October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
January 5, 2012
Pastoral memoirs are not a genre in great demand. They don’t tend to make it to the New York Times Best Sellers list. After all, the pastoral vocation, some say, has fallen on hard times and Christian pastors writing about spirituality seem to have lost their influence in the marketplace of ideas. But there is an exception: Eugene Peterson, a man who has written successfully from the space of his pastoral life for over fifty years. In his new memoir, The Pastor, Peterson subversively challenges common notions of the pastoral calling and invites readers into a conversation with his life’s work and with those who have shaped that work—John of Patmos, Baron Von Hugel, John Cardinal Newman, Alexander Whyte, and dozens of parishioners, pastors, and friends. He lingers over these figures as he might a long cup of coffee, sharing their impact on his life and understanding with honest, thoughtful reflection in the way of one who is immersed in the stories of people, biblical text, and gospel.
Peterson does this by defying traditional vocational boundaries. He has published many books and courses, reads the Bible in both Greek and Hebrew, and translated a widely read version of the Bible called The Message. Does this make him a scholar? Throughout his life, Peterson has been compelled by the master plot of Jesus, and his memoirs show that he is convinced that the local church in all its flaws and humanity is the intended Spirit-given resurrection community through which the kingdom is given its shape in this world. So does this make him a disciple? For twenty-nine years he pastored a mainline church in Maryland. Does this make him a pastor? He served as a seminary teacher for many years. Does this make him an educator? It seems that Peterson is all of those things—scholar, disciple, pastor, educator—but always in the service of the church.
By serving simultaneously in these various capacities, Peterson has grown into one of the most important teachers for ministry and spirituality in our current era. I say this both in relation to his overall cultural impact and to the personal impact he has had on my own life. The cultural reason that Peterson has been so important is his raw courage and integrity. There is coherence and depth in his words, especially in the The Pastor, as he honors the great cloud of witnesses who preceded us and the ordinary people who have helped him in his own life. Peterson isn’t wed to expert witnesses who come through academics, publishing, and renown; he is open to the voices of all who are on the road of following Jesus, whatever their background may be. More than anyone in my life, I suppose, Peterson has taught me that there are no walls to the places or the people who can teach us to know God.
Peterson has also had a great personal impact on my life. But this may not be the kind of impact one might think. We have only spoken three or four times, corresponded infrequently, and never shared a cup of good coffee together. I don’t even know if he likes good coffee. And when we met, it didn’t go so well. I had just published a small book about the college experience and was taking a summer class from Peterson at Regent College. On a rainy Vancouver day we walked to his office and I asked some questions I had prepared. “How have you learned to see the world as you write about it,” I asked. “I don’t know,” he answered. “How do you write so prolifically when you are engaged in such an active ministry?” I asked. “I don’t know, I guess you just write a page a day, and at the end of a year, you have a book.” I was looking for something more. I longed for relationship with a mentor whose integrity infused his craft as writer and teacher and husband and father and friend.
I was disappointed in Peterson’s lack of interest in my questions, and yet he has remained a surprisingly steady presence in my life. I discovered that I didn’t need to sit at arm’s length to learn deeply from the man. I still have his writing. Through his stories, exegetical work, honesty, and skillful words he is a spiritual father to me. I honor him so deeply because I need to know there are men like him who don’t seem to have their finger in the wind of theological or ecclesial popularity. I honor him because I need to know there are men like him who practice “long obedience in the same direction,” a phrase Peterson borrows from Friedrich Nietzsche for the title of one of his books, instead of changing it up with the idea du jour.
As much as any Christian leader in the past thirty years, Peterson’s writings have embodied the raw, radical, and transformative gospel of Jesus Christ. And his memoir is no different. He starts where the traditional biblical story begins—attentive to the presence of the God who has intruded into time and space in the person of Jesus. Peterson insists in The Pastor that the “spiritual life,” in general, and the pastoral life, in specific, are a most context-specific way of life. “I am a pastor,” he explains, “My work has to do with God and souls—immense mysteries that no one has ever seen at any time. But I carry out this work in conditions—place and time—that I see and measure wherever I find myself, what time it is. There is no avoiding the conditions” (7). This memoir is a textbook on pastoral life written in the only way he believes such a book can be written: as the story of one who is immersed in the doing and learning that comes from living at those intersections:
We don’t grow and mature in our Christian life by sitting in a classroom and library, listening to lectures and reading books, or going to church and singing hymns and listening to sermons. We do it by taking the stuff of our ordinary lives, our parents and children, our spouses and friends, our workplaces and fellow workers, our dreams and fantasies, our attachments, our easily accessible gratifications, our depersonalizing of intimate relations, our commodification of living truths into idolatries, taking all this and placing it on the altar of refunding fire—our God is a consuming fire—and finding it all stuff redeemed for a life of holiness. (230)
Peterson’s memoir, like his pastoral life, is a theology written in the embodied way he teaches: a narrative brimming with conversations. These are conversations of deep meaning that occur at key times and places in his life, and Peterson is careful to link these conversation with corporeal images—the kitchen table of his Montana childhood home where his mother taught him the gospel, laying the groundwork for a rich biblical imagination; the butcher’s table of his father’s shop where he discovered that spirituality is immersed in what Kathleen Norris has called “quotidian mysteries” or immersion into the ordinary; the student’s library tables where he honed his craft in Greek and Hebrew as a student working in the service of the church; the preacher’s table where he both listened to Scripture and spoke its words to a congregation; and the professor’s classroom table where he found ways to invite others into the worlds of Scripture and our own time and place.
Each of these tables reinforces Peterson unique call in this world, a call that has been, from the beginning of his ministry, for us to develop a biblical imagination, a sacred imagination, that brings us into an ongoing conversation with the physical scandal of Jesus. He is consistent in that call as he repeatedly tells us that we are not the point; Jesus is. We are not the story; Jesus is. We are not the initiator; Jesus is. The means is not our creativity and human genius; the Spirit is.
This table motif, although unique to his memoirs, reinforces a predominant theme throughout all of his writings—this subtly prophetic and haunting notion that his work is not merely a theoretical manual for spirituality or ecclesiology or spirituality. No, Peterson’s works are a public record of a lifelong conversation with the Author of biblical revelation. And that’s what is most startling and jarring about his writing: he has lived in the biblical narrative as a child, young seminarian, new pastor, professor, husband, bird-watcher, father, and grandfather, and an excursion with Eugene always feels like you are eavesdropping on that conversation. He writes, “There was hardly anything I did [as a pastor] that did not involve language: the Word of God provided not information but revelation. Jesus told stories and taught and prayed, not to entertain us or inspire us but to draw us into a participating, believing, listening, loving way of life, that was above all, local and personal: prayerful” (239).
Reading Peterson’s memoir is, at times, like reading the Scriptures because he tells the stories of his own life through the narratives of creation, epiphany, tabernacle, redemption, and kingdom. He refuses to read the Gospels as narratives of American individualism but as stories of community. And likewise, he recounts his participation in the Company of Pastors, a community which he helped form over forty years ago and continues to this day. He tells of his congregational life as the story of community. He tells of his years in marriage with his wife, Jan, who he credits with teaching him much of his spirituality. In other words, he has lived and written quite literally in a community of friends
Throughout The Pastor we learn that Peterson’s patron saints are Pastor John of Patmos and Pastor Karl Barth of Zurich. He hones in on these two pastors because they are poets anchored in the reality of stories: they teach that transformation occurs one story at a time. And likewise, Peterson insists that pastoral life must be ordinary work with ordinary and named people in ordinary time. This is remarkably transformative because it is not about the work of any pastor in their own creative agency, but it is work that only occurs in partnership with the primary actor in all stories—Jesus. In Peterson’s world, God is at work in time and place beginning with the incarnation of Jesus. For Peterson, the pastor is one who emulates this Incarnation by willingly entering the stories of others with a story to tell—the story of Jesus.
Unlike many pastors who were taught to live as independent operators, franchises for God somehow in the noble solitariness of the clergy-scholar, Peterson’s story is a story of community. Not that he didn’t spend time alone in reading, reflection, preparation, listening, wondering, and scratching his head about what these two language worlds (Bible and Today) mean. But his story is one of keen awareness and disciplined conversations with his teachers, living and dead, and with the ongoing community around him. His story, as his wife Jan calls it, is one of “hanging around this intersection between heaven and earth and seeing what there is to be done” (194).
Finally, Peterson’s memoirs remind us that his life has been lived in subversion. In his book Subversive Spirituality, he once wrote about how the gospel
reveals, that is, it shows us something we could never come up with on our own by observation or experiment or guess, and at the same time, it engages, it brings us into the action as recipients and participants but without dumping the responsibility on us for making it turn out right…This is not a text that we master, it is one that we are mastered by.
And this subversiveness, is at the heart of Peterson’s life and writing. It seems he has always called the church away from that which glitters at the moment. For example, early in his writing career he took a line from Nietzsche and inverted it for gospel purposes, calling it “A long obedience in the same direction. “ But his subversiveness is, paradoxically, simple, grounded, and earnest, and he calls us to a spirituality that stands fundamentally opposed to much of where he sees the church headed. More than anyone I read, he has honored revelation as central in a time when the human voice dominates church and culture. He has dignified spirituality as life lived in a specific time when it is often disembodied into abstractions and principles. He has honored preaching as congregational conversation in an age when preaching is more like a poetry reading than it is discourse with the living God. He dignifies community in an age when the individual seems to be all that matters in much of North America. He honors the pastoral vocation in an age where the therapeutic seems to have replaced the gospel as the new spirituality du jour. He dignifies reflective time for listening, bird watching, and waiting in an age where we measure success by busyness. He honors the pastor as teacher and theologian and spiritual theology as the work of the church in an age which too often farms the work out to seminary faculty who are often too isolated from the congregations that pastors serve. He dignifies century’s-old practices of spirituality and pastoral work in the age of the newly franchised Church of What’s Happening Now. He honors most deeply the work of the Living God, who has not turned over the work to us, telling us to keep faithful to the plot, Jesus. He dignifies failed, flawed, and finite communities of people, reminding us that “when God forms a church, he starts with nobodies” (127). He honors hospitality in an age where our culture is divided against hospitable conversation and friendship.
For Peterson we are called to slow, deliberate, and disciplined obedience of Christ. For me and for many of us in pastoral vocations, Peterson’s life has embodied that very call when he writes that “ We find ourselves in the story [of salvation] as followers of Jesus. Jesus calls us to follow him and we obey—or we do not. This is an immense world of God’s salvation that we are entering: we don’t know enough to use or apply anything. Our task is to obey—believingly, trustingly obey. Simply obey in a long obedience” (249).
I’d like to have coffee with Peterson in Seattle or Vancouver or Montana, but if that never happens, I still have his writings and for more than twenty years, I’ve had a spiritual father whom I trust.
 See Norris, Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work” (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1998).
 Peterson, Subversive Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997).
Keith R. Anderson
Keith R. Anderson is the President of The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. He has spent the past 28 years in higher education as a professor, campus pastor, academic dean and director of a Lilly Endowment grant. Since 2000, he has been the Senior Fellow for Spiritual Formation for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, a consortium of 113 Christ-centered colleges in North America, with affiliated schools around the world. His primary work has been to develop organizations committed to spiritual formation of university students and to mentor leaders to give spiritual leadership in a wide range of organizations. He has various publications that include: Spiritual Mentoring: A Guide for Seeking and Giving Direction; Friendships That Run Deep; and What They Don’t Always Teach You In A Christian College.