Recovering Contemplative Exegesis [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 7]

fullsizeoutput_ae1This post continues my reflections on Eugene Peterson’s book Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, which began as an attempt to honor Peterson’s influence upon me while also reconsidering the essential aspects of pastoral ministry that Peterson affirms. The book explores what he calls the holy trigonometry of pastoral ministry, built around three angles of ministry: prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. Now in the second of those angles on Scripture, Peterson began with his exhortation for pastors to return to hearing Scripture, not just reading it with our eyes. In this next chapter, Peterson turns to an essential tool of hearing with our eyes, which he calls “contemplative exegesis.”

Despite the unsurpassed academic training that American pastors receive, it looks very much as if no generation of pastors that we know about historically has been so embarrassingly ill-trained in the contemplation of Scripture….Exegesis, if it is to serve the church’s life and be congruent with the pastor’s calling, must be contemplative exegesis (109).

What does this involve? Peterson offers two essential aspects of contemplative exegesis: hearing the orality of God’s voice in Scripture and receiving the word as vitally tied to the form in which it comes. The first of those two is “a realization that a word, any word, is originally and basically a phenomenon of sound, not print” (110). That God speaks to us reflects what we understand about language, that, quoting from Walter Ong, “a word ‘is the call of one interior through an exterior to another interior'” (111). God is communicating to us via Scripture from the interior depths of who He is through the exterior of words into the interior of who we are. The pastor as exegete must remember that Scripture is not just theology to be read but communication to be heard. “We read Scripture in order to listen again to the word of God spoken, and when we do, we hear him speak. Somehow or other these words live” (113). Peterson contrasts the basic orality of God’s communication in the Judeo-Christian worldview with the Greco-Roman emphasis upon visual images in theater and statuary. Given our increasingly image-laden society this contrast is perhaps more important than ever to recover.

Along with hearing the orality of God’s voice in Scripture, Peterson says that contemplative exegesis requires “receiving the words in the form in which they are given” (117). Here we find Peterson’s call to recover the narrative, or storied, nature of Scripture. Certainly we want to examine the language etymologies and individual pieces of communication with great depth and scholarly aptitude, but all of that important work must fit within a grasp of the over-arching story of God revealed in Scripture. Peterson writes:

The Bible is the story that is sound and developed. Here the language that God uses to reveal himself comes into story from that is most complete. When we listen to the word of God in Scripture, listening for what God is revealing out of himself, a story is shaped in our hearing; and the fact that it is story and not something else – systematic theology, moral instruction, wise sayings – has powerful implications for exegetical work. For just as words have a revealing quality to them, so stories have a shaping quality to them (119).

Note that last phrase about how stories have a shaping quality to them. Because of this, Peterson urges pastors as contemplative exegetes to hold onto the form of Scripture and the essential storied nature of the text that shapes us into beings held in the hands of God, the Divine Author. Building on the work of Northrop Frye, Peterson unfolds how the five basic characteristics of story are found throughout the Scripture, as well as specifically within both Old and New Testaments:

  1. There is a beginning and an ending.
  2. A catastrophe has occurred.
  3. Salvation is plotted.
  4. Characters develop.
  5. Everything has significance.

The Christian Scripture is unique in this way, and we do not want to miss that. Pastors have to respect and pay attention to this story of God written in Scripture, allowing it to shape the way that we handle Scripture, including our preaching. If we miss the overall context of the story of God, much of what we read in Scripture will not make sense, or at least not the sort of sense it was meant to make. As many say in the work of interpretation: context is king.

Here is one last statement from Peterson which summarizes this chapter:

Contemplative exegesis, then, involves these two matters: an openness to words that reveal and a submission to words that shape. Words are double-dimensioned: they carry meaning from their source, and they carry influence to their destination. All words do this in one way or another. God’s decision to use words as a means for revealing himself and for shaping us means that we must pay attention both to what he says and to how he says it (126).

[This post continues my reflections on Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, which began here. You can read all the posts here.]

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