January 25, 2021

Eugene Peterson: Virtuoso Spirituality


What comes next is very important: I am sending what my Father promised to you, so stay here in the city until he arrives, until you’re equipped with power from on high.

• Luke 24:49, MSG

• • •

Pentecost is the next great Sunday on the Christian calendar: it falls this Sunday for the Western Church and on May 31 for the East. The Holy Spirit has always been one of the great mysteries of our faith and throughout church history entire movements have been devoted to trying to capture the essence of the Spirit-filled life.

Today, I want to share a passage from Eugene Peterson, whom I have found to be a reliable guide for my life in Christ. This passage is from his book, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. Though it doesn’t speak of the Spirit directly, I find it to be one of the most enlightening texts I have read describing what, it seems to me, the Holy Spirit has come to do in our lives as Christ-followers.

See what you think. Let’s talk about this as we prepare to celebrate Pentecost.

Virtuoso Spirituality

Frances Young uses the extended analogy of music and its performance to provide a way of understanding the interrelated complexities of reading and living the Holy Scriptures, what John experienced as eating the book. Her book Virtuoso Theology searches out what she names as “the complex challenges involved in seeking authenticity in performance.” It is of the very nature of music that it is to be performed. Can music that is not performed be called “music”? Performance, though, does not consist in accurately reproducing the notes in the score as written by the composer, although it includes this. Everyone recognizes the difference between an accurate but wooden performance of, say, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 1, and a virtuoso performance by Yitzak Perlman. Perlman’s performance is not distinguished merely by his technical skill in reproducing what Mozart composed; he wondrously enters into and conveys the spirit and energy — the “life” — of the score. Significantly, he adds nothing to the score, neither “jot nor tittle.” Even though he might reasonably claim that, with access to the interrelated psychologies of music and sexuality, he understands Mozart much better than Mozart understood himself, he restrains himself; he does not interpolate.

One of the continuous surprises of musical and dramatic performance is the sense of fresh spontaneity that comes in the performance: faithful attention to the text does not result in slavish effacement of personality; rather, it releases what is inherent in the text itself as the artist performs; “music has to be ‘realized’ through performance and interpretation.”

Likewise Holy Scripture. The two analogies, performing the music and eating the book, work admirably together. The complexity of the performance analogy supplements the earthiness of the eating analogy (and vice versa) in directing the holy community to enter the world of Holy Scripture formationally.

But if we are “unscripted,” Alasdair McIntyre’s word in this context, we spend our lives as anxious stutterers in both our words and actions. But when we do this rightly — performing the score, eating the book, embracing the holy community that internalizes the text — we are released into freedom: “I will run in the way of thy commandments when thou enlargest my understanding” (Ps. 119:32).

• Eugene Peterson
Eat This Book, p. 76f

There are many things I love about this and how it speaks to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

  • The Spirit is closely linked with the Word, reminding me that my relationship with God is a conversational one. As in all relationships we deepen our friendship by listening and speaking to one another. It is my special place to listen in this relationship.
  • God’s Word, however, is not just a “rule book” to be slavishly followed. It is a text to be performed in life by individuals and communities with personalities, contexts, gifts, and unique perspectives.
  • The Word has no actual value except in performance. The Story calls us to live within it, to carry it on, to live it out.
  • In reality, we add nothing to the Word. However, the “sound” of the Word that emanates from each individual’s and community’s performance brings out fresh nuances and perspectives that can make it “new” and invigorating, no matter how many times we hear it.
  • When we “perform” the Word with virtuosity, having not only “learned” it but having also “internalized” it, we then “interpret” it through our performance in such a way that it does not, in the end, draw attention to ourselves, but to the spirit and energy — the “life” — of the score itself.

It is the work of the Holy Spirit in us that enables us to “perform” the Word in our daily lives. I’m not one who thinks of this process as merely monergistic. We actively participate in it, we “work,” we cooperate, we practice, we learn, we internalize, we grow. It is a messy process filled with failures and setbacks. Any sense of “progress” may be invisible to us. It’s a lot like life and nothing at all like a mechanical process of production. Disciples are not made, but grown.

Seems to me that I spend a lot of time learning the notes. I probably should be doing more performances. Putting it out there, in front of the audience. Playing the music. Letting it live.


  1. It’s much easier being a reviewer critic.

  2. How should I put it. How would you know. If it were a man who could not ever speak in front of others. Yet in the love of God got up in front of many and spoke. When finished people were walking around talking to themselves and some tried to touch him and others fell backwards and hit the ground. The joy indescribable moving through him to the point of shaking. Yet while talking complete calmness like he had never known.

    How do you taste of such things and move back. How does anything else come close to filling in this way. Yet this wasn’t him was it. There must be a way made doesn’t there. Oh wait it is in the first step. The one that says I will. Now for some it depends on having everything right. Yet for some it depends on just moving and taking that dare. Right or wrong here we go. So when we make mistakes a plenty and wonder where is the grace and kindness of the master. Wait didn’t they move before the gift. Before they even knew what the spirit was.

    I knew a man way over his head. He didn’t know what he was doing. His young family needed to eat so he said he could do it. Prayed to God for help to guide his hands. First couple of days looked like things would crash down upon his head. After the first week and help from those he knew there was a way and everyone from that point forward left him work. Now he thanks God continually for all he has because he knows it was Him. The wealth though isn’t material it is inward as it has grown beyond anything that this man could ever know. So it is with love and the spirit for we are not forsaken. We are loved. Be loved.

    Now it would seem easier to be a critic but in the end it is much harder not to move after already having moved. Lord have mercy on me I need you more now than I ever did.

  3. We were speaking on that same subject in Sunday School this past Sunday, but I used B.B. King as an example instead of Mozart and Perlman. King recorded some of the songs done by numerous artists but with a different performance. Same songs, same notes, and often a MUCH different vibe.

    We are destined to be “conformed to His image”, but that does not mean we will all LOOK like Christ but, rather, we will all exhibit the spirit and qualities of Christ filtered through our own life experience, talents, personalities, etc. By “eating the book” we spiritually ingest the ingredients which are assimilated into our beings, expressing themselves in our outward persons.

    Just as we cannot will our bodies into good health, so, in the same manner, we cannot will ourselves to be a “good Christian”. It is something that proceeds from the Spirit work in us, provided it has the “ingredients” to assimilate and express. Just spending 3+ years with Jesus wasn’t enough to make the disciples into who they later became, it took Pentecost.

  4. Burro [Mule] says

    Pentecost is this Sunday for the Westerners, right?

    Tomorrow is Ascension Day for us, so that makes sense.

  5. This is so-o-o rich with grace, that I am lacking in words EXCEPT THANKSGIVING ! (So amazing is one of my favorite writers, Eugene Petersen.) YET what is so amazing is God who uses whatever instruments to reveal His mysteries to those who seek. May we be blessed to the glory of God.

  6. Christiane says

    “It is the work of the Holy Spirit in us that enables us to “perform” the Word in our daily lives.”

    Sometimes, a profound deepening in our longing for God will, for a time, outdistance our awareness of His Presence.
    Being enabled to ‘cooperate’ with ‘the Word’ can help us find the way back to peace:

    “Stand at the crossroads and look;
    ask for the ancient paths,
    ask where the good way is,
    and walk in it,
    and you will find rest for your souls.”

    Jeremiah 6:16

  7. I can approach my life as a follower of statutes, trying to keep the rules to gain or maintain good standing as I often find myself subtlly doing. The thought of approaching it as mastery of an instrument is far more exciting. It calls for creativity and imagination and that’s a life-giving experience. I love the thoughts in this post. Great stuff.

  8. God’s Word, however, is not just a “rule book” to be slavishly followed. It is a text to be performed in life by individuals and communities with personalities, contexts, gifts, and unique perspectives.

    Let’s see if I can reconstruct a thought I had earlier today…

    There are many rules in the Bible. Statements we take to be rules, for instance, things like the Ten Commandments. From these, we build up a Law, whereby for many theological systems, even one infraction is enough to send you out of the camp, make you unclean, damn you for all eternity, etc. Some would go so far as to say you are already damned for being born and before you are accountable you’ve broken them.

    But there are also often exceptions to these rules. To some, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is exceptioned when it’s the state killing a convict, or one nation at war with another, or in self-defense. To some, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ is exceptioned when there is spousal abuse, rape, or other forms of abuse, and one or both parties divorces the other and eventually remarries. To some, ‘Honor your father and mother’ is exceptioned when parents are manipulative, harmful to self or others, and need to be emancipated from; one even said to go so far in your devotion as to hate your family.

    To tie it back into the quote above, maybe these aren’t rules. They may have been used as rules at one point, if not remembered from various tribal oral sources, to maintain law and order in a large gathering, frequently moving, nation tribal state entity. But they aren’t rules. They are, however, guidelines or similar. We see them in the lives of others: truly godly people did these types of things and didn’t do these types of things, but there is never a consensus as to what a single solidified plan looks like. There are things written down to be performed in life by individuals and communities with personalities, contexts, gifts, and unique perspectives.

    And that’s probably a good thing. It leaves room for the spirit of the law/grace/Christ to work. We are like him in many ways even if we are not him, not necessarily like each other. There’s room for someone to give away all worldly possessions and travel the world helping the poor, as well as someone richer than most of us stepping up to the table and convincing the powers that be to help the poor. There’s room for someone who cusses and drinks like a sailor yet truly is closer than a brother, as well as someone who never drinks and attends church weekly who lifts up those afflicted behind bars.

    That’s the true beauty of the Church that I’m still captivated by. You recognize members of the Church when you see them. And they are beautiful.

    But that’s not what Christianity, in America, largely is anymore.

    • Tangent – Christ’s death and it’s relation to “the Law” aside, how many OT laws do not apply or ceased to apply as soon as Israel/Judah were no longer nations/states? Under Rome, for instance, how many laws applied to the Jews and subsequent Christians (Gentile or otherwise)? How many were done away with, and how many were added?

      Or under Babylon?
      Or Geneva?
      Or the United Kingdom?
      Or the United States?

  9. Thanks for reminding us of Pentecost Sunday. They were in an Upper Room. What must it have been like, so thrilling.

  10. Midwinter spring is its own season
    Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
    Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
    When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
    The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
    in windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
    Reflecting in a watery mirror
    A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
    And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
    Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
    In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
    The soul’s sap quivers. There is no earth smell
    Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
    But not in time’s covenant. Now the hedgerow
    Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
    Of snow, a bloom more sudden
    Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
    Not in the scheme of generation.
    Where is the summer, the unimaginable Zero summer?


    The dove descending breaks the air
    With flame of incandescent terror
    Of which the tongues declare
    The one dischage from sin and error.
    The only hope, or else despair
    Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
    To be redeemed from fire by fire.

    Who then devised the torment? Love.
    Love is the unfamiliar Name
    Behind the hands that wove
    The intolerable shirt of flame
    Which human power cannot remove.
    We only live, only suspire
    Consumed by either fire or fire.


    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.
    Through the unknown, unremembered gate
    When the last of earth left to discover
    Is that which was the beginning;
    At the source of the longest river
    The voice of the hidden waterfall
    And the children in the apple-tree
    Not known, because not looked for
    But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
    Between two waves of the sea.
    Quick now, here, now, always–
    A condition of complete simplicity
    (Costing not less than everything)
    And all shall be well and
    All manner of thing shall be well
    When the tongues of flames are in-folded
    Into the crowned knot of fire
    And the fire and the rose are one.

    -T S Eliot, Little Gidding, Four Quartets

    THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
    Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
    Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; 5
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
    Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

    And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; 10
    And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
    Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

    -Gerard Manley Hopkins, God’s Grandeur

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