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.