The Novelist as Listener, by Eugene Peterson

Over the past few years I have had the luxury of being a TA and Instructor in Regent College’s phenomenal distance education program. Long past the days of correspondence tapes in the mail, distance ed is now highly relational and about community engagement where digital forms bridge the geographical divide.

One of Regent’s emeritus professors is Eugene Peterson. Perhaps more famous for his translation of the Bible into the poetic, narrative style of The Message, I first came to Peterson in his intriguing and incisive reflection on Jonah, called Under the Unpredictable Plant. A life-changing book for me.

I began as a TA for Eugene Peterson’s distance ed courses a decade ago, and am now the Instructor for two of them: “Soulcraft” and “Jesus and Prayer.” My students in “Jesus and Prayer” are just finishing up their last week of lectures, so I am re-listening to Peterson’s recordings. During the question time, someone asked how fiction fits into the spiritual life. Though I have heard it before a few times, I was stopped in my tracks by Eugene Peterson’s off-the-cuff response. If more Christian writers understood this principle, we would have a culture of Christian art that is both deeper and more relevant. If artists listened to Eugene Peterson, the conversations about the lack of Christian novelists would disappear.

Eugene Peterson at Regent College:

Story is our most natural form of language. We do tell stories. The way we use language that reflects plot, name, identity, relationship—it’s the most relational use of language, so that everything in life gets into the story, or can get in. It’s a non-specialized form of speech. So when I’m talking about story I’m talking about a way both of listening and speaking which is relational and comprehensive.

Theologically, we use the trinity to discuss that, to kind of nail those things down. But story is the form.

So when I’m talking about story, I’m not just talking about making up stories or telling stories. I’m talking about listening for story. Basically, we are listening for the relationships, the things that are unsaid that are part of the story, the silences. We live in a society that is just relentlessly—relentlessly!—taking the story out, removing the story and leaving us with facts. With information. With slogans, with causes, programs. And this relational intimacy that language draws us into is then gone, and we are left with stuff to do, with stuff to think, but no story. So you have to understand that I’m using this word “story” in this way, I’m using it to pay attention to what’s going on. It’s always relational. There’s always a lot of hiddenness in a story, so you gotta use your imagination to get behind some of these things.…

What about novelists? Who do we listen to? Who do we read?

The novelist is the person who is listening for a story, not content to just tell us information but draws us into the relational life. A good novelist deepens our participation in reality, heightens our awareness for these unspoken, often relational, silences and hiddennesses that make up the texture of our lives.

I would urge you, if you are not a novel reader, start being one, so that you are trained in this imaginative way of dealing with language…. But make sure they are good. A bad novelist destroys relationship. You just end up with these little wooden stereotyped figures. There’s a lot of that writing going on today.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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14 Responses to The Novelist as Listener, by Eugene Peterson

  1. LarkLeaf says:

    While I’m not a huge fan of the Message version, I must say I love this take on story. It’s so refreshing to to hear a defense of something I’m very passionate about. I’ve often felt as though being a novelist or a writer of fairy tales was something looked down on; not quite as estimable as other professions, or even other types of authors. And yet, stories ARE that important; more powerful than we realize.
    I was especially struck by the idea of a good novelist being one who heightens our awareness, and deepens our participation in reality. It reminded me of that quote of Alistair McGrath’s, that stories can be two things– a spectacle, something to be looked at and enjoyed in its own right, but also a pair of spectacles– something that we look through, that changes the way we see things.

    Thanks for posting this. It was very encouraging. 🙂


    • Dear Larkleaf! I have not seen you online for a while. Thanks so much for reading this.
      I loved this too and listened to it over and over again. I also love that he is not a novelists or fairy captain or anything. He is a storyteller, but not in fiction typically. He is truly an ally of those of us who step of the “reality” path.
      Of course, in creating fiction we aren’t leaving reality. We are engaging with it in new ways.


      • LarkLeaf says:

        Yes, I’ve just started to get back into the swing of things recently. But although I haven’t been too active in the blogosphere, A Pilgrim in Narnia has continued to be one of the very few blogs that I actually take the time to read when a new post is published.
        I’ll be sure to look more into Mr. Peterson’s thoughts on this subject, and others. This definitely has me intrigued.


  2. Bill says:

    “We live in a society that is just relentlessly—relentlessly!—taking the story out, removing the story and leaving us with facts. With information.”

    This rings so true to me. “Facts” and “information,” it seems to me, are insufficient to tell the stories that need telling.


  3. orthodoxmom3 says:

    “we are listening for the relationships, the things that are unsaid that are part of the story, the silences” – I just love how you wrote this Brenton! This is so very true. A writer observes what’s going on around us and listen and hear those things that are unsaid…and see what’s unseen to the average observer and listener. I love this post!


  4. orthodoxmom3 says:

    Okay, so I read this early in the morning after one of my nights of not sleeping… So I guess Peterson said that, not you- unless you are paraphrasing? But it’s lovely just the same and so right on! 🙂


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