Eugene Peterson is a lyrical writer, scholar, and skilled linguist whose day job for most of his life was pastoring a small church. In 1990, Peterson agreed to begin work on a Bible version that translated the ancient languages into something more vibrant for contemporary readers. He had no idea this 12-year project would one day sell more than 10 million copies, changing the way we read and understand Scripture and attracting high-profile fans of his work, including Bono of the iconic rock band U2. Peterson is also the author of many bestselling books, including A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Like Dew Your Youth, Leap Over a Wall, and Working the Angles. He’s now 85 years old and lives in his family’s Montana cabin overlooking the shore of a mountain lake. Peterson looks and sounds grandfatherly, and is so self-effacing that it comes as something of a shock when his opinions about the contemporary church, and the norms of the wider culture, are delivered with a bite. Though he no longer accepts speaking engagements and spends much of his time living quietly at home with Jan, his wife of many years, Peterson agreed to spend 30 minutes with me on the phone, talking about a wide range of topics. To hear the podcast, visit http://www.mylifetree.com/podcast-episode-013-defining-humility-eugene-peterson/.
RICK: It’s now widely acknowledged that the church is in decline—not just among some denominations, it’s across the board. The research on emerging adults in our culture reveals that they see the church primarily as an “elementary school for morals.” How do you think we got to this place, and what’s the role of ministry leaders in reversing it?
EUGENE: (Pause) Well, what are you doing about it?
RICK: I’m General Editor of a Bible called The Jesus-Centered Bible, and I wrote a book called The Jesus-Centered Life. My view is that the church’s message has been subtly shifting toward a “shadow gospel”—that the Christian life is all about trying harder to be a better person. We do a lot of research among Christian young people and adults, and that’s the answer they always give. So when I’m with ministry leaders, I say: “This is not about blame or pointing fingers. It’s about honestly reflecting on what young people say that this life is all about.” The Christian life is not about trying harder to be better—that’s not the gospel. So, I’ve been trying to help people refocus on an intimate relationship with Jesus, making that pursuit the center of everything in their life. Not as a should, but in response to his invitation. So now you’ve heard what I’m trying to do—what are your thoughts?
EUGENE: I think we’ve gotten here because of the strong fundamentalist attitude that has penetrated all parts of the church. It’s: This is what you do, this is what you do, this is what you do. I, for my part, have just ignored all that and tried to develop a sense of true spirituality, of giving up your life for God, for Jesus. But I don’t have the same access to the world that you do.
RICK: Did you see this penetrating attitude when you were pastoring? Is it a recent thing?
EUGENE: No, I think this has been going on forever. It’s very American.
RICK: So, you’ve mentioned two things: A strong fundamentalist attitude and that it’s very American. Could you explain what you mean?
EUGENE: Maybe what makes it American is: It’s all me. It’s all about us. But the essence of the gospel, as you well know, is about Jesus. But when you live in a consumerist world, it’s hard for people to get this into their heads. Or, they get it into their heads, but they don’t get it into their bloodstream.
RICK: How did this get into your bloodstream?
EUGENE: Oh, I don’t know! It’s always been in my bloodstream. I had a good bringing-up. I’ve never been fascinated by the quick things. Yeah, I don’t know how it got in my bloodstream.
RICK: You used the phrase “true spirituality.” How do you define true spirituality?
EUGENE: I’ve been writing books like you have. Since my early writing, I don’t think I’ve changed my mind about any of this since I was 12 years old. I had the advantage of growing up in a sound, good home.
RICK: When you use the words “true spirituality,” do you mean that A.) It’s about Jesus, not about you, and B.) It’s about a relationship?
EUGENE: That’s right.
RICK: In Working the Angles, you wrote something that grabbed me, and I can’t stop thinking about it: “The pastor’s primary responsibility is to help people maintain their attentiveness to Jesus.” That’s so countercultural in today’s pastoral strata—that our primary responsibility is to help people maintain their attentiveness to Jesus. What do you mean by “attentiveness to Jesus”? And in what ways have you learned to maintain your own attentiveness to Jesus?
EUGENE: All this consumer world is just anathema to me. I’ve been a pastor, and I don’t think you can [maintain attention on Jesus] in mass things. One of the most detrimental things in the Christian church is the mega-church—it just sweeps you off your feet and leaves you with nothing. From my point of view, I’ve always insisted on being part of a smaller church. I don’t think you can do this big.
RICK: You’re saying it’s difficult in a large-church setting to help people maintain attentiveness to Jesus?
EUGENE: Nearly impossible.
RICK: And why is that? You said people get swept up—what are they swept up by?
EUGENE: The pastor’s ego.
RICK: Which finds expression in what way?
EUGENE: Trying to get people to attend your church, to sing your song. And to listen to them. The ego in Protestant pastors is just enormous, and I’ll just have no truck with it [meaning, I’ll have nothing to do with it].
RICK: It’s so ironic that Eugene Peterson, who wrote The Message and has worldwide celebrity within the church because of it, is calling out the culture of celebrity in the church. Are you saying that in the midst of the attention that you’ve received, not just from The Message but from the many other books you’ve written, that this specter of ego has either not been a temptation for you, or that you’ve been so aware of it that you’ve completely resisted it?
EUGENE: I think this probably sounds stupid, but I’m not aware that I’m very well-read. It always surprises me when somebody writes or says nice things to me, but it just kind of washes off my body.
RICK: Well, it’s anecdotal, but many people know now that Bono showed up at your Montana home to talk about the Psalms with you. And that’s a pretty good indicator that you’re well-known—when Bono shows up to spend some time with you, and the whole thing is filmed as a mini-documentary. I understand that you may not have been fully aware of the massiveness of his celebrity at the time, but you probably are now. So I hear you saying that you may be aware of the temptations of ego, but they don’t find any traction in you.
EUGENE: They don’t.
RICK: Why do you think that is?
EUGENE: (Pause) I’ve been trying to follow Jesus.
RICK: I do some very intimate, transformative kinds of things with people. They sometimes have profound impact on their lives. It’s transformational. So, of course, I have people who say very kind things to me. And my wife used to say: “Oh, I’m really worried that this is going to go to your head somehow, Rick.” I was surprised that she said that, and I told her that it’s never been much of a temptation, because Jesus has been very consistent to humiliate me along my path. (Laughs) So I never really go very far into thinking too much of myself before my nose smells the ground. So it’s never been much of a big deal to me. I’m not sure that that’s the same as what you’re saying, but …
EUGENE: Join the club, join the club!
RICK: A lot of people compartmentalize their relationship with Jesus. They don’t do what Brother Lawrence talks about in The Practice of the Presence of God. That’s a book that I don’t imagine is selling very well right now, because it seems unrealistic and maybe even a little fanatical to be in relationship and attentive to Jesus at all times in your life. It sounds daunting; like it would take too much willpower. As I’ve gotten older, the practice of the presence of Jesus doesn’t look like a discipline at all. And, honestly, it doesn’t take effort. I think it’s because I’ve been drawn to his heart so deeply. So, what does the practice of the presence of God mean to you? And what does that look like for an average person? If a person wanted to be attentive to Jesus in the whole of their life, not in a compartment, how would they go about that?
EUGENE: Well, it’s inch by inch, row by row, is what it is. There’s no big things going on—revivals are not particularly a gospel thing. So, I don’t know…
RICK: Besides reading and studying Scripture, are there other things that you personally have done in your life to move toward greater intimacy with Jesus?
EUGENE: I think, having relationships with people you don’t particularly like. Caring for people, and your own family—your spouse. I don’t think there are any secrets to this. I really don’t.
RICK: As you’ve gotten older, what do you think has become more clear to you about a life following Jesus and what, if anything, has become less clear for you?
EUGENE: I think what becomes less clear is, there are no formulas… (Pause) My wife and I keep a Sabbath. We’ve done this for 50 years. Nobody keeps a Sabbath—except us! (Laughs)
RICK: What does keeping the Sabbath mean to you?
EUGENE: It means not having an agenda. Being quiet. Taking long walks. In our family, we’ve got kind of an agreement on silence, and giving each other space, and not trying to do too much. I’m 85 years old, and I know less than I used to, I really do. Sometimes I read some things and I think, They don’t even know me…
RICK: In your paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, did the act of ingesting all of the Bible in that way, then artistically rendering it into a creative work, bring a much deeper understanding of what you were reading? What was the primary outcome in your life from that project?
EUGENE: I have to say I don’t know. I learn languages just because I love language. But sometimes when I read The Message, I think, That wasn’t me. I never labored over The Message. I prayed and I just kind of wrote. And then three days later I’d think, I didn’t do that. I didn’t know where that came from.
RICK: If I had to use one word to describe the tone of your writing in The Message, I would use the word playful. I’m wondering why that is?
EUGENE: Why? I don’t know why… It wasn’t deliberate.
RICK: Do you have a sense of how that work of art impacted your view of Jesus? Did it have any impact on your view of Jesus?
EUGENE: Oh yes. There’s a kind of intimacy that goes with the playfulness. But you’re not conscious about it when you do it. I was fortunate in having a pretty good handle on languages. But I wasn’t even thinking about that. I was just reading it and letting it simmer, and then just write away. The whole business of The Message is something I really can’t take any credit for. It wasn’t because I studied hard or knew a lot. It was because I was, I don’t know, maybe being obedient. It was something God was giving me to do. I wasn’t really conscious of that, except three or four years later, I’d think, Did I do that? I don’t know what it is; I really don’t.
RICK: How would you describe the person of Jesus today? Some people say, and I think this is wrong, that Jesus is essentially unknowable. I think that’s a cop-out. I think he came to be known, and we just don’t pay very good attention. So as a man who has paid attention to him your whole life, who is he to you now?
EUGENE: A friend. (Pause)
RICK: And in most friendships, there’s a give-and-take, there’s a mutual intimacy. How would you describe the mutual intimacy of your relationship with him?
EUGENE: Oh, it’s mostly in silence, in quietness, in longing. You can’t really separate these things out—it develops within you, and you allow it to develop.
RICK: Are there some common threads in the ways that he communicates to you or what he’s trying to communicate to you? Is there something that comes up for you over and over in your relationship with him that he’s trying to communicate to you?
EUGENE: I’m not conscious of it. But I recognize it after the fact. It’s not like I’m having some spiritual experience, until two weeks later or three weeks later, I realize that wasn’t me. I think self-consciousness or trying to develop a self-conscious persona is going up the wrong tree.
EUGENE: Because it puts you in a position of being tempted to pride. I can’t tell you how many times people have said, “What was it like to meet Bono?” I don’t know what it was like. It was just… he was a friend. He’s still a friend. Being with him was so great, but in fact, I hate his music. When he was here, we were almost in tears, and he said: “Eugene, I read everything you write. I have a feeling you don’t listen to my music.” And I just smiled at him, because I don’t. (Laughs)
RICK: Did I hear this right, though—that you went to a U2 concert? Is that right?
EUGENE: That’s right.
RICK: So, that must’ve been torture then.
EUGENE: Well, it wasn’t torture, actually. It was kind of fun to see all that going on. The mash pit—I never knew what that was. Or is it the mosh?
RICK: Mosh. You got it right the second time. (Laughter) As a pastor of a church most of your life, you were engaged in relationships all the time. That’s what a pastor does. And now you’re less so, I get the feeling. How has that impacted your life, to be less engaged with others?
EUGENE: I don’t think in any way. I’m still engaged with a lot of people. I’m just not in a position of having to have the responsibility at this stage. No, I’m engaged with a lot of people. I’m not a hermit. (Laughter)
RICK: What message do you think is crucial for the church to hear today? If you had a prophet’s megaphone, what message does the church need to hear?
EUGENE: Oh my… It needs to turn off its cellphones, and to get rid of its smartphones. I walk down the street and I can’t walk 10 steps without seeing anyone with a smartphone, not paying attention to the person that’s right next to them. And I think people go, well, shallow, for one thing. There’s no time for reflection, there’s no time for conversation. There’s just too much going on. We don’t have a television set, umm… (Pause)
RICK: So, distraction.
EUGENE: Distraction, yeah. There’s no time to even smell the flowers.
RICK: So, you don’t have a television set. Normally, what a typical American would do at night is watch TV. What are you doing instead?
EUGENE: We read to each other, my wife and I. Usually the hour before we go to sleep we’re reading a book to each other aloud. We do a lot of reading aloud. Talking about what we’re reading.
RICK: What kind of reading do you do, typically?
EUGENE: Mostly fiction, novels.
RICK: Do you have a favorite novelist?
EUGENE: Several. We’re reading, for the third time now, over a period of maybe 20 years, we’re reading Jayber Crow. We’re just enjoying this as much as we did the first time. Jayber Crow is written by Wendell Berry, a good novelist and writer. We read some books on spirituality, but a lot of them are not worth reading. They’ve got all these formulas in them…
RICK: Have you ever read one of your own books, just for pleasure?
EUGENE: Yes, sometimes I do.
RICK: What’s your favorite?
EUGENE: (Laughs) I don’t know. I wrote a memoir several years ago, and I picked it up to see what I’d written. And I thought, “Did I write that?” Even though I knew that I did. It wasn’t embellishing anything. It just came off the page with such clarity. So I sometimes read things I’ve written…
RICK: You’ve mentioned several times in our conversation about this idea that, “Wow, did I write that?” I resonate with that, because I’ve had that feeling as well. People use language that communicates the wrong idea about our relationship with Jesus—one example is: “I just want Jesus to use me.” And I always say: “Jesus doesn’t use people, ever. That’s not what a father would say to his daughter: ‘I just want to use you.’” I think that Jesus partners with us in intimacy. So when go back to what I’ve written and ask—“Wow, did I write that?”—it’s recognizing co-mingling of my heart with his. That’s really happening; it’s not rhetorical.
EUGENE: I agree.
RICK: What gives you hope about emerging adults—those who are coming up in the church and as followers of Jesus? And what gives you concern?
EUGENE: What gives me hope is their willingness to set aside ambition and to accept people for who they are. What gives me concern is the insatiable wanting to do more, to have more, to get more, to feel more. We have to learn how to be, to accept us for what Jesus has made us and is making in us. Because we’re always reaching for something else. Trying something new. And that doesn’t do it. ◊