What Eugene Peterson doesn’t care about
It has been mentioned many times, and it is true, that Peterson really struggled with the celebrity status which the publication of The Message thrust upon him. On one of my visits I witnessed him thinking of creative ways he could dodge a Christian media organisation that was wanting to come and interview him on video when he would rather be out in the mountains with his guests. He writes persistently about the dangers of Christian celebrity, and the tag sat heavily on his shoulders. To think that his retraction was motivated by a reduction in potential speaking engagements (laying aside, for the moment, the fact that he is 84) or his status within the evangelical community (which was a little semi-detached in some circles anyway) just doesn’t compute.
I have often thought that if he hadn’t been a Presbyterian, he would have been a monk. He eschews email, he has never to my knowledge been on social media, and the only tweets he hears are in the trees around his Montana lakeside cabin. He is a writer and a contemplative.
I fondly remember him asking me on a visit a decade ago “Monty, have you ever heard of some Irish band ‘To You’ or something like that? My publisher says they want to talk to me and he thinks I should go to Chicago to see them. I mean, why would I want to go to Chicago to see some rock band?” (I imagine it wasn’t my stammering response, but rather the persistence of the band members themselves that led to him eventually meeting them some years later and their becoming good friends).
To call him naïve would be pejorative and undermine his great wisdom; but he is certainly detached from many of the things that you and I get concerned and worked up about. I believe that his decrying of celebrity culture meant he would have been genuinely shocked that such a furore could have arisen because people cared what he thought on a particular issue. Similarly his detachment from contemporary culture meant he was unlikely to have factored in how far his words would have spread and how quickly.
Political agenda and controversyHis dislike of celebrity status is magnified when it comes to people, especially preachers, being used by a group or lobby to give weight to a political agenda either in society at large or in the church. This would be true across the board: conservative/liberal; right/left. He is not a controversialist. In all of his 30 plus books and hundreds of sermons you would not find anything other than a presupposed endorsement of the orthodox historic view of what constitutes Christian marriage.
Which is why, if he was aware that his original interview had led to him becoming a new icon for a ‘progressive sexual agenda’, he would have been utterly appalled. Rightly or wrongly, he stayed out of church politics (and this, in a church decimated by political division on this issue). The thought that his retraction was motivated by one political group exerting more power than another, does an injustice to someone who was always his own man and steadfastly refused to be drawn into such battles.
Money and reputation
Peterson doesn’t need money. He is in his twilight years, and he has lived a life of generosity. Again, I remember him taking me to a cupboard in his home and saying, “They send me all these copies of my books and I don’t know what to do with them- take whatever you want”. He wrote because it was a vocation, he wrote because it flowed out of him. He would have written if he had never been published, and I can say with certainty that he would have issued his retraction regardless of any comments from a publisher. How do I know? I know, because there are so so many things he cares about more than book sales.