church with the vital youth group suits us better than the church near our house. We like old hymns better than praise choruses. We like liturgy better than Quiet Time, or vice versa.

But, Peterson reminds us, this show in which Christ plays is not about us. It is not done for our entertainment. It is played at the pleasure of God. Here he is simply reiterating an old Christian theme. As St. Ignatius of Loyola put it, the end of man is "to praise, reverence, and serve the Lord." Or, the Shorter Catechism: "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." (Note that the glorifying precedes the enjoying.) Booklist, in a favorable review of Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, describes Peterson as "No dogmatic catechist"—presumably, in the eyes of the Booklist reviewer, high praise. And indeed Peterson is "no dogmatic catechist" if a dogmatic catechist is one who is rigid, and mean. But he is a catechist indeed if we understand catechesis to be the process of forming Christians so that they might better be able to inhabit and proclaim the Gospel.

Peterson's second axiom dovetails with the first: "we cannot participate in God's work but then insist on doing it our own way. … We can't live a life more like Jesus by embracing a way of life less like Jesus." In that pithy phrase, many of the stereotypes about evangelicals (i.e., those who've reduced the entire Gospel to being buddies with Jesus) versus mainliners (those who've reduced the Gospel to mere social justice) seem to fall apart: life as one of Jesus' followers, it turns out, requires "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."

Peterson himself is a great exemplar of such congruence. And this book will doubtless inspire many people to reflect anew on the Christian story, on Christian living, and ask how can I, too, get in on this?

Lauren F. Winner is the author of Girl Meets God (Algonquin/Random House) and, most recently, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity (Brazos).

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