Rev. Peterson never led a church of more than 500 congregants, rarely appeared on television and seldom made political pronouncements from the pulpit, yet he quietly became one of the most influential religious thinkers of his time.
With a gift for finely turned phrases that could almost be called proverbs, Rev. Peterson wrote several books that are considered classics of the pastoral canon, including “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” (1980). In that book, which has sold more than 200,000 copies, he extolled the virtues of humility, joy and a sense of service: “I decide, every day, to . . . open myself to the frustrations and failures of loving, daring to believe that failing in love is better than succeeding in pride.”
Rev. Peterson spent nearly three decades leading a Presbyterian church in Bel Air, Md., where he sought ways to make the lessons of the Bible come alive for his parishioners.
“I had a congregation of people who didn’t read books,” he told the On Being blog in 2016. “And so I started translating the Bible in their language, not knowing what I was doing. And suddenly, they started paying attention to me in a way they never did before.”
In 1993, he published a translation of the New Testament that was the first entry in his “The Message” series. The books, which Rev. Peterson translated from Greek and Hebrew, were written in a breezy, updated style with psychological insights that made the stories of the Bible almost shockingly modern.
Notable deaths in 2018 and 2019: Nipsey Hussle, George H.W. Bush, Stan Lee, John McCain, Aretha Franklin and other famous faces we’ve lost
Instead of the traditional opening of “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” Rev. Peterson’s version of the Lord’s Prayer begins, “Our father in heaven, reveal who you are. Set the world right; do what’s best — as above, so below.”
The King James version of a passage from the Gospel of John begins “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” In “The Message,” it reads: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes.”
Over the past 25 years, the various “Message” translations have sold, according to Rev. Peterson’s literary agency, more than 20 million copies. His books have been popular with Christians of different traditions, from Catholics to Southern Baptists to members of evangelical churches and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“He approached scripture with a fresh sense of iconoclasm,” Jana Riess, a historian of religion and columnist for the Religion News Service, said in an interview. “He’s trying out this almost Talmudic approach, by going back to the original languages. Then he’s taking on this added dimension of theological imagination that is so beautiful. It succeeds because he understands the human emotions invested in scripture.”
One of the best-known admirers of “The Message” books was Bono, the leader of the rock band U2, who made videos with Rev. Peterson in which they discussed theological ideas.
“He’s a poet and a scholar, and he’s brought the text back to the tone in which the books were written,” Bono told Rolling Stone magazine in 2001.
Rev. Peterson, who also published poetry, originally set out to be a scholar of ancient languages and Bible history, which he taught for several years at a seminary.
“But the thing that made it possible for me to do ‘The Message’ was being a pastor: preaching, teaching, praying, listening to people in hospitals, family rooms,” he told the journal Image, from his alma mater, Seattle Pacific University. “I was hearing their language and trying to respond conversationally out of the scriptures. It’s both art and a craft. I learned the craft academically. I learned the art by being a pastor.”
Eugene Hoiland Peterson was born Nov. 6, 1932, in East Stanwood, Wash., and grew up in Kalispell, Mont. His father was a butcher and grocer, his mother an Assemblies of God Pentecostal pastor.
“We moved across town when I was about maybe 10 years old,” he told On Being. “I had a Bible that I’d purchased with my own money. And I started reading it because I had no friends.”
He graduated in 1954 from Seattle Pacific and then enrolled at what is now New York Theological Seminary, where he received a master’s degree. He began to see beyond the conservative religious traditions of his youth and joined the Presbyterian Church, where he was assigned to coach a youth basketball team, which he called the “lucky break” that changed his career path.
He later received a master’s degree in Semitic languages from Johns Hopkins University but concluded that “the church is a lot more interesting than the classroom.” In 1963, he became founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air. He left the ministry in 1991 and later taught at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., before retiring to Montana.
While serving at the church and beginning to write his books, Rev. Peterson saw the ministry almost as a form of literature.
“The scriptures are given to us in the shape of a story,” he told the Mars Hill Review in 1995. “Words, language is the way in which we reveal ourselves to one another. It’s the primary means of deepening and continuing intimacy.”
He had a deep knowledge of literature and often invoked the novelists Charles Dickens and George Eliot and the poets Emily Dickinson, Denise Levertov and W.H. Auden.
“At least half of the Bible is written in poetry,” he told the journal Image. “Why don’t Christians immerse themselves more in poetry so that we can learn how language works?”
Among Rev. Peterson’s more than 30 books were “Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading” (2006), “Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers” (2008) and a well-received 2011 memoir, “The Pastor.”
Survivors include his wife of 60 years, the former Janice Stubbs, of Lakeside; three children, Karen Peterson of Missoula, Mont., Eric Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor in Colbert, Wash., and Leif Peterson of Whitefish, Mont.; a sister; a brother; and nine grandchildren.
In a 2017 interview with the Religion News Service, Rev. Peterson offered a rare comment on current events, when he said “Donald Trump is the enemy as far as I’m concerned. He has no morals. He has no integrity.”
He further alienated himself from his most conservative followers when he said he would perform a marriage for a same-sex couple if they were “Christians of good faith.”
“I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago,” he said, “but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian, and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over.”
Rev. Peterson faced an immediate backlash from many corners of the conservative Christian world, including threats to have his books banned from religious bookstores. He soon recanted his statement, saying, “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman.”
It was a rare misstep for a pastor who always sought precision in language because, he said, every religious experience was built on listening.
“Language in essence is conversation, dialogue,” he said. “It always requires a response. In that way, everything in scripture is conversation. God does not speak and then walk off. We don’t say something to God and walk off.”
Read more Washington Post obituaries