Eugene Peterson: On Stories

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I’ve only read pieces of a few of Peterson’s books, but it’s enough for me to know that he’s an admirable thinker and writer. Several years ago I had the honor of performing at the book release of The Message, in Anaheim, California, and was disappointed to learn that my fellow Peterson (no relation, of course) wouldn’t be there.

That he chose to stay at home with his wife in Montana rather than attend the big hoo-hah of such an impressive, difficult work increased my appreciation of the man. My friend Ben May sent me the following link to an interview with Peterson, in which I became an even bigger fan at the mention of Wendell Berry, who is perhaps my favorite living author. After seeing this, I’d love to know which Eugene Peterson books you would recommend to a newbie like myself.

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


18 Comments

  1. Stephen @ Rebelling Against Indifference

    Andrew, I second the recommendation of “Eat This Book”. I’m about a third of the way through it, and loving it. It says a lot about the power of words, of language, in setting up his explanation of scripture. Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs:

    “It is the very nature of language to form rather than inform. When language is personal, which it is at its best, it reveals; and revelation is always formative – we don’t know more, we become more. Our best users of language, poets and lovers and children and saints, use word to make – make intimacies, make character, make beauty, make goodness, make truth.

    And here’s this, that touches on what he is talking about in the clip you posted:

    “We live today in a world impoverished of story; so it is not surprising that many of us have picked up the bad habit of extracting “truths” from the stories we read: we summarize “principles” that we can use in a variety of settings at our discretion; we distill a “moral” that we use as a slogan on a poster or as a motto on our desk. We are taught to do this in our schools so that we can pass examinations on novels and plays. It is no wonder that we continue this abstracting, story-mutilating practice when we read our Bibles. “Story” is not serious; “story” is for children and campfires. So we continuously convert our stories into the “serious” speech of information and motivation. We hardly notice that we have lost the form, the form that is provided to shape our lives largely and coherently. Our spirituality-shaping text is reduced to disembodied fragments of “truth” and “insight,” dismembered bones of information and motivation.”

  2. Matt Conner

    I would have to disagree with Eat This Book as an intro. It’s very specific about the Bible, so if that’s your directional interest, then definitely go there. But for me his pivotal work is Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. It’s a large read, so be prepped to dive in, but the insights are just fantastic.

    I’ve read probably 7-8 of his books and love them all, but that was by far my favorite.

    Matt

  3. Ben

    I agree with Matt. “Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places” was my intro (thanks to Allen Levi) and is the first in a series of (I believe) five books that Peterson is working through on Christian spirituality. It’s an intense but delightful read.

    “Eat This Book” is the second in the series and “The Jesus Way” is the third (released in 2007).

    Peterson is one of the best wordsmiths I’ve ever heard/read!

  4. Chris Slaten

    My introduction to his work outside of the Message was A Long Obedience in the Same Direction and it was a very formative book for me. Like Ben and Mike said about Eat this Book, it is very focused on Biblical interpretation. Essentially it is an explication of the Psalms of Ascent which I think are Psalms 120 to 134. Like Buechner, though, when Peterson meditates on the Bible, in this case the Psalms, it is more like a journey, adventure or a story than an exploration of systematic theology or moral maxims. For me it was a very paradigm shifting read. These Psalms have become much more vivid and meaningful to me through his imaginative, eloquent prose and historical insight. I agree with one of the Amazon reviewers, “It is certain that this reading of the Psalms of Ascent will not go down that well with the North American Christian who is looking for inspiration or solace or affirmation or any of the other self-gratifications we tend to require.”

    http://www.amazon.com/Long-Obedience-Same-Direction-Discipleship/dp/0830822577/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1204816318&sr=8-1

    Also, since you are an E. Peterson fan, there is a book that he is endorsing now called “The Shack” about which he has said, “When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize the result is a novel on the order of “The Shack.” This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” did for his. It’s that good!”

    I haven’t read it so I can’t really endorse it, but Ron B might have and may be able to tell you more about it as I know that we share a mutual close friend (Mike Morrell) who has played a part in the promotional success of the book. I know people that I respect that hate it and others that love it.

  5. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    I liked Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places a lot. Leap Over a Wall, his book about David, was a major inspiration for my Wilderking books–really fired my imagination and made me ask the best kind of questions about the David story. Peterson’s sense of story changed the way I read the Bible.

  6. Linda Gilmore

    Awesome, awesome, awesome. Thanks for posting this.
    I, too, would recommend A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. It’s a good book to start with and you see the development of some themes and ideas that have been part of his teaching ever since.

  7. Profile photo of Curt McLey

    Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Thanks for posting this, AP. I really enjoyed the interview. What insight! In particular, I enjoyed Peterson’s take on imagination, that it’s the least developed faculty in adults. He suggests that imagination is almost (though not quite) the same as faith. “It’s that which connects what we see and what we don’t see, and pulls us from what we see into that which we don’t see.” I thought about the story of your boys on Appendix A, Bootlegs and B Sides, “Bigfoot’s Weapons,” when he compared faith to imagination. I thought his Wendall Berry observation about community was excellent, that Berry’s writing fosters a sense of community, “we” and “us,” rather than the modern way of thinking and doing, the “me” route. Finally, I enjoyed this comment, one that most of us here can appreciate, “Every time a story is told, the gospel has been well served.” The wisdom just oozes out of Mr. Peterson. What an incredibly thoughtful interview.

    As an aside, I also watched the Anne Lamott interview, which ran one hour. I suspect some of the other conference participants/speakers/authors might be found on You Tube. Thanks for this pathway, Andy.

  8. Cameron

    I’ll throw in another vote for “Christ Plays.” There are few books I can point to with any certainty and say, this changed my life. Peterson’s book is certainly one of them, and high on the list at that.

    I’m with you, Andrew—Peterson’s solidarity with Wendell Berry and the agrarian worldview did much to deepen my affection and respect for the man. You can see that ‘rootsyness’ in his approach to life and the world around us. I will forever be deeply indebted to him for teaching me about understanding the world sacramentally—seeing God as the fullness that fills all in all (Eph. 1:23).

  9. Joel Bassett

    Ok, so Eugene Peterson has been one of the most instrumental figures in my reading life, one, because he wrote Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, which is in the top three theology books I’ve read, and two, because of a little known book I found in a used bookstore for a dollar, called Take and Read. The second is basically a list of categorized books he has read that were influential in his life and theology. Because of this book, I have been introduced to works like: The Book of the Dun Cow, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, A River Runs Through It, the poetry of W.H. Auden, G.M. Hopkins, Wendell Berry, among others. Christ Plays is a deep read, but it wasn’t difficult, because his word craft was so remarkable for a theologian. I don’t know that I agree with all of his views, but they have inspired several years of thought thus far.

    Sorry for gushing…

  10. Kirsten

    The votes have it for “Christ Plays”, and I would add mine. The title takes itself from a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which is itself highly worth reading, so I’ll include it:

    “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
    As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
    Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
    Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
    Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
    Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
    Selves — goes itself; _myself_ it speaks and spells,
    Crying _What I do is me: for that I came_.

    “I say more: the just man justices;
    Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
    Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
    Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
    Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
    To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

    It took reading the book and a year or so before the depth of the poem set in, and that deeper understanding in itself was well worth it.

    For a lighter E.P. read, you could try “The Wisdom of Each Other”. The book takes the form of a series of letters, and emphasises particularly the idea of God working through everyday lay-Christians (i.e. not in the ministry). Its a small book and a quick read, but, like most of his stuff, sinks in deep.

  11. Adam

    When I see that a book is written by Eugene Peterson, or even endorsed by him, I gain quite a bit of respect for it. He is in a category with Dallas Willard and Richard Foster in my mind as one of the great contemporary spiritual writers (emphasis on spiritual, I might go other places for more formal theology).

    I’ve not read all of “Eat this Book,” but of what I have read I would not consider it an introduction into EP, though it is very good. “Long Obedience in the Same Direction” is considered his seminal work. Like “Eat this Book” it focuses on the psalms but reads them in reference to living as a disciple rather than just a particular manner of reading the scriptures.

    “Reversed Thunder” is easily the best work I have ever read on Revelations. Like “Christ Plays” the title is from a poem. EP cuts through the millenialist debate, and gets write to the core of John’s last letter – that it was a pastoral letter to seven churches on how to live as disciples in a chaotic time (sounds like today).

    I’ve also read “Working the Angles” which is specific to being a pastoral minister. If you are in a position of parish/church ministry it is a great read.

    Hope this helps. I’m looking forward to the Whitestown, IN show (the ticket was my birthday present from my wife).

  12. Drew

    I’m in the beginning of “Christ Plays…” right now, but my intro to Peterson was a profound but fairly brief book on our ministry to one another. Check out “Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Ministry” for some great encouragement and correction. Google books has a huge chunk of it, if not the whole thing.

  13. Jenni

    I’ve only read (most of) The Message, so I really need to read lots of E. Peterson’s books, too. I’ve heard lots of good things about Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places.

  14. Rob

    Definitely start with Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, especially if you are into Wendell Berry. Peterson’s effort in Christ Plays is to describe a lived Christian spirituality, one that doesn’t fly off into some kind of freshly cloaked gnosticism as many of his contemporaries do.

    If Berry’s essays tend to build an argument against the abstract for the particular, against the disembodied for the personal, Peterson takes a different approach: He first plants the reader in a fertile soil of grounding truth, then watches the story do its work– the seed blossoms, and we are not the same.

    Let us know which book you go with, and how you like it.

  15. Drew

    I noticed that you mentioned Wendell Berry and so did Eugene Peterson. I have heard his name a lot so I decided to look into checking out some of his writing. When I dropped by the book store I ran into one problem, there are so many chooses. Is there any recommendations as to a good book to be introduced to Wendell Berry with? Also, after poking around in some Eugen Peterson books I would definitely lean toward “Christ Plays…”

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