Friday, June 02, 2006

Eat This Book -- A Review of Eugene Peterson's book

Eat This Book -- A Conversation in the Art of Spirital Reading by Eugene H. Peterson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006)

A Review by Richard Kew

The other day I heard of a large congregation in a denomination whose theology and style mean it presents itself as far more conservative and orthodox than my own. Indeed, they make great play of their willingness to place themselves under the authority of Scripture. The pastor of this congregation was discovered to have been sexually involved with a female staff person for a considerable time. When the matter came before the staff and the board there was a strong move to retain that pastor's services before it was headed off by a vigilant staff person who pointed out that this man had contravened the very fundamentals of Christian morality.

The point of this story is that it does not matter where we look today, the churches are being shaped more and more by the prevailing culture than by the mind of the God who called them into being. It is voices like that of Eugene Peterson who remind us that if we are the People of God then we cannot allow ourselves to be formed by the culture, we must put ourselves in the place where we are formed by God -- which means rediscovering how to read, nourish, and form ourselves through our drenching in God's Word. He says, "An enormous amount of damage is done in the name of Christian living by bad Bible reading" (Page 82).

Eat This Book is a slender volume by Peterson standards, a mere 180 pages, but it took me two months to get through it. Part of the reason for this was that I did not have the time to sit down and read it with a lot of continuity, but part of the reason was that even if I had had such time, I would not have been able to hurry along because there is too much in here to rush over.

I consider Eugene Peterson as one of my mentors. I joke that I knew him before he was famous, which is true. Back then I was drawn to seek his friendship and counsel because I perceived a person who (to use a quote from John Updike that he uses early in this book) had discovered "that truth is holy, and truth-telling a noble and useful profession" (Page 8). Eugene Peterson is a truth-teller, par excellence, someone who had been captured by the truth, was determined to follow it wherever it might lead, someone who I felt worth learning from and make a model for my life.

This book is the second of a series in pastoral theology, and is all about what it means to be in the business of the Truth. For Peterson this is about getting on with what Austin Farrer calls "the forbidding discipline of spiritual reading," which is the text being used to form our souls. The task is forbidding "because it requires that we read with our entire life, not just employing the synapses of our brain. Fordigging because of the endless dodges we devise in avoiding the risk of faith in God. Forbidding because of our restless inventiveness in using whatever knowledge of 'spirituality' we acquire to set up ourselves as gods..." (Pages 9-10).

This gives a flavor of the book. This volume not for the fainthearted. It is not for those who are interested in fashionable spirituality or culturally acceptable and ecclesiastically respectable religiosity. This book is about absorbing the Book so that the one who reads might run. "Reading is an immense gift, but only if the words are assumulated, taken into the soul -- eaten, chewed, gnawed, received in unhurried delight" (Page 11).

The last several paragraphs I have just looked at the introduction to Eat This Book, and it took me several days get beyond them into the rest of his carefully crafted case. He begins that case with these words: "The Christian Scriptures are the primary text for Christian spirituality. Christian spirituality is, in its entirety, rooted in and shaped by the scriptural text. We don't form our personal spiritual lives out of a random assemblage of favorite texts in combination with individual circumstancs; we are formed by the Holy Spirit in accordance with the text of Holy Scripture" (Page 15).

And so the stage is set for one of the most eloquent pleas I have ever encountered that the People of God have body, mind, and soul captured the the substance of the Word of God. This is a message that needs to be heard by chic and trendy Episcopalians, learned Presbyterians, arm-waving Pentecostals, miracle-obsessed Charismatics, Pope-loving Catholics, and every other believer wherever they are on the spectrum. Peterson does not accuse any of us of not being biblical, but he suggests in as winsome a way that there is a strong possibility that all of us have fallen short of what it means to delve into the heart of the living God who has revealed himself in this library of books that we call Holy Scripture.

I want to pull the Scriptures back from the margins, Peterson asserts, for that so often is the place to which the church and individual Christians have consigned it. It is only when we do this and digest the Book with the passion of the prophets of Jerusalem, Babylon, and Patmos, that we discover its words are like honey on our lips and in our stomachs. "Holy Scripture is something other than mere gossip about God, it must be internalized" (Page 20).

There has been a baffling array of offerings presented in the last generation or so and labelled as spirituality. The extraordinary thing is that when the culture calls something spiritual the churches jump onto its bandwagon. Eugene Peterson is not against spirituality, but he doesn't have a lot of time for the ersatz spiritualities of our age. Christian spirituality "means going against the cultural stream in which we are incessantly trivialized by the menial status of producers and performers, (and talking to clergy) constantly depersonalized behind the labels of our degrees and our salaries. But there is far more to us than our usefulness and our reputation, where we've been and who we know; there is the unique, irreproducible, eternal, image-of-God me" (Page 23).

This leads him on into some strong Trinitarian theology, for it is only by allowing ourselves through Scripture to be enveloped by the wholeness of GOd that we discover precisely what it means to be a follower of Jesus, the incarnate second person of that Trinity. So having plunged us into the nature of the Godhead, Peterson brings us back to the text of Scripture the place where the Triune One reveals himself, for if we are to discover God in these pages then we need to take what we find with the utmost seriousness.

It is Eugene Peterson's belief that every man and every woman is capable of entering into a fuller understanding of Creator and Redeemer by becoming a bible reader. The living God speaks to us through Scripture, he asserts, and as we seek to live out obediently what the Word says to us we find ourselves in the presence of that living God. He leans heavily on Calvin's assertion that all right knowledge of God is born of obedience.

Peterson also challenges us to careful exegesis of the text. This, he says, is neither small-minded nor is it pedantic. "Exegesis is the care we give to getting the words right. Exegesis is foundational to Christian spirituality. Foundations disappear from view as a building is constructed, but if the builders don't build a solid foundation, their building doesn't last for long" (Page 53). As we look at what has become of our own denomination and as we then look at the slipshod way that Scripture has been treated, it is hardly surprising that lacking an adequate foundation the building is toppling.

The first part of Peterson's works is a pretty demanding theological work out, but all of it is good stuff exceptionally written. I did not learn anything new, but I was asked in a fresh way to consider old truths that too readily get overlooked. After this theological work out Peterson becomes more practical, and provides in the second section the best presentation of the Lectio Divina that I have ever read.

"Lectio divina is the strenuous effort that the Christian community gives... to rehydrating the Scriptures so that they are capable of holding their own original force and shape in the heat of the day, maintaining their context long enough to get fused with or assimilated into our context, the world we inhabit, the clamor of voices in the daily weather and work in which we live" (Page 88).

Lectio Divina is a way of handling the Scriptures that abandons any attent to take control of the text, but to allow the text to take control of us. It is not a linear process but one that allows us to read and loop the words back into the moment-by-moment business of thinking and living. It is learning to listen to the Word that was first spoken and which we now encounter as written. I will not bore you with the details of Peterson's instruction about Lectio Divina and will allow you to read them for yourselves. However let me end my comments on the lectio with his final statement on the issue that "it is astonishing how many ways we manage to devise for using the Bible toi avoid a believing obedience, both personal and corporate, in receiving and following the Word made flesh" (Page 117).

The final section of the book is Peterson's own meditation on the history of biblical translation and his own experience of doing it as it grew out of his own ministry a number of years ago. The fruit of that work was The Message, a paraphrase that stands alongside J. B. Phillips' great paraphrase of an earlier generation.

What Eugene Peterson says at the end of the book in reflection on his own ministry is that "I wanted to gather a company of people together who read personally, not impersonally, who learned to read the Bible in order to live their true selves, not just get information that they could use to raise their standard of living. I wanted to counter the consumer attitude that uses the Bible as a way to gather religious data by which we can be our own gods, and then replace it with an attitude primed to listen to and obey God, to take us out of our preoccupations with ourselves into the spacious freedom in which God is working the world's salvation. I wanted to somehow recover that original tone, that prophetic and gospel 'voice' that stabs us awake to a beauty and hope that connects us with our real lives" (Page 176).

In short, what Eugene Peterson does here is give us an in-depth guide on eating this Book, the greatest of all Books, God's revealed Word.


John said...

Hi, My name is John from Melbourne Oz.

The trouble is the mind of western man has been entirely secularised and is fundamentally incapable of understanding and responding to the esoteric truth at the Heart of any Sacred Scripture, Christian or otherwise. See for instance The Purification of Doubt which is chapter one of this reference.


Also 2 related references

If The Heart Itself Is Heard



Anonymous said...

St. Paul, never the diplomate was blunt about what to do. 2nd. Corinthians 14

Anonymous said...

I love Eugene Peterson!
I read the Message sometimes and think to myself: This guy really gets it!! The gospel is really as simple as he explains it!

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"All my music is free."