Some Writers I Just Can’t Ignore

James T. Keane, in a current America article titled “Wendell Berry: the cranky farmer, poet, and essayist you just can’t ignore,” asks this question:

“My reaction was a simple one: Did Wendell Berry just leap off the page and hit me over the head with a fencepost?”

Wendell Berry is one of those writers I can’t ignore. I recently read and reviewed his The Hidden Wound, is a profound essay on racism, written, not in 2018 but 50 years earlier in 1968. Berry seems to speak from somewhere else with a voice unlike other voices, and it got me to thinking who some of the other writers are who have spoken from somewhere else with a voice I cannot ignore. Here are some I came up with:

Marilynne Robinson. Her essays and novels, steeped in, of all things, Calvinism, challenge both modern scientism and our easy moral equivocation and dismissal of the relevance of God. I’m reading her lectures at Yale in 2010 right now, Absence of Mind.

C.S. Lewis. He brought his love and encyclopedic knowledge of old books and Christian theology to the questions of the day as well as in children’s literature in a way both timely and timeless.

Kristin Hannah. This is an author who keeps me awake at night, after I put her books down, with her strong female characters confronting personal and systemic inhumanity, often at the hands of men. They make me as a man want to fight against the wrongs done to subjugate women.

Eugene Peterson. I heard Peterson speak to the staff of the organization I work for after a hugely successful conference, warning of the dangers of believing too much in our success. He wrote trenchantly during his life on the calling of pastors, and how he saw many exchanging noble for ignoble work. He ought to be assigned reading for all our celebrity pastors.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I may not believe all he would say theologically, but I cannot ignore words that come out of resistance to totalitarianism and his experience of leading a Christian community of resistance.

Mary Oliver. I’ve only come to discover her poetry in the last few years, but her perception of the transcendent in the ordinary, the large issues of life in small incidents nudge me to be aware of the same.

Nicholas Wolterstorff. Wolterstorff is a philosopher who teaches at Yale. Whether writing about the death of a son, justice in South Africa, philosophy of education, or his defense of religious ideas in scholarly discussion, he brings head and heart, reason and passion together. Read his memoir In This World of Wonders and his “Advice to Those Who Would Be Christian Scholars.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. Reading his sermons and speeches is like a trumpet call. His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a powerful response to the moderate white pastors who counselled patience.

Fleming Rutledge. Anyone who would argue that women cannot preach or teach theology should read her work. Her The Crucifixion is the most significant theological work I have read in the past ten years. Three Hours is preached reflections on the seven last words of Christ. Advent is also quite good.

I don’t know about you, but in a world of amusement, distraction, and obliviousness, I need to be “hit over the head with a fencepost.” This is part of the company of writers who serve that function for me. These are writers who do not so much answer my questions, as question my answers. Who does that for you?

Review: A Burning in My Bones

A Burning in My Bones, Winn Collier. New York: WaterBrook, 2021.

Summary: The authorized biography of pastor-theologian and Bible translator Eugene Peterson.

He pastored a congregation for nearly thirty years. He preached thousands of sermons, wrote dozens of books, translated the Bible into vernacular English, welcomed hundreds, if not thousands into his and Jan’s home, including Bono. He never sought popularity or engaged in the polemics that roiled American evangelicalism. In the end, what mattered most was contemplating the wonders of God in the words of scripture and the beauty outside his Montana home, loving Jan and his children. That was Eugene Peterson.

I have roughly two feet of his books on my shelves. I cull many books. These remain. Why? Because, unlike many others, these seem to speak from a place beyond my generation. How did he come to write such works? Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson begins to give me some clues. Collier enjoyed access not only to Peterson during the last years of his life, but also to his papers. He is now the director of the Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination at Western Theological Seminary. He offers a rendering of Peterson’s life that probes the formative influences of his life, the decisions he came to about pastoral integrity in his own ministry, the continued quest for congruence in his life, and the beautiful soul he became, amid both his flaws and longings.

We begin with his Montana upbringing, his boyhood in the beautiful country, his Pentecostal preacher mother and distant butcher father. We learn of his running career at Seattle Pacific that eventually culminated in a Boston Marathon and the beginnings of his writing career. After an aborted effort to plant a Pentecostal church, he headed off to seminary at Biblical Seminary in New York, and really discovered scripture as a narrative in which we encounter the living God, not a sourcebook for talking points. Then on to Maryland, studies with William Albright, where he would not only encounter biblical languages and archaeology, but Jan Stubbs, who would become his wife.

It appeared Peterson was headed toward an academic career when he turned down the chance to study at Yale with Brevard Childs to begin a church in Bel Air, a suburb outside Baltimore. The next choices of pastoral integrity came as he dealt with the conflict between his biblically informed intuitions of the work of a pastor and how he was being taught to “run the damn church” as he expressed it in his frustrations that came to a head when he uttered these words in a session meeting. In the end, the elders agreed to run the church, while he prayed, studied scripture, and cared for souls–and finally began to take the time he needed to with Jan and his children.

Collier doesn’t engage in hagiography. He discusses the trouble Eric, Peterson’s eldest had with knowing his father’s love, a consequence of Peterson’s absence in his early childhood. Peterson saw glimpses of his own struggles with his father but struggled to heal this wound. Then we learn of an incident in Peterson’s late fifties when a relationship with a spiritual directee in his church became emotionally if not physically intimate. Jan recognized this with some of the hardest conversations in their marriage to follow. Peterson broke off the relationship. Even the best of marriages are flawed and tested, as this one was.

He had the wisdom to recognize when the good thing of his pastoral ministry was coming to an end, even as his passion for writing was growing. His growing restlessness led to his resignation in 1991 and the beginnings of what became The Message. Collier goes into Peterson’s growing conviction that a translation in vernacular English that captured the unvarnished unsanitized language of scripture. As he did so, he moved on to teach at Regent College. Collier describes his unconventional teaching style, the raspy voice, the long silences, and his growing notoriety.

Once more, congruence called, and the retreat to the family cabin they named Selah House that became a kind of monastery. As Peterson’s fame grew with the completion of The Message (along with controversy about the translation), Peterson felt and inward and upward call. It was a call to cherish Jan and family, while still welcoming many, including Bono who made their way to his door. More and more he felt he was getting ready to die.

There is beauty and pathos in this story. Contemplation of the lake and the mountains, a final camping trip, reflections on the Psalms, writing that slowly came to a trickle after his five books of spiritual theology. He suffered a fall and head injury from which he was never quite the same. His valedictory book, As Kingfishers Catch Fire was marred by the controversial end to his interview with Jonathan Merritt where he confessed some of his personal struggles with the issue of homosexuality and if approached as a pastor, that he would perform a same sex marriage, only to subsequently retract this statement. At this point, Peterson’s vascular dementia was already advancing and Collier’s assessment was that “Eugene should never have been doing interviews at all.”

His end came a few years later. It was a good end that I won’t spoil because Collier’s telling is so rich and poignant. At one point in the book, the observation came up that Peterson only had one sermon. I only heard Peterson speak once, and what he said was indeed congruent with his books. He spoke to InterVarsity’s national staff after one of our largest Urbana conventions. He warned of the danger of success and the temptations that come with it and the quiet path of integrity, the “long obedience in the same direction” for which he was known. Collier captures all of this and a life lived with that deep congruity of love for God that loved both words fitly spoken or written and the silence that allowed others to let down and become themselves. Even as was the case with the things Peterson said and wrote, I will carry this biography in my mind and my heart for a long time as a precious gift.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: As Kingfishers Catch Fire

Kingfishers

As Kingfishers Catch FireEugene H. Peterson. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2017.

Summary: A collection of 49 of Peterson’s sermons grouped into seven sections, focused on lives congruent with the teaching of scripture.

I’ve been a follower of the writing of Eugene Peterson since I heard him speak on the parables of Jesus after a very successful conference, where he warned us of the dangers that may come with success. He is a person who repeatedly has challenged me to look beyond the obvious, the “glittering images,” to the bedrock realities of keeping company with Jesus.

This is a kind of valedictory book, that Peterson has described as his last book, bringing together preaching over the course of his pastoral work into a collection of 49 of his sermons. He groups these is seven groups of seven organized around “preaching in the company of…Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul, and John of Patmos.” Each section is preceded by a brief introduction about the one being kept company with in that part.

A theme which ties this collection together in his mind is congruence, particularly between our faith as articulated in Holy Scripture, and the ways we live out that faith. Peterson explains this further in introducing the collection:

“The Christian life is the lifelong practice of attending to the details of congruence–congruence between ends and means, congruence between what we do and the way we do it, congruence between what is written in Scripture and our living out what is written, congruence between a ship and its prow, congruence between preaching and living, congruence between the sermon and what is lived in both preacher and congregation, the congruence of the Word made flesh in Jesus with what is lived in our flesh.”

I find it almost impossible to summarize all the good I found in this collection without writing a very long review. What is compelling in these sermons is the joining of thoughtful engagement with the biblical text, thoughtful reflection on life, and unforced connections between the two. One sermon that caught my attention was “Train Up a Child” from Proverbs 22:6. After observing that the word we translate as “train” literally means “to rub the gums of a newborn child with oil before it begins to suck its mother’s breast” (scripture is so earthy!), he discusses the implications of this warm, intimate act of helping a child get started right in life. He writes,

Some people have a box labeled ‘Sunday school,’ where training takes place for an hour every week. There is another box labeled for parents that is consulted occasionally when there is misbehavior. One of the most visible boxes these days is child psychology, which is fairly expensive, but at least you know the person working out of that box knows a lot more than you do, which relieves you of some of the responsibility.

“All these boxes are useful from time to time, but they have little to do with what is involved in the biblical proverb. The proverb doesn’t come from a box but out of a life lived. It has little to do with advice giving, counseling, or analyzing. Rather it is initiated through personal example and caring. It means that every time you engage in an act of faith in Christ, you are training another person. Every time you love another in obedience to Christ’s command, you are educating someone else. Every time you forgive someone because Christ forgave you, you are assisting materially in the Christian growth of that person. Every time you hope because Christ has promised his help, you are opening up new possibilities of growth in another person.”

Each sermon probably takes ten to fifteen minutes to read, but gives you plenty to reflect on for the next half hour, the next day, even the next week. Peterson writes at the beginning of the book his attempts to fit into his denominations expectations of him to motivate people to grow their church, to cast vision, and how this just didn’t fit his sense of pastoral calling. What we are given instead is transcripts of addresses of a pastor bringing out in plain language the meaning of texts, and considerations of what it means to live them out in everyday life. We are also given examples of how this may be done from Genesis to Revelation, from Moses to John of Patmos. These 49 sermons cover much of canonical scripture and begin to help us see how the Word of God written may become indeed, the Word of God for us.

This book has been caught up in controversy. At the time of its publication, Peterson gave what was meant to be a kind of “valedictory” interview, during which the interviewer, with his own agenda, pursued a line of questioning about Peterson’s views and pastoral practice around LGBT issues. After the article came out, Peterson, facing bookstores pulling his books, issued a “clarification.” In the end, no one was particularly happy. I question the interviewer’s judgment of pursuing his line of questioning in what was a kind of valedictory interview. I wish Peterson had responded differently or not at all, particularly because his answers and later clarifications might have discouraged people from discovering a treasure. I think it better that this book serve as his “valedictory address.” For me, it not only summed up his life and ministry, but modeled the skillful work of the diligent pastor in preaching week by week. We need more models like this.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Reading as a Spiritual Practice

Man reading

Man Reading, Vaino Hamalainen, 1897

 

I recently gave a seminar on reading as a spiritual practice, that is, that reading may be one of the disciplines that helps us pay attention to God, and grow in our relationship with God and to more thoughtfully live in God’s world. Now I know that not all who come across this post will share my faith perspective. That’s OK. Feel free to translate this in whatever way might be meaningful for you, or even just skip it. No harm, no foul. But I thought it might be helpful to share some of that material with a wider audience.

First of all, it is dangerous for me to write about this because my temptation may be to read and to love reading too much! Sometimes other spiritual practices might be better for me–silence for example, where I am not taking in information off a page; or service, where I get up off my duff and practice my faith with others. I would also say that while in one sense all my reading choices (I hope) are things I would be comfortable offering to God, not all the reading I do is a “spiritual discipline or practice.” Sometimes, I, like most everyone who reads, just likes to read for fun–a good mystery or baseball book.

O.K., enough for disclaimers! I thought I might share some of the influences in my life around reading as a spiritual practice, and then some ideas for our practice.

Influences:

  • I work for and came out of a ministry that teaches college students practices that might be called “the close reading of scripture” –observing themes, literary devices, context, what we called “the laws of composition” that taught me not only how to read scripture but made me a better reader of other books because I had learned to look carefully at the text attending to the “meaning pointers” in the text.
  • We had leadership from the president on down to my immediate supervisors who encouraged us to sink our teeth into meaty and classic works of theology as well as devotional classics and works that analyzed contemporary culture like Os Guinness’s The Dust of Death, published when I was a student. Our president would say, “not all readers are growing Christians but all growing Christians are readers.”
  • The couple who ran a retreat center we used for student programs for many years, Keith and Gladys Hunt, talk as well as wrote about the joys of reading aloud as a family. Before there were recorded books, we would read aloud as a car and some of our best shared memories are our read aloud times as a family–from Bible stories to Narnia and the Little House books and so much more. From them I first learned that reading could be a shared rather than solitary practice.
  • A later president commended the reading of history and biographies. The questions of character and how character enhances or undermines effectiveness whether in leadership or everyday life has been a source of reflection for me.
  • Hearing Eugene Peterson at one of our staff conferences first introduced me to some of the formative practices of the church and the literature around these practices.
  • Working as part of a multi-ethnic team with strong men and women leaders has challenged me to begin to listen voices of both genders and many cultures. God is not a white male and women writers and those of other ethnicity help me understand dimensions of encountering God I may otherwise miss.

Ideas for Practice:

  • Recognize that we read in various ways–for leisure, for information, and sometimes just skimming and browsing.
  • Spiritual reading is different: it is slow, reflective, and repetitive. You are not reading to get through but to chew over and reflect on what you’ve read. You might read a passage several times or even pray it. Perhaps you will read it aloud if alone. Sometimes, just a few pages is enough.
  • Protect the hours you set aside for spiritual reading. Depending on whether you are a morning or night person, the early or latest hours may be best–out of the distractions of mid-day.
  • Finding a place and time where you won’t be distracted is key, even if for just 15 minutes. (It is estimated that if a person reads 15 minutes a day, they can read 15 books a year.)
  • You might also consider finding people to read with. Talking over things you don’t understand or things that for some reason have caught your attention with a group reading the same text can shed light we may not see alone.

A few book recommendations:

  • Eugene Peterson’s Take and Read provides an annotated list of spiritual literature. His Eat This Book goes into greater depth on the practice of spiritual reading.
  • C. Christopher Smith’s recent Reading for the Common Good is the best book I’ve seen on spiritual reading in community, of how reading together may change communities. I recently reviewed it.

I believe reading is an important practice for maintaining spiritual and intellectual vitality. I don’t think this necessarily means lots of books, but rather engaging deeply with the books we do read, and allowing them, in a sense, to read us.

 

 

 

Easy Burdens?

I’m reading a book right now titled The Easy Burden of Pleasing God. The writer’s contention is that the message of the Bible is not that the spiritual life is a “heavier” or more burdensome life, but one with lighter burdens, not more. It is interesting though because the writer also spends a good part of the book talking about how we (especially some of us church folk) add to each other’s burdens. I don’t think this is an affliction exclusive to church people. Parents make life tougher for their children by unrealistic expectations, and children make life tougher by creating all sorts of worrisome situations for the parents. We likewise do this in our workplaces–think of needless meetings and protocols for which there are no rational explanation.

A former colleague once began a talk she was giving with the simple statement that “life is hard.” It is variously attributed that Philo, Plato, or even Scottish theologian John Watson said, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” My point today is not a sentimental reflection on being kind, but to ask, given the burdens we all carry, why do we make life harder for each other?

My hunch is that it has something to do with the inadequacies we feel in carrying our own burdens. In our tiredness, or our frustration at how poorly we are doing, we try to foist these onto others. Or, if we perceive that others have burdened our lives with things like rules that we don’t want to carry, we create burdens for them as a kind of payback, In the church world, it often seems that our own sense that we are not “doing enough” means that we try to get each other to do more, even when we all are already working at breakneck pace.

Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of Matthew 11:28-30 writes, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion. Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me–watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (The Message). Jesus is speaking here and it seems his invitation is to stop trying to manage our own burdens but to share them with him and let him show us how to live life. My hunch is that when we live there, we not only enjoy freedom and lightness, even where life is hard, but we stop making life so hard for others.

Why do you think we often add to others burdens? And what helps you live freely and lightly?