This is the best nonfiction book I’ve read in 10 years. Though I have friends who tsk-tsk, I like to mark up my books. And I have underlined a phrase or sentence on nearly every page of this hefty volume.
“A conversation in spiritual theology.” I didn’t know what to expect from this subtitle. Here’s what I got: an engaging overview of basic Christian theology presented in conversational tone and with practical application that isn’t just “tacked on” but is integral to the theology itself. In his introduction, Peterson explains, “ ‘Spiritual’ keeps ‘theology’ from degenerating into merely thinking and talking and writing about God at a distance. ‘Theology’ keeps ‘spiritual’ from becoming merely thinking and talking and writing about the feelings and thoughts one has about God.”
What Peterson has done is quite difficult to pull off. This material seems fresh to me --- steeped in Christianity since childhood; at the same time I would heartily recommend it to any serious seeker (serious enough not to be intimidated by 350 pages) looking for a foundational book on Christianity. There’s nothing complicated here; the material is straightforward and clear. In the first 35 pages, called “Clearing the Playing Field,” Peterson tells some critically basic biblical stories and defines terms (spirituality, Jesus, soul, and fear-of-the-Lord) that set the stage for his three-part drama of how we live out our faith (1) in creation, (2) in history, and (3) in community.
The outline is very well executed, with each of the three parts showing how Jesus lived out the dynamic. Then Peterson discusses a converse “threat” (Gnosticism, moralism, sectarianism) before delving into a “grounding” Old and New Testament text, and finally showing two ways Christians can and should live out their faith in this particular realm --- in creation, by keeping Sabbath rest and appreciating “wonder”; in history, by participating in the Eucharist and practicing hospitality; in community, by baptism and love.
The book is full of information: derivations and definitions of words --- “The Hebrew word shabba…simply means, ‘Quit…Stop…Take a break’ ” --- and analyses of passages: “The story of Jesus’ death as told by St. Mark is a sharply etched dramatic sequence of twelve scenes” that he explicates. But the information serves a larger purpose, walking us toward inspiration and kindly exhortation.
One of Peterson’s more interesting discussions regards hospitality --- not, as you might think, in the context of “community” but in the context of “history.” “Given the prominence of the Supper in our worshiping lives, the prominence of meals in the Jesus work of salvation, it is surprising how little notice is given among us to the relationship between the Meal and our meals.” He discusses how and why our lives and our mealtimes have been depersonalized. But historically, “a meal engages personal participation at the most base level of our lives.” And hospitality draws us out of ourselves and into a sacrificial mode. “The four verbs that Jesus used at the Supper continue to put salvation into action every time we sit down to a meal,” the four words being take, give, bless, break.
Peterson also has keen insights on the use and misuse of time, the purpose and role of the Ten Commandments, and the centrality of Christ. From start to finish, it’s clear that, in Peterson’s view, our Christian faith is not all about us. It’s all about God.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on February 3, 2005