Beloved preacher Peterson took message in unexpected direction
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.
Christian author Eugene Peterson created a firestorm in the U.S. a year ago when he said he would perform a same-sex wedding.