Spiritual Portraits and the Purification of Means


Eugene H. Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus Is the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007).
 
There are two kinds of spiritual writers: mechanics and artists.
 
Mechanics focus on how spirituality works, on tightening the nuts and bolts of prayer, meditation, fasting, and the like. By showing us how these means of grace work, they help us draw closer to God and godliness. Richard J. Foster is a mechanic of the spiritual life. His Celebration of Discipline is a masterful user manual of spiritual practices.
 
Artists, by contrast, show us what spirituality looks like. They don’t write user manuals; they paint portraits. Not landscapes, mind you – portraits. For spiritual artists, spirituality is personal, biographical, narrative. They show God in human form, and godliness in human form – warts and all. Eugene H. Peterson is a spiritual artist, and The Jesus Way is an exhibit of masterfully drawn portraits.
 
It is also a frustrating book for our mechanically inclined, North American souls. Unlike The Celebration of Discipline, The Jesus Way includes no three- or four-step guidelines for prayer and fasting. If you’re looking for that kind of guidance, don’t bother reading this book. It will not give you The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Christians or The Secret of Becoming Like Jesus. It is not about How to Win Souls and Disciple People. It is, instead, “a conversation on the spirituality of the ways we go about following Jesus.” It is a gallery of portraits in which the artist’s perspective paints his subject in a new light.
 
The portraits in Peterson’s gallery are biblical and historical figures: Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah, Herod the Great, the Pharisees, Caiaphas, the Essenes, Josephus, the Zealots. And, the centerpiece of the exhibit, Jesus. But Peterson’s perspective on these subjects, his unique angle of vision, forces us to see through them the various ways in which North American Christians should but do not follow the God-Man who is the Way (John 14:6).
 
Indeed, what Peterson’s portraits show is that North American Christians have adapted a variety of spiritual ways and means that have nothing to do with Jesus, indeed, that contradict and subvert the way of Jesus. We are a consumer-oriented, mass produced culture; and our spiritual ways reflect our cultural predilections. We are felt-need driven, without considering that a consumer’s felt needs might be artificially manipulated or authentically mistaken. We are mass produced, without considering that Jesus’ ministry is concrete, not abstract; personal, not impersonal; individual, not cookie cutter.
 
Peterson’s portraits of Jesus’ Old Testament predecessors show a spirituality that revolves around “faith and word, imperfection and marginality, the holy and the beautiful.” His portraits of Jesus’ New Testament contemporaries are diptychs, Herod and the Pharisees, Caiaphas and the Essenes, Josephus and the Zealots. Or rather, perhaps we should say that they are contradictory diptychs: Herod versus the Pharisees, and so on. Jesus aligns with neither side of the diptych; rather, his way subverts both. He neither builds a kingdom of political power (Herod) or legal precision (Pharisees). He neither uses institutional religion for selfish ends (Caiaphas) nor rejects it entirely (Essenes). He neither lacks principle (Josephus) nor embraces principled violence (Zealots). His way is different.
 
It is irreducibly personal. God is a Trinity of Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in eternal, indivisible union. Their way with one another is personal. And consequently, their way with us is personal as well. God relates to us a Person to persons. His way is personal. His way is Jesus.
 
Contemporary North American spirituality, by contrast, is impersonal. It focuses on abstract, mass produced principles that do not know what to make of humanity’s warts and all condition. They don’t know what to make of King David, for example, whose imperfections Scripture draws in such meticulous details (violence, adultery, murder, polygamy). Call this the Way of Imperfection. David’s seven penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) contain no three-step program for personal holiness. They simple call upon God for forgiveness. “In dealing with God we don’t do it on our own,” Peterson writes; “we deal with God as he deals with sin.”
 
The Way of Jesus, you see, is the personal way of dealing with God, of relating to him not as consumers seeking personal benefit but as servants seeking divine direction. The consumer mentality warps North American spirituality; if we are to follow the Jesus Way, we must submit to a necessary “purification of means.” If the end of spirituality is personal – communion with the Triune God – then the means to that end must be personal as well. Peterson’s portraits show us what that personal way looks like.
 
I mentioned that The Jesus Way is a frustrating book. I should say that it is a frustrating book for me personally. I have a mechanical soul. I favor the user manual approach to spirituality. And anyone who has read anything by Richard J. Foster knows how spiritually fruitful that form of writing can be. The mechanics of the spiritual life are as necessary as the artists, but in a different way and for a different reason. The mechanics think for us. The artists force us to think for ourselves. The mechanics show us how to do things differently. The artists show us how to see things differently.
 
At any number of points in The Jesus Way, I disagreed with something Peterson wrote. Is Christian spirituality always a spirituality of people on the margins, as the chapter on Elijah suggests? Peterson seems to agree with historical criticism’s reconstructions of the multiple authorship of the Pentateuch and Isaiah. Is he right? Perfectionism is without a doubt a spiritually deforming doctrine, but does David’s example mean that no spiritual and moral progress is possible?
 
The Jesus Way raised many questions in my mind for which it did not provide definitive answers. But the questions forced me to look differently at my own ways, to look at my life and spirituality, and the spirituality of my church. That is what spiritual artists are supposed to do, to help us see differently. And Eugene H. Peterson is nothing if not a master artist.
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