A Word of Thanks for Eugene Peterson

Yesterday one of the dearest saints of our era stepped into the Long Hello. Eugene Peterson, a pastor, teacher, theologian, and writer died after a long illness. Here’s the story from Christianity Today. It draws on a beautiful account by the Peterson family, which reads, in part:

Among his final words were, ‘Let’s go.’ And his joy: my, oh my; the man remained joyful right up to his blessed end, smiling frequently. In such moments it’s best for all mortal flesh to keep silence. But if you have to say something say this: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy.’”

Yes. Holy, Holy, Holy. But also, I want to say a few words about what Eugene Peterson’s work has meant to me.

In 2002 I only knew Eugene Peterson as the author of The Message, an “idiomatic translation” of the Bible that I felt pretty ambivalent about (I’ve since warmed up to it, mostly because I have come to trust Eugene Peterson’s wisdom, good sense, and good heart). I had quit my job and was a little vague on what I was going to do next when my friend Tim Filston gave me a set of cassette tapes containing a series of sermons Eugene Peterson had preached on the life of David. (These sermons became the basis of his book, Leap Over a Wall.) I don’t have any idea why Tim gave me those sermons or what he expected me to get out of them.

I was visiting Orlando at the time; for a few days, I spent my mornings listening to Eugene Peterson and my afternoons canoeing in various swamps and rivers in Central Florida. Between the alligators and the swamp birds and the turtles and the way Eugene Peterson opened up those old stories to me, something big shook loose in my imagination. After years of mostly just talking about writing, I felt like I was going to bust if I didn’t actually write something down. I went to an Einstein Brothers’ bagel shop in Orlando and outlined the whole Wilderking Trilogy in one sitting. I spent the rest of 2002 writing The Bark of the Bog Owl, and the next two years writing the other two books of the trilogy.

When I heard yesterday that Eugene Peterson had died, I pulled down Leap Over a Wall, the book that was based on those sermons. I don’t know how many times I read through that book as I wrote the Wilderking stories, but it was a lot. I have also loved Peterson’s more well-known books, especially A Long Obedience in the Same Direction and Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, but Leap Over a Wall was my gateway into his work, so it has always has a special place in my imagination. Still, in looking back through the book, I was astonished to see how much I owed—as a writer, as a Christian, as a human being—to Eugene Peterson’s way of talking about story, and the larger story we all live in.

“The reason that story is so basic to us,” he wrote, “is that life itself has a narrative shape—a beginning and end, plot and characters, conflict and resolution.” He continues,

Life isn’t an accumulation of abstractions such as love and truth, sin and salvation, atonement and holiness; life is the realization of details that all connect organically, personally, specifically: names and fingerprints, street numbers and local weather, lamb for supper and a flat tire in the rain. God reveals himself to us not in a metaphysical formulation or a cosmic fireworks display, but in the kind of stories that we use to tell our children who they are and ho to grow up as human beings, tell our friends who we are and what it’s like to be human. Story is the most adequate way we have of accounting for our lives…

Forgive the long quotations, but I can’t seem to stop:

Somewhere along the way, most of us pick up bad habits of extracting from the Bible what we pretentiously call “spiritual principles,” or “moral guidelines,” or “theological truths,” and then corseting ourselves in them in order to force a godly shape on our lives. That’s a mighty uncomfortable way to go about improving our condition. And it’s not the gospel way. Story is the gospel way.

And finally,

Story isn’t imposted on our lives; it invites us into its life. As we enter and imaginatively participate, we find ourselves in a more spacious, freer, and more coherent world….Story is the primary means we have for learning what the world is, and what it means to be a human being in it. No wonder that from the time we acquire the mere rudiments of language, we demand stories.

Yes and amen. These are truths that I have internalized so fully, that have shaped my thinking and writing and teaching so thoroughly, that I had mostly forgotten who taught them to me. I have nothing to add to the reputation of a man who, after all, has gone from glory unto glory. But it’s always a good thing to register one’s gratitude.

The Creative Cave Man

How did it come to be a foregone conclusion that cave men spent their days clubbing one another and dragging women around by the hair? As GK Chesterton remarked, “I have never happened to come upon the evidence for this idea; and I do not know on what primitive diaries or prehistoric divorce-reports it is founded.” 

In truth, cave men and women left precious little documentary evidence to show what they were doing in their caves. The documentary evidence they did leave, however, reveals that, whatever else early people might have been, they were definitely artists. They took ochre or charcoal in hand and made things like these:

 

Reflecting on the beautiful cave paintings of Lascaux, Chesterton writes, 

They were drawings or paintings of animals; and they were drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist. Under whatever archaic limitations, they showed that love of the long sweeping line or the long wavering line which any man who has ever drawn or tried to draw will recognize…They showed the experimental and adventurous spirit of the artist, the spirit that does not avoid but attempts difficult things; as where the draughtsman has represented the action of the stag when he swings his head clear round and noses toward his tail, an action familiar enough in the horse…In this and twenty other details it is clear that the artist had watched animals with a certain interest and presumably a certain pleasure. In that sense it would seem that he was not only an artist but a naturalist; the sort of naturalist who is really natural. (from The Everlasting Man)

For as long as there have been people, we have had the urge to represent the world around us, in pictures or words or music or with pipe cleaners, if that’s what we have on hand.

I mention these things because I keep running into people who fritter away psychic energy wondering if they are sufficiently creative or talented–energy that would be better spent writing or making music or making friends or cooking or painting or almost anything, really, rather than the kind of navel-gazing that curves us inward rather than outward toward a world that is well worth our attention. 

Creativity isn’t the special province of a chosen few. There is no creative class. True, you can lose touch with your creativity–people do it all the time–but creativity is your birthright. 

I’ll have more to say on this topic next week. Meanwhile, I am happy to report that after a couple of years’ hiatus, The Molehill, the literary annual of the Rabbit Room, is back. Volume 5 releases July 9. Here’s an overview by Pete Peterson, the editor (you can also pre-order from a link on that page). I think you’re going to like this volume.

“Let Us Not Mock God with Metaphor”

As a writer, I am interested in how metaphor works. I am also interested in metaphor because I am a Christian. People of faith have to get comfortable with figurative language: Christians speak of Jesus as the Lamb of God, but we also know that Jesus was a man, not a lamb. And some of the fiercest debates among Christians orbit around questions of metaphor. When Jesus broke the bread and said “This is my body,” to what extent was He speaking metaphorically? To what extent is the priest or the pastor speaking metaphorically when he holds up the Host or the bread and says “This is the body of Christ, broken for you?” (The Latin Hoc est corpus meum, by the way, is the origin of the phrase hocus pocus).

I’m writing this on Easter weekend, and I’ve been listening to my friend Andrew Peterson’s newly released record, Resurrection Letters, Volume 1 (a record a commend to you as enthusiastically as I know how to commend anything). Andrew’s poetry and music have gotten me thinking about metaphor. The first track on the record, “His Heart Beats,” is about the moment when Jesus came back to life in His tomb (indeed, all the tracks on the record are about the Resurrection, both His and ours). The song contains these lines that I can’t stop thinking about: 

His heart beats.
Now everything has changed.
Because the blood that bought us peace with God
Is racing through His veins.

Here’s the thing: for all my interest in metaphor, both as a writer and a Christian, the central truths of the Christian faith are truths that cannot be metaphorical. Christ was dead. Christ was risen. Christ will come again. Those are either literal truths or they aren’t truths at all.  

In the end, metaphorical language isn’t much use to us unless it points to a truth that isn’t metaphorical, a reality that goes beyond language. 

I will leave you with “Seven Stanzas for Easter,” a poem from John Updike that I return to every Easter weekend:

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

Happy Easter. 

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