Over the past several weeks, I have been reflecting on Eugene Peterson’s book Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. I am doing this in part as a way to honor the numerous ways that Peterson shaped my approach to pastoral ministry, but also as an attempt to reconsider – and perhaps recover – the essential aspects of pastoral ministry that Peterson holds up before us.
With the second part of the book, Peterson explores what he calls the second angle of the holy trigonometry of pastoral ministry: Scripture. He launches into the first chapter within this section with his characteristic intensity:
It is an immense irony when the very practice of our work results in abandoning our work. In the course of doing our work we leave our work. But in reading, teaching, and preaching the Scriptures it happens: we cease to listen to the Scriptures and thereby undermine the intent of heaving Scripture in the first place (87).
This, then, is the central thrust of chapter four of the book: we must release our control over the Scripture text as readers and recover the ability to listen to God in Scripture again. But how do we do this when Scripture is something we read with our eyes, not our ears? Peterson suggests we remember three things. The first is that we recognize that ‘remarkable invention’ of movable type by Gutenberg has simultaneously made Scripture more accessible to us and also increasingly made Scripture reading an individualized experience. The second is to understand how modern education has shaped us through print books into acquirers of disembodied information, often eliminating the relationality present in oral cultures. The third thing we must remember is that our modern culture has transformed us into consumers of goods, which has led us to view everything as a transaction of goods for services.
All three of these realities shape the way we often approach Scripture. Peterson asserts:
These three powerful, hard-to-detect influences operate quietly behind our backs and subvert the very nature of Scripture, which is to provide a means for listening to the word of God (99).
To escape from this cultural captivity, we must re-approach the fourfold sequence of Scripture’s integrity: “speaking, writing, reading, listening” (99). Books connect listeners with speakers from all times and places through the process of writing and reading. However, in a culture that often puts the emphasis upon the middle two elements of writing and reading, we need to recover the radical relationality that must exist in Scripture between the God who speaks and the us who listens.
What is the key to this? Leaning into Psalm 40:6 in the Revised Standard Version – “ears thou hast dug for me” – Peterson says the key is letting God turn our eyes into ears. We have to recover the listening necessary as our eyes scour the pages of Scripture.
The act of reading becomes an act of listening. What was written down is revoiced….No longer is God’s word merely written; it is voiced. The ear takes over from the eye and involves the heart (102).
And so, pastors must recover the ability to hear with their eyes, while engaging their hearts in the approach to Scripture. We must not read informationally but transformationally, and that transformation comes first through our sense being reoriented and reengaged in our approach to the word of God. When we begin to do this as pastors, we can help our congregations do the same. In the midst of that engagement, the words of Jesus again loom large in our imagination – and our ears – with great depth:
He who has ears to hear, let him hear (Mark 4:9).
[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.]