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Knowing & Doing

From the Winter 2003 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

Eat this Book:

The Holy Community at Table with the Holy Scripture

by Eugene Peterson
Retired Professor of Spirituality, Regent College

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   Not that there are not so-called exegetes who do just that—treat the Bible as if it were a warehouse of information, oblivious to the obvious—that it is given to us as a text intended to form a whole life to the glory of God. A hundred and fifty years ago when such arid and depersonalized knowledge was a pall on the spiritual life of England, George Eliot created the character of Causubon (in her novel Middlemarch) to pillory this sacrilege of intellect. Her contemporary Robert Brown ing trumped her in his poem “A Grammarian’s Funeral,” mocking the pretentious but lifeless old exegete who “decided not to Live but Know.”

He “settled Hoti’s business—let it be!—Properly based Oun— Gave us the doctrine of the enclitic De, Dead from the waist down.” 4

  In our own century, Marianne Moore used the metaphor of a steamroller (in her poem, “To A Steamroller”) to expose this heavy-handed and spiritless violation of text:

The illustration is nothing to you without the application. You lack half wit. You crush all the particles down into close conformity, and then walk back and forth on them.
Sparkling chips of rock are crushed down to the level of the parent block. Were not “impersonal judgment in aesthetic matters, a metaphysical impossibility,” you might fairly achieve it. As for butterflies, I can hardly conceive of one’s attending upon you, but to question the congruence of the complement is vain, if it exists.5

  Exegesis does not mean mastering the text, it means submitting to it; not taking charge of it and imposing my knowledge on it, but entering the world of the text and letting the text “read” me. Exegesis is an act of sustained humility: There is so much about this text that I don’t know, that I will never know. Christians keep returning to it, with all the help they can get from grammarians and archaeologists and historians and theologians, letting themselves be formed by it.
   Spirituality without exegesis gets sappy and soupy. Spirituality without exegesis becomes self-indulgent. Without disciplined exegesis, spirituality develops into an idiolect in which I define all the key verbs and nouns out of my own experience. And prayer ends up limping along in sighs and stutters. 

1. Austin Farrer, The Glass of Vision (Westminster: Dacre, 1948), p. 36.
2. See my reworking of the classic discipline in “Caveat Lector,” Crux 32 (March 1996), pp 2-12.
3. Ellen Goodman, The Baltimore Sun, June 15, 1979.
4. Robert Browning, The Poems and Plays (New York: The Modern Library, 1934), p. 169.
5. Marianne Moore, The Complete Poems (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967), p. 84.


Eugene H. Peterson, now retired, was for many years James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He also served as founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. He is author of numerous books including, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Perseverance, and Run With the Horses. He is also the translator of the widely acclaimed, contemporary translation of the Bible, The Message.
Eugene and his wife Jan make their home in Kalispell, Montana.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE:  Knowing & Doing is published by C.S. Lewis Institute; 8001 Braddock Road, Suite 301; Springfield, VA 22151. Portions of the publication may be reproduced for noncommercial, local church or ministry use without prior permission. Electronic copies of the PDF files may be duplicated and transmitted via e-mail for personal and church use. Articles may not be modified without prior written permission of the Institute. For questions, contact the Institute: 703.914.5602 or email us.
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