Review of:

Peterson, Eugene. Under the Unprecditable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans     Publishing Company, 1994.

Peterson’s work, Under the Unpredictable Plant, seeks to challenge current church leadership and pastoral thought structures.  Using the story of Johan as an allegory of pastoral work, Peterson traces the different stages of Jonah’s response to God by replacing Jonah with the “Pastor.” Peterson’s gripe is that church leadership has been co-opted by current culture and has become an idol.  In his experience it was the pastoral vocation that most hindered Peterson’s ability to be a good Christian.  This is precisely so because the pastoral office too easily gives way to the spiritual sin of pride.  Because of the kind of work a pastor is required and expected to do, pastors often fall prey to idolatry. Therefore, Peterson sets out to redefine the pastoral vocation.  He finds both “the emaciated, exhausted spirituality of institutional careerism”[1] and “the veneered, cosmetic spirituality of personal charisma”[2] inadequate.  Peterson’s answer is to discover a spirituality that is based on the Bible: “Rooted and cultivated in creation and covenant, leisurely in Christ, soaked in Spirit.”[3]

How does one do this?  Firstly, Peterson asks the reader to discover their own idolatry as we all have a tendency to look for our own paradise, away from God’s gaze.  It is only possible to rephrase pastoral vocation if we realize that careerism, charisma, and personal ambition immersed with a healthy dose of pride have let us choose our own path rather than following Jesus. It is only once we choose to redefine ourselves in God, to become passionate to live for God and to draw others into God that we escape the storm.   The first step for Jonah and us is to spend some time in the belly of the fish.  This is necessary, and is called Askesis.

Askesis is not a technique; it is not self-deprecation, self-deprivation or self-reprisal.  It is not asceticism as we understand it.  Rather it is a way of life. It is a training program within the community, and yet for the individual — a program that is context sensitive.  What lies at the root is a life immersed in prayer. Peterson suggests that this be biblical prayer inspired by the Psalms.[4] From that point on, other spiritual disciplines become the tools for growth.

From the belly of the fish emerges a Jonah who is now willing to go and preach in Nineveh.  For the pastor, this means being equally yoked by two polarities: Geography and eschatology. “Geography without eschatology becomes mere religious landscaping… Eschatology without geography degenerates into religious science fiction,”[5] writes Person. The pastor is asked to be local and present, while pointing to the future. The pastor is also asked to leave room for God’s work to break into the present, while also being sensitive to the context. For this we need imagination, passion and a continual grounding of our being in God and not our pride. Unlike Jonah, it means that we are required to always be open to the hope that is in the future, while indentifying and acknowledging what God is already enacting in the present.

In this book, Peterson deals mainly with the vocation of church leadership and does not directly address the church, however, some comments can be made in regards to the ecclesiology that shines through his writing.  It is clear from different little side remarks that Peterson is interested in maintaining the institutional church.  As a pastor in the Episcopal Church, he also retains a high regard for the sacraments and thus he holds some importance for the ordinances of the church.  However, what is apparent in all of this is the sense that church transcends just the institution.  For example, Peterson can state “The institution has its necessary and proper place. I could not function well without it, maybe not all.  But I was quite mistaken to look for spiritual nurture… from the institution.”[6] It seems that the role of the institution as an administrator is clearly needed.

It also becomes clear throughout the book that Peterson makes a distinction between the church as an institution and the congregation.  They are two spheres in which the pastor works.  Interestingly enough, both of these spheres seem to hinder the actual work of the pastor, which is to draw people into the presence of God and to “lead them before the throne of a Holy God.”[7]  Perhaps most tellingly, in terms of ecclesiology, is Peterson’s statement that the real work of the church is “worship, and witness and mission.”[8] In other words, the role of the church is to “worship God and practice love of neighbour.”[9]

Does Peterson’s work enable us to define his ecclesiology completely?  Clearly not! His ecclesiology is most likely protestant; he places a great emphasis on the word, which brings echoes of Barthian theology.  At the same time, his definition of the pastor as the office that enables people to encounter the holiness of God by extension also requires this same act of the church as the institution.  Thus he has room for the institutional elements of churches, as well as a somewhat sacramental view of what the church is and does.  In the end, the reader is left to wonder whether Peterson is truly interested in a specific ecclesiology, or whether what is most important to him is the expression of the one church of God in each specific setting and each specific manifestation.  In this way, it is not so much important what the church is, but rather whether the church fulfills its function eschatologically within a specific geography.

Peterson’s book was a breath of fresh air as well as a challenge for me personally.  It is important for us to always be aware of our pride and to start identifying our own idols in the church.  Peterson’s attempt to draw an allegory between the biblical text and our lives through the story of Jonah is an interesting hermeneutical exercise. What stands out is his careful work of interpretation.  He takes his responsibility seriously by giving the appropriate cultural and linguistical background for the story he employs as an allegory.

A particular bright spot in this book is his use of eschatology and geography, which rather accurately portrays the Gospel and the life of Jesus Christ.  This once again is a responsible reading of the text and leaves appropriate room for revelation and relevancy, all the while shielding the pastor and the church from both pride and the external cultural pressures that try to co-opt the church.  It is also worthy to note that Peterson has a high regard for the practices of biblical prayer, such as the use of the Book of Common Prayer, among others.

Peterson makes some very interesting points about askesis, but in the end leaves us readers with some ambiguities. While he wants to make it clear that this is not a technique – it is a practice – he fails to give a clear enough definition of what he would prefer to see.  Surely, there must be a way give more insight into specific practices while guarding the reader against a one-size-fits-all approach. In the end, I am still not clear on what exactly askesis is. Similarly my interest was sparked by his discussion of the relevancy of the book of Revelation to the church and the pastor, and yet, he does not provide much more information.  The reader is left wondering exactly which parts might be of interest, and how?

I am also left to wonder if there is no hope for the pastoral office in Peterson’s description.  Since his concern is with vocational holiness, what this predicates is a change of attitude or change of personal spirituality within the pastor.  It is only within this personal change of direction that the role of the pastor is transformed into a search for holiness.  However, this transformation is enacted within the inner, or the “spiritual,” as pastoral work still includes participating in all external structures required of the office.  I think it is wise for Peterson to alert us to the problems of pride and spirituality, and yet he sets up the pastor as the only one who can actually effect this change and does not challenge the structures that enable this pride. Is there not room to change the institutional structures in ways that will enable vocational holiness?  Similarly Peterson also upholds a divide between congregation and the pastor. This does not leave a lot of room for the congregational community to be part of the process of accountability that sets church leadership towards the path of vocational holiness. We are being left with this question: is church leadership completely on its own (with the help of Peterson of course) to pursue vocational holiness?

Overall, however, I found this book approachable. I particularly enjoyed Peterson’s willingness to be humble and vulnerable as he relates his experiences within the larger context and, of course, the Bible’s master narrative.

 

 


[1] Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 5

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Peterson will suggest the use of the Psalm’s in order to pray prayers that reach beyond us and embrace us within a community of faith and that provide us with better prayer language.

[5] Peterson, Unpredictable Plant, 148.

[6] Peterson, Unpredictable Plant, 80.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 83

[9] Ibid.

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