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Peterson walks us along a gritty path of ascent.
on November 2, 1999
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
This is one of Eugene Peterson's earlier books, published about twenty years ago. During a lecture in May of 1999 in Vancouver, B.C. he remarked that many people had said to him that they loved the title, but hadn't quite gotten around to reading the book. This, of course, might be a sign that it's a bad book. Or it could be an indication that it simply doesn't deliver what some folks are looking for. I would suggest that it's a very good book indeed, but that you need a certain orientation in order to read it.
You need to love the Bible, for one thing. I don't mean love the Bible sentimentally. You need to be one who is willing to embrace the Bible for exactly what it is as it defines itself. It is not a promise book or a guide to "effective" living. Nor is it a book on how to keep out of hell. It is rather an immensely frank compilation of writings that point out God's presence in human history as a whole and God's presence in each person's life. It becomes God's word to us by virtue of its insistence upon God's "take" on reality at all points. That may not be so popular. In fact, I'm sure of it. 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.
On the other hand, if you like to get to the bottom of things, Peterson's your man. Witness this excerpt:
"A common but futile strategy for achieving joy is trying to eliminate things that hurt: get rid of pain by numbing the nerve ends, get rid of insecurity by eliminating risks, get rid of disappointments by depersonalizing your relationships. And then try to lighten the boredom of such a life by buying joy in the form of vacations and entertainment. There isn't a hint of that in Psalm 126."
These psalms chronicling the rhythm of yearly pilgrimages to Jerusalem, a return to the presence of God, are handled with such grace by Peterson that one wonders how we've read them all these years without hearing the humble clumps of singing Jews walking along the dusty, gradual incline of the shephelah to the holy city. Speaking of the pilgrim path that we share with the Jews of the first millenium A.D., Long Obedience includes the following:
"A person has to be thoroughly disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way. As long as we think that the next election might eliminate crime and establish justice or another scientific breakthrough might save the environment or another pay raise might push us over the edge of anxiety into a life of tranquility, we are not likely to risk the arduous uncertainties of the life of faith. A person has to get fed up with the ways of the world before he, before she, acquires an appetite for the world of grace. Psalm 120 is the song of such a person, sick with the lies and crippled with the hate, a person doubled up in pain over what is going on in the world..."
Peterson is no enterprising preacher repackaging his sermons in volumes of garish luminosity for eager visibility in the local Christian consumer shop. He is at once an authentic pastor and a poetic, writing scholar. So hitch up your pants, turn your head sideways, spit, and step into the gracious grit of Eugene Peterson.