When a religious news site carried an interview with Eugene Peterson in which he was pushed on his views on homosexuality and during which he said that under some circumstances he might officiate at a same-sex wedding, Christian cyberspace went into overdrive.
I stayed quiet because, as a friend, I wanted to process the implications of such a statement and perhaps have the chance to contact him directly; but mainly because, knowing the man and trying to discern the context of the original interview, I fully expected a clarification or retraction to follow, as indeed it did.
Predictably, after his retraction, certain groups and individuals were as quick to prejudge his motives and insult him, as other people had been to denounce and condemn him a few days previously. But far and away the most ludicrous accusation is that Peterson was motivated by the threat of Christian publishers to withdraw his books. If you knew Peterson, what he cares about, and what he couldn’t care less about, you would realize how bizarre the accusation is.
Let me acknowledge first that I know I do not come at this neutrally. I write as a friend. He was my teacher and mentor. I participated at his inauguration into his academic chair by laying on hands and praying for him on behalf of the student population, and I know he and his wife Jan have prayed regularly for me and Gwen throughout my ministry. We have been guests in each others’ homes and correspondents over the years, although this has decreased a little recently due to distance and his admirable (if frustrating) abstinence from electronic communication. Have I always agreed with him? Of course not, but since when has that ever been the case among friends?
Nevertheless, I trust friendship does not disqualify me from objective critique. I am also aware that some others I have learned from and admired have changed their minds on this issue and I am well aware of Pauls’ warning in Gal.1:8 that even the words of an angel from heaven should not cause us to waver in our life or doctrine.
What Eugene Peterson doesn’t care about
It has been mentioned many times, and it is true, that Peterson really struggled with the celebrity status which the publication of The Message thrust upon him. On one of my visits I witnessed him thinking of creative ways he could dodge a Christian media organisation that was wanting to come and interview him on video when he would rather be out in the mountains with his guests. He writes persistently about the dangers of Christian celebrity, and the tag sat heavily on his shoulders. To think that his retraction was motivated by a reduction in potential speaking engagements (laying aside, for the moment, the fact that he is 84) or his status within the evangelical community (which was a little semi-detached in some circles anyway) just doesn’t compute.
I have often thought that if he hadn’t been a Presbyterian, he would have been a monk. He eschews email, he has never to my knowledge been on social media, and the only tweets he hears are in the trees around his Montana lakeside cabin. He is a writer and a contemplative.
I fondly remember him asking me on a visit a decade ago “Monty, have you ever heard of some Irish band ‘To You’ or something like that? My publisher says they want to talk to me and he thinks I should go to Chicago to see them. I mean, why would I want to go to Chicago to see some rock band?” (I imagine it wasn’t my stammering response, but rather the persistence of the band members themselves that led to him eventually meeting them some years later and their becoming good friends).
To call him naïve would be pejorative and undermine his great wisdom; but he is certainly detached from many of the things that you and I get concerned and worked up about. I believe that his decrying of celebrity culture meant he would have been genuinely shocked that such a furore could have arisen because people cared what he thought on a particular issue. Similarly his detachment from contemporary culture meant he was unlikely to have factored in how far his words would have spread and how quickly.
Political agenda and controversy
His dislike of celebrity status is magnified when it comes to people, especially preachers, being used by a group or lobby to give weight to a political agenda either in society at large or in the church. This would be true across the board: conservative/liberal; right/left. He is not a controversialist. In all of his 30 plus books and hundreds of sermons you would not find anything other than a presupposed endorsement of the orthodox historic view of what constitutes Christian marriage.
Which is why, if he was aware that his original interview had led to him becoming a new icon for a ‘progressive sexual agenda’, he would have been utterly appalled. Rightly or wrongly, he stayed out of church politics (and this, in a church decimated by political division on this issue). The thought that his retraction was motivated by one political group exerting more power than another, does an injustice to someone who was always his own man and steadfastly refused to be drawn into such battles.
Money and reputation
Peterson doesn’t need money. He is in his twilight years, and he has lived a life of generosity. Again, I remember him taking me to a cupboard in his home and saying, “They send me all these copies of my books and I don’t know what to do with them- take whatever you want”. He wrote because it was a vocation, he wrote because it flowed out of him. He would have written if he had never been published, and I can say with certainty that he would have issued his retraction regardless of any comments from a publisher. How do I know? I know, because there are so so many things he cares about more than book sales.
What Eugene Peterson does care about
As someone who has been immersed in the original languages for a lifetime, who has written commentaries, devotionals and prayers steeped in Scripture and whose very vocabulary whether lecturing in college or chatting by the fire, drips with Scriptural allusion, his original interview was strange in its lack of any reference to Scripture.
In the same way that I found it bizarre that someone who had written so extensively of the dangers of letting the culture into the church, should change his mind due to what was clearly a culturally-driven agenda, so too it was surprising that someone who was so Scripture-soaked should give an interview which referred only to personal experience and not to the text. This was telling in that, if there had been any Scriptural basis for same-sex unions, here would have been the place to hear him expound on it. The lack of Scriptural reference was also one of the reasons I was confident that a reflective Eugene Peterson would issue a retraction sooner rather than later.
The welfare and unity of the church
Eugene has always been a strong defender of historic Christian orthodoxy. The church catholic is his true home. He is as comfortable in his Pentecostal roots as he is in his local Lutheran congregation. He enjoys lecturing a bunch of Presbyterian students as much as a collection of Catholic nuns. He may be broader than many Evangelicals, but his credo and his spirit have always resonated an evangelical spirituality. If he became aware that his remarks had caused confusion, hurt or consternation among this broad family of Christian orthodoxy, he would have been undoubtedly upset. Such a possibility on its own would have prompted a rethink and a retraction.
It should go without saying that Eugene Peterson, as his autobiography makes clear, is first and foremost a pastor. He rails against unrelational preachers, against theology divorced from the earthy messiness of people’s lives, and against pastors who put personal prestige above the wellbeing of their flock. Knowing this I can understand compassionately how both his original interview and his retraction are perfectly consistent with the man.
The original interview was shoddily conducted with no space for the most basic of all differentiations on this issue- between orientation and practice – so that two people could read the same interview and interpret ‘gay’ in two different ways. But throughout the interview, up to and including the most problematic bit of all – the extensively qualified hypothetical situation of the same-sex wedding ceremony – what was clear was that Peterson’s mind was rolling along on a pastoral trajectory. He was thinking of real people. If he made a mistake (as I believe he clearly did) I will first want to understand why that happened. Rebecca K Reynolds in this blog demonstrates this quite perceptively. This process of understanding will not lead me to agree, but it may lead me to graciously avoid the step into intemperate condemnation.
That same pastoral concern that propelled him in the original interview is what would undoubtedly have governed his retraction when he realised on mature reflection the implications of his well-meaning but misguided answers. I think back to the aftermath of the Irish referendum on same-sex marriage when it appeared to me that some people voted the ‘right way’ for bad reasons (homophobia, bigotry, ignorance) while others voted the ‘wrong way’ for good reasons (pastoral concern, acceptance, friendship).
Weakness and courage
Instead of seeing his original interview as a moment of courage and his retraction as an act of weakness, as some have done; is it not more likely that his original interview contained a moment of weakness and his retraction was actually an act of courage, all too uncommon in a world where no-one likes to admit that they were wrong.
The whole episode is regrettable. I feel not a little anger that some are so obsessed with undermining the biblical and historic Christian view on this issue that they are willing to pursue an 84 year old man and push him into an irrelevant and hypothetical corner in order to claim another ‘name’ for their cause. Eugene Peterson has retired from public life, he will not be conducting any weddings, which makes the whole controversy so unnecessary. He himself admits that “’No’, is not a word I like to use very often”. In hindsight, if he had used it when asked for the interview, it would have saved him the dilemma of using it in the interview.
It is probably for the best that he is refusing all further interviews because, for the good of the church he loves, it is important that his legacy remains intact. That some people were even asking “can we still read him?”; or that others were suggesting that there should be some doubt about this, is pathetic and portrays an ignorance of church history and the reality that all of our heroes are jars of clay. In a wonderful blog that is valuable for its insights into wider issues, not just this particular one, Scott Sauls writes that when we drain away the bathwater of this interview, the baby (his writings and insights) still has a beautiful face.
Motivated by money? I think not. It’s always tempting to presume that everyone else will have the same weaknesses as we do. Just because we and many others may be motivated by money, is it fair to presume that everyone will be, especially when that person’s words and actions so clearly point in the opposite direction?
While the threatened removal of his books from the shelves of Christian booksellers (justified or not) will have had no role in Peterson’s retraction, their continued presence is something for us, the readers, to celebrate. For the original interview to have been his last word on the subject would, I believe, have been a personal tragedy for him and a deep disappointment for the church.
I want to thank God that it wasn’t the last word; I want to thank him that all of us can learn a little more from this about words and their power, about humility and the importance of saying ‘I was wrong’; but above all, I want to thank him for Eugene Peterson the man, his message and his legacy to the church.