A God of Words?

I was visiting a church at which pentecostal practices were gaining traction, bringing no small controversy with them. “If these new movements conflict with scripture,” declared the pastor, “we will choose scripture every time.” It was unclear just what perceived threat the charismata posed to the church’s biblicist orthodoxy.

Eugene Peterson doesn’t address holy laughter or slayings in the spirit in Eat This Book. But he does express an anxiety that any spirituality not based primarily in language will weaken Christians’ commitment to the Bible. This attitude distracts from what is primarily a solid, accessible study of biblical reading.

The book is really three books crammed into one. Peterson details an approach to reading scripture for true nourishment and formation—like John and the angel’s scroll, not just reading but consuming the text—rather than the validation of particular doctrines. Simultaneously, he establishes a secondary, very different thesis—that the sort of spiritual reading he advocates is in fact the proper foundation for any expression of Christian spirituality. Later, Peterson turns abruptly to the topic of biblical translation, culminating in a compelling (if tangential) look at the making of his excellent and hugely popular colloquial-English paraphrase, The Message.

Peterson’s starting point is his sense that “there is an enormous interest these days in the soul … but there is not a corresponding revival of interest in our Holy Scriptures.” He makes a strong case for such a revival, arguing that the Bible offers a continuous narrative in which we are privileged to participate. Drawing heavily from Karl Barth, Peterson insists that we must not apply scripture to our own lives and circumstances but instead acknowledge that the Bible demands we engage reality on terms not our own.

We would do well to take seriously his warning against “sanding off the rough edges” of the Bible “so that it slips into our ways of thinking more easily.” Religious leaders of various sympathies are often guilty of this, as are politicians, pundits, and garden-variety sinners. Also very wise is Peterson’s observation that all spiritual disciplines are rightly accompanied by ever deeper and more careful attention to scripture. And one result of Peterson’s commitment to scripture as the only foundation for all spiritual practice is one of the most helpful contemporary treatments of lectio divina that I’ve seen.

BUT THIS SAME commitment also motivates Peterson to explicitly reject mystical and ascetic traditions. He even asserts that the church itself has rejected such movements, a questionable claim that demands further explanation, although Peterson’s condescending tone toward visionary and ecstatic mysticism—“heightened emotional states are very attractive, particularly to adolescents”—does recall some of the gentler moments at the heresy trial of St. Joan.

Spiritual virtuosos aside, what does revelation based fundamentally in the reading and hearing of texts mean to the blind or deaf? To illiterate people, or those with linguistic disabilities? Can music and visual art be essentially Christian, or merely programmatically scriptural? Must sensory experience of God’s presence in nature always be mediated by the psalms or Isaiah? Do highly intuitive people pursue spiritual formation crippled by a tough learning curve?

It’s reasonable for Peterson to limit this book’s purview to the Bible, especially since it’s only one of his five-volume series on Christian theology and spirituality. But it presents scripture and language not as one crucial component of spirituality but as the exclusive lens through which we must understand prayer, revelation, experience, liturgy, and community.

Peterson characterizes spirituality not tied closely to exegesis as “self-indulgent” and resulting in “prayer [that] ends up limping along in sighs and stutters.” Or “wordless sighs” and “aching groans”—Paul’s words (from The Message) for the holy substance of spirit-led prayer when words fail or escape us. Peterson’s insistence that “language is the primary way in which God works” places him among so many other talented and devoted champions of scripture who often have more invested in the supremacy of language than do the very texts they seek to promote.

Steve Thorngate is editorial assistant at Sojourners.

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