This year Mark provides the Gospel through-line for the season of Lent. When I realized this, my mind went straight to something written by Eugene Peterson many years ago (and anthologized in his collection Subversive Spirituality). I thought it might be fitting to revisit it some throughout the next few weeks as we make our way to Easter.
+ + + + + + +
Much of Peterson’s work exists in a weird chronological space for me: mostly in seminary and early Hawaii times, definitely pre-NT Wright for me. He shows up in my biography around the time of Frederick Buechner, though I have a clearer sense of Buechner’s entrance into my story than Peterson (maybe it was The Message?). Either way, Peterson has been something of a pastoral plumb line for me. Phrases like “subversive spirituality” and “the contemplative pastor” really opened up a better understanding of the possibilities of the pastoral role in a church. That’s one reason why his “Saint Mark: The Basic Text for Christian Spirituality” came to mind for this Lenten season.
+ + + + + + +
Peterson frames his discussion of Mark’s Gospel in the context of “spiritual theology.” That’s something that’s resonated with me for many years, mostly because I’ve never been as systematic as many of my peers but also because of the way the story of the Bible has caught my attention. And while it was Wright that solidified it for me, there are strong hints of it in Peterson’s thinking.
And so spiritual theology from a book that started off a new literary genre: the gospel. But for all its newness as a genre, Peterson asserts, it’s necessarily connected to the overarching story of the Bible. Peterson asserts:
The Bible as a whole comes to us in the form of narrative, and it is within this large, somewhat sprawling narrative that St. Mark writes his Gospel. “We live mainly by forms and patterns,” Wallace Stegner, one of our great contemporary storytellers, tells us, “. . . if the forms are bad, we live badly.”1 Gospel is a true and good form, by which we live well. Storytelling creates a world of presuppositions, assumptions, and relations into which we enter. Stories invite us into a world other than ourselves, and, if they are good and true stories, a world larger than ourselves. Bible stories are good and true stories, and the world that they invite us into is the world of God’s creation and salvation and blessing.
Within the large, capacious context of the biblical story we learn to think accurately, behave morally, preach passionately, sing joyfully, pray honestly, obey faithfully. But we dare not abandon the story as we do any or all of these things, for the minute we abandon the story, we reduce reality to the dimensions of our minds and feelings and experience.
We learn, then, how to live our lives fittingly when we understand the story that we are in. And we enter into that story with a sense of awe and wonder, as it is a story that includes us but is immensely bigger than us. Or, as Peterson says, it is a story that reminds us that we aren’t experts at controlling it.
It is significant, I think, that in the presence of a story, whether we are telling it or listening to it, we never have the feeling of being experts – there is too much we don’t yet know, too many possibilities available, too much mystery and glory. Even the most sophisticated of stories tends to bring out the childlike in us – expectant, wondering, ing, responsive, delighted – which, of course, is why the story is the child’s favorite form of speech; why it is the Holy Spirit’s dominant form of revelation; and why we adults, who like posing as experts and managers of life, so often prefer explanation and information.
And so the challenge is to re-enter a story we know so well with a better sense of wonder, with an expectant (un)knowing about where things are going. We may read the four gospels multiple times in a given year, but to read them at particular times in that year can allow for connections and challenges unseen. This season, the way is open for us through the Gospel of Mark.
(You can purchase a copy of Peterson’s Subversive Spirituality here.)