Traveling Light, by Eugene Peterson
Grace and I have been free-basing on The West Wing the past month. Having got hold of the box set of the complete series a few months back we had been steadily working our way through episodes, and then by the time we got to the last couple of seasons lost all self-control. This means I have been doing rather less reading than I should have been, but one book I have managed to get through is Traveling Light – Eugene Peterson’s meditations on the book of Galatians.
I like the way Peterson writes. I have previously reviewed Eat This Book in which Peterson tells the story of how his Message paraphrase of the Bible was born. The Message started from a desire to preach Galatians in a way that would make Peterson’s congregation sit up and take notice. He wanted them to understand how the gospel leads us into radical freedom, and not just let the words roll over them as spiritual platitudes. Peterson’s first attempts at rendering Galatians in contemporary idiom run through Traveling Light, and it is fascinating to see how he then unpacks Paul’s message.
The basic framework of the book is that we humans want freedom, and seek it in all kinds of places, but the only sure place to find it is in Christ. Perversely, Christians, who should be the freest of all people, too often fail to live in their freedom. He wants us to grasp Paul’s fury at the Galatians ransoming their freedom, and to open our eyes to the danger we are in of doing the same. This quote pretty much sums it up:
We might fairly suppose that a congregation of Christians, well stocked with freedom stories – stories of Abraham, Moses, David, Samson, Deborah, Daniel – would not for a moment countenance any teaching that would suppress freedom. We might reasonably expect that a group of people who from infancy have been told stories of Jesus setting people free and who keep this Jesus at the center of their attention in weekly worship, would be sensitive to any encroachment of their freedom. We might think that a people that has at the very heart of its common experience release from sin’s guilt into the Spirit’s freedom, a people who no longer lives under the tyranny of emotions or public opinion or bad memories, but freely in hope and in faith and in love – that these people would be critically alert to anyone or anything that would suppress their newly acquired spontaneity.
But in fact the community of faith, the very place where we are most likely to experience the free life, is also the very place where we are in most danger of losing it.
Peterson explores these dangers and how we can avoid them, and does a good job of it. He puts his finger on the problem nicely – that the freedom we are offered in Christ is so radical, so liberating, that it is seen as dangerous. Like prisoners released from a long jail term we fear recidivism and so clamp down on freedom – a rule here, a condition there – and soon religion creates another prison for us. We forget that the reason we obey God is not in order to gain his favour but because we have experienced his favour already. We start to look for security with,
little borrowings from the past, inconspicuous compromises with the environment: an Egyptian calf-god, a Judaistic circumcision, sentimentalized prayers, stereotyped emotions, formula explanations.
Paul’s answer to this is shocking: “Go castrate yourself!” We need to let this shock us out of comfortable religion and into a dangerous, but wonderfully free, faith in Jesus Christ.
A good book. I recommend it.