The Christian world is this week awash with stories and reflections on Eugene Peterson, pastor, spiritual theologian, and author best known for his multi-million selling Bible paraphrase, The Message. In fact, not only the Christian world, but the New York Times and the Washington Post each published obituaries for this eminent pastor who was, by all accounts, very nearly the opposite of a ‘public figure.’ What was the appeal of this unlikely public pastor?
I have only a limited personal encounter with Peterson. I attended Regent College from 2005-2009, where Eugene had been on staff, and while I was there his presence was still very much felt in what Regent did and the kind of place Regent wanted to be. He had become an inextricable part of the ethos of the school. For my part, I’d honestly never heard of the guy before showing up in Vancouver, and so I, quite naturally, began a program of reading some of his books, and listening to some of his recorded courses, available in the school library. I listened to Soulcraft (a study in Ephesians). I read Reversed Thunder, his book on John’s Revelation. I dabbled in The Message. And later, when I was in full time ministry, I read his The Pastor: A Memoir.
At this point, I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve never really been able to connect with Peterson’s work. I found his teaching in Soulcraft lackluster and forgettable. With the exception of Reversed Thunder (which I hold to be one of the best books on John’s Revelation available), I simply don’t like his writing. The Message—ugh!—The Message reads to me like a car with one square wheel, all herky-jerky and awkward and nearly unreadable. I can’t stomach it. When I read his biography of the life of a pastor I couldn’t shake the lurking feeling that “this simply isn’t my story.” If Eugene Peterson’s pastoral soul represents one shape of gear, and my pastoral soul another, then, regrettably, we are tooled for incompatibility.
All the same, for scores and scores of my friends and fellow pastors, Peterson’s writings have encouraged, restored hope, challenged, and been a balm. To read their stories, for many of them Peterson’s writing saved their ministries, if not their souls. (Which, incidentally, makes me suspect that the problem of connection I feel in reading Peterson’s stuff might lie with me.) They look to Peterson like a father, a friend they’ve never met, a spiritual guide and rock of stability, uniquely situated in our time to provide a bulwark against the present darkness. He gave them hope. But why?
I can’t help but conclude that a portion of Peterson’s appeal lay in his retiring attitude. He wasn’t interested in fame. He didn’t set himself up to be a public figure, with a large ministry and wide range of influence. Instead, he sought faithfulness in the small plot of a church which he and his wife had planted. The affirmation of small church, small obedience, is very likely a key factor in his ability to encourage the pastors I know, for whom the allure and appeal of ‘big’ churches and ‘big’ ministries is a constant temptation. In an age of church growth, marketability, and relevance, Peterson championed small obedience and long faithfulness. Additionally, I wonder if part of Peterson’s appeal lay in his reticence to align with the political wing of modern evangelicalism. Sometimes, giving one’s allegiance to a Christian figure has meant giving one’s allegiance to a political position or party. But in Peterson we encountered a Christian figure who was deeply counter-cultural and yet starkly unlike the array of alternatives.
In light of this, I confess a further worry—what is it about people like Peterson that drives us, in the Church, to make of them heroes, public figures, and celebrities? Why, despite Peterson’s avowed desire to avoid such popularity, do we insist on giving it to him? One of my professors at Regent told me that once he was in line with Eugene to get a coffee in Regent’s atrium. Students would come up and stare at him, as if they hoped that some of the glory might rub off on them. At that moment, my professor realized one of the reasons why it was that Eugene was retiring: he felt was being made too much of. Why is it that instead of taking Peterson’s teaching as it was stated—to pursue a long obedience in the same direction—that we inveterately try to sidle up to him so as to catch a bit of the glory, to hasten our own spirituality through proximate encounter? Why, to the man who taught us to avoid all short cuts in spirituality, would we turn him into a short cut?
I can think of many reasons to answer that question, some of them less than complementary, but I will conclude with a generous one. When I arrived at Regent in 2005, language of Eugene’s presence, and stories of his teaching and life, were still fresh in the air. It seemed to me that he had only left the place a year before. It was only reading his obituary the other day that I realized he had retired from Regent in 1998! For seven years the memory of his presence had remained so fresh that when I arrived I thought he had only just left. That is an astonishing, unprecedented legacy. Upon reflection, it makes me think of Ephesians 5:1-2, where Paul writes the following: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” Those closing two words, a “fragrant aroma” are in Greek the words οσμη ευωδιας (osme euodias). They are the words used throughout the Old Testament to describe the fragrance of a burnt offering to the Lord—it is the smell, in other words of barbecue. You know the smell, it wafts over the neighbourhood, and makes you wonder if, just maybe, you might gatecrash your neighbour’s dinner for a taste. It is alluring, and good, and calls you to goodness. In the same way, Paul says, Christ’s life is for us such a fragrant aroma, wafting over other lives, calling us to participate and join in. Furthermore, we are to imitate that life so that our lives become similarly fragrant. It seems to me that Eugene Peterson’s life gave off such an odor that seven years after departing Regent his aroma still brought life to the place.
I’ve been immensely blessed to know several people in life for whom this aroma is part and parcel of their walk with the Lord. Where they’ve been, you know it, because the vestiges of their presence hangs about. They are naturally attractive people—we want to be around them, to soak up their goodness, their perspective, to ‘catch’ some of the glory if possible. I never met Eugene Peterson in person, but it seems clear to me that he was such a person as well. And yet the very best thing that such people can do for us is to remind us that our lives give off an odor, too. To that realization, we can only ask, “What kind of odor will it be?”
Rest well in Christ, Eugene. You gave off a good smell. May we learn from that and, instead of turning to you as a proxy, seek to do the same.