Eugene Peterson, the internationally best-selling Christian author who passed into the great unknown this week, 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 repurposed 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 best-selling 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. He radically changed the way American believers saw God, faith and church with the ideas contained in his 30-plus books.
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. Our interview revealed something important about evangelicalism in Peterson’s era: Even for its giants, you will be killed if it means advancing in the culture wars.
Yet I believe as Peterson is recalled this week across Christendom, and as that controversy is revived, Peterson is still speaking to us about transformation.
Our interview — which unfolded over three parts — appears to have been his last. It was published in June 2017. In it, Peterson criticized the president approved of by so many of his fellow conservative white evangelicals, declaring, “Donald Trump is the enemy as far as I’m concerned.” 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 published by the Religion News Service, Christian Internet lost its mind. Peterson’s name was trending nationally 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. The American Family Association published a fiery article condemning him titled, “The Sad, Disturbing Case of Eugene Peterson.” And a popular Christian satirical site mocked him, suggesting everyone already knew Peterson “didn’t hold the highest view of the Scriptures.”
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 Peterson never made the reported statement. Then I submitted the audio recording and transcript to verify the quote. The publisher then claimed Peterson must have been not of sound mind. Then I explained there was not 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 asserting 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.
This was not the only time Peterson’s capricious conservative Christian following nearly excommunicated him, of course. Since his “The Message” version of the Bible released in 1993, some have seen it as a “freewheeling paraphrase” of Scripture in which Peterson freely and frequently inserts his own interpretation of the text and glosses over any inconvenient truths he finds.” Some evangelicals labeled it heretical, and some conservative churches barred its use.
In 2011, Peterson again drew fire for his endorsement of “Love Wins,” a controversial book by popular evangelical Pastor Rob Bell that questioned the existence of hell. When critics attacked him, Peterson did not waver, saying Bell “was doing something worth doing.”
Despite these hiccups, Peterson managed to stay in evangelicals’ good graces until last year, when he stepped on their culture-warring toes. Endorsing same-sex marriage was simply a bridge too far. Holding such a position could not be tolerated, and his conservative Christian fan base turned on him without hesitation.
In the coming days, Peterson will be eulogized by many, and the praises they will heap on him will be well-deserved. But death also 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 and those of us who are a part of it overlook to our own peril.
While I never had another chance to speak in depth with Peterson, whose health declined, I see his admonition toward a “long obedience” in that last controversy. I do not know why he backpedaled. Perhaps he was pressured. Maybe he was too weary to fight another battle and ready to turn toward his final journey home. But I do not have to judge the man by a single moment. I can envision his wise words about pressing on, imperfectly, in search of God, until the very end.
The modern church is often a movement that will love you — so long as you behave according to its rules. It is a movement that can propel you to fame and fortune — so long as you do not lean on its sacred cows. It is a movement that will wipe out brother or sister in the name of culture-war victory.
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.
Jonathan Merritt is a contributing writer for the Atlantic and contributing editor for the Week. He is author of several books, including “Learning to Speak God From Scratch,” which was published in August.