Book Review – Working the angles. Eugene Peterson.
Pastors, Christian leaders and all the Disciples of Christ are not immune from the influences of pressures of the culture they live in. In “Working the Angles” Peterson presents a platform with some of the basic resources that need revisiting in the pastoral ministry. The author’s intention is to provide the readers not with a remedy but rather the diagnosis which might shake off some dust of the institutionalised and professionalised American pastors in the late 80’.
His description of pastoral ministry uses a trigonometric metaphor of a triangle where he contrasts the noticeability of the lines versus the angles. The lines would be the obvious ones such as preaching, teaching and administration whereas the angles would be prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction.
By passionately dedicating three chapters to each of these three disciplines Peterson unfolds his biblical understanding and leaves it with the reader to come to terms with their meaning and significance for them individually. Pastoral work disconnected from the three angles cannot be given its shape by God. Working the angles is what gives shape and integrity to the daily work of pastors”.
With a distinct emphasis on Psalms, Peterson develops his argument on the first angle of pastoral integrity- prayer. He provides some good historical and theological basis and by adding his own approach in observing Sabbath he develops with a “free hand” (if there is such a thing) an exegesis of Psalm 92, where “praying and playing” belong together. Playing and praying (the Psalms) have vitalized and protected the author’s attentiveness to God therefore he will not compromise his allegiance to the biblical teaching on Sabbath.
The second angle of the ministry highlights one’s attitude towards the centrality of Scripture reading, in which metaphorically we are “Turning Eyes into Ears” . For Peterson, listening for the voice of the God who speaks after reading a passage should be the ultimate goal. He illustrates the opposite by his remarks on pastors that have turned their studies into ‘stills,’ illegal distilleries that extract ideas and morals from the teeming narrative of Scripture” . Rightly so, he addresses commercialization and consumerism dangerously impacting our approach to the Scriptures by what we want to “get” from reading them. Again, sharing his own experience of how sometimes he would be looking for passages to meet different needs of his ministry where instead should have been listening to the voice of God.
The third angle of the pastoral integrity is the discipline of spiritual direction. “It takes place when two people agree to give their full attention to what God is doing in one (or both) of their lives and seek to respond in faith” Peterson points out that as much as there are issues in the understanding of the terminology (he does not mind what you call it as long as you call it something), pastors consequently are involved in this task yet not prioritize it for its significance. As strange as the need for it may sound, is it helpful to see how in his own spiritual formation it has been an on -going process marked with calibration through a friend in the theological context. He dedicates the last chapter to five pastors that failed badly in their spiritual direction with George Fox because of their own insecurities and their understanding of this particular discipline. If only they would have known that one of the unconscious reasons why persons seek conversation with pastors is to keep company with God.
How these angles marked the life of Jesus, the Good Pastor is ambiguous. He always synchronised with His Father through prayer. Jesus was the Word of God and dwelt amongst us. In the raising of Lazarus, He expected God to act and reveal Himself inconceivably as Jesus directed individuals and crowds spiritually.
Even though he writes about Philip in the “Gaza notes” another helpful reflection would have been on how the other Disciples worked out these angles in their lives. There are several occasions in Acts and Epistles of how they prayed, how they listened and responded to Scripture and how they cultivated awareness of God’s action, purpose and design in their own lives and of the individuals they ministered to.
I would like to challenge the triangle and by suggesting a different geometrical figure with some more additional angles to the ones that Peterson has neatly established already. My first suggestion is the reliance on the Holy Spirit. If this is not an angle, it is not a line either because it is not the end result but rather the core role in any follower of Christ. He is the indwelling Spirit of power and of truth, He is the Helper, the Counsellor and any Christian discipline cannot happen without His input.
The second suggestion has to do with mission. One cannot dialogue with a missional God, cannot interact with Scripture that never turn unto God void, or cannot cultivate awareness of God’s active love and be the same again. Mission is at the very heart of a pastoral God.
My last suggestion has to do with the cost of discipleship which Jesus Himself challenges his followers with: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” . Peterson’s underlying theme constantly points to the pastoral integrity that to happen the self-denial and the cross and can be a daily pit stop for anyone following Christ including pastors and Christian leaders.
All in all it is a well thought and well written book which is a wakeup call for the pastoral vocation. The style which he presents his argument is very pastoral, easy to follow and quite logical which fits very well with his geometrical analogy. The use of appropriate illustrations is very helpful but his life examples speak louder than anything even though the Peterson has not sussed out how his addressing could translate in different church contexts other than the American one.