by Pete Santucci
Though Eugene Peterson is now known as a writer, this wasn’t always the case. His first attempts at writing books only brought him frustration along with a string of rejection letters. In fact, because of this lack of traction, he told me he ghost wrote a book for a famous Christian figure. While he refused to let me know which book this was and for whom, he said I’d know both the title and the person. The experience disgusted him so much, he refused to go down that path again.
His discouragement reached a point where he considered giving up on writing completely, even though he’d begun to get articles published here and there. This crisis moment was essential to everything that came later. For in it, he determined he was a writer and he’d continue to write what was essential for him to write whether anyone published or read it. And not many people read the first few books he wrote at the time of their publication.
My first attempt at book writing was picked up on the first try but then dropped as the publisher went through some financial struggles. Eugene offered me cold comfort, saying, “That was much too easy! You need at least 20 rejections before getting a book published.” Years later, he explained what he meant in another personal conversation. “Success is orgasmic,” he said. “It just happened to me too late.” (And no, that’s not a typo.)
Eugene was intent on writing the books he needed to read. Although he was a notoriously voracious reader, rereading John Calvin’s Institutes annually for years and all of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (twice!), there was something missing. And if he couldn’t read it because it didn’t exist, then he’d write it.
It’s no surprise his autobiography is entitled The Pastor; his writing all stemmed from his vocation as a pastor. He wrote a handful of books about that pastoral vocation and other books emerged from his ministry as a pastor. Such was the case with The Message: that massive undertaking began with a small Bible study in the basement of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church.
His American context provided ample inspiration for these many books. That inspiration arose primarily from his struggle with that context. The books of the late twentieth century were suggesting pastors become therapists or activists or corporate CEOs. Meanwhile Americans were increasingly becoming consumerists, using God and church and Scripture to feed their wants and needs and feelings, which Eugene called the new anti-Trinity.
While he had taught seminary classes elsewhere, it was his 5.5 years of teaching at Regent College in Vancouver, BC, that gave him the opportunity to create a curriculum where he could hammer together his Spiritual Theology. Three decades of pastoral ministry and all the books and articles he’d been writing over those years were distilled into his Regent classes which then were reworked into his magnum opus: a five-volume Spiritual Theology published by Eerdmans.
I’ll briefly walk through each volume in the series. There are critical reviews published elsewhere, so I’ll focus on my own engagement with them and the “conversations” Eugene and I had about them — the word “conversation” being in the subtitle and the goal of each volume.
Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: a Conversation in Spiritual Theology
The first of these is the largest and most difficult of the five books, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. Before the book was published, Eugene called me up and asked me for a favor. He needed a pastor who was also a writer and a theologian to write a study guide for it and he thought I was just the one for the job. The pay was mediocre at best, but the opportunity to engage with Eugene and help others do so was impossible to pass up. His book was a solid 380 pages thick, but my study guide clocked in at 71 pages.
Where Calvin in his Institutes has four sections — creation, salvation, sanctification, church — in Christ Plays, Eugene has three, combining Calvin’s final two into one — creation, salvation, holy community. This works better with Eugene’s trinitarian approach, pairing Father with creation, Son with salvation, and Spirit with holy community. Though much of what he wrote had been worked out in his Biblical Spirituality class, he was continually frustrated by how poorly his lectures translated into chapters, leading him to write the book from scratch without the aid of his lecture notes.
The book title and overall concept for Christ Plays came from Eugene’s admiration of the poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins and primarily the two-stanza poem As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame. In the first stanza, Hopkins notes that all created things do what they were created to do, and it is glorious. As they do so, they declare themselves to be exactly what they are. In the second stanza, Hopkins turns his focus onto humanity, suggesting that we were created to look like Christ to God’s eye. For we are most ourselves when Christ emerges through us in our daily living. The poem ends with these words:
… Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading
The Bible is at the center of Christian spirituality and theology. As someone who excelled in his studies of biblical languages and ultimately offered the world his exceptionally human and accessible rendering of the Bible, The Message, Eugene valued the Scriptures highly and longed for people to engage with them. But what are the Scriptures and how do we read them? That question drives Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading.
Eugene is death on manipulative approaches to the Scriptures. Just as we use words to hide ourselves as much as to reveal ourselves and just as much to tell lies as to tell the truth, so the ways we use the Scriptures can keep us from God and enable us to lie about God. We need to let the Scriptures speak to us as God intends them to. We need to read personally, comprehensively, and relationally. The enemies to these three approaches is to read intellectually, practically, or inspirationally. These three enemies have us wielding the Scriptures as a tool instead of God using the Scriptures to form us.
In order to draw people into an on-going conversation with God through the Scriptures, Eugene offers his take on lectio divina. This “spiritual reading” as he names it in the book’s subtitle is a time-honored four-part method of Bible reading.
Lectio: God speaks and we listen. Our goal is to hear what God is actually saying, not what we want him to be saying.
Meditatio: God speaks and we listen, finding ourselves personally engaged. And so we move from the exegetical to the personal, no longer hearing God’s words being spoken generally but engagingly.
Oratio: God speaks and we listen, finding ourselves personally engaged and in need of responding in prayer. God doesn’t want us to simply listen. He desires a response, a real conversation.
Contemplatio: God speaks and we listen, finding ourselves personally engaged and in need of responding in prayerful living. This final phase can’t be reduced to a simple application. Eugene hated the word “application.” We apply bandaids to the exterior of our bodies. He was after something more interior and holistic here, a whole life of obedience and engagement and love that draws all of who we are and all of who God is into an on-going conversation and participation.
The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus is the Way
This was the “Ah ha!” book for me. I’d known Eugene for a dozen years, sat through as many classes as his teaching assistant, and read twice as many books by him. But it was as I wrote the study guide for The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way that I finally understood the simple genius that is Eugene Peterson. He’s all about adjectives.
Let me explain. Adjectives bend nouns and send them in different directions, just like adverbs bend and send verbs. A good adjective can send a noun in a wonderful, growing, expansive direction. But a bad adjective can kill it or make it a killer. Consider the noun “genius.” Someone can be a “creative genius” using her intellect to come up with a world-saving vaccine. Someone can be an “evil genius” of supervillain fame. Both share the same noun, but they are completely different realities. The adjectives are what divide the heroes from the villains.
Throughout his books, Eugene labored at rehabilitating the battered and bruised nouns that make up the Christian experience. We’re pretty well agreed on the Whats of the Christian life, the nouns. Eugene focuses in on the Hows, the adjectives. We don’t want to simply follow Jesus the Way, we want to follow the ways he is the Way. And so Eugene honed in on narrative examples of how some did this well, pulling from the Scriptures, and concluding with several examples of how not to do this.
Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers
Language and how we use it is central to Christian faith. Not only is the Bible — itself a picture-less book of pure text — foundational to our faith, but we express ourselves in prayers and sermons and conversations and witness — all of it word-based. The God who spoke the world into being continues to bring shape to our souls word by word.
With this in mind, Eugene honed in on language with the fourth installment in his Spiritual Theology, Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers. This wasn’t new territory for Eugene when he wrote the book, having explored language in depth in his book on praying the Psalms, Answering God. But this is no eccentric exercise, indulging a pet topic for Eugene. No, this is essential work done as battlefield surgery in a losing war. We live in an era of the “humiliation of the word” (to borrow Jacques Ellul’s book title), where advertisements, tweets, sound bites, and fake news are killing the words we use to proclaim the glory of God and to call people to discipleship.
If Spiritual Theology is to have any success at all in drawing us deeper into the life and love and work of God, we need to protect the language that creates the imagination for it. So Eugene dives into how Jesus uses words in the gospels, paying particular attention to the way he tells stories and prays.
Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ
We do a lot of good stuff as Christians and as Christian communities. We worship. We witness. We care for the vulnerable. We gather as community. And there are lots of helpful books and programs which feed our worship, mission, and community-building. But there is something essential that is often left untended: maturity. How do we grow up in Christ? A cursory glance at the state of the church in North American today shows the poverty of our discipleship.
Eugene’s final book of this five-volume series, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ, could be summed up in what Paul wrote about his own calling: “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:28-29). Eugene longed to “present everyone fully mature in Christ.”
Setting aside the tired terms “discipleship” and “spirituality,” Eugene borrows from Wendell Berry the term “practice resurrection” to describe what he’s after. It’s an awkward term. How can you practice something that requires death first? And how can you practice something that has to be done to you? It’s obvious we’re not going to get a technique or a formula with such a term. Because of this, there will be no gathering of information or mastering of skills, both of which are cultural obsessions of ours, both of which put us at the center and God on the sideline.
This doesn’t mean we don’t participate. We get in on what God is doing, but we do so as participants. God does all of the heavy lifting and we join him in what he’s doing. All of it. But again, we don’t do this alone. We do it in company with the God-created community of the church. Even though this book comes across as a one-way endeavor where Eugene writes and we read, he truly intended for it to be a “conversation” as the subtitle suggests. It is only as we engage in life-long conversation with God and the people of God that we grow up, maturing in Christ.
When Eugene entrusted me with the task of writing a study guide for this book (as I had done with the previous four volumes), his goal was that I set the table for such conversations to take place. He seemed to think I’d done so. I hope you’ll do so as well as you read and pray and talk with others about this comprehensive, all-of-life work Jesus and Spirit and Father are engaged in with each of us.
I hope these brief tastes of each of the five volumes have whet your appetite and that you dive into them with hunger and zest, enjoying conversation with fellow diners as you do so. These are five courses to a meal not to be sampled, but to be returned to again and again.
Peter Santucci has been a pastor, a journalist, a hospice and hospital chaplain, and a volleyball coach. He blogs at petesantucci.com and is the author of Everyday Psalms. He and his family live in Bend, Oregon, where he and his wife host retreats for ministry couples.
Eugene Peterson’s 5-volume Spiritual Theology Series is currently on pre-order only at Logos. Get your copy today at a fantastic price.