The pastor and writer, Eugene Peterson, died this week. Tributes have poured in about the impact that this wise and humble man had on millions of people. Bono dedicated a song to him at U2’s gig in London describing him as ‘a beautiful spirit who opened up the Scriptures.’
Peterson is most well-known for writing The Message version of the Bible. About twenty years ago I bought Peterson’s book Subversive Spirituality. I had not heard of Peterson at the time and only bought it because I was intrigued by the title.
It turned out to be a great purchase. It’s a book that I have continually delved back into, quoted and pondered on. Peterson is a beautiful writer and the book is packed with challenging insights and deep wisdom.
Often you tend to like books because they affirm your world view. But when I first read Subversive Spirituality much of it jarred with me. One example is what Peterson says about being busy:
“Busyness is the enemy of spirituality. It is essentially laziness. It is doing the easy thing instead of the hard thing. It is filling our time with our own actions instead of paying attentions to God’s actions. It is taking charge.”
Initially, these words offended my activist world view. But they got under my skin and challenged me at some deep level. Years later, I ended up printing the quote out and pinned it above my desk.
Distinctive and deep
The main thrust of this collection of Peterson’s writings is that Christians need to re-discover a spirituality which is distinctive to the secular world.
‘Secularism marginalises and eventually obliterates the two essentials of human fullness: intimacy and transcendence. Intimacy: we want to experience human love and trust and joy. Transcendence: we want to experience divine love and trust and joy.’
We need to draw on the great spiritual wisdom of our traditions and avoid the consumerism so popular in the contemporary church.
‘Spirituality is not the latest fad but the oldest truth…we have nearly four millenia of experience to draw on. When someone hands you a new book, reach for an old one’
He is sharply critical of Pastors who do ‘Mickey Mouse stuff all day long’ and immerse themselves in activity to appear productive instead of ‘subversively modelling what it is like to live the gospel’:
“This is an urgent time and the task of the Christian is to learn how to maintain that urgency without getting panicked, to stay on our toes without caving into the culture. This is not a benign culture where everything is going to be fine. Everything is not going to be fine.”
Focus, precision and roots
In one essay in the book, Spirit Quest, Peterson argues that our spirituality needs to be hallmarked by ‘a focus on Christ, precision in the Scriptures, and roots in a healthy tradition’. He gives five key pieces of wisdom for our quest:
1. Discover what Scripture says about spirituality and immerse yourself in it.
Spirituality should be prayerfully soaked in what the Bible says. If it comes loose from biblical moorings, then it easily hardens into self-righteousness or dissolves into psychology.
2. Shun spirituality that does not require commitment.
Being faithful in concrete and sustained ways is the test of authenticity of our spirituality. Jesus uses words like believe, follow, endure. Commitment is at the heart of Christian spirituality.
3. Embrace friends wherever you find them.
Deepening our spiritual journey will lead us to explore those outside the tribe or denomination that we are used to. This may mean learning from friends in another church, another continent, another century.
4. But then return home and explore your own tradition.
Don’t believe that the grass is greener in a different church. Every congregation, every denomination has a rich spiritual tradition to be discovered and explored. Go deep, rather than leave. Every tradition has dead-spots – your task is to dig wells in your desert and find ancient springs of inpiration.
5. Look for mature guides, honour wise leaders.
Spiritual quests and pilgrimages have always been liable to be corrupted by consumerism. Plenty of religious entrepreneurs see the hunger for spirituality as an opportunity to sell junk food. But there are also many holy brothers and sisters out there – they may not advertise themselves but seek them out for advice and guidance.
In conclusion, I think the best thing about this book is the way Peterson’s spiritual theology has helped subvert my shallow thinking and superficial tendencies. I would recommend this book highly and thank God for Eugene Peterson’s life and work.