Those who say Eugene Peterson was motivated by money or reputation know neither the man nor his work.

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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

Celebrity culture

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.

Contemporary culture

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

Scripture

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.

People

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.

 

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21 comments

  1. Mark Reid · · Reply

    I don’t think his first interview was weakness. It was inner conflict. I think he has mixed feelings. I had the chance to spend time with him in Montana and asked him about this issue. He said that the church has not been very kind to them (those with same sex attraction). Maybe as a pastor he accepts it but as a theologian he doesn’t. Who knows? Just speculation. I think it’s sad that someone like him who is progressive in so many ways can share the same view on same sex marriage as Pat Robertson. The Bible is not the authority on sex and relationship. Those anti gay verses are written out of a culture that didn’t have a clue. We don’t stone kids who rebel or those caught in adultery. Why do we reject those rules and yet keep same sex relationships as abominable. It doesn’t make sense.

    1. Thanks Mark. I think ‘inner conflict’ is not a bad description in that we all struggle with inner conflict on this and many other issues. The road to discipleship is littered with examples of where our will and God’s collide. Eugene more than anyone taught me this.

      With respect, your analogy re Pat Robertson is spurious. Eugene and most of us hold the same views as Pat Robertson on the deity of Jesus, the Trinity, the cross and resurrection. The fact that we agree on this issue is irrelevant- save that we hold the same view in a different manner and I hope in a different spirit than PR

      It is also historical chauvinism to say that the biblical culture ‘didn’t have a clue’. Homosexuality was extremely well attested in the Ancient Near East and certainly in Graeco-Roman times. The OT and NT authors were being profoundly counter-cultural in affirming a God-designed pattern for marriage and sexuality. The fact that they mention it shows there were other options out there and the people of God had to assert their difference in this matter. As I say in my blog, Eugene has been superb on encouraging the church to maintain its counter cultural mission. I totally concur that the church ‘has not been kind’ to people for whom this is a personal issue. We have much to learn, but the way to do that is to listen to the voices of those who are same-sex attracted and who affirm the historic biblical position on sexuality and marriage. And from there work at how best to reach and pastor those who have to deal with SSA. It is still too common for “You need to hear my voice” to mean “You need to affirm my choices”.

  2. Mark Reid · · Reply

    I don’t think Eugene would align with Pat Roberston on much of anything. Do you really believe same sex attraction is a choice? You didn’t address my main point that we choose to disregard much of the Bible as irrelevant. What criteria do you use to decide what to embrace as Biblical truth?

  3. “Do you really believe same sex attraction is a choice? ”

    Of course not. That is not the choice I was referring to. I am amazed at how conversations on this issue still get stuck at first base. Sexual attraction, whether same sex or hetero are not choices. But how we respond to them and live with them as disciples of Jesus, is. To say that it is unnatural and unfair to expect same-sex attracted people to remain celibate (as is often postulated) is to insult the many single Christian people both SSA and heterosexual who live perfectly godly lives without marriage or sexual intercourse, and is to dehumanise us making us slaves of our desires and removing the choice to say ‘No’.

    On your second point that is an issue of biblical theology which lies way beyond this blog conversation. Sufficient to say that a Chriwstocentric reading of Scripture will lead us (and has led the majority of the church through history) to distinctions between what is clearly a ceremonial law applicable for s certain place and time, and what is a moral principle that pre-dates the Mosaic law, is affirmed by Jesus (who DID endorse heterosexual marriage as God’s design) and is repeated in the NT. The church’s position on this issue is not based on levitical roof-texts but on a theology of humanity, marriage and creation.

    Even the examples you use in your first response don’t back up your argument, because disobedience and adultery are still wrong- it is simply the appropriate punishment has changed, this side of Calvary and the atoning work of Christ.

    1. Mark Reid · · Reply

      Ok. Now I understand what you mean by choice. You think people attracted to the same sex should be celibate based on an ancient text that you believe to be the word of God.

      If you don’t like my examples of stoning people how about slavery? Or women as property? Or the laws around the keeping of the Sabbath? If you don’t like those than what is the criteria you use for picking what we still believe or not believe?

      Assuming you are straight can you begin to imagine tefraining from expressing sexual intimacy with someone you love?

      You say God designed marriage between one man and one woman and yet ancient marriage looked much different than marriage of today. Women were property of the man. Why don’t we still believe in that? That is a cultural shift that goes against marriage during Biblical times. We are interpreting the Bible through our cultural lens.

  4. Mark, these issues are usually not best debated online I have yet to come across anyone who has changed their mind through such exchanges and as I think our exchange shows there is a lot of mishearing that goes on. You seem to treat celibacy as something unnatural which raises sexual expression to an idolatrous position. Thousands of Christians, including many SSA people, single heterosexuals and even married heterosexuals (for physical or medical reasons) practice celibacy. Our sexuality is an important part- but only a part four identity, not our whole identity, and physical sexual expression is only part of that part. Humans, are so much more than animals simply following our desires without thought or choice. Sadly many heterosexuals don’t live as if we are. This goes much deeper than a few proofverses- it is right at the heart of a Christin anthropology.
    I’d also encourage you to read any Old Testament introduction or biblical theology book from a conservative evangelical if you want an in-depth analysis of how to read the OT Christologically

    1. Mark Reid · · Reply

      I don’t think celibacy to be unnatural as long as you individually or as a couple choose to do that. But you are deciding for someone else that they should be celibate because you believe it is.not ok with God and then say that it is perfectly natural.

    2. Mark Reid · · Reply

      And I think this is a perfect place for this conversation that you started with your post.

      1. You’re not hearing what has been said. You’re arguing with your own presuppositions.

  5. Reblogged this on Spiritual Formation on the Run and commented:
    “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.”

  6. I think the question whether Scripture says that all homosexual acts or just that some homosexual acts are sinful is a debatable subject. In other words, faithful people can come to different understandings based on how they understand certain relevant verses, just like the case with water baptism, charismata, church leadership, and many other subjects.

    If you wish to discuss further, please say so.

    1. Thanks Donald. My blog was about Eugene and his statements and the reaction to them. The wider issue of homosexuality and same sex attraction is debated well elsewhere. Sufficient to say on this occasion, that in my view unlike the ecclesiological issues you highlight above the issue of biblical approach to sexuality is an anthropological issue that is based on, and has an impact on one’s doctrine of creation, fall and redemption, so I regard it as much more foundational. It is not just based on ‘certain verses’ but the broad sweep of teaching regarding gender and marriage from Genesis onwards, including Christ. Not just biblical witness but the unanimous teaching of church history shows that views on this subject are not nearly as diverse as some would imply. None of this should be interpreted as in anyway regarding homosexual acts as worse than other aspects of our sexual brokenness, or those who engage in them as worse people. When we refer to homosexual acts as sin, it should be understood in the context of a hamartiology that regards all digressions from God’s will and purpose as sin, and all of us as sinners

  7. Joe Chambers · · Reply

    I was going to write a blog about Eugene (and still might) but you have said everything I wanted to say. And better than I could say it… Thank you.

  8. Conrad Yoder · · Reply

    Ok, if all that is true—why did he wait until a week after the interview to make the retraction? The timing of the retraction opens up a lot of questions.

    1. As far as I know the retraction was made within a day or two of the publication- therefore once it was an issue for public debate. I doubt if EP thought about it between phone call and publication. You can choose to think the best or think the worse, you can choose to allow someone the space to reflect, pray and retract, or you can choose not to allow them that space. I have simply made a case for the former.

  9. […] To those who assume Peterson flipped on this because of money.  […]

  10. You seem to be projecting your own disdain for homosexual behaviour on Peterson’s actions, presupposing an attitude that might not do justice to the genuine conflict Peterson may be feeling over this issue.

    1. Example606290 in an earlier comment I did acknowledge that this was likely a matter of genuine inner conflict, as it is for any of us who take the issue seriously. I also think you presuppose a ‘disdain’ on my part that is not accurate and I certainly did not wish to convey

  11. I’ve admired Peterson’s writings for a long time, even when I didn’t agree with them. And I’m very sympathetic to the predicament created by this interview. But, as a straight former spouse of a woman who realized late in life that she is lesbian, I’ve paid enough in heartache to justify my deep frustration that the Church cannot seem to comprehend the utter and complete failure of its pastoral theology in responding to the family of the LGBT+ individual. We have suffered a huge life-change, and the Church is basically saying to us, “‘Peace, peace’ where there is no peace.”

  12. Thanks for this warm, concise, thoughtful appreciation for all that Eugene IS and has done over the decades. Such a legacy we can only hope for.

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