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Words Still Matter?

Updated: Feb 17, 2020

First I should say that I haven’t yet finished this book. I’ve only made it through the first of two sections, which is about the stories Jesus told while in Samaria, as reported in the gospel of Luke. The second section covers the prayers of Jesus. Peterson says it’s a book about the spirituality of language. More particularly, he’s concerned with the way in which we use words in the Christian community. A worthy topic.

I don’t always know quite what to do with Peterson when it comes to his interpretation of Scripture. Honestly, I’m not exactly sure what he understands the Bible to be. I’m pretty sure he views it differently from me. Still, he seems to treat it as authoritative. Once in a while, I find his exegesis to be way out there. But usually I find him to be very insightful, and he regularly makes connections between various portions of Scripture that I find very helpful. This book was no exception in that regard.

I read Peterson because I think I can learn a lot from him about pastoral ministry. He obviously has a great deal of experience in that arena. I respect what he has to say. He has thought carefully about caring for souls. And I believe his thinking has been saturated by the Scriptures. Oh, and I also read him because he’s a good writer. In these respects, I haven’t been disappointed by this book. Whether or not postmodernism has had it’s day and is expiring, it remains that there is a great deal of uncertainty about the importance of words. Peterson doesn’t buy it. In the Christian community, how we use words matters deeply. And it matters not just for us, but also for the world.

To establish how we as followers of Christ ought to use words, Peterson examines the words of our Master. Its hard to quibble with that. He picks these stories in Samaria because he considers them quite relevant to the church in the United States. There are plenty of religious types around. But the setting is nonreligious all the same. Samaria was not Israel. As he introduces the parable of the talents (he doesn’t call it that), Peterson provides what seems to me to be a helpful summary of his understanding of Jesus’ use of these stories. He writes:

With the exception of one story (“The Sinners”), the stories take place in nonreligious settings, with the word “God” occurring only tangentially. These stories are not illustrations of a truth or moral. They are oblique. They come to the hearer on the “slant,” slipping past defenses, misunderstandings, hostile preconceptions.

I have no reason to doubt that this principle is generally valuable in the church. As a pastor, as a preacher, its something with which I’m constantly wrestling. There are defenses. There are misunderstandings and hostile preconceptions. Jesus knew it. We all have them (including me, I assure you).

At any given time as a preacher you know that you have a certain number of people listening who have read the passage upon which you are preaching many, perhaps even hundreds of times. Maybe they’ve even heard several sermons on the same passage. At the same time, you may also be speaking (hopefully you are) to people who haven’t been in the church all their lives, but who have a completely different set of (what can only be called) hostile preconceptions.

But these things aren’t new. Jesus faced the same sorts of challenges. He was a master at slipping words past the defenses, misunderstandings, and hostile preconceptions. In this book Peterson wants us to learn from Him, and he believes that we can. I think he helps us to do just that. Pastors, elders, and parents who especially want to be more deliberate in their “informal” conversations–whether in the church, in the family, or across the fence–will benefit from this book. Really I’d recommend it to anyone who wrestles with slipping words past the various kinds of barriers to language that exist in each of us.

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