The Pastor as Guide on the Spiritual Quest [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 8]

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.

This is the third and final post on the second of those angles, Scripture, which began with Peterson’s exhortation for pastors to return to hearing Scripture and continued with his call to contemplative exegesis. This next chapter, chapter six entitled “Gaza Notes,” was very powerful for me personally, as Peterson focuses on the hermeneutical work of the pastor bringing Scripture to life for people. He starts into the chapter with an extended reflection on Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40, particularly looking at the questions between the two:

  • “Do you understand what you are reading?” (8:30)
  • “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” (8:31)
  • “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” (8:34)
  • “What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” (8:36)

Essential to this is Peterson’s emphasis that good exegesis – which brings meaning out of the text – must be augmented by good guidance – leading a person in the way of the text.

Pastoral-biblical hermeneutics presupposes exegesis but involves more. The African invites Philip into the chariot to accompany him as his guide….Philip has to make a choice: will he stand alongside the chariot, providing information and answering questions about Scripture, exegetical work that comes easily for him, or will he involve himself in a spiritual quest with this stranger? (128).

This brings us into the essence of how Peterson applies Acts 8 to the ministry of pastors: we must become guides on the pathways of interpretation, walking alongside of and entering into the lives of those before us. The challenge of this is the perceived distance between the world around us and the world of Scripture.

Reading Scripture involves a dizzying reorientation of our culture-conditioned and job-oriented assumptions and procedures…Scripture calls into question the domesticated accommodations we are busily arranging for the gospel. The crisis into which the act of reading Scripture brings us does not usually mean emotional intensity or dramatic turn-about, but rather the solemn awareness, repeated as often as daily, that the world of reality to which we have vowed ourselves in belief and vocation is a divinely constituted world in which God calls upon us; it is not a humanly constituted world in which we, when we feel like it, call upon God (132).

And with this, Peterson launches into a portion of the book that moved me so deeply that I actually had tears in my eyes as I read it aloud with my wife, Kelly. On pages 133-139, he calls pastors to take a different way in their preaching and handling of Scripture; a way set apart from “breezy familiarity” (132), “abstraction” (134), or “distilling truths from Scripture” (135). All those tendencies are hallmarks “of the gnostic, for whom matter is evil and history inconvenient.” This is, in my opinion, the most common approach to preaching in North American Christianity today. It is something I have tried to resist in my preaching, but have at times felt like a wild man in the wilderness when everyone else is trying to “preach one main point” or “serve up the principles of the text.” Peterson continues, highlighting the temptation to become a gnostic purveyor of principles instead of a steady guide through the jagged terrain of Scripture:

In the early Christian centuries the gnostic program was to dump the entire Hebrew Scriptures and disembowel the Gospels. The parts of St. Paul that talked theology they liked pretty well. What they proposed instead can be read in the documents discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1946: Jesus as guru, safely distanced from the common and profane, serenely uttering eternal truths. This is tea-room religion where the ‘women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’ (T. S. Eliot)” (136).

It is in paragraphs like these that Peterson’s prophetic edge comes forth. It is an edge that is so painfully necessary in our day that it felt both painful and liberating to read. That prophetic edge strikes, to borrow a quote from Franz Kafka that he uses earlier in the chapter, like “an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us” (133).

To close out the chapter, Peterson retells Walker Percy’s parable from The Message in the Bottle about longing, communication, and meaning in a way that connects with life in the church and the ministry of the pastor with the Scriptures. I will not retell it entirely here, although it is worth the read, but let me share the final words:

Most mornings on the island on many of its beaches there are people walking, wonderingly attentive, looking for bottles with a message in them. On Sunday mornings they gather on some assigned beaches and read to each other what has been collected over the years. A lot of people on the island have yet to figure out what all the fuss is about (145).

[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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