Friday, August 2, 2019

Peterson's "The Jesus Way"

In this book, Eugene Peterson describes "The Jesus Way"-- as in, most famously, Jesus' self-description as "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). Christ continues by telling his disciples (and us) that "no one comes to the Father, except through" him! He is the way-- to "salvation", in all the richness implied by the term: not just saved from sins for Heaven, but saved to a profitable life on this worth, walking in the way of Jesus.

As Peterson notes, "the way of Jesus did not originate with Jesus, although he certainly provided its final and definitive articulation" (15). Often, people separate the OT and NT dispensations too thoroughly. It's the same God throughout the Bible. And the way of Jesus is often foreshadowed and lived out in the OT. So, Peterson starts with Jesus, before moving to six "ways of Jesus" exhibited in the OT. The second part of the book covers six worldly "ways" that are contrary to "The Way". Three of these are secular; and three are poor religious responses to those secular errors.

This is the third of a five-book series from Peterson. I've read three of the other four and they're excellent-- even better than this one, I'd say. 
1.) Tell It Slant covers Luke's Gentile gospel with its focus on the Samaritan narrative and Jesus' use of parables for that audience. (Why on earth didn't I know that before I read TIS?!) 
2.) Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places elaborates on Jesus' call for us to live an incarnational life in light of Trinitarian theology, intimate relationships, and Christian community. 
3.) Eat This Book focuses on meditative reading of the Scriptures. 
Each of the books is a call to discipleship in some way-- recognizing the active participation to which God calls us. Although He has saved us, He doesn't put us on a shelf until it's time for Heaven. He wants great things for us and from us in His Kingdom.

Godly Ends AND Godly Means

Peterson starts with a table-setting discussion of means and ends-- that pursuing the Jesus Way is impossible without using means that are consistent with that Way. "We can't proclaim the Jesus truth but then do it any old way we like. Nor can we follow the Jesus way without speaking the Jesus truth. But Jesus as the truth gets far more attention than Jesus as the way." (4) "Only when the Jesus way is organically joined with the Jesus truth do we get the Jesus life." (8) "Ways and means that are removed or abstracted from Jesus and the Scriptures that give witness to him amount sooner or later to a betrayal of Jesus." (15) The Jews were supposed to be "countercultural in matters of ways and means." (17) So too with us. 

Peterson motivates this primarily through Jesus' temptation by Satan in the Desert (Matthew 4, Luke 4). He notes that these stories follow John the Baptist announcing "the way" and the baptism of Jesus. But otherwise, the temptations precede the introduction of "the way" itself-- again, pointing to the importance of avoiding these temptations (28). For John the Baptist and Jesus-- as with Moses and Elijah-- clarity is achieved in the wilderness, pointing us to the importance of solitude and silence in our own walk, our own pursuit of the way (30). 

The first temptation is do good, but to reduce the gospel to consumerism-- "to reduce people, ourselves and others, to self-defined needs or culture-defined needs, which always, in the long run, end up being sin-defined needs-- and use Jesus to do it." (31) The second temptation is to entertain and add excitement through a miracle-- "to reduce Jesus to escapism and thrills." (32) The third temptation is to rule the world through government and politics-- always imposed and usually impersonal (33). 

Will Jesus "reduce and depersonalize the way by imposing his will on the rocks...Will he put on a circus spectacular...Will he rule the world by means of a faceless bureaucracy...without getting his hands dirty?...Jesus gave a definitive, Scripture-backed no to each temptation...In the three great refusals, Jesus refused to do good things in the wrong way...We cannot do the Lord's work in the devil's way." (35-36) Ironically, "We naively embrace the very temptations of the devil that Jesus so definitively vetoed and rebuked." (3) 

The metaphor of "dirty hands" is important to Peterson, Too often, our approaches are disembodied, impersonal, and abstract-- rather than "incarnate, flesh and blood, relational, particular, local" (1) Of course, one sees a ton of this in politics-- as people are prone to try pursuing godly ends with ungodly means. (See: my book TNRNL.) Or they want to help people, but only by getting their hands dirty in government and power, not in the lives of individuals.

But the problem extends far beyond politics. Peterson uses Winnie the Pooh's quest to the North Pole as an analogy. None of the characters know what it is. When Pooh finds a pole along the way, Christopher Robin declares that it's the thing they seek. And then the quest is over and they go home. Peterson sees an analogy to modern "spirituality" where religions such as "Moral Therapeutic Deism" stem from vague ideas and are satisfied easily by something they find along the way in the name of "spirituality." (193-194)

Many people imagine a Christianity that is not incarnational-- with an over-emphasis on the spiritual and little impact on daily life in the body. Related to this, many people separate the sacred from the secular-- in a weekly cycle (Sunday vs. the rest of the week) or between professionals and laity (the former take care of religious business, while the latter mostly try to stay out of trouble). In a word and "worst of all, [they are] passive in the ways and means of following Jesus..." (13)

The Way of Jesus

Then Peterson develops "the way" of Jesus-- as described by Jesus and as used in Acts. On Jesus' 6th "I am" statement, Peterson says it's "among his most memorable and frequently quoted statements...also among the most frequently dismissed." (21) "The way" is an extension of the early invites to the disciples: repent, baptize, and then "follow me". And it's a metaphor used throughout Scripture: in addition to the famous reference in Mt 7:13-14, 79 times in Psalms (23 in Ps 119) and six times (vs. one reference to "Christian") in Acts. 

As always, Peterson is passionate about describing the key role of metaphor in Scripture. With metaphor, "a word explodes, comes alive...makes me a participant in creating the meaning and entering into the action of the world. I can no longer understand the word by looking it up...When the writers of Scripture use metaphor, we get involved with God, whether we want to or not, sometimes whether we know it or not....Which, of course, is why metaphors are so prominent in our Scripture." (26)

From there, Peterson turns to the revelation of "the Jesus way" throughout the OT, relying on narratives about six biblical characters. 

1.) From Abraham, we learn that it "is not a definition but a story." And the story is replete with actions verbs-- as per the seven verbs in God's call to Abraham in ch. 12 and the 16 verbs on walking and journeying between chs. 12 and 22 (46-47). Faith is not merely mental assent or other-worldly. We also learn that robust faith is tested and revealed by testing and sacrifice, "so that we can discern whether we are dealing with the living God or some fantasy or illusion we have cooked up..." (49-51)

2.) Moses is a great leader but "mostly he is a man of words"-- at the burning bush, at Sinai, and in Dt's "artful valedictory" sermons (68-69). And so, faith and the way are grounded in God's word. 

3.) From David, we learn that "perfectionism" is not the goal of "the way". David is "representative-- not a warning against bad behavior but a witness, inadvertent as it was, to the normalcy, yes, the inevitability of imperfection." (82) As a result, "the remedy for sin is not the extermination of sin, not long training in not-sinning...The only effective remedy for sin is the forgiveness of sin-- and only God can forgive sin." (91)

4.) From Elijah, we learn about true worship vs. the ecstatic emotionalism and entertainment of Baalism. In biblical worship, "Sensory participation is not excluded...[but] it is always defined and ordered by the word of God...'Let's have a worship experience' the Baalistic perversion of 'let us worship God'...[Worship] is not something a person experiences, it is something we do...The experience develops out of the worship, not the other way around." (110-111)

5.) With "Isaiah of Jerusalem" (Pt. I: chs. 1-39), Peterson bookends the classic passage on God's holiness in Isaiah 6 with the focus on holiness in Moses (104x) and John's Revelation (26x). Isaiah's encounter was in the temple, but Moses' fire was at the bush, while John's was in his vision of Jesus-- in wilderness and exile (134). Peterson devotes more time than usual to the second half of Isaiah 6-- the strange commissioning to ministry which Isaiah receives. God promises futility so that only a "stump" will remain. Five chapters later, we learn that the Messiah will come from that stump, but still... (139-140) The way of Jesus is marked by obedience and faithfulness to the holy, but not necessarily "success".

6.) With "Isaiah of the Exile" (Pts. II and III: chs. 40-66), we learn that "gospel" is an OT term as well. The NT writers use it to great effect, but Isaiah brings the term to prominence, as he describes the messenger who delivers "good news" about the great "servant" to come. (161-162)

The anti-ways of Jesus

In Part 2, Peterson describes six "ways" that are inconsistent with the Jesus way-- three secular ways and each with a religious response that is itself incorrect. Each of the six is still quite popular and powerful today. Israel, by time and place, was able to experience all of these temptations-- as it viewed earthly power and religion, particularly as it played out through empire.

1a.) Herod represents the political temptation and a particular bent toward the large and wealthy. Peterson contrasts the ostentatious burial of Herod with the meager birthplace of Jesus around the same time: "People do continue to come and be impressed, but the numbers are meager compared to those who come to Bethlehem and worship." (200) 

Peterson admits: "It is impossible, at least for me, not to be impressed with Herod...And here is the astonishing thing: Jesus ignored the whole one ironic sense, Jesus had virtually the same agenda as Herod...So why didn't Jesus learn from Herod?...All Jesus had to do was adopt and then adapt Herod's political style, his skills, his tested principles, and put them to work under the rule of God." (202-203) Instead, he avoided the big cities (Sepphoris and Tiberias, except Jn 6:23's passing reference) and focused on the back-waters of Capernaum (204-206).

1b.) In contrast to Herod, the Pharisees chose a radically different path that ended up devolving from passion, purity, and dedication-- to legalism and an oppressive power wielded through religion. Peterson says that the Pharisees were impressive in their early years: a courageous, loyal, grass-roots movement. But the rules pushed them into a focus on externals and minute details. 

Could Jesus use them for his movement? They "had become a little rigid through the years, true. They needed some reforming, some livening up, yes. But they could very serve as a solid base to work from. But Jesus no more took his cue from the intensity of the Pharisees than he did from the grandiosity of Herod." (212) Again, Peterson points to the power of metaphor (215)-- which takes us away from the literalism and small world of the Pharisees. And he recommends Mary's prayer as the antidote-- with its focus on servanthood and the attendant attitudes and outlook (218-219).

2a.) Caiaphas represents the religious temptations toward earthly power. The Sadducees did not believe in the supernatural or the religiously incarnational. They wed themselves to the Romans, wielding power and pursuing wealth accordingly. Herod and Caiaphas occupied different worlds but their means and ends were quite similar: they were very good at their work and both were threatened by Jesus. (Peterson cites the high turnover in the High Priest's position, aside from Caiaphas [228-229].) As Peterson notes, "Religion is one of the best covers for sin of almost all kinds...The devil does some of his best work behind stained glass." (230) 

But Jesus was not anti-institutional; he still used the temple and synagogue. This points to another common theme of Peterson-- the importance of place: "We sometimes say, thoughtlessly I think, that the church is not a building. It's people. I'm not so sure. [Churches, etc.] provide continuity in place and community for Jesus to work his will among his people. A place, a building, collects stories and develops associations that give local depth and breadth and continuity to our experience of following Jesus. We must not try to be more spiritual than Jesus in this business. Following Jesus means following him into sacred buildings that have a lot of sinners in them...A spirituality that has no institutional structure or support very soon becomes self-indulgent and subjective and one-generational." (231-232)

2b.) In contrast to Caiaphas and the Sadducees, the Essenes chose the radically different path of asceticism. They refused to enter the temple and left Jerusalem to form community. The most  "radical and focused" of these was at Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found). The group was small and tended to fracture, given their earnestness. They were likely all male and celibate. They copied the Scriptures and were waiting for the Messiah-- away from the corruption of the people and the Temple (234-236). John the Baptist was a likely member (236-238). 

But as Peterson notes, Jesus' "follow me" didn't imply "going to the desert and joining an exclusive" sect (239). Peterson recommend Thomas' five-word prayer in Jn 20:28 ("My Lord and My God!") to combat the Essene temptation (240-242). This is a particular temptation for one who focuses on making disciples and disciple-makers. If people aren't measuring up, it's tempting to write them off and tighten the circle. 

3a.) Josephus represents overt compromise and the pursuit of comfort, wealth, and celebrity. Peterson goes into considerable detail about Josephus' life, but I don't want to take the time/space to lay that out here. In a word, Peterson describes him as impressive but despicable-- on par with traitors like Judas and Benedict Arnold (243-254). 

3b.) In contrast, the Zealots chose a radically different path: militancy. Both the Romans and the Zealots worked in the currency of violence. Peterson lays out some of the history of Zealot movements and notes that the Christian church has a "long and sorry track record" in such things (260). 

But the early Jesus movement did not participate (254)-- and the Jesus movement today cannot participate if it wants to follow "the Jesus way". Peterson asks how we can retain the passion and energy of the Zealots without the violence. The answer is in Acts-- with the disciples acting "of one accord". (The Greek word homothumadon, 12x in Acts starting with 1:14 is difficult to translate.)  Here, Peterson recommends prayer in general terms. 

Peterson closes the book with Psalm 2 as a remedy to all of the above. It "provides a text-prayer for personally realizing and internalizing, feeling in our gut and in our muscles, the unbridgeable abyss fixed between the ways of this world-- its Herod and Caiaphas and Josephus ways, and also the counter ways pursued by the Pharisee and Essene and Zealot sects-- and the Strong God and His Messiah." (268) 

Finally, this: "Herod, Caiaphas, and Josephus, all three in their lifetimes, were more influential and more effective than Jesus. The three protest movements...all attracted far more followers than Jesus. And here's the sobering thing: they still do. We are faced with this wonderful, or not-so-wonderful irony: Jesus-- most admired, most worshiped (kind of), most written about. And least followed." (271)

May we all follow Jesus-- not as we imagine Him or craft Him in our image, but as He is. Follow Jesus and the Jesus way. 


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