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Eugene Peterson & the Rebirth of the Religious Imagination

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Last Tuesday here at Flunking Sainthood, I featured the first part of a Q&A with one of my favorite religious writers, Eugene Peterson. That post focused on the release of the new study edition of The Message, the vernacular Bible translation that took Peterson more than a decade to produce. Today's follow-up explores his writing career more generally, especially his memoir The Pastor. (And can I just say that I wish he had been my professor in seminary? Any prof who proposes that the entire first year of div school be spent reading literature is my hero.) --JKR

You’ve written often about the importance of storytelling, even to the point of suggesting that first-year divinity students should read a diet entirely of fiction -- Flannery O’Connor, the Russian novelists, Faulkner. Wonderful idea. How are people transformed by fiction?

I think that their imaginations are transformed. When you’re reading a novel, you’re following a plot and character development. The best writers leave a lot to your imagination. The task of a writer is to get participation from the reader, and you can’t do that by telling them everything. The Bible is that kind of literature. There’s very little explanation—almost no explanation, no definitions. And the writers of Scripture were also, as they were telling these stories, aware of all the other voices that were in the air—Moses, Isaiah, Daniel, Jesus, Paul.

Our school curriculum teaches you how to study. You learn facts. But they don’t do much to help you read in an imaginative way to help you enter the story. That’s what novelists do. So I think a basic immersion in fiction is almost a prerequisite to reading the Bible, to preaching sermons, to teaching classes. Poetry does the same thing, but it takes a different route to do it.

And the Bible is full of poetry too. I encourage my students to find a half a dozen poets to just live with. Learn how poets use words not to tell you something, but to bring you into something.

Billy Collins has a wonderful poem about a writers' workshop. You strap the poem into a body cast, or whatever you do, and then get out a whip and start beating the truth out of it. You know, people do that with the Bible. And I hate it. I hope The Message can do something to repair that.

Some recent studies have shown that 21st-century people may be losing the ability to read like that—slowly and for transformation rather than scanning for information. What is the counter to that approach?

Well, I don’t know. I really don’t know. There’s a couple who came by this morning who had tea with my wife and me. He’s a professor. They were talking about this whole digital reformation. It hasn’t affected people of a certain age who still just settle down with a good book. It might be too early to tell. I’m a little bit alarmed when people talk about the vast changes in people’s ability to concentrate and have attention.

The other thing, though, is that this is now a very oral world. I wonder if something will happen that’s going to surprise us. The orality of language, instead of being determined by the print on the page, could become more relational. I don’t know. I just don’t.

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In your memoir The Pastor, you talk about your concerns that the Christian church is becoming too market-driven, and that Christians need “a sacred imagination strong enough to reject and resist the relentlessly secularized and ghettoized one-dimensional caricature that assigned American pastors to jobs in a workplace that markets religion.”

Wheat concerns me is that it kind of turns the gospel and the Christian faith into a consumer product. And instead of training people in acts of worship and to listen to God, we’ve trained pastors and professors to listen to people, more or less using their judgment and their desires and their imaginations to shape the way the gospel comes to them. But this is a huge reversal of the kingdom of God. We don’t define it; it defines us.

The larger the church, the more that kind of marketing thing takes over. You suddenly have a large staff of pastors that have to be paid, and a huge parking lot to maintain. You’re constantly thinking about the bottom line. That’s not a good way to develop a biblical imagination, or a listening imagination.

What we used to call common worship, with people worshiping together in a common way, has now been replaced by noise. Can you imagine doing lectio divina in a congregation of 10,000 people? You can’t. It’s impossible to do that. Silence, waiting, patience—those are all cultivated responses of the spirit when we’re dealing with the transcendent. I think we’ve been robbed of something that is very basic to a healthy spiritual life.

What are you working on now?

I’m not sure. The last five books I wrote were the spiritual theology books, which I called “conversations” in different areas. Those five books had been brooding in the back of my mind for a long time. With those I felt I had done what I had been trying to do all my life, trying to get the spiritual life and the intellectual life integrated and congruent. There is a lot of really good academic writing on the history of spirituality and the saints, and there’s a lot of spiritual writing, but I wanted to bring them together.

Then I was asked to do The Pastor. That was a totally new thing for me, and I resisted for quite a long time. I didn’t particularly want to write about myself. I tried for six months, but threw away everything I had done. The early drafts of the memoir were “I was born here, I went to school here, I met this girl.” It was very wooden and stilted. It just was awful.

I eventually figured out that what I was really trying to write about was my [pastoral] vocation. I was surprised by what happened. It came together in a very personal and relational way, and I hope not a narcissistic way. I think the breakthrough thing was when I was writing about discovering when I became a pastor, the story of John of Patmos and the sanctuary.


What has the response been to The Pastor?

I’ve gotten more response to that book than anything I’ve ever written except The Message. I was trying to give dignity to the vocation of pastor. I felt that since I had been ordained, 53 years ago now, that the vocation of pastor had been commercialized and celebretized and kind of ruined. I wanted to recover the basic, sacred nature of what we do.

Suddenly, I’m hearing people all over the country – all over the world, really – saying, “Thank you for giving me a picture of what I’m doing, despite the cultural and congregational pressure to do something else.” I’m pleased there’s been so much appreciative response by pastors and also laypeople, who have suffered the decadence of pastoral vocation into entertainment. I feel lucky that I got to do that.


What are your daily writing habits? Are you one of those disciplined people who writes every day no matter what, or do you write when the mood strikes you?

I’m very disciplined. I write four or five hours a day in the mornings. And that’s it; that’s all I can do. When I was a pastor of a congregation, I couldn’t do that every day—more like three days a week. But I’m pretty disciplined. I sit there and write whether I have anything to write or not. I don’t wait for inspiration.

I don’t do as much anymore. I did gather together a collection of poems, which I think are going to be published this month. This is a collection of stuff I’ve written all my life. I was diffident about doing it because I don’t really consider myself a poet. I know poets, and they’re poets 24 hours a day, and I’m not. But there are some things I’ve written that I couldn’t have written any other way than through poetry. That’s coming out as an ebook.

Mostly what I do now is write letters several hours a day. I get an enormous amount of mail. I get real letters because I don’t do email.

Do you feel that letter-writing is a dying genre?

Oh, I know it is. I know it is. But I’m doing my best to recover some of it, anyway.

Topics: Faith, Clergy & Congregations
Beliefs: Christian - Catholic, Christian - Orthodox, Christian - Protestant, Mormon
Tags: billy collins "workshop", eugene peterson, eugene peterson interview, eugene peterson the pastor, jana riess, lectio divina, letter-writing, memoir writing, poetry and religion, religious imagination, spiritual formation, the pastor memoir

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