“A Day’s Journey into Nineveh” – How Theology is Rooted in Geography

Pastoral work is local: Nineveh. The difficulty in carrying it out is that we have a universal gospel but distressingly limited by time and space. We are under command to go into all the world to proclaim the gospel to every creature. We work under the large rubrics of heaven and hell. And now we find ourselves in a town of three thousand people on the far edge of Kansas, in which the library is underbudgeted, the radio station plays only country music, the high school football team provides all the celebrities the town can manage, and a covered-dish supper is the high point in congregational life.

It is hard for a person who has been schooled in the urgencies of apocalyptic and with an imagination furnished with saints and angels to live in this town very long and take part in its conversations without getting a little impatient, growing pretty bored, and wondering if it wasn’t an impulsive mistake to abandon that ship going to Tarshish.

We start dreaming of greener pastures. We preach BIG IDEA sermons. Our voices take on a certain stridency as our anger and disappointment at being stuck in this place begin to leak into our discourse.

Now is the time to rediscover the meaning of the local, and in terms of church, the parish. All churches are local. All pastoral work takes place geographically. ‘If you would do good,’ wrote William Blake, ‘you must do it in Minute Particulars.’ When Jonah began his proper work, he went a day’s journey into Nineveh. He didn’t stand at the edge and preach at them; he entered into the midst of their living – heard what they were saying, smelled the cooking, picked up the colloquialisms, lived ‘on the economy,’ not aloof from it, not superior to it.

The gospel is emphatically geographical. Place names – Sinai, Hebron, Machpelah, Shiloh, Nazareth, Jezreel, Samaria, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Bethsaida – these are embedded in the gospel. All theology is rooted in geography.

Pilgrims to biblical lands find that the towns in which David camped and Jesus lived are no better or more beautiful or more exciting than their hometowns.

The reason we get restless with where we are and want, as we say, ‘more of a challenge’ or ‘a larger field of opportunity’ has nothing to do with prophetic zeal or priestly devotion; it is the product of spiritual sin. The sin is generated by the virus of gnosticism.

Gnosticism is the ancient but persistently contemporary perversion of the gospel that is contemptuous of place and matter. It holds forth that salvation consists in having the right ideas, and the fancier the better. It is impatient with restrictions of place and time and embarrassed by the garbage and disorder of everyday living. It constructs a gospel that majors in fine feelings embellished by sayings of Jesus. Gnosticism is also impatient with slow-witted people and plodding companions and so always ends up being highly selective, appealing to an elite group of people who are ‘spiritually deep,’ attuned to each other, and quoting a cabal of experts.

The gospel, on the other hand, is local intelligence, locally applied, and plunges with a great deal of zest into the flesh, into matter, into place – and accepts whoever happens to be on the premises as the people of God. One of the pastor’s continuous tasks is to make sure that these conditions are honored: this place just as it is, these people in their everyday clothes, ‘a particularizing love for local thing, rising out of local knowledge and local allegiance.’

Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, p. 128-130.

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