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A Review Eugene Peterson’s Book Under the Unpredictable Plant – An Exploration in Vocational Holiness
By Mic Thurber
Some books I have read have a sort of timelessness about them. This is one of those books for me. It is also one of those books for which the Introduction (which I usually skim) is required reading because it not only sets up the premise of the book so well, it provides food for thought. There are no empty calories in this food. One example from the introduction –
“I take it as a given that all of us would prefer to be our own gods than to worship God. The Eden story is reenacted daily, not only generally in the homes and workplaces of our parishioners but quite particularly in the sanctuaries and offices, studies, and meeting rooms in which we do our work. The only difference in the dynamics of the serpent’s seduction in the explicitly religious workplace is that when pastors are seduced, our facility with the language provides us with a thesaurus of self-deceiving euphemisms. Our skill in handling religious concepts gives us above-average competence in phrasing things in such a way that our vocational shift from tending the Garden to running the Garden, our radical fall from vocational holiness to career idolatry, goes undetected by all but the serpent.”
In this book, Peterson opens a window into his own struggle for what he calls “vocational holiness.” And he is blunt, honest, and forthcoming about his own journey to, in his words, find “a spirituality adequate to my vocation,” concerned that he might be “abandoning his ordained vocation for a religious job.”
Once we have begun to abandon vocational holiness, the temptation for ministry to become our idol is real, and it is not easily discernible. It almost always starts with good intentions, of course, but that does not make the end result any less deadly. Peterson’s insights provide a clear mirror into which we can stare to face this issue within ourselves.
While I certainly don’t subscribe to everything he says, Peterson says so much that hits home that I cannot ignore his call for pastors to commit to vocational holiness. Using the story of Jonah as his biblical paradigm, he invites us to wrestle with the constant pull toward Tarshish and away from the Nineveh to which we are called along with him.
Of the many books which can play a useful role in one’s own “pastoral formation,” this one tops my personal list.
Mic Thurber is ministerial director for the Mid-America Union Conference