Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity by Eugene Peterson (Book Review)

“American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate,” begins Eugene Peterson in this thought-provoking work called Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity.

But he doesn’t have in mind pastors who leave their churches to get other jobs. He is concerned with pastors who have abandoned their calling as pastors. Though they remain on the payroll of the church, these pastors “have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries” (1). The pages which follow swing a double-edged sword which cuts away at the consumer mentality of many churches and pastors, while at the same time giving sharp definition to the biblical priorities of the true shepherd.

“Three pastoral acts are so basic, so critical, that they determine the shape of everything else. The acts are praying, reading Scripture, and giving spiritual direction” (3). Since almost no one notices whether a pastor does these things or not, they suffer widespread neglect. But these three “acts of attention” (towards God, his Word, and his people) are essential to ministry. A metaphor from trigonometry accounts for both the title and the structure of the book. Peterson writes: “I see these three essential acts of ministry as the angles of a triangle. Most of what we see in a triangle is lines. The lines come in various proportions to each other but what determines the proportions and the shape of the whole are the angles. The visible lines of pastoral work are preaching, teaching, and administration. The small angles of this ministry are prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction” (5). Peterson reminds us that if the lines of ministry “are disconnected from the angles and drawn willfully or at random, they no longer make a triangle. Pastoral work disconnected from the angle actions . . . is no longer given its shape by God. Working the angles is what gives shape and integrity to the daily work of pastors” (5).

Peterson then divides his book into three sections, each with three chapters and each devoted to one of the three angles. There may seem nothing unique about a book devoted to prayer, bible-reading, and spiritual direction, but there is nothing conventional about Peterson’s handling of the subject. His discussion of prayer draws on “Greek Stories and Hebrew Prayers (chapter one), with a heavy emphasis on the Psalms. “The Psalms provide the language, the aspirations, the energy for the community as it comes together in prayer” (40). “Praying by the Book” (chapter two) continues this emphasis, reminding us that “prayer is never the first word; it is always the second word. God has the first word. Prayer is answering speech” (45). The reason why our prayers so often fall flat or come out “stagnant and stale” is because they have been “uprooted from the soil of the word of God. These so-called prayers are cut-flower words, arranged in little vases for table decorations” (44). Prayer is nourished and flourishes when it is firmly rooted in the creative and redemptive word of the living God. The five books of the Psalms, which according to Peterson are so structured in parallel to the five books of Torah, provide us with language for answering God in all the seasons and stations of life. “Everything that a person can possibly feel, experience, and say is brought into expression before God in the Psalms” (57). The Psalms is where we as leaders of God’s people learn the language of prayer.

Pastors need “Prayer Time” (chapter three), which is why God gave us the Sabbath. “Sabbath is not a day off,” contends Peterson, “and it is inexcusable that pastors, learned in Scripture and guardians of the sacred practices, should so misname it” (66). Peterson then provides both the theological basis for observing Sabbath and some practical parameters on how to do so. He doesn’t say what you might think. Grounding his thoughts in Psalm 92, Peterson urges that Sabbath-keeping involves both “praying and playing” (74-79). The Puritans were wrong in eliminating play from Sabbath. Secularists, who eliminate prayer, are even worse. The two belong together. Playing and praying “are alike enough to share the same day and different enough to require each other for a complementary wholeness” (75). Peterson then relates his own practice of Sabbath-keeping, which alone is worth the price of the book.

The second angle of pastoral ministry relates to Scripture. In reading Scripture, we are “Turning Eyes into Ears” (chapter four). The goal of reading the Word is to listen for the voice of the God who speaks. When we read Scripture without listening to God, “Scripture is sabotaged” (90). Reading Scripture is “but one element in a four-beat sequence: speaking, writing, reading, listening . . . The two middle terms of the sequence are subordinate to the first term (speaking) and the final term (listening); the book (combining writer and reader) is in between, the tissue that connects the speaker’s mouth with the listener’s ear” (99). Unfortunately, much of our pastoral reading involves no listening. Peterson reflects on three conditions which account for why this is so – “a remarkable invention . . . an unfortunate education . . . [and] a faulty job description” (90) – and reminds us of the brilliantly conceived metaphor of Psalm 40:6, which literally reads “ears thou hast dug for me.” We are block heads – with eyes, nose, and mouth, but no ears – until God digs them. “God gets a pick and shovel and digs through the cranial granite, opening a passage that will give access to the interior depths, into the mind and heart” (101).

Chapter five, “Contemplative Exegesis,” deals with the “surgical work” of Scriptural exegesis: “cutting through layers of history, culture, and grammar; laying bare the skeletal syntax and grammatical muscle” (108) while also warning us of the danger of treating the Scriptures as a textbook, which they “most emphatically are not” (112). We are to remember that “pastors do their work in the midst of this paradox: dead letters written by human hands are living words spoken by God” (113) and that the Bible contains revelation, not just information, from God. God’s Word tells a story, a narrative with “a beginning and ending” in which “a catastrophe has occurred” and “salvation is plotted” as “characters develop” (120). This drama lies under and gives significance to all the details of the text and “it is fatal to exegesis when this narrative sense is lost, or goes into eclipse” (124). We are to pay attention not only to what God says in his word, but also to how he says it.

“Gaza Notes,” (chapter six) reminds us that “reading Scripture is not . . . an autonomous activity . . . The Spirit brings people together over Scripture” (130). Like the Ethiopian eunuch, we need people to climb into our chariots and guide us to Jesus in the Scripture. We must “always read the Scriptures with an eye for was Christum triebet, ‘what impels us to Christ’” (128-129). “The Scriptures are God’s word in Jesus; Jesus is God’s word in Scripture” (129). Peterson warns us of dangerous hermeneutical paths which bypass raw Scripture and suppress “the particularities – awkward, absurd, everyday particularities” (133) – to which the text gives attention. “What pastors must not do is extract principles from Scripture, distill truths from the gospel . . . The great attraction for distilling Scripture into truths and morals and lessons is simply laziness. The lazy pastor no longer has to bother with the names, the cities, the odd embarrassing details and awkward miracles that refuse to fit into a modern understanding of the good life. Across this land pastors have turned their studies into ‘stills,’ illegal distilleries that extract ideas and morals from the teeming narrative of Scripture” (134-135). People love to ingest such 100-proof moralism and get a quick rush of exhilaration from it, but it is poison. In fact, Peterson traces the practice of “distilling truths from Scripture” to Gnosticism, in which “matter is evil and history inconvenient” (135). There are some hints here that Peterson might deny the reality of authorial intent and actual meaning in the text (a quote on page 137 from Hans-Georg Gadamer certainly indicates such). I disagree with him on this. But his reminder that Scripture is more narrative and history than a systematic theology textbook is well taken. If we lose sight of the redemptive-historical nature of divine revelation, our exegesis can easily fall into the ditch of moralism.

The third section of the book deals with the angle of “Spiritual Direction.” “Spiritual direction takes place,” says Peterson, “when two people agree to give their full attention to what God is doing in one (or both) of their lives and seek to respond in faith” (150). This is not merely a matter of meeting weekly for Bible study and prayer. Rather, “spiritual direction . . . explores and develops [the] absorbing and devout attentiveness to ‘the specific detail everyday incidents,’ ‘the everyday occurrences of contemporary life’” (150). It means “taking seriously, with a disciplined attention and imagination, what others take casually” (151). Chapter seven focuses on “Being a Spiritual Director,” by clarifying on the pastoral task of paying attention to the details of people’s lives – and looking for God in those details. “What is required is that we bring the same disciplined prayer and discerning attentiveness into the commonplaces that we bring to the preparation of lectures and sermons, sharing the crises of illness and death, celebrating births and marriages, launching campaigns and stirring up visions” (160).

But pastors should also pursue “Getting a Spiritual Director” (chapter eight). “There is a saying among physicians that the doctor who is his own doctor has a fool for a doctor” (165). Since we all “want coddling, not healing” and “prefer comfort to wholeness,” it is vital that we as pastors submit ourselves to the spiritual oversight of others. The widespread loss of this is evident in the accumulating wreckage of fallen pastors – “pastors who don’t pray, pastors who don’t grow in faith, pastors who can’t tell the difference between culture and the Christ, pastors who chase fads, pastors who are cynical and shopworn, pastors who know less about prayer after twenty years of praying than they did on their ordination, pastors with arrogant, outsized egos” (166). We who so regularly exercise authority also need to practice obedience. We need something more personal and intimate than mere lectures, books, workshops, and conferences. It is not healthy to be both “the disciplinarian of my inner life, the one being disciplined, and the supervisor of my disciplinarian – a lot of roles of to be shifting in and out of through the day” (173)! Peterson shares his own experience of coming to realize his need for a spiritual director, praying for one, and observing the resulting benefits and changes in his life.

Chapter nine discusses “Practicing Spiritual Direction” by reflecting on extractions from the journal of George Fox who “ran into [a] discouraging sequence of spiritual misdirections” (179). Peterson reminds us that “spiritual direction is difficult. Pastoral wisdom is not available on prescription” (179). It is quite easy for physicians of the soul to become miserable comforters. There is the danger of turning “the conversation of spiritual direction into theological inquiry” (180). This effectively reduces the persons we are helping to fodder for the sermon, as we read them the way we read a book. We can also fall into the trap of viewing the troubled soul not “as a person to be directed but as a consumer of spiritual goods, a possible buyer of a remedy” (183). Another false diagnosis is thinking that if we can only correct a person’s theology, we will correct them.What then should a spiritual director do? Peterson suggests some positives: “cultivate an attitude of awe” (188); “cultivate an attitude of my ignorance” (189); and “cultivate a predisposition to prayer” (191). I must remember that I am not the primary actor in the drama of another person’s life. God is. “God has been at work with this person since birth. Everything that has taken place in this life has in some way or another taken place in the context of a good creation and an intended salvation. Everything” (191). My simple task is to help orient the troubled soul to the God with whom he or she has to do. “People go for long stretches of time without being aware of that, thinking that it is money, or sex, or work, or children, or parents, or a political cause, or an athletic competition, or learning with which they must deal. Any one or a combination of these subjects can absorb them and for a time give them the meaning and purpose that human beings seem to require. But then there is a slow stretch of boredom. Or a disaster. Or a sudden collapse of meaning. They want more. They want God” (192). The task of the spiritual director is to cultivate an awareness of God. “More often than we think, the unspoken, sometimes unconscious reason that persons seek out conversation with the pastor is a desire to keep company with God” (192).

Prayer. Reading Scripture. Spiritual Direction. These are the angles that must be worked in order to give shape and integrity to the pastoral vocation. If heeded, Peterson’s challenge could not help but deepen the spiritual life and ministry of pastors.

Eugene Peterson is a rare breed. Pastor and poet. Theologian and mystic. Heavenly-minded, yet earthly enough to have dirt under his literary fingernails. I think that this unique combination in Peterson accounts for why his books help me so much. Yes, I sometimes find myself differing with his Lutheran theology. I occasionally dismiss his exegesis as too far removed from the literal-historical-grammatical context. But still I am helped by the spirituality of this man and his books in ways that many (indeed most) other books for pastors have not helped me. I enthusiastically recommend Working the Angles to other pastors.

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