a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

Eugene Peterson

by Patton Dodd

Pastor Eugene Peterson
Pastor Eugene Peterson

In the summer of 2010, the rock band U2 was joined on tour by a retired pastor from Montana who, until not long before, had never heard of Bono and his fellow Dubliners. For most of his adult life, Eugene Peterson had worked as the pastor of a small church in Maryland and writer of Christian discipleship books that had many admirers but few readers. Then, in the early 1990s, Peterson began writing a paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, that would go on to sell multiple millions of copies. In 2001, Bono told Rolling Stone that The Message was among his favorite books, a fact which fans already knew from Bono’s onstage quoting of the text. He also began telling friends of his deep admiration for Peterson’s Run With the Horses, a reflection on the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. Eventually, some of those friends were mutual friends of Eugene Peterson. A backstage meeting in Dallas’ Cowboys Stadium was arranged, and the world’s most famous rock singer and his favorite writer—a flattered and slightly flummoxed 78 year-old man—were united for a couple cities on the U2 360 tour.

Any Christian U2 fan will tell you: this Bono-Eugene Peterson business is an evangelical dream come true. For several decades, one of the most palpable features of evangelicalism has been a desire to appeal to the secular world. As their consumer-conditioned megachurches and copycat culture products attest, evangelicals strive to be relevant to the world as they see it. (Not to put too fine a point on it, the flagship magazine of the young adult evangelical set is entitled Relevant.) The Message has been the perfect Bible for its evangelical moment because it reconditions scripture for laid-back modern ears. Peterson translates the twenty-third Psalm from “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” to “God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.” In the Lord’s Prayer, “Thine is the kingdom” becomes “You’re in charge!” and “Amen” becomes “Yes. Yes. Yes.”

Peterson has called The Message an effort in relevance, and by one count, the pastor and his work are at the very heart of the American evangelical project in the contemporary era. His publisher has churned out countless derivatives—The Message for teens, for kids, etc.—and has made him a prominent figure within evangelical churches.

But as Peterson’s other writing has long attested, he’s never been at home in the evangelical world. And in the last half-decade, Peterson has become one of the most trenchant critics of the mainstream American church and its pursuit of relevance, and he has taken to publicly bemoaning the diminished spirituality contemporary churches have produced.

In 2005, Peterson published Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, the first of a five-volume series on what he calls “spiritual theology.” Each of the books takes on major Christian themes—Jesus, the Bible, the church, community—and reexamines them in light of a new—or, as Peterson would argue, ancient—conception of spirituality. The books aim to solve the problem of the evangelical church, to halt its attempts at cultural relevance, and to remedy the thin, consumption-driven spirituality recent evangelicalism has created.

Peterson historicizes the term “spiritual,” noting that St. Paul used it to describe personal actions and attitudes that emanate from the work of the Holy Spirit in all Christians. That’s “spirituality” as Peterson sees it—democratic, available, personal, grounded. But in the centuries after St. Paul, the term was bastardized. For the medieval monastics, “spiritual” described only the most perfect, most holy believers. In the early modern era, Catholic laity such as Madam Guyon tried to reclaim the term, arguing, writes Peterson, that “the monasteries had no corner on the Christian life well-lived.” But Mother Church rebuffed those efforts, and la spiritualite became “a term of derogation for laypeople who practiced their devotion too intensely.”

Peterson worries that in our day spirituality is too abstract. The term should call to mind things grounded—God in the details of grimy, gritty daily lives. “It’s just ordinary stuff,” Peterson writes. God’s work “is all being worked out in and under the conditions of our humanity: at picnics and around dinner tables, in conversations and while walking along roads, in puzzled questions and homely stories, with blind beggars and suppurating lepers, at weddings and funerals. Everything that Jesus does and says takes place within the limits and conditions of our humanity.” The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins had it right—Christ plays in ten thousand places.

The problem with the American church, argues Peterson, is that it does not understand this spirituality. The pursuit of relevance has fostered a business-savvy, goal-driven, method-mad church that preaches the truth of Jesus while ignoring the way of Jesus. (One book in the spiritual theology series, The Jesus Way, is dedicated entirely to this problem.) Peterson calls the most successful Christian congregations “state-of-the-art consumer churches.” He writes of his dismay in finding “my Christian brothers and sisters uncritically embracing the ways and means practiced by the high-profile men and women who lead large corporations, congregations, nations, and causes, people who show us how to make money, win wars, manage people, sell products, manipulate emotions, and who then write books or give lectures telling us how we can do what they are doing.” In Peterson’s view, this is why the church is failing: “our religious institutions…prove disappointing to more and more people who find themselves zealously cultivated as consumers in a God-product marketplace or treated as exasperatingly slow students preparing for final exams on the ‘furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell.’”

The American church, Peterson argues, is not hospitable to spirituality because it is not hospitable to the unimpressive way of Jesus.

When Peterson set out to make the Bible relevant, he didn’t mean to make it hip, or even successful. He meant to make it ordinary—to make it spiritual. He meant to show people that spirituality is nothing special as we normally understand “special.” It’s the quotidian quality of Jesus. In Peterson’s straightforward words, “life, life, and more life.” Peterson is straining to help Christian believers to understand that that message is the message of God.