By Jonathan Merritt | September 27, 2013
One of America’s best known Christian theologians, Eugene Peterson, reflects on 81 years of life and ministry.
Eugene Peterson is one of the best known theologians of our time. Most famous for penning The Message, a contemporary rendering of the Bible, he is also author of many popular books such as A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. With the release of his memoir, The Pastor, Peterson has begun reflecting on life and the ways in which Jesus-followers can respond to God’s call. Here, we discuss his unlikely call to ministry, the work of a pastor and what, if anything, he wishes he could change about The Message.
JM: In The Pastor, you describe your journey into ministry. How did you first sense God calling you into service?
EP: Well, I never really thought I’d be a pastor because I had so many pastors I didn’t respect. I just assumed I would be in academic work, so I started doing that—I went to seminary and graduate school to be a professor. And then I became a professor at the seminary in New York City where I graduated. But they didn’t pay me very much. Greek and Hebrew professors aren’t very high on the pay scale. So I got a part-time job in a church, because I had been ordained but just to be a professor. I’d never been around a pastor who was a man of God, to tell you the truth.
I was teaching Greek and Hebrew on Tuesdays and Thursdays and after awhile I did this for three years. But after the second year I thought, “Wow, the church is a lot more interesting than the classroom. There’s no ambiguity to Greek and Hebrew. It’s just right or wrong.” And in the church everything was going every which way all the time—dying, being born, divorces, kids running away. I suddenly realized that this is where I really got a sense of being involved and not just sitting on the sidelines as a spectator but being in the game. So I gradually reshaped my sense of what I was doing and became a pastor.
JM: With your experience in both the church and the academy, I wonder what advice you would give to young seminary students today. If you were asked by one to describe what is at the heart of the work of pastoring and shepherding, what would you say?
EP: I’d tell them that pastoring is not a very glamorous job. It’s a very taking-out-the-laundry and changing-the-diapers kind of job. And I think I would try to disabuse them of any romantic ideas of what it is. As a pastor, you’ve got to be willing to take people as they are. And live with them where they are. And not impose your will on them. Because God has different ways of being with people, and you don’t always know what they are.
The one thing I think is at the root of a lot of pastors’ restlessness and dissatisfaction is impatience. They think if they get the right system, the right programs, the right place, the right location, the right demographics, it’ll be a snap. And for some people it is: if you’re a good actor, if you have a big smile, if you are an extrovert. In some ways, a religious crowd is the easiest crowd to gather in the world. Our country’s full of examples of that. But for most, pastoring is a very ordinary way to live. And it is difficult in many ways because your time is not your own, for the most part, and the whole culture is against you. This consumer culture, people grow up determining what they want to do by what they can consume. And the Christian gospel is just quite the opposite of that. And people don’t know that. And pastors don’t know that when they start out. We’ve got a whole culture that is programmed to please people, telling them what they want. And if you do that, you might end up with a big church, but you won’t be a pastor.
JM: You’ve written dozens of books over your career. Which one do you consider to be your magnum opus, and why?
EP: You know, I didn’t know it was when I was doing it, but I suppose The Message could be that book. The odd thing is when people ask me, “What do you like of what you’ve done?” I never think of The Message. Because I never felt like it was my book. You know, a writer likes to write really well. And you like to really have your own things. I was always second place to Isaiah, and coming in second to Mark, and to Paul. I never was writing what I was proud of. I was just pleased I was able to get into their life and do it in my way. But I really never even think of The Message as being my book.
When I finished my work at Regent College, I’d been teaching there for six years. And I’d written all these books on pastoral life and lay life. But I didn’t have any structure in mind. I just wrote these kind of as they came to me, and what I was doing and thinking about and reacting to. But I thought, the whole world of Christian life, spiritual theology, is not really very healthy. It’s mostly about being yourself in charge of things. There are a lot of really good scholarly books which are profound, but I’m thinking about pastors most of the time. And so I thought I’d like to gather up everything I’ve done in a sequential and comprehensive way. So I got the idea of writing five books—Jan calls it the “Peterson Pentateuch”—to see if I could get the whole world of Christian life, in this society, in this culture, and have it deeply biblically-oriented, with a Trinitarian structure and everything, and do it in language that people could understand. And so I did five books. I call them Conversations in Spiritual Theology, and I really feel satisfied with those books. I think I said best what I’ve been saying all my life, but I’ve done it in an organized and sequential and comprehensive way.
JM: You mentioned The Message, your paraphrase of the Scriptures, which has been such a blessing to so many and an international bestseller. When you read it now, are you pleased with it or are there passages you wish you could go back and render differently?
EP: I’m a little hesitant to say this, but when I was doing that—maybe I should say that I could never have done that without being a pastor. I knew the languages really well, but I focused on getting into the idiom of the congregation as I was writing the translation, which took me 12 years. I always had the sense that I was working out of something I didn’t know much about: the metaphors. And it just kind of flowed. So I learned that language by listening to people from my congregation, and I guess I had a sense that there was something going on besides me. It never ever really dawned on me to do a translation of the Bible, so when the publishers approached me, I said “no” immediately. And then they kept talking and calling and I started praying and I thought, “Well, maybe this is my work now.” I’d been a pastor for 30 years in one church, and I was 60 years old. I thought, “Well, maybe this is it.” So, I did. And I’m really glad I did. But to tell you the truth, I don’t read it much. Every once in awhile I pick it up and start reading and think, “How did I think of that? I never knew that before.” I’d say I’m mostly pleased with it.
JM: Your book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, has become something of a Christian classic since it was released more than thirty years ago. How have you seen discipleship change over the last three decades and what advice would you offer people who want to live that long obedience in the midst of an instant society?
EP: I hate to be pessimistic, but it’s declined. At this point the world is making a bigger impact on people than discipleship is. And so I think you end up working with small starts and long finishes. I can’t believe A Long Obedience has had as long of a life as it has. Another thing that’s hard for me to believe—you know I’ve not written for a popular audience—I’ve written 35 books and they’re all still in print. Well, not all of them, but 35 of them! That’s almost unheard of these days. So there are people who are reading my books who I wouldn’t have guessed. It pleases me that some people are listening to something, which I think is biblical and Trinitarian and in some ways anti-cultural.
EP: A Long Obedience had been rejected by 20 or so publishers. And InterVarsity said yes. So I went to Chicago, to the press, and they said, “It’s a great book but you can’t use that title—its is not a lively title. ‘Obedience’ is not a word that makes people jump up and down.”
So I said, “Look, it’s not my title, it’s Nietzche’s title. And it’s in iambic pentameter. It’s a piece of poetry. And wouldn’t you just love it if we got that title and Nietzeche came back from the grave and saw that and thought, ‘Wow, somebody used this great sentence of mine for a book.’ And then he looks at it, and he realizes it’s about God. Who he thought he’d buried a hundred years ago. And so this grin goes off his face.” Anyway, I’m glad I disappointed him.
JM: In November, you’ll turn 81 years old. What has the aging process taught you about life and how to be faithful to the end?
EP: It’s kind of nice, to tell you the truth. Last November, I was 80 and I thought, “I’ve been under writing deadlines all my adult life.” I loved writing—I didn’t really like the deadlines—but now I don’t have to do that anymore, so I decided I wouldn’t. So my wife, Jan, and I just called it “quits” to traveling. I don’t really enjoy travel; it’s really a lot of work these days. So I’m done with that. And I’ve had this huge sense of spaciousness as a result—I didn’t know you could live this way! The only difficulty is that I don’t have very much energy to enjoy it as I used to. We’re in a lovely place: our children are doing well, our grandchildren are a lot of fun. And I have friends all over the world.
JM: Eighty-one years is a long time. As you enter your final season of life, what would you like to say to younger Christians who are itchy for a deeper and more authentic discipleship? What’s your word to them?
EP: Go to the nearest smallest church and commit yourself to being there for 6 months. If it doesn’t work out, find somewhere else. But don’t look for programs, don’t look for entertainment, and don’t look for a great preacher. A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place. That’s what I always told people. If people were leaving my congregation to go to another place of work, I’d say, “The smallest church, the closest church, and stay there for 6 months.” Sometimes it doesn’t work. Some pastors are just incompetent. And some are flat out bad. So I don’t think that’s the answer to everything, but it’s a better place to start than going to the one with all the programs, the glitz, all that stuff.
JM: I know I speak for millions when I say, “Thank you for being faithful. Faithful to the end.”