Beloved preacher Peter­son took mes­sage in un­ex­pected di­rec­tion

Calgary Herald - - YOU - JONATHAN MER­RITT

Eu­gene Peter­son, the in­ter­na­tion­ally best­selling Chris­tian author who passed into the great un­known in Oc­to­ber, was a prince among preach­ers, a gi­ant of de­vo­tional writ­ing. But what made Peter­son so unique was that he was a mas­ter of trans­for­ma­tion. Peter­son once com­man­deered a key idea as­so­ci­ated with athe­ist philoso­pher Friedrich Ni­et­zsche — that the only way to live life is to find a stan­dard and stick to it — and re-pur­posed it to be about fol­low­ing Je­sus.

Peter­son lit­er­ally stole the non­be­liever’s catch­phrase, “a long obe­di­ence in the same di­rec­tion,” and made it the name of his own best­selling Chris­tian book. The Mes­sage, his para­phrase of the Bible that has sold more than 16 mil­lion copies world­wide, trans­formed the dusty, an­cient Chris­tian scrip­tures into imag­i­na­tive lit­er­a­ture for con­tem­po­rary read­ers. And he rad­i­cally changed the way be­liev­ers saw God, faith and church with the ideas con­tained in his 30-plus books.

But per­haps the great­est trans­for­ma­tion in Peter­son’s ca­reer was one he ex­pe­ri­enced one year ago, when a com­ment he made to me about same-sex mar­riage briefly blew up Amer­i­can Protes­tantism and (al­most) his rep­u­ta­tion along with it. His shift on LGBT mar­riage turned some of his ador­ing fans into his harsh­est crit­ics.

Yet I be­lieve as Peter­son was re­cently re­mem­bered across Chris­ten­dom, and as that con­tro­versy is re­vived, Peter­son is still speak­ing to us about trans­for­ma­tion.

In an in­ter­view pub­lished last year, Peter­son crit­i­cized the pres­i­dent ap­proved of by so many of his fel­low con­ser­va­tive white evan­gel­i­cals. And he threw shade at Amer­ica’s largest con­gre­ga­tions, say­ing, “megachurches are not churches.”

But his en­tire ca­reer — decades of writ­ing and pas­tor­ing and speak­ing — ap­peared to fall into jeop­ardy when he ut­tered a tiny three-let­ter word: “yes.” It was his flat re­sponse to my ques­tion about whether he would per­form a same-sex wed­ding if he were still pas­tor­ing.

The mo­ment the ar­ti­cle was pub­lished, the Chris­tian in­ter­net lost its mind. Peter­son’s name was trend­ing on Twit­ter, and many pro­gres­sives lauded his courage to ad­dress such a con­tentious is­sue.

But the con­ser­va­tive Chris­tian aris­toc­racy mo­bi­lized to de­nounce the oc­to­ge­nar­ian they claimed to re­spect just mo­ments ear­lier.

An­drew Walker, di­rec­tor of pol­icy stud­ies at the Ethics and Re­li­gious Lib­erty Com­mis­sion, in a now-deleted tweet, wrote: “How sad that a creative voice like Eu­gene Peter­son would for­sake the Scrip­tures and the Tra­di­tion that he so elo­quently wrote of.” Walker’s boss, Rus­sell Moore, head of pol­icy for the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion, also ex­pressed his dis­ap­point­ment and penned an ar­ti­cle ask­ing whether Peter­son’s books were now un­wor­thy of be­ing read.

While Chris­tians on so­cial me­dia were clutch­ing their pearls, I was work­ing be­hind the scenes to de­fend my work. A top leader at NavPress, the small evan­gel­i­cal pub­lisher de­pen­dent on sales of The Mes­sage to stay afloat, phoned my pub­lisher and claimed that Peter­son never made the re­ported state­ment. But then I sub­mit­ted the au­dio record­ing and tran­script to ver­ify the quote. The pub­lisher then claimed Peter­son must have been not of sound mind. But then I ex­plained that there wasn’t a whiff of men­tal in­sta­bil­ity, and he was to­tally lu­cid dur­ing the in­ter­view.

Amid the furor, LifeWay Chris­tian Stores, Amer­ica’s largest re­li­gious re­tailer, said it was pre­par­ing to ban all of his books from their shelves, even though none of them ad­dressed the topic of same-sex mar­riage. Money was now on the line. Within one day, Peter­son’s lit­er­ary agent re­leased a state­ment claim­ing that the author had now changed his mind and would not per­form a same-sex wed­ding — though it left the ques­tion of his views about same-sex re­la­tion­ships no­tice­ably am­bigu­ous.

Re­gard­less, it was enough to quell the furor. In a mo­ment, an­other nearly mirac­u­lous trans­fig­u­ra­tion oc­curred. Fans who had be­come haters in a blink mirac­u­lously mor­phed into fans once more.

Peter­son has been eu­lo­gized by many, and the praises heaped on him will be well-de­served.

But death pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity for self-re­flec­tion, to re­mem­ber how the per­son who has passed re­minds us of who we are — for bet­ter or worse. So when we tell the story of Eu­gene Peter­son’s life, we must also in­clude this chap­ter in the nar­ra­tive. For it tells us some­thing about 21st cen­tury Chris­tian­ity that those of us who are a part of it over­look to our own peril.

I can en­vi­sion his wise words about press­ing on, im­per­fectly, in search of God, un­til the very end.

Eu­gene Peter­son lived his life as an agent of trans­for­ma­tion. His sto­ried ca­reer — the whole story — has the power to change us still. If we have ears to hear.

FILES

Chris­tian author Eu­gene Peter­son cre­ated a firestorm in the U.S. a year ago when he said he would per­form a same-sex wed­ding.

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