Amy Peterson, Where Goodness Still Grows: Reclaiming Virtue in an Age of Hypocrisy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2020), 197 pages including notes.
Fifteen years ago, I read Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue by Paul Woodruff. Since then, I’ve read it several times and have spent considerable energy thinking about virtues. Perhaps this itch drew me to this book. In this age when truth seems so elusive, we need to have a conversation about virtue and how to ground society in that which is good.
In her Introduction, Peterson writes about growing up in an evangelical Christian home in the later part of the 20th Century. As a teenager, she watched as church leaders lambasted President Clinton as unfit for office. As a child, she was nurtured with stories of virtue collected by William Bennett. Later, she served a missionary stint in Southeast Asia. But she began questioning what she had been taught. The watershed moment was the election of Donald Trump and the flipflop of evangelical leaders who accepted or willingly forgave Trump’s behavior. She began to question if those who claimed to be virtuous in the 90s were only doing so as a way to “preserve power and keep everyone in place.” This soul-searching led Peterson to “reimage” a world built on Biblical virtues. And, it appears, her faith has become stronger and grounded more firmly in the Biblical tradition.
What a virtuous world might look like:
Where Goodness Still Grows is Peterson’s attempt to outline what a virtuous world might look like. She explores nine spheres, as she tells her own story as well as digging deep into the Biblical story and the story of others. Lament is the first area explored. Having been steeped in “praise services,” lament becomes a useful tool for crying out to God for what is wrong in our world.
The second area explore is kindness. She breaks apart the word that has evolved from an Old English concept of maintaining one’s position along the economic ladder. This leads her to come to an uncomfortable understanding about how her parents and grandparent’s “kindness” provided her with a status not enjoyed by many within minority groups. Her Biblical understanding of kindness requires her to see God’s image in everyone and may possibly require a redistribution wealth.
Peterson explores includes hospitality, where she questions how evangelicals can be so against immigration.
Purity and Modesty
She challenges the evangelical church’s link to purity and modesty only to sexuality. She finds no support for this within scripture. the Bible ties purity to the Temple. Modesty is often about not flaunting wealth. By linking modesty to how women dress, is to miss the Biblical view and also to create a low standard for men who need to have women dress themselves in a modest manner to keep their “animal instincts’ in check.
Peterson recalls her desire to be authentic. Within the church she grew up in, praying spontaneously was viewed as authentic. Rote prayers were inauthentic. As she matured (and later found a home within the Episcopal Church), she understood a different view of authenticity. Writing about authenticity, she comes back to the evangelical support of Trump. She believes his ability to be spontaneous and having fresh ideas drew evangelicals. Instead, Peterson ties Biblical authenticity to being a disciple of Christ, clothed with the virtues of Colossians 3:12. However, this does not mean that one can’t be authentic if one isn’t a believer.God’s image allows us the ability to be authentic. At the end of the chapter, she makes the case that spontaneity shouldn’t be tied to authenticity within the church. “Authentic Christians” practice daily the role given. We are sinners, “saved by and growing in grace.”
Love and Hope
Another areas Peterson explores is love. She finds love often contradicted in evangelism training that tended, in her experience, to objectify others. Another area is discernment. We cannot logically prove everything. There must be room for mystery. Finally, she investigates hope through an extended metaphor of raising chickens, which gives her a whole new understanding on Jesus’ lament on how he’d like to be a mother hen and protect Jerusalem under his wings. As a mother, this image is powerful for Peterson. Her chickens and other “homesteading” projects helps her understand our humanity. There is hope in being “gathered like children under a mother’s wing.”
In her introduction, Peterson suggests that her work isn’t the “definitive answer about virtue.” But she hopes it will raise questions. This she does. Peterson also leaves those of us who have never brought into a more simplistic view of the world as presented by fundamentalist Christianity with a little more hope. Hopefully, her book will encourage Christians to think about truth and what God wants for our world. If you read this book, I’m curious as to your take on it.