Over the weekend I read the authorized biography of Eugene Peterson by Winn Collier. In A Burning in My Bones [Waterbrook, 2021], Collier paints a picture of a man who wanted to be a saint but was very much a human.
Known especially for being the translator of THE MESSAGE (Peterson’s own translation of the Bible that sold more than 15 million copies), Peterson spent nearly 30 years (1962-1991) pastoring a Presbyterian Church he helped start in 1962 in Bel Air, Maryland.
Peterson died in 2018 at his Flathead Lake, Montana, home, just weeks before his 86th birthday. During the span of his ministry career, Peterson wrote an incredible 30+ books.
Back in the early 1990s I discovered Peterson’s writing and read his 3 books on the rhythms of pastoral life:
When Peterson’s New Testament part of THE MESSAGE was released by NavPress, I read it, over and over. I still think Peterson’s translation of Romans 8 is one of the most outstanding pieces of work I’ve read.
In 2000 Peterson spoke at a gathering of mostly Episcopal priests at an Episcopal retreat Center in North Carolina. I wanted to meet Peterson, so when I saw the retreat advertised in Christianity Today Magazine, I registered for the retreat and drove from Illinois to North Carolina for the fall retreat.
Not only did I get to sit under his teaching for several days, one afternoon Peterson and I took a hike together. Peterson’s wife, Jan, was with him that week, and the 3 of us had a long talk while we sat on the edge of a camp pond one afternoon.
What I admired about Peterson’s writing was his way of seeing pastoral life as a sacred vocation. In fact, Peterson gave a lot of time to prayer, study, and contemplation. By contrast, he was not a person who ever gave much thought to church growth or vision statements or taking personality tests to determine, say, his Enneagram number or to try and figure out if he was more extroverted or introverted. Frankly, in his writing on the rhythms of the pastoral life it is clear that he thought most of that was a waste of time.
Biographer Winn Collier paints a picture of studious man who felt called to be both a pastor and a writer. But Peterson had his struggles, too. Peterson struggled in his relationship with his own dad, and Peterson’s own children had struggles in their relationship with him. As he preached and lived among his congregants, Peterson wondered if was being the kind of pastor to which he aspired. In his pastoral life, Peterson was driven to study and write, and could he ever produce. He was disciplined, creative, and he could finish the writing projects he started.
But not all the elders of his Christ our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, thought Peterson should spend such chunks of time reading and researching and writing his books. Moreover, some found Peterson’s sermons hard to listen to, and well, boring.
There were those who found him to be distant and stand-offish. Peterson admitted that he could be. Still, Peterson’s THE MESSAGE and his 30 books were a stunning accomplishment and have sold more than 22 million copies, to date. (This actually made Peterson and his wife a lot of money late in their lives, and they were able to give away millions of dollars.)
Though it is clear that biographer Collier admires Peterson in so many ways, he does not shy away from telling about Peterson’s flat side. Even late in his career as a pastor, Peterson struggled with fully understanding and embracing his call to be a pastor. Peterson himself wrote in his journals of often drinking too much, and some of those struggles from Peterson’s journals made their way into Collier’s biography. No, Collier did not spare Peterson his humanity. I am convinced that is how Peterson would have wanted it.
Collier also writes about how Peterson’s wife Jan often felt overlooked by him, as he spent hundreds of hours in his study reading, pondering and writing. And, well, not just the lack of attention toward his wife, but also toward his 3 children while they were growing. Later in life Peterson regretted that and owned it. From then on he told his adult children how much he loved them, and their children, his grandchildren. His own children forgave him and clearly admired him in so many ways. One of Peterson’s sons officiated at Peterson’s funeral and spoke of how much he admired his father.
There was one relationship (not a physical relationship) that Peterson developed with a woman in his congregation that ended quickly when she declared her love for Peterson in a letter. When Peterson’s wife, Jan, found that letter, that relationship came to a screeching halt. Though that friendship ended quickly, it also led to distance and struggles between Peterson and his wife for several years. I admire Collier for writing frankly and honestly about the man for whom he also had the highest regard.
Included in his biography on Peterson is describing how Peterson, even after serving for 25 years at the church he helped start back in the 1960s, still fought with his own self-doubt. In the last year of his ministry at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, Peterson just increasingly felt done. He poured himself into his writing but also looked for ways to move on to something else. He mostly wanted to spend time reading, researching and writing.
A good biography should prove what we all know: All our idols have clay feet. And Eugene Peterson did. Still, Eugene Peterson was a deeply thoughtful man, a man who loved the English language and had both a drive and recognized gift for thoughtful, poetic and deeply penetrating writing. Peterson spent vast chunks of time in silence, mostly thinking about, researching and writing contemplative, meticulously researched and superbly well-written books, including the best books on the pastoral vocation that I have ever read.