David B Hunsicker

Ecclesia en Exodus Blog

Thoughts on Christianity and the Church after Christendom.

Eugene Peterson on retirement, the state of American Christianity, and Gay Marriage.

This week, in celebration of the release of Eugene Peterson's final book, As Kingfishers Catch Fire (WaterBrook, 2017), Jonathan Merritt published a series of conversations with Peterson. These conversations are brief and to the point, as one might expect with Peterson. But it is the topics discussed that will, no doubt, cause the greatest deal of commotion.

In the first conversation, Merritt asks Peterson why he decided to let this be his last book, and how he feels about approaching death. In short, Peterson has decided he's finished writing because he started seeing a great congruence to all of his work. He feels like he has seen the puzzle pieces come together and he is pressing the last few pieces into place. As for death, he talks about his joy in participating in a number of conversations with friends of his over the years who have died and that he is hoping to join their ranks as someone who dies well.

The second conversation probes Peterson on the current state of American evangelicalism and the Trump presidency – matters that I will be taking up frequently in this blog (look for the first in a series of posts on this topic in the next week or so). Regarding the American church, he does not think megachurches are really churches. Congregations of more than 500 people allow for anonymity, become centers of entertainment, and often capitulate to consumer mentalities. Regarding Donald Trump, he is even more blunt, calling Trump "the enemy", and noting that the fear that drives a lot of political rhetoric these days is completely antithetical to the gospel.

Of course, it is the third and final conversation that will get the most press. Merritt asks Peterson his opinion of recent debates in the Presbyterian Church (USA) – Peterson's own denomination – about homosexuality and same-sex marriage (Merritt's choice of words). On the question of homosexuality and church membership, Peterson says his previous experience with church members lead him to assume that they are "as Christian as everybody else in the church." Regarding homosexuality and church leadership, Peterson tells a story about a church he served hiring a minister of music who grew up in that congregation, is gay, and clearly talented enough to serve in that position. He says that he "was so pleased with the congregation" for handling the matter in the way they did. Finally, when asked about same-sex marriage and whether or not he would perform a marriage for a same-sex couple, his simply responds, "yes."

For my part, I wish Peterson would have given more content to his answers. He is such a significant figure in American Evangelicalism. More insight into how he came to the point where he can confidently say "yes" would probably go a long way towards helping many of us to understand where we agree and disagree with him, and whether or not his thoughts on the matter are compelling enough for many of us to reconsider our own positions. The downside to brief interviews like this is that there often isn't time or space for that type of depth. More likely, however, Peterson is wise enough to know that no matter what explanation he provides he will simply be hailed by those who already agree with him and dismissed by those who already disagree. In that sense, Peterson's terseness on the subject is probably an exercise in refusing to cast pearls before swine.

While this may be Peterson's last book, and he no longer intends to travel and speak, I do hope we will hear more from him in interviews like this. I find that his voice is clear and unambiguous. At a time like this, voices like his help us to return the discourse to the heart of the matter.


UPDATE (7/13/17; 3pm PST):  And now we've learned that the reason this interview does not go into further depth on why and how Peterson has changed his mind on same-sex marriage is because he, in fact, has not. Again, it would not have surprised me had he done so; however, I was completely surprised by the lack of thoughtfulness that was portrayed in the interview.