The presence of this review is not to be construed as an endorsement of recent comments attributed to Eugene Peterson regarding matters related to gender and sexuality. I profoundly disagree with those views as reported in the press.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society
Intervarsity Press; 20th Anniversary edition (Sept. 20 2006)
Now retired, Eugene Peterson is probably best known for his award-winning paraphrase of the Bible, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, published in segments from 1993-2002 (NavPress). He was the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church (Bel Air, Maryland) where he served 29 years, followed by an extended tenure as James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College (Vancouver, BC, Canada). Peterson is a prolific author and poet, having written over thirty books on pastoral ministry and Christian living.
I was first introduced to Peterson’s work through his book Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Eerdmans, 1989). Twenty years later, it still ranks as one of my favorites on pastoral ministry.
Shortly after reading, Working the Angles, I picked up Peterson’s, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society – a series of meditations on the Songs of Ascent – Psalms 120-134. First published in 1980, and revised and expanded in a 20th anniversary edition (IVP Books, 2000), has sold more than 200,000 copies. (I still have my original 1980 edition – well-read and marked.)
At its heart, pastoral work involves making disciples – leading individuals to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, equipping them to live obedient, God-honoring lives. As the title implies – A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society – discipleship is a challenging lifelong project for the one doing the discipling and the one being discipled.
Discipleship, in Peterson’s view, is a major challenge because our culture assumes:
… anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments.
It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. Millions of people in our culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate. Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim. In our kind of culture anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap. There is a great market for religious experience in our world.
In the pastoral work of training people in discipleship and accompanying them in pilgrimage, I have found, tucked away in the Hebrew Psalter, an old dog-eared songbook. I have used it to provide continuity in guiding others in the Christian way, and directing people of faith in the conscious and continuous effort which develops into maturity in Christ. The old songbook is called … the Songs of Ascent … the psalms numbered 120 through 134 in the book of Psalms.
While there are several views as to why these psalms are named Songs of Ascent, Peterson embraces one of the more widely held views – these 15 psalms were sung by Hebrew pilgrims as they made their way up to Jerusalem for the festivals that reminded Israel of God’s intervention in their lives – freeing them from slavery in Egypt and forming them into a nation.
This is not an expositional commentary on psalms 120-134, but rather a reflective reading of each psalm, teasing out major themes related to living as faithful disciples – “worship, service, joy, work, happiness, humility, community and blessing” (publisher’s blurb). I found the book both encouraging and challenging – so much so that I have preached a series of Sunday sermons on these psalms in two of the congregations I have served as pastor. Some of these messages can be accessed at the website of Fellowship Baptist Church in Cobourg, Ontario where I currently serve as Interim Lead Pastor.
If you want to grasp the long-term nature of discipleship, Peterson’s book is a good choice. Don’t look for quick prescriptions or tidy formulas for Christian living, that’s not Peterson’s style. He offers thought-provoking challenges to persevere as a disciple of Christ as a pilgrim in an alien culture. He encourages a long obedience in the same direction.