Eugene Peterson on Spirituality

I always gain some insight when I read Eugene Peterson, the pastor scholar who created The Message, a fresh contemporary paraphrase of the Bible. Peterson’s own immersion in the Biblical texts makes him refreshingly immune to the seductions of the culture, and I find him telling hard and graceful truths that both evangelicals and mainliners seldom hear because of their mutual commitment to the fratricidal Christian culture wars. Peterson is not ashamed to call himself an evangelical, yet he served as pastor to a mainline Presbyterian Church for many years. In a 2005 interview with Mark Galli for Christianity Today (“Spirituality for all the Wrong Reasons”), Peterson challenges the American tendency to see spirituality chiefly in terms of personal growth and relational intimacy.

Galli queried him on this: “Yet evangelicals rightly tell people they can have a ‘personal relationship with God.’ That suggests a certain type of spiritual intimacy.”

Peterson responded: “All these words get so screwed up in our society. If intimacy means being open and honest and authentic, so I don’t have veils, or I don’t have to be defensive or in denial of who I am, that’s wonderful. But in our culture, intimacy usually has sexual connotations, with some kind of completion. So I want intimacy because I want more out of life. Very seldom does it have the sense of sacrifice or giving or being vulnerable. Those are two different ways of being intimate. And in our American vocabulary intimacy usually has to do with getting something from the other. That just screws the whole thing up. It’s very dangerous to use the language of the culture to interpret the gospel. Our vocabulary has to be chastened and tested by revelation, by the Scriptures. We’ve got a pretty good vocabulary and syntax, and we’d better start paying attention to it because the way we grab words here and there to appeal to unbelievers is not very good.”

I’ve been watching Mad Men, a TV show about Madison Avenue advertising men in 1960. It is a very cynical show, but captures some of the manufactured quality of American culture, which relies on superficial images to sell products. Part of the climate for this to be effective is what might be called historical amnesia for what has come before. It is always change that is sold (even, perhaps especially, in politics). As Peterson wisely points out, the church has “a pretty good vocabulary and syntax” rooted in Scripture and long generations of rich tradition. Sadly, we in the church too often jettison this grammar for the grammar of the culture, which is typically ephemeral.

I think that one of the reasons Martin Luther King was so compelling was the way he employed the sacred vocabulary during the civil rights movement to speak to a great public moral issue. Folks in the black churches in America were acquainted with this vocabulary, because it had been preserved in their churches. But suddenly it spoke to us all with great power.

We have rich traditions of spirituality in the church, but we tend to ignore them and look elsewhere for wisdom about it, often to a faux Eastern spirituality made for America. What Peterson articulates so well is that when spirituality becomes unmoored from the grammar of faith it becomes vacuous, just another consumer product sold to us to enhance our quality of life. As he puts it: “It’s very dangerous to use the language of the culture to interpret the gospel.”

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