Bob and Weave

Musings of an impostor. Welcome to the masquerade.

Peterson Ch. 3: The Subversive Pastor

Posted by flyingbk on 05/03/2016

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In this chapter, Peterson essentially commissions pastors as secret agents. First, he addresses the current culture. Many churchgoers today simply want to feel safe; they want God as part of the equation, but only as one of the addends. Worship, prayer, and even salvation are marginal (he deftly refers to Christian salvation as a “brand preference”). That’s the result when America, suburbia, and our egos become the integral parts of the sum. He writes:

It is the oldest religious mistake: refusing to countenance any real difference between God and us, imagining God to be a vague extrapolation of our own desires, and then hiring a priest to manage the affairs between self and the extrapolation. And I, one of the priests they hired, am having none of it.

This is the quandary many a pastor faces: People want you to teach about, talk about, and remind them of God into their lives occasionally. They nod their heads in assent during our sermons, smile appreciatively at our encouragements, laugh courteously at our jokes. But keep the real kingdom language of battle and violence to a minimum, lest you upset the apple cart.

I believe at this point, we have two options. We can seek to assert our importance, emphasize our points with strained punch and gusto (“This is what the Bible says!”), and cajole, coax, wheedle our people to live the lives we envision for them. But here’s the rub a la Peterson:

Pastors especially seem to assume that everybody, or at least a majority, in a congregation can be either persuaded or pushed into righteousness and maybe even holiness, in spite of centuries of evidence to the contrary.

Doh. Yeah, that first approach won’t cut it. So what is a pastor to do? His prescription is gold: “truth-telling and love-making, prayer and parable.” The best example of this, of course, is Jesus. He frequently told parables, and he is a master in subversion. I’m learning more and more that there is so much genius in the way Jesus taught, and there is a wealth of tools and techniques that we can glean. I highly recommend two other books that I’m currently consuming: Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus by my self-minted late mentor Robert Farrar Capon and Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion by Os Guinness.

Parables are fantastic because they meet the audience where they are, and the people think to themselves, “This person gets me!” And certainly, everyone loves a good story and is prone to getting lost within it (Aside: I recently started listening to NPR’s Embedded Podcast. Excellent storytelling). But in due time…

As people heard Jesus tell these stories, they saw at once that they weren’t about God, so there was nothing in them threatening their own sovereignty. They relaxed their defenses. They walked away perplexed, wondering what they meant, the stories lodged in their imagination. And then, like a time bomb, they would explode in their unprotected hearts. An abyss opened up at their very feet. He was talking about God; they had been invaded!

That’s subversion at work. A good pastor is a subversive one. So in conclusion:

That pastors need an accurate knowledge of Christian doctrine is universally acknowledged; that they need practiced skill in the techniques of Christian subversion is a minority conviction. But Jesus is the Way as well as the Truth. The way the gospel is conveyed is as much a part of the kingdom as the truth presented…
Words are the real work of the world – prayer words with God, parable words with men and women.

In our society today, there’s a growing de-emphasis on words. But the pastor must never fall victim to that trend. A pastor must always immerse himself in words through books, all kinds of good writing (narrative, expository, even polemic), crafted sermons and teachings, and of course, the Word of God. A pastor who uses words well, but also knows that more can be less, is an effective one.

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