Eugene Peterson’s pastoral writings are well known. But that does not mean they are well read! This is the first of his books I’ve read and it was a rewarding experience.
In this book Working the Angles: Trigonometry for Pastoral Work his target is pastors who have abandoned their calling as pastors in favour of a more concrete role:
The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches (p. 2).
Some of the responsibility lies at the feet of the churches:
How do I maintain a sense of pastoral vocation in the middle of a community of people who are hiring me to do religious jobs? (p. 13)
We do not escape, and this book is addressed to pastors.
Pastoral Basics Revisited
The title comes from the idea that “The visible lines of pastoral work are preaching, teaching, and administration. The small angles of this ministry are prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction.” (p. 5) but the metaphor is not sustained as far as I could see. Each chapter is a meditation around a theme.
Anything creative, anything powerful, anything biblical, insofar as we are participants in it, originates in prayer. Pastors who imitate the preaching and moral action of the prophets without also imitating the prophets’ deep praying and worship so evident in the Psalms are an embarrassment to the faith and an encumbrance to the church (p. 40)
This is typical Peterson: thoughtful, provocative and hard to pin down a clear biblical justification for it.
In listening we use our ears, in reading we use our eyes…. When I read a book the book does not know if I am paying attention or not; when I listen to a person the person knows very well whether I am paying attention or not….in listening the speaker is in charge; in reading the reader is in charge. (88)
Peterson reflects on orality (following Ong). “Words work differently when they are read than when they are heard” (114) is true; but it does not mean that they work better and I think he overstates his case here.
There is a telling quote on context:
Every word of Scripture fits into its large narrative context in one way or another, so much so that the immediate context of a sentence is as likely to be eighty-five pages off in words written three hundred years later as to be the previous or next paragraph. (p. 124)
Peterson tells the story from Melville’s White Jacket of the ship’s surgeon who in his enthusiasm forgot to notice that his patient had died some time earlier. It’s a parable of exegesis that kills the living word.
Less convincing is this statement of hermeneutical principle:
They tested it [the congruence of Scripture and Jesus] out in their believing and worshiping lives. It worked. They had their hermeneutical principle. (p. 129)
It is a fringe activity for most pastors and yet, ironically, it is the activity that many people assume pastors do all the time.
Spiritual direction takes place when two people agree to give their full attention to what God is doing in one (or both) of their lives and seek to respond in faith [...they can be planned and unplanned] (p. 150)
Five who Failed Fox
In the final section Peterson draws a lesson from the five clergymen who were called on in turn to counsel George Fox. Each failed him in a different way.
Nathaniel Stephens heard Fox’s troubles and repeated them from his pulpit:
If we reduce a person to sermon material, we are the agents of alienation. (p. 181)
The ancient Priest at Mancetter is like the shopkeeper who sees the subject as customer. When the goods are not wanted, he was dismissive.
If a parishioner will not follow our advice he or she is aggravating evidence of our incompetence, the easiest way out is to hint among the milkmaids that there are matters of concern here about stability, immaturity, neurosis.
The Priest living at Tamworth was an empty, hollow cask (184). The best preparation, says Peterson, is an honest life,
Prayer and the developing capacity for adoration and joy authenticate pastoral experience (184)
Dr Cradock saw everything through the eyes of orthodoxy or heterodoxy:
He had only to find out how Fox diverged from the model of orthodox Christianity in order to set him straight (p. 185).
Macham, finally, was an activist:
The suggestion to do something is nearly always inappropriate, for persons who come for spiritual direction are troubled over some disorder or dissatisfaction in being, not doing. (p. 187)
So how to do it right? Peterson is optimistic that
More often than we think, the unspoken, sometimes unconscious reason that persons seek out conversation with the pastor is a desire to keep company with God. (192).
More convincing is the advice to remember that the pastor is a supporting player: God is the lead (p. 191)
Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles: Trigonometry for Pastoral Work William B Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1987.