A Discussion of Sprirituality and the Christian Life

Michael S. Horton
Eugene Peterson
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Jan/Feb 2007

Dr. Peterson, it's an honor to have you with us. You've written a lot on the Christian life. What do you know about the Christian life now that you didn't know when you first became a pastor?
Well, it's not a matter of knowing more things as much as it is getting a feel for the depth and the intricacies of the life. You know when I was younger I thought it was simple, that you could just do it. But all this living the life requires an enormous amount of maturity, and you only acquire that through living it. But I wouldn't say there's new information that I get; it's just living into what I grew up with and acquired along the way. The living part-that's really where the art is, where the patience comes, and the community comes. I think I used to think that I could do it all by myself and I found out I need a whole community to do this with.

Do you think that in our American church life in particular we separate doctrine and life, and we have one group that takes the doctrine without the life and another group that takes the life without the doctrine, and then we separate the individuals from the community? Do you think there is too much separation in our theology and practice today?
Oh, certainly. It's a very American thing.

Yes, you speak of the Americanization of spirituality. What exactly do you mean by that?
I mean the individualization of it, and I mean the consumerism of it. The gospel is packaged as a product and we've used salesmanship methods to advertise it instead of do true evangelism. So that's what I mean. Religion is commodified in our culture, just like everything else…But the sad thing is that many churches just accept the commodification and individualization without any critical discernment.

A lot of people today seem to think that doctrine gets in the way of life. If you really want to be a relevant Christian in the world today, you need to concentrate not so much on doctrine lived but on what is considered useful in our culture, in our society. Do you think there has been a sort of technologization of truth and living in the church today?
Oh, certainly. You know, the reason that doctrine sometimes gets bad press is because it's used in an impersonal way. But doctrine is very personal when used properly, when used the way the church has always used it. It's a way of giving form and structure to your life. But when people take doctrine and use it in a kind of impersonal or exterior way, then people get pretty tired of that.

Just get your facts right, then move on to something else?
That's right.

So this whole problem of this anti-doctrinal spirit of our times can also be caused by stressing doctrine but in that kind of impersonal way?
That's right.

You've encouraged the church to live and do things personally and relationally rather than impersonally and functionally. How do you think doctrines should relate to personal relationships and congregational life?
Well, see, I'm a pastor. And all my life I've spent in community and relationships. And I just don't believe that you can take doctrine and teach doctrine or uphold doctrine apart from the community of relationships of worshiping Christians who are being forgiven, who are experiencing grace…You see, all of us have been educated in schools that separate information from living. We go to school for twelve, eighteen years, and we learn that knowledge is something you pass exams on. But when you walk into the church, it's just something entirely different. And we bring those old habits of secular education into the church and it doesn't work. And then people-you know, people who are really looking for a new life-they come in and say, "I don't want that doctrine stuff, I just want to feel good and- trust the Lord, and have fun."

Is the ministry of Word and Sacrament one place where we have an opportunity for this dualism to be overcome?
Well, certainly. That provides a focus for it because the sacraments are embodiments and they're material, and you've got to be a flesh-and-blood person to participate in them. And when Word and Sacrament are separated, which they are so often in evangelicalism, you weaken both of them. Our whole gospel is incarnational from the beginning to the end, and if you don't have a body, you don't have a faith.

Do you think, Dr. Peterson, that one of the reasons why there seems to be a lot of hunger and thirst for spirituality-especially among a lot of young people today-is perhaps because so many people have grown up in evangelical churches where Word and Sacrament ministry was not really front and center? There was either more of a "lecture" kind of approach or more of a "feel good" kind of orientation?
Yeah, I think so. I think a lot of this can be attributed to cultural conditions, but that's no excuse. You know, the task of the church is to be Christian, to do this the way Jesus did it, and too many times we use the name of Jesus and the ideas about Jesus, but we haven't done it the Jesus way, which is-you're touching people, you're talking with people, you're listening to people… See, I'm not very enthusiastic about enthusiasm for spirituality because many times, it seems to me, they just want an easy way out. They don't want to have to deal with the truth. They don't want to have to deal with tradition, which is like paying attention to your parents. So they want some sort of shortcut. But you know part of the reason is, the people who have taught them the doctrine haven't been living it and haven't been using it as a way to understand what you're doing. You know, Christian faith without doctrine is kind of like being a jellyfish. There's no bone structure. We need some bones. But, here's the thing: When you look at a person, you don't see the bones. And if you do, there's something wrong. You have a skeleton and it's Halloween all over again, which is kind of scary.

Can you summarize the points you make in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places?
What I tried to do was provide a structure and a foundation for spirituality that is grounded in Scripture and is kerygmatically-centered-that is, Jesus is the center of it, and it's given a Trinitarian structure so that there's something comprehensively whole about it. And then I have tried to take each major area of our lives-creation, salvation, and the community and set them in those contexts and show how those things work together. And each section comes into a focus in something we do: creation comes into focus in Sabbath-keeping, salvation comes into focus in the eucharist, and community comes into focus in baptism. So, none of these things is left to be just ideas. They all end up doing something. But they aren't doing something that you're in control of; there's something that you have to enter into. When Americans start talking about doing something, they're usually talking about pragmatics: how do I do it? Well, there's no "way" to keep the Sabbath-you have to enter into something larger than you; there's no "way" to receive holy Communion-you just take what's given to you; there's no "way" to be baptized-you have to let somebody else do it to you; so, it requires our participation, but it doesn't permit our taking charge.

So the sovereign self gets dethroned in all of these activities.
That's right.

Dr. Peterson, your most recent book is Eat This Book. What is the major message of that book?
Well, it's about reading the Bible. It has to do with getting away from reading the Bible for information and entering it as a meal. Chewing on it. Assimilating it. And we have a long, long tradition in the Christian church of spiritual reading, which has been virtually ignored by the modern church. Reading the Bible is an informational act -we learn the doctrine, we learn the stories, but then we go on and do whatever we want to do. But this is a painstaking task and nobody trains us how to do this-except some poets and, ideally, properly, some pastors and professors in the church. But you know, we have more Bibles around the world right now and less skill in reading them than ever before. So, this is the second volume in a spirituality project, but I thought I've got to get this in early because this is our text and we've got to learn how to read the text.

And so this is the biblical emphasis on meditative reading and meditative learning?
Yes, although I hesitate to use the word meditative. It sounds kind of insipid. I don't want people to put this in the category of Zen meditation. This is something much more participatory.

Participatory in the sense that this kind of reading is done in a group setting?
Not necessarily. But it has to be done in a community; you've got to be part of a community before you can read this way accurately. But not necessarily in the same room with people. But the community's very much there. No, it has to do with always asking the question, How can I obey this? You know the Bible study questions are: What does this mean? How do you interpret this? How do you apply this? But in spiritual reading, you're asking how can I obey? You're not trying to master the text; you're trying to let it master you, which is a very different way of approaching the Bible than what we're used to.

Yeah, we even speak of mastering the scriptures.
I know (chuckles).

And how much of that, too, is due to our tendency to privilege the reading of the Bible by ourselves over the public hearing of the Bible in preaching?
Yeah, I think that's true. I don't think we can have a mature church that isn't worshiping. You know, one of the things that people are in great rebellion against these days is going to church and not having anything happen. So we have all this entertainment kind of worship. But you know the fact is, nothing is supposed to happen when you go to church. It's supposed to get you out of the way, sit you down, and say okay, just be here and see what it feels like not to be in control. And that takes some training and effort… People are scared to death of being bored. Well, anybody who's done any creative work knows that boredom is part of it. It's when you quit being in charge and you're not the center of things. So, we have a difficult time these days in worship. Worship is being corrupted terribly all over the place. Now, the entertainment kind of worship where there's loud music which requires a lot of action, a lot of physical participation…there's nothing wrong with that-except when that's dominant, and there's no quiet, no listening, there's no boredom…Someday I'm going to write a book on being bored as one of the gifts of the Spirit (laughs).

Some of the most exciting things happen to us when we're bored, in other words, when we're not expecting it.
That's right.

How do you think the church can recover this integration between faith and practice, the grace that imputes Christ's righteousness to us and the grace that transforms us?
Well, I don't think we have to recover it; it's there. It's just that people who are talking loudest about it don't enter into it. But it's happening all over the world, all over the country, mostly in small churches. I know a lot of pastors who are doing this all the time. I'm in conversation with them and correspondence with them. There's an enormous amount of really good worship and pastoral work, but unfortunately our obsession with bigness, which inevitably becomes a depersonalized way of life, is ruining us. But there are a lot of people who are ignoring that. I'm ignoring it.

So rather than either embrace it as the next new thing or spend our whole lives in vain against it, we ought to just go on as if Christ's promise to the church is actually true: the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
It's taking place. It's taking place right now.

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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