Eugene Peterson and the Difficult, Dangerous, No-Win, Very Hard Truth

Protestant churches are roiling this week at the admission (and subsequent retraction) by pastor, author, and Evangelical darling Eugene Peterson that “[many gay and lesbian Christians] seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do,” and that the shift among younger congregations away from the homosexuality culture war is “a transition for the best, for the good.” The initial opinions, expressed in an interview with Religion News Service writer Jonathan Merritt, were hailed by progressive Christians as a sign that the age-old hostilities between faith communities and LGBTQ communities might be coming to a close, and were decried by conservative institutions and Christian booksellers as either capitulation or senility.

When I read Merritt’s interview with Peterson on Wednesday, I said a quiet prayer of thanksgiving and breathed a little easier for queer people of faith. In the Evangelical church of my youth, Peterson is seen as something of a prophet, bringing the word of God to a new generation in language they cannot ignore. His biblical paraphrase, called The Message, is a staple in youth groups and even among the down-to-earth adults in my small hometown. In this crowd, trusting someone’s translation of scripture is tantamount to canonization (disputes over translation being central, after all, to the Protestant identity). While a change from the leadership doesn’t automatically result in a change in church culture (again, we’re not Catholic), the reality is that when leaders like Peterson step forward in support of gay marriage, one of two things is bound to happen: (1) the leader is denounced and excommunicated, or (2) the culture warriors lay down their arms and the issue quietly disappears. (Compare, for example, the evolution of women’s roles or racial equality in church.) I was grateful to Peterson for speaking bravely from conviction. I hoped that the churches and youth groups of my past might take a cue from their hero, and that they might become safe places for young queer and questioning people of faith—like myself, not so long ago.

When I read Peterson’s painful retraction on Thursday, I mourned as much for him as I did for those vulnerable people. They will continue to suffer in silence or repression or possibly worse. But in reality, all they have lost is the promise of progress. Concretely, tomorrow will be much like yesterday for them. But in Peterson’s little Lindy hop of conscience, he has lost more than potential. His retraction amounts to a complete reversal of his direct and unequivocally affirmative statements to Merritt. It is not a clarification; it is an about-face, forcing readers to conclude that Peterson either experienced a Belshazzarian visitation chastising his apostasy, or that the threat of a boycott against his books frightened Peterson back within party lines. 

The saddest part of the whole affair was the shoddy inauthenticity of Peterson’s retraction. “To clarify,” he said Thursday, “I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.” 

Everything? Would you care to qualify that? Or are you in fact reverting to archfundamentalism in which everything about your twenty-first century life, including your bestselling paraphrase, would subject you to apocalyptic plagues? 

Peterson continued, “When I told [Merritt] that there are gay and lesbian people who ‘seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do,’ I meant it. But then again, the goodness of a spiritual life is functionally irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.” 

Excuse me? Could you define the terms “good,” “spiritual life,” “functionally irrelevant,” and “grand scheme”? And then, would you kindly clarify the purpose of the genre of Christian devotional literature (in which your books reside), which seems to be marketed explicitly with the goal of cultivating quality spiritual lives in your readers? 

In renouncing his opinions on gays and lesbians, Peterson effectively denounces the idea that the Christian faith requires investment from its practitioners, stripping it down to a “saved by faith through grace” transaction that promises salvation from hell for correct doctrinal profession and eschews any thought of “working out one’s faith” as God’s redemption is actively wrought in one’s life. 

To be as fair as I can be with this kind of volte-face, I think the above paragraph is a caricature of Peterson. Based on the man’s extensive writings and work in the church, I do not believe that he actually holds salvation to be such a rude exchange. I do not think he believes that the Christian life is just about believing the right things until you die. I maintain that Eugene Peterson is one of the most nuanced thinkers about how the Christian faith can and must be practiced in the twenty-first century. 

And that is why his retraction is so galling. If Peterson represents a hopeful future for the Christian church, his statements this week are a heartbreaking check on that hope. "Eugene Peterson gave me his personal blessing for starting Highlands Church when we were just 3 months old,” Mark Tidd, co-pastor at Highlands Church in Denver, wrote on Facebook after the Merritt article and before Peterson’s retraction. “At a conference for evangelical leaders, I shared with everyone why my theology on inclusivity had changed. While many leaders ducked and dodged me, Eugene put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘Keep going forward, Mark. What you are doing is the way of Jesus.’” 

If Peterson, a man whose work has done immeasurable good and been met with unqualified approbation can be cowed by a few conservative watchdogs, we are far from the kind of bravery that leads good men to Calvary and closer to the cowardice that animates St. Peter in the courtyard. If a man whose legacy is transmitting the word of God in the modern vernacular will recant when the boycotter’s knife is pressed against his economic lifeblood, we are dangerously close to trading the way of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.

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