This is Peterson’s fifth ‘conversation’ in his long series of conversations that began in 2005 and now, five books later, totaling over 1400 pages. It is a masterpiece of theology and one that, after my first reading of Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, thoroughly transformed my practice of faith in Christ. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that after reading that book I had a conversion experience and that I was set off on a pilgrimage from which I could never return to the old way of doing things. I think it also began the undoing of my life as a ‘professional member of the clergy.’
Something Peterson wrote in that first book so deeply resonated within me that it changed everything I had every believed about Christ, salvation, church, and, yes, preaching. I realized I had been looking at things from quite the wrong perspective, that my practice of being a Jesus follower was far too concerned with proving my worth, growing a big church, and making all the right choices all the time. I had created a god in my own image; I knew little of God’s grace.
He wrote, “The central verb, ‘play,’ catches the exuberance and freedom that mark life when it is lived beyond necessity, beyond mere survival. ‘Play’ also suggests words and sounds and actions that are ‘played’ for another, intentional and meaningful renderings of beauty of truth or goodness. Hopkins incorporates this sense of play with God as the ultimate ‘other’ (‘…to the Father’)—which is to say that all life is, or can be, worship.” (3)
Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places is Peterson’s masterpiece. It is brilliant. And now he has published the fifth (and sadly) and final volume in his series of ‘conversations in spiritual theology’ Practice Resurrection. This time the title is taken from a poem drawn by Wendell Berry (Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front) where the author, Berry, strongly encourages the pilgrim to be everything and nothing that no one and everyone is and is not expecting: “Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction.”
I have to confess that Peterson was the fox: I did not see Practice Resurrection coming. His first four conversations, books, have taught me to worship, read, pray, and preach. Now he is, somewhat backwardly, telling me how to live, how to mature, how to grow up in Christ and be a big boy. And I weep when I listen to his pen as it scratches the paper. He sets me on edge with sentences like, “God is on a salvation march through the country of the dead and the damned, taking captives on the way” (40). When I read that, I nearly fell out of my chair, and I certainly did fall out of myself. And I get very uncomfortable when he writes things like, “Sometimes we have to change jobs in order to maintain our vocation” (55).
Then I see this picture drawn for the reader, “That throne [Christ’s throne] relativizes and marginalizes all earthly thrones and all the world’s politics” (43). I am speechless.
It’s very easy to get caught up in oneself. Peterson reminds us, as he has done in everything he has ever written that the “bible is not a book to carry around and read for information on God, but a voice to listen to” (33). But I think that is a fair assessment of how many Christians read the Bible: not as God’s word to us, but as a primer or a flow chart whereby we construct wonderful systematic theologies. Then, aha!, we can measure who is in and who is not. Those who don’t fit in we can fire, excommunicate, or run out of town; but some of us won’t leave.
But maybe Peterson’s point is that we are not grown up when we know how to worship, pray, preach, and read but that if we practice and listen to God and talk to God we will see that we have a lot of growing up we need to do. His point, as he makes it in this fifth conversation, is that we have a lot of growing up to do, we church, and that all our efforts to grow up using the world’s ways and means are not at all accomplishing what Christ wants to accomplish in us. No. On the contrary, we grow up in the most backward and left-handed way imaginable way possible: By doing almost nothing. He calls it ‘acquired passivity,’ and explains that ‘Americans in general have little tolerance for a centering way of life that is submissive to the conditions in which growth takes place: quiet, obscure, patient, not subject to human control and management’ (6).
I agree. But Peterson goes further and suggests that the place where this happens is in the church.
Then Peterson begins the long painful journey through the book of Ephesians and explains that it is in the church, the broken, corrupt, scandalous, misguided church that all this happens—all this shaping and forming and maturing and practicing resurrection in Christ. But Peterson, wise pastor that he is, knows well that this is not the way of the American church. I sense in his writing a frustration with this American church—is the church, especially the American version of it, the place where Mad Farmers and foxes can practice resurrection? I think Peterson wants to believe it is, but I think he is skeptical at many points.
I understand Peterson’s frustration because the American church is far too concerned with things that God is not concerned with at all and, then, ‘the church we want becomes the enemy of the church we have’ (29). He goes further, “Over the course of these fifty years I have seen both the church and my vocation as a pastor in it relentlessly diminished and corrupted by being redefined in terms of running and ecclesiastical business” (23). It took Peterson 50 years to figure it out; took me 15 years.
Peterson still celebrates the church as the place where we grow and mature. For now, I will struggle with him.
I agree with those who think that ‘everything must change’ even if I hardly advocate the theology that underlies their assertion. The church in America must change. It must become a place where we are free to practice resurrection, play, read, pray, and preach. Too many codgers still live in the local congregation thought who will make that impossible for a few more minutes.
As someone who has been on the inside of the behind the scenes workings of the church I can say this with confidence: the church will lose what it tries to hold on to, and I will pray it does.
This is Part 1 of my review of Peterson’s book. Thanks for stopping by.
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