Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society
Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1980 .
The famous atheist and critic of Christianity, Friedrich Nietzsche, once wrote,
“The essential thing “in heaven and earth” is. . . . that there should be a long obedience in the same direction.”
This quote is the epitaph of the book and gives it its title. Not every classic of Christian literature can boast a title from one of its fiercest opponents. Eugene Peterson suggests that Nietzsche may have been more correct than he understood. It may be a scandalous thing to say in this day and age, but becoming something is not a matter of anything that can be accomplished quickly or by simply saying so. I can say I am a great basketball player all day long; I can even put on the correct apparel, dribble and shoot the ball in the direction of the net without too much time spent, but anyone with any familiarity with basketball who watches me play will not mistake me for anything that even resembles such a proclamation. Eugene Peterson’s title suggests that this logic is also true of faith.
The organizing principle of this book is the psalms of ascent (Pss. 120-134). In each of these psalms Peterson finds a theme of discipleship: repentance, worship, service, happiness, humility, etc. So each chapter is a kind of homily, a short 10 pages or so on each topic using the psalm as the baseline for the reflection.
The book works on two levels corresponding to the title and subtitle. At the ground level this book is a handbook on discipleship like many others available organized around a clever theme (the psalms of ascent) and accessible due to Peterson’s simple writing style, deep insight, and brevity. It is a book on “discipleship (in an instant society)” rather than a sustained analysis on the idea of “a long obedience in the same direction.” This book is about discipleship themes, not a theory of spiritual formation (at least directly).
From a higher level, Peterson’s overarching theme in reflecting on the individual themes of discipleship is this “long obedience.” By trying to place these themes outside of the immediacy- and self-centered context of modern society, Peterson produces a view of the Christian life that rings with authenticity even when it is not necessarily appealing. For instance, he writes on worship:
We think that if we don’t feel something there can be no authenticity in doing it. But the wisdom of God says something different: that we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker than we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting. Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship. (54)
I think this book, like many of Peterson’s books, will be something of a classic, or at least endure longer than your average book on discipleship, if only because Peterson has real insight here. Only a handful of pages don’t have some profound observation highlighted or otherwise marked. So in some respects, what “sticks” about this book is the way it is a sound orientation to the Christian faith.
The other thing that stuck is Peterson’s appeals to the psalms. Admittedly, the psalms of ascent have not always been my favorite, and it has been in hard in past readings to identify with them deeply. Peterson deftly brings out the wisdom of these psalms, and encourages us not only to learn from them, but to learn how to pray them. I think Peterson would want that from his reader: for his reflections to lead us to pray these psalms perhaps for the first time, or at least with renewed interest in how these psalms convey the deeper truths of our world.
There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness. (16)
There are many things about Christianity that are scandalous. This ancient, largely universal piece of wisdom that Christianity defends is one of them: to become something involves a long, consistent, obedience. The inner life is not nearly as interesting as the enthusiasm for spirituality in our day and age suggests. Or perhaps it is fun to talk about and explore, but not nearly as much fun to practice. Perhaps this is why the notion of reading books, and especially books of greater intellectual difficulty, is out of fashion among Christians (and folks in general I suspect). A book can be interesting based on its title and summary—we like the idea of reading books maybe, or having the authority that comes from having read them—but after the first 10 or 20 pages we lose motivation, put the books down, and move on to more interesting tasks. And is this not a microcosm of our faith?