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Craig Mattson

The Jesus Diet

Eugene Peterson's "conversations in spiritual theology."

Here's a story I'm not proud of. Once, in an effort to teach Marshall McLuhan's concept of integral awareness in my communication theory class, I put up a big-screen version of a Magic Eye photo.1 It was a faux sylvan scene, lots of trees and ferns and tulips and—if you scrunched your eyes and looked at it sideways—a 3-d recycling symbol. Some of my students saw it right away. I knew what they were seeing, because the website where I'd found the picture let me click the image into the foreground. But—and here's the embarrassing part—I couldn't make out the image.

Eugene Peterson is enough of a reader of Walter Ong to know that our Western ocular habits break things down—hence my seeing nothing but tulip petals and fern fronds. Peterson is also a reader of Albert Borgmann, whose books question whether my students' technological adeptness orients them for a life well-lived. These two concerns—how we read and how we live—inform Peterson's second and third "conversations in spiritual theology," Eat This Book, and The Jesus Way, in a series that will comprise five volumes when complete.

The title of the first work draws on the prophet Isaiah's word hagah, "to refer to a lion growling over his prey the way [a] dog worried a bone." In Peterson's gloss,

Christians feed on Scripture. Holy Scripture nurtures the holy community as food nurtures the human body. Christians don't simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the word, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus' name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in company with the Son.

In other words, the Word of God digested as the bread of life becomes a part of us, or—to use McLuhan's imagery—an extension of ourselves. The virtue of this highly participatory understanding of reading is that it discourages our visualist tendency to set the text apart from ourselves in order to tear it apart. Peterson encourages instead a reading more like the dialogic exchanges of an oral culture: we listen to the Word and so take it into ourselves.

The food and tool imagery, however, can complicate each other, especially when biblical digestion is hampered by biblical instruments. The Bible, after all, comes to us as a technology, a printed book; and because we often use tools for the sake of mastery, it's easy to go wrong with this particular tool, too. "We pick up a Bible," says Peterson, "and find that we have God's word in our hands, our hands." It may be hard to know exactly what McLuhan meant by saying that the medium is the message, but it's clear what Peterson means: we too often make a mess of this medium.

I guess the first time I noticed the Bible as a tool in my hands was when my version developed, shall we say, compatibility issues. In our church, folks have many different kinds of study Bibles, but two in particular are popular: "The Spirit of the Reformation Bible" with the New International Version or "The Reformation Study Bible" with the English Standard Version. My wife has one, and I the other. You'd think ours would be a happy marriage. But we keep catching ourselves wishing that the more than 60,000 study helps of the one could be put with the souped-up translation of the other. The just shall live by interface.

Alas, this gadget-mindedness inclines us to treat grammar, meaning, narrative, hermeneutics as devices for extracting "biblical principles." Eat This Book counters this serious-minded technologism with a great deal of disarming storytelling—so much so that the reader begins to see that, for Peterson, narrative and doesn't have a point; it is the point. Gradually, we find our bearings in his narrative style, listen to his confessional voice, follow him as he circles back to gather up an earlier plotline. As we learn the criteria that his aesthetic discourse presents us with—plot and character, cohesiveness and plausibility, connotation and irony2—we begin to realize that Peterson is mentoring us in the practices that make up the second part of this book: reading as an act of hearing, meditating as a gestalt-like apprehension of the biblical story, prayer as response to the always prior word of God, and contemplation as living out this word.

When it comes to life in and with the Scriptures, insists Peterson, you are not in control. This diminishes the techno-angst so familiar to consumers of communication technology: is there a better, faster, more adaptable device for doing what I want to do? The better my wiring, the greater my worrying.3 Instead of making tools which in turn make us, Peterson calls us to consider how we take up with the medium of divine revelation. It may well be that the medium isn't so much the message as it is, as Neil Postman puts it, the metaphor. Just as a metaphor constructs our attitudes toward people and things, so the way we take up with biblical language shapes our integral awareness of the world that Scripture bears on, the world of the Father's creating, the Son's redeeming, and the Spirit's gathering.

Which brings us to Peterson's metaphoric exploration of The Jesus Way. We tend to forget that "Way" is itself a metaphor—what rhetoricians would call a "buried metaphor." We'd actually prefer (as the disciples did) for Jesus to be more literal with us, to offer us a broader band to divine data. But by describing himself as a kind of medium, Jesus confronts us with different sorts of questions than our catechisms have historically asked—questions not so much of definition as of direction. Not (as Peterson hastens to add) that defining the truth is unimportant, only that all too often in our deliberations "Jesus as truth gets far more attention than Jesus as the way." The result? Too many Christians acting like Flannery O'Connor's Hazel Motes, the founder of the Church of Christ Without Christ. We want the message without the medium; we want immediate connection with the divine. But as Peterson's latest book makes clear, we can't avoid mediation. We'll always be using some sort of means, following some sort of way. So, to get us back on the Jesus Way, Peterson traces the early steps along this path, following Old Testament wayfarers such as Abraham on the road to Moriah, Moses delivering sermons, David praying his way through his own imperfection, Elijah eating well on the banks of the Cherith, Isaiah clapping his hand to his mouth before the dangerous beauty of holiness. These stories clear places for spiritual theology—heeding the creational, practicing the sacrificial, avoiding the managerial, honoring the personal.

I use the term "places" advisedly. It's an old rhetorical term for topics, or topoi—the scattered places in which one might open a conversation. This mode of communicating has signal weaknesses: a disregard for logical rigor, a habit of meandering, a contempt for procedure. But the great virtue of topical thinking and speaking is that it requires close acquaintance with one's hearers. What guides Peterson's placement of his points is not a logically rigorous schema but rather a persistent attention to North American character. Take, for example, the last part of The Jesus Way which examines three bad alternatives to following Jesus: the imperialism of Herod, the privilege and power of Caiaphas, the propagandizing of Josephus. Nasty conditions, all, and no mistake. But disconcertingly, Peterson sees subtler problems emerging in pious responses to these problems. So he turns his attention to the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Zealots, whose responses to the aforementioned cultural deformations were at once deeply thoughtful and deeply flawed. I, for one, feel as if I've been had by these critiques, both coming and going. But I have to admit that Peterson's triangulation gives sure footholds along the Jesus Way.

Peterson's writing, winsome and substantial as it is, can give the reader pause, especially when his gift for amplification verges on redundancy. He is also so artful a communicator that his books can veil the real difficulties of theological communication—difficulties which, for all his misgivings about propositionalizing the faith, can make systematic doctrinal statements pastorally helpful. In any case, these well-plotted, richly metaphoric books have tapped into an aesthetic moment in our public culture. For the present anyway, the rigors of logical rationality and the fervor of critical theory have been largely displaced by performance-oriented discourse that, at its best, summons us to aesthetic participation. Of course, as Postman and others have taught us, there's a great deal to bemoan in this cultural moment: the demise of eloquence in civic life, the worship of amusement, the addiction to buying stuff, the blurring of on-and-off-screen realities. As Peterson himself warns, Caveat lector. Let the reader beware: our aesthetic tendencies, particularly our habits of self-preoccupation, can make the Bible indigestible. Perhaps we could say that The Jesus Way extends a similar warning: Caveat viator. Let the traveler be wary.  Many of today's available ways circle inwards on the self.

But both these volumes correct for our tendencies towards concentric narcissism. The last section of Eat This Book describes how The Message emerged "in the company of translators"—not as a one-man show, but as a communal effort in the long Christian tradition of colloquial translation and by means of the help of parish readers holding Styrofoam cups of coffee grown cold. The Jesus Way (and indeed all of Peterson's books) is wont to refer to a given author as "one of our best storytellers" or "one of our canniest poets," in order to help us be grateful for the company we keep. His annotated bibliographies in the book's appendices thicken this good fellowship. Being in community can be uncomfortable. Sometimes as we stare at Scripture we find ourselves wishing for a cyber tab to double-click and download divine data. But by beckoning us to listen to Holy Scripture in the presence of Holy Community and Holy Trinity, Peterson puts us in the best possible company.

Craig Mattson is associate professor of Communication Arts at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.

1. For a readily accessible definition of integral awareness (and my own source for understanding it) see Em Griffin's fine online article, "McLuhan's Chapter," at www.afirstlook.com/main.cfm

2. I am grateful to my colleague Virginia LaGrand for conversations about the criteria that come to the fore in aesthetic discourse, as opposed to the criteria characteristic of theoretical and practical discourses.

3. John Durham Peters develops this insight in his fine book Speaking into the Air (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1999). The possibility of instantaneous communication harries us with the never-fulfilled guarantee of fast, frictionless, fleshless communication.

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