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The Way

By December 16, 2008 No Comments

by Jackie L. Smallbones

The Jesus Way is the third in a series of four books by Eugene Peterson on conversations about authentic Christian spirituality, this one on “the ways we go about following Jesus, the Way” (1). He is concerned that so many who claim to be followers of Jesus get it wrong and “without hesitation, and apparently without thinking, embrace the ways and means of the culture” (1). His purpose, therefore, is “to explore the ways in which Christians follow Jesus” (14) faithfully as well as to expose the ease with which ways Jesus rejected are embraced.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part, “The Way of Jesus,” examines key characteristics of this way with the help of Old Testament personalities. Abraham, not surprisingly, illustrates faith; Moses highlights the centrality of word and speech, both God’s and ours. Peterson draws on also Elijah, David, and the two Isaiahs, using stories and writings of each to illustrate a variety of aspects of life in the Way of Jesus–prayer, worship, and holiness, to mention a few. The Jesus WayThe second part, “Other Ways,” focuses on ways of culture that are the antithesis of the Jesus Way. He describes the ways of men who were against Jesus–King Herod, the high priest Caiaphas, and, the only non-biblical one, the first century Jewish historian, Josephus. These negative ways, maintains Peterson, are counteracted through the practice of prayer, which, he argues, “is the primary way that Jesus’ way comes to permeate our entire lives” (217).

A strength of the book is the historical background Peterson gives, especially in the case of the less familiar personalities of the second part. These unfamiliar people help Peterson address familiar issues in new ways, looking at both positive examples as well as negative ones. The background material presented makes the book accessible even to those with little historical background to the Bible. However, despite its helpfulness, I do think Peterson overdid the historical detail, giving information that was interesting but not clearly related to his topic of the Jesus Way.

Another strength is his use of metaphor and narrative to emphasize spiritual truths. The term way, as he reminds us, “is a metaphor” (24). It cannot be reduced “to a road, a route, a line on a map” (39). Neither is it simply “the route to heaven,” as “too many of my faith-companions” have claimed (41). Ultimately, writes Peterson, “The Way is a person whom we believe and follow as God-withus” (40). Narrative is emphasized in his use of biblical narratives and the repeated claims about the importance of story. He writes, “In our Holy Scriptures story is the primary verbal means for bringing God’s word to us” (71).

Throughout the book, Peterson uses his earned right to rebuke. For instance, he acknowledges a spirituality that has become disillusioned with institutional religion, dismissive of all the trappings of tradition. He gives this gentle rebuke in response, ” There is something to be said for this, but not much” (230 ). This is followed with a thoughtful argument in support of tradition and institutions. In his chapter on Josephus, Peterson shows that violence is not the way of Jesus. He isn’t confrontational about this, but definitely firm. At one point, with reference to Jesus’ non-violent rebuke of “the hotheaded Zebedee brothers” who wanted to act violently, he writes, ” There is to be no violence in the cause of God. None. End of discussion” (259).

There is much to appreciate in The Jesus Way. It makes a good companion to the previous two books in the series. (The fourth one has not yet been published.) But I have one major problem. It is redundantly repetitive, and painfully laborious. He could have said what was needed in half the number of words. There were times when I felt Peterson was relying on his reputation as a writer and allowed himself to engage in unnecessary waffle. Thus, while I will refer to sections again, I will only reluctantly recommend it, cautioning readers about the monotonous repetition.

Jackie L. Smallbones is professor of Christian education at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, and author of Keeping Company With Jesus: Reflections on Gospel Stories.