About This Blog

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

"Run With the Horses" (Eugene Peterson)

TITLE: Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best
AUTHOR: Eugene Peterson
PUBLISHER: Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2019, (232 pages).

This is one of Eugene Peterson's best books. Based on the life of the biblical prophet Jeremiah, Peterson gives us a counter-cultural view of what "life at its best" means. We live in a world that measures success by all the wrong variables. We think that becoming rich and famous would lead us to happiness. We devour non-stop programs and busy ourselves with all sorts of activism to try to get a sense of fulfillment but to no avail. We think of excellence based on the wrong standards of measurements. At the root of our restlessness is our unsettled soul. By refusing that ordinary and normal is good enough, we embark on all kinds of projects to intensify our search for self-accomplishment. Peterson turns it all around to say that "excellence comes from a life of faith, from being more interested in God than in self, and has almost nothing to do with comfort or esteem or achievement."

Not only that, as Peterson had alluded to how the world influence us, we are reminded about how our quest for excellence had become ambitions clouded with all manner of selfishness and worldliness. So he goes back to an Old Testament prophet who experienced emotional turmoil and discouragement at critical junctures on his time. It was in one of these moments that God challenged him:
"If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country,how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?" (Jer 12:5)

Popular motivational gurus would say things like "When the going gets tough, the tough gets going." They could also say that success comes with strength and grit or other inspirational quips to whip one back into contention. These formulas work for some but usually for a brief moment. Unfortunately, when one's need for such mantras become chronic, one questions the long-term benefits of positive thinking. What if we could turn it around and recognize that we cannot help ourselves. We are unable to run the long race on our own strength. There is something we could do and many other things way beyond our control, even our will. He shows us that Jeremiah's story takes us on a totally different direction. It is about God helping us to write our own stories of faith. He enables us to be original to God and not copycats of the world. In other words, Peterson writes that the image of man is essentially "the intensity to intensify a passion for excellence combined with an indifference to human achievement." 

How then do we live a life of excellence? Like a well-honed pastor and student of the Bible, Peterson brings us back to the identity question. Who is Jeremiah? The name points out the essence of the person's life. Neither roles nor achievements should define us. Our names should be the first thing with regard to knowing ourselves before we know how we can excel. Peterson notes how the name of Jeremiah is directly connected to God. In other words, Jeremiah's call is to the LORD. The more Jeremiah is connected to God, the more he becomes the best version of himself. There are reasons for this. First, it was God who created man, and obviously that means God knows what we are created for. Second, God knows the limitations of human beings. Learning to see from God's perspective also means a greater understanding of the limits of one's being. In fact, Peterson takes us further by saying that our relationship with God is not an "add-on" but the primary essence of understanding who we are. Third, Jeremiah's calling and purpose is intricately linked to his self-understanding. Without knowing his identity, how would he know his purpose? Without knowing his purpose, how would he know how to excel? As a skillful word-smith, Peterson answers all three simultaneously. Not only that, he seamlessly moves between the Old Testament story of Jeremiah and our modern cultural contexts to show us not only how relevant the life of Jeremiah is but also how much we could learn to be counter-cultural for our times. 

My Thoughts
My first thought is that this book looks like a collection of sermons on the life of Jeremiah. Following a short passage from the book of Jeremiah, and a brief quotation to set the tone of the chapter, Peterson launches into chapter with an insight, a story, or an observation about life. It reflects his preaching style which is expository. Slowly, he shows the reader on the importance of understanding one's identity and not to let the world define us. This he is able to do with such effect that one would have to pause to let the words sink in. One of the most powerful segments has to do with the nature of a prophet and the purpose of religion, in which he brings us back to the purpose of our created beings:
"The task of a prophet is not to smooth things over but to make things right. The function of religion is not to make people feel good but to make them good."
Secondly, Peterson does not hold back from criticizing the culture of excess and self-conceit. His very first chapter pins down the tragedy of mediocre living that is trapping people in. That is the major barrier to our own growth toward excellence. More often than not, he makes self-application to remind himself that he too is vulnerable to the very traps he writes against. In the chapter about the potter's house, he compares and contrasts the two different perspectives of pottery and portraits. Frequently, these things are used by the world for efficacy purposes and miss out the beauty and the nature of the pottery and portraits themselves. Even the brown paper bag has become a way to describe this difference. This reminds me of how the world is becoming infatuated with the cheap and the pragmatic. When this happens, we see objects only as a means to an end, instead of learning to appreciate the thing for what it is. Very subtly, we are reminded that how we treat things could also translate into how we treat people.

Thirdly, I must say that this is one of the best books written by the late Eugene Peterson. With deep reverence for the Word of God, he combs the life of Jeremiah looking for gems to share with us. Very few people are able to do what he has done. Peterson has written many books, but this remains high in the list of my favourites.

Eugene Peterson was an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church (USA). From 1993 to 1998, he served as the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College. A prolific author, he is also an extremely popular pastor and professor with full-time ministers and students.
Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Inter-Varsity Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

No comments:

Post a Comment