“Leave More Tracks Than Necessary“
A Review of
A Conversation on
Growing Up in Christ.
by Eugene Peterson.
Reviewed by Ragan Sutterfield.
A Conversation on
Growing Up in Christ.
Hardback: Eerdmans, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Looking at the church today we may well wonder what God was thinking. Our congregations are filled with lax believers, pulled by the world, this way and that. Looking around at the group of people filling the pews on a Sunday morning we think, surely this isn’t what God had in mind. If only we could be like the early Church, we say, when Christianity was vibrant and authentic and not nearly so lazy and messy.
Eugene Peterson’s new book, Practice Resurrection, answers exactly these sorts of concerns and he does it by wiping away any of our ideas about some authentic, pure Christianity in the early church. His task is to show us what it means to grow up in Christ, in the churches we have, and his guide for how we do this is Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. The question is how Paul could say such grand things about the work of the Holy Spirit in that Ephesus when the church was clearly a mess? “Obviously, the church is not an ideal community that everyone takes one look at and asks, ‘How do I get in?’” Peterson writes, “Clearly, the church is not making much headway in eliminating what is wrong in the world and making everything right. So what’s left?” What, indeed.
First, Peterson suggests that just maybe, “God knows what he is doing, giving us church, this church.” What we must understand is that the church is, indeed, a place where we can “grow up in Christ” and what makes it that is not what we see on the surface, but the Holy Spirit working in the background and depths—like the life in the soil that makes the life on the surface possible.
What happens in church, if we open ourselves to it, is that our lives are redefined, “as creatures of God, saved by Jesus, formed for holiness by the Spirit.” In Ephesians, Paul is “retraining our imaginations to understand ourselves not in terms of how we feel about ourselves and not in terms of our parents or teachers…Not in terms derived from our employment or our education or our physical appearance or our achievements or our failures, but God.” God, it turns out, is what church is all about, and what the church must do, is become “actively passive.” Get out of the way so God can help us grow.
If we can do this, if we can let God be God and realize ourselves as his creatures then we will enter into the world of grace. This requires us to set aside our ambition, as Peterson writes, “Competitive ambition and the accompanying disciplines that bring about its achievement can be pursued, and more often than not are pursued, without generosity, without righteousness, without holiness. Which is to say, quite apart from maturity.” We must set all of this aside to live in and through grace and when we do this we are able to properly do our work because “Work is first of all what God does, not what we do.” By realizing this, our day to day work is transformed—we are not just doing work, we are “God’s work and doing God’s work.” This transforms our work into a whole new economy, an economy of gifts.
Gifts are of course worthless if we have no one to share them with, and the church is nothing if not a community, a community in which we are learning to “practice resurrection”—waking up to a new life in Christ. As Peterson writes, “Church is the gift of a community of Christians in which we rehearse and orient ourselves in the practice of resurrection. It is never an abstraction, never anonymous, never a problem to be fixed, never a romantic ideal to be fantasized.” The church is rather the place where we are guided by the Spirit in the work of dying so that we can be raised, again and again, by Christ.
Eugene Peterson’s work has long been a gift to the church, and the series of books on spiritual theology that this volume completes, is perhaps his best. Practice Resurrection is a testament from a man who has indeed tried to practice resurrection in and with many imperfect churches. And the closing lines of Wendell Berry’s poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”, from which Peterson takes his book’s title, properly summarizes the stance we must all continue to take in the church:
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com