Eugene Peterson: the Christian Right’s Newest Messy Object Lesson.

Author and retired Presbyterian minister Eugene Peterson said something recently that absolutely enraged the Christian Taliban Right in America. The bizarre spectacle of their vicious, over-the-top response to his statement demonstrates two things. First, it shows us that they know that the greatest threat to their longed-for return to power comes not from outside their sheepfold, but from within. Second, it shows the rest of us that they are quite right to fear the dissent coming from inside those sheepfolds. 

And yet for all of their atrocious behavior, this incident also hints that they’ve already lost this battle and know it.

there is astonishing variety in kingfishers, I'm noticing just now
(Asim Chaudhuri, CC.)

The Setup.

A few days ago, journalist and blogger Jonathan Merritt interviewed Eugene Peterson for Religion News Service (RNS). Mr. Peterson’s got a new book that just came out (As Kingfishers Catch Fire), so he was interested in promoting it and his other work.

Eugene Peterson’s work has been read for decades by evangelicals and–more importantly–by their pastors and leaders. Dude’s written more books than I own socks. If I had to classify his style of apologetics and belief, I’d put him in the “wishful thinking” camp along with C.S. Lewis. The Christianity he believes in isn’t even on a passing nodding acquaintance with reality, but it’s a common enough sort.

Mr. Merritt does a lot of these interviews, obviously. Perhaps not-so-obviously to those who maybe don’t read RNS much or don’t follow the big scandals going on in the religion regarding semi-prominent anti-gay Christians who’ve been dramatically outed as, well, totally gay (and got shown the love of Jesus for it by the rest of the tribe, be well-assured), he’s very interested in the topic of Christian bigotry. So among the many, many questions he asked this elderly minister during their interview, he of course asked about one of the two huge culture-war issues facing Christians in America these days: equal marriage.

Mr. Peterson, for his part, responded at length. Here’s part of his answer:

I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over.

And then he ended by saying simply “yes” to the question of whether or not he’d officiate a wedding between a same-sex couple he knew were Christians “of good faith.”

Really, Jonathan Merritt makes him sound like a very sweet old man who’s doing his best to adapt to a rapidly- and dramatically-changing culture. I’m sure a lot of straight cisgender people over the age of 40 can identify with that. Mr. Merritt also wrote up a Q&A session that Eugene Peterson gave in 2014 that reveals some of how his thinking has evolved here, and it sounds about as good as one could hope for out of a Christian caught firmly in the teeth of the culture war.

He’s not perfect, no; his Twitter has some really iffy things in it, showing that he’s as mired in the fundagelical swamp of shoddy thinking and reality-denial as anybody in that tribe, even if technically his home denomination, PC(USA) it looks like, doesn’t fall along evangelical lines. But clearly between those years he had some time to think about this one topic and came out more or less on the side of compassion. In fact, this position appears to be the only one he’s taken that is really at odds with the Christian Right.

Now, remember, this topic was just one section in a very long interview. The interview was so long, in fact, that Mr. Merritt had to release the writeup of it in several parts. The question about LGBTQ people was just one of many, many others–like questions relating to the book that Mr. Peterson had written, changes he saw occurring in his denomination and religion, how he felt about his own impending death (he’s 84 years old), and stuff like that.

The next day Mr. Merritt had to write an update to that interview because in that very short amount of time the Christian bigot-o-sphere had exploded with rage.

Guess what they’d exploded about?

Hate Antennae.

It seems that out of all those pages and pages of writeups and posts filed about that interview, the Christian Taliban Right had seized upon that one snippet about same-sex marriage and got 0-to-60, balls-to-the-walls furious.

And for what it’s worth, I know exactly how that feels. Ex-Christian and fellow blogger Dani Kelley once wrote a very long post about consent and about how she’d grown into the understanding that her body belonged to her and nobody else, back on Ex-Communications here on Patheos. One line out of what, 2500 concerned her absolute right to choose abortion care should she ever need it. That line was a simple declaration that this was care she could choose without consulting anybody else or getting permission for that care from any third parties because nobody, not even a fetus, owned her body or could force her to endure any violation she did not consent to undertake.

And that line was the one that sparked a huge outpouring of outrage and fury from Christians.

In retrospect, I suppose someone should have realized what would happen. Christians deep in the culture wars are by now so attuned to any possible transgressions, any possible move of their victims away from their control and domination, that the slightest tremor along the length of those insectile antennae produces an absolutely galvanic, way out of proportion, utterly over-the-top response. It prompted me to write a response to her excellent post that in turn got its share of attention, and yet even so, even after the hubbub had died down, I don’t think any Christians really grasped anything Dani and I were trying to tell them about consent and self-ownership. They were too freaked out over the concept of a woman doing something they didn’t approve of and getting away with her defiance of their command* to listen to anything else but the pounding of their own blood in their own ears.

In the intervening years, it seems like those same Christians have only gotten worse and more sensitive to the loss of their onetime dominance. Their reaction to these obvious signs of their loss of power has become more extreme every time they see a new one; at this point they’re all but caricatures of themselves. The prediction I read once (and wish I could find again) of one of their leaders years ago, that his tribe was fast becoming known far better for what they hate than for who they claim to love, has more than come true–not that any of them care in their rush to seize some of their fading power back before it’s impossible to regain any of it at all.

In a broken system, all that matters ultimately is power: the gaining of it, the regaining of it, and the guarding of it.

So poor Eugene Peterson stepped afoul of that system, and the adherents of it had to punish him.

Eating Their Young–and Their Old.

Christians have a very long history of metaphorically shooting their messengers, and they didn’t hesitate to draw down even on the guy whose biggest claim to fame is writing The Message, a sort of common-language English Bible, along with a variety of other books positioning him as the Jesus Whisperer for today’s Christians.

His position as the Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology at Regent College, an esteemed fundagelical university, mattered not. His dozens of books and speeches didn’t either. Now, to me, if I were Christian, if someone with this fellow’s pedigree said Look, I’ve read all this stuff and done all this scholarship and I just can’t see any reason to keep hassling gay people anymore, that would be something I’d pay close attention to. But Christians have a habit of slavishly following their leaders–until their leaders breathe a word that isn’t in line with their doctrinal stances, at which point they turn on them like Ramsay Bolton’s dogs.

LifeWay, the Christian bookstore chain, declared that they would stop selling The Message, along with Mr. Peterson’s 135 other titles that they currently carry, because its author had dared say something so shocking–a very pointed confirmation of exactly what we talked about last time we met up: about how Christians tend to over-police their creative members and reject them over any point of contention no matter how useful or edifying those artists were in the past.

Countless Christians erupted into anger.

Crosswalk’s writer loftily declared that “Eugene Peterson and Jesus cannot both be right,” because of course they’re totally sure they know what “Jesus” thinks. The same writer added some bonus false martyrbation by whining about how bigots-for-Jesus, like himself, “are often categorized as irrational, judgmental, bigoted, and intolerant” — by showing irrational, bigoted, and intolerant judgment toward someone in his own tribe who’d stepped out of line. His byline claims he’s a fundagelical pastor, of course, which explains a lot about his childish interpretations of the Bible and his lack of self-awareness.

Some total rando over at The Federalist decided that he needed to school a minister who’s probably forgotten more about Biblical scholarship than he will ever know in his life. His schooling consisted of a listicle of regurgitated fundagelical talking points bashing gay people. Among other things, he decided that Mr. Peterson’s imagined errors went all the way into “evil deception” territory, but of course his own shortcomings as a human being aren’t anywhere near that bad. And he ended by threatening those who disagreed with his equally childish interpretation of the Bible with Hell, because of course he did.

The satirical Christian website The Babylon Bee mocked the author by noting that “exactly three people were ‘completely blindsided’ by a recent interview in which pastor and author of The Message Eugene Peterson publicly came out in favor of same-sex marriage.” These were, if you’re wondering, a guy from “rural Idaho,” a “LifeWay bookstore manager in Kentucky,” and an old lady who mistakenly thought he was John Piper. But the reality is that quite a few Christians seemed shocked by this news.

Meanwhile, The Gospel Coalition breathlessly wondered how many more Christians in their tribe had changed their mind on the subject of equal marriage (answer: probably a lot, if their laypeople’s secret endorsement of abortion is anything to go by). One commenter cried crocodile tears over “Peterson openly turning his back on Christ,” since obviously destroying gay people’s rights is so what Jesus told Christians to do.

Man, they were pissed at this guy.

Clearly, the very worst danger there is to Christian dominance is other Christians.

(You’ll never see them freak out this bad over their own hypocrisy–or get this emotional over the plight of the people most harmed by their culture wars.)

The Backpedaling Commenced.

Faced with this huge rejection from the community he’s served literally his entire life, faced with a huge dent to his income and a major loss of his esteem, maybe even wondering if his job as Professor Emeritus was at stake, Eugene Peterson immediately retracted his statements about supporting equal marriage.

He wrote, right after the offending interview was posted on RNS and the backlash had begun, “On further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that [support].” In fact, his full statement–reprinted in The Washington Post–is quite wordy. In it, he not only “affirms a biblical view of marriage,” but goes on to say that he really hopes nobody actually ever will ask him to officiate a same-sex wedding. He looked at the hypothetical Christian couple “of good faith” that Jonathan Merritt had offered up and said gosh, upon further reflection, he sure wouldn’t want to give gay people equal rights or access to equal services as the pastor whose paycheck they directly paid with their hard-earned money, but he’d happily go on coffee dates invite them to dinner sometime. One almost imagines him peeking up from his email to see if he’d slammed gay people hard enough to get back into his tribe’s good graces.

And it mostly worked.

LifeWay retracted their threat to quit selling his work.

And Christians everywhere nodded smugly as they saw his apology for daring to support rights for those folks who the tribe had marginalized.

They granted him a reprieve from their fury and their rage, though they don’t realize that we know just how obviously conditional that approval is.

(Well, almost all of them took him back, anyway. I saw one fundagelical who isn’t buying Mr. Peterson’s show of support for bigotry–he fisked it at length and triumphantly ended by declaring that Mr. Peterson is still in trouble with him at least.)

Edging Up to the Answer.

About the only real support I saw for the fellow came from the Progressives, like this sweet post from two gay married Christians reassuring him that their family at least would continue to read his books despite his retraction. Their heartfelt open letter displays far more grace than bigots-for-Jesus have ever mustered in their whole lives cumulatively, and far more than that religion really merits.

Matthew Vines, a young gay Christian who is an outspoken advocate for equal rights, wrote for Time that this retraction would harm LGBTQ people “more than [Peterson] may know.” He wrote,

By stating his support for same-sex marriage and then retracting it a day after it was published, he confirmed the sense of so many LGBTQ people that we cannot trust church leaders and that the church is not a place where we can ever let down our guard. By not letting his “yes” be “yes,” he contributed to the feeling among LGBTQ Christians that we are disposable.

I saw that and once again got that strange soaring-hopeful feeling I get whenever a Christian tiptoes right up to the edge of a major realization and then skitters back away from it. We saw that happen a lot after the last election, when a lot of black Christians finally realized just how much white fundagelicals hate them. Saw that happen too when Rachel Held Evans finally saw just how much her tribe hates women. And we’re seeing it now as this prominent gay advocate within Christianity finally gets an inkling of just how much a huge swathe of Christianity hates him.

And oh yeah, one Christian blogger felt some concern over the idea of support for (or opposition to) equal marriage having turned into “the litmus test for a person’s ministry.” That became the case some time ago, but it’s nice that at least some of ’em are noticing.

The Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name.

The TGC post wondering how many more pro-equality evangelicals were in the tribe caught my attention in a major way. Before the retraction, the same group openly wondered if they were still allowed to read his books if he’d turned out to disagree with their war against gay people–and they wondered it because if Eugene Peterson could change his mind about abusing gay people, then gosh, anybody could.

That looming question, indeed, was the cautionary note that fundagelicals worried about most through this whole fiasco. Russell Moore himself–yes, that Russell Moore, one of folks at the tippy-top of the Hate Pyramid that is the Southern Baptist Convention–fretted about it in a post for The Christian Post. One can see why. Their main doctrine is that if someone is immersed enough and indoctrinated enough in their culture-war ideals, then that person can’t help but continue on the “correct” path. But if someone who is doing everything as right as anybody ever possibly could and still comes out against the culture war, what does that say about the rest of them?

So yes, of course fundagelicals are worried about Eugene Peterson’s temporary defection from the ranks–not really for his own sake, but because of what that defection implies about their social system and their other members.

They know that quite a few of their tribemates harbor secret and illicit support for the groups that they are doing their best to marginalize. They can’t help but know. As long as that support is kept utterly quiet and the people holding that opinion say all the right things and vote the “correct” way, there’s not much that fundagelicals can do about it. But if any of that changes into more overt and obvious support, then the claws come out.

A Calculated Show of Abuse.

That viciousness is actually exactly why so few of them dare to openly voice opposition and be honest about how they feel. If you don’t think that pro-LGBTQ Christians don’t see the response given to this august and learned, highly-esteemed and well-respected Christian thought leader and do a quick burst of mental arithmetic about the likely outcome if they even hint that they are on board with equal rights…. well, you’re one sweet summer child.

By being so disproportionate in their response, so obscenely vicious and hurtful in their reactions, Christians themselves create an atmosphere of forced compliance.

And they are totally okay with that, which we can tell because they sure aren’t doing much to change anything about it. They delight in shredding and destroying the few people in their ranks who dare to speak up in favor of the oppressed, the marginalized, the abused, and the hurting.

It’s hard to imagine them being this awful if their domination were still assured.

Option B.

Those daring dissenters realize eventually that they have two options: they can either shut up and keep their heads down and hope the abuse goes away eventually and lands on someone else, or they can walk away.

There was a time when most Christians would have chosen the former option, you know. They had to–because Christianity still controlled so much of the local scene and because so many horrible things could still happen to those who spoke against that overreach and cruelty and sheer catastrophic wrongness.

Now, as we’re seeing more and more, loving and decent Christians are choosing the latter option.

They’re leaving. They’re walking away. They’re finding other churches or they’re just pulling away from the religion as a whole.

And yes, abuse still follows these dissenters anyway, but at least they’re on the right side of compassion and love this time, which I suspect makes the abuse easier to withstand–and the abuse has a time limit to some extent, since Christians have so much less power outside their direct spheres to directly harm those they hate and wish to punish. Leave their communities, walk away from their social milieux, and there’s not quite so much they can do to affect life in the real world.

Coercion is literally the only way that Christianity can survive, and its leaders and most fervent adherents are well aware of that truth. They revel in their mob mentality and their ability and desire to hurt those who disagree with them.

And that’s why they’re gonna lose.

Love is winning this fight. Every survey I’ve seen in the last few years indicates that bigotry is on the decline–even in Christianity. The number of Christians using religion to mask their bigotry is shrinking every single day. The patience the rest of us have for their bigotry is likewise waning quickly. And there are a hell of a lot of folks speaking up now to reject that message of hatred and exclusion–many still sitting in pews across the nation and many long-gone from there. It seems hugely unlikely that the leaders of this broken system are going to find a magical way to turn the tide back again. The culture war is already lost; all Christian bigots-for-Jesus can do now is forestall the inevitable.

We’re going to look at one downright bizarre outgrowth of Christian bigotry next, and ask some bewildered questions about just why there seem to be so many gay orgies going on in the Vatican. See you next time!


* Yes, we all sure felt the “love of Jesus” that day. Totally. It was amazing. Coulda lived on that rush for days. Then all us uppity women swore off using our fluffy pink ladybrainz forever as a result of having been so dazzled by all those Jesus Auras sparkling together.

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