Eugene Peterson’s rough week.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 July

On the “yes” heard round the blogosphere.

Most Christians know Presbyterian pastor Eugene Peterson from The Message, his popular bible translation that’s looser than a boot on a pegleg.
Everybody’s favorite Wikipedia image of Eugene Peterson, as seen on various news sites lately.
(So loose, people gripe it’s more of a paraphrase.) Others are more familiar with his writings on pastors and church leadership. But thanks to The Message, loads of American Christians have at least that work of his on their bookshelves.

It’s because of this fame Religion News Service columnist Jonathan Merritt interviewed Peterson on a number of topics relevant to Evangelical Christianity. Plus, Peterson’s sorta retiring. He’s 84, promoting what he figures is his last book, As Kingfishers Catch Fire; he’s kinda saying farewell to his public.

But Merritt’s brief interview with Peterson, posted last Wednesday, 12 July, probably got a lot more attention than Peterson ever bargained for. The headline: “Eugene Peterson on changing his mind about same-sex issues and marriage.”

Here’s the relevant bit:

Merritt. “A follow-up: If you were pastoring today and a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith asked you to perform their same-sex wedding ceremony, is that something you would do?”

Peterson. “Yes.”

Now. Back in October, Merritt got popular Christian blogger Jen Hatmaker to say much the same thing, as I already ranted about. As a result LifeWay Christian Resources removed Hatmaker’s books from their stores.

It’s kind of a big deal. LifeWay’s the biggest Christian bookstore chain in the United States. It’s owned by the Southern Baptist Convention, the second-largest denomination in the United States. They’d be a primary route of Hatmaker’s sales. But LifeWay feels they have a duty to police the Christian orthodoxy—as they define orthodoxy—of the authors they carry. Not that any of Hatmaker’s previous books contained any endorsement of same-sex marriage in them: LifeWay figures if you’re heretic—again, as they define heresy—they don’t want their customers getting the idea you’re a safe author. Easier to just ban your works in entirety.

Given the Hatmaker situation, Christianity Today followed up Merritt’s interview that same Wednesday by asking LifeWay whether they’d likewise yank Peterson’s books off their shelves. No surprise coming: LifeWay responded of course they would.

So on Thursday the 13th, Peterson took it all back.

When put on the spot by this particular interviewer, I said yes in the moment. But on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that. That’s not something I would do out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage. That said, I would still love such a couple as their pastor. They’d be welcome at my table, along with everybody else.

Thereafter, Peterson states he’s not doing any more interviews. He’s done. Doesn’t want the controversy.

I don’t blame him. Just about every time I’ve been ensnared in controversy, it’s never been about something I intended to fight over. Or even wanted to. Or care about. It’s always the minor stuff which I don’t consider dealbreakers. Problem is, everybody else insists they’re dealbreakers. To some Fundamentalists, darn near everything’s a dealbreaker.

Same-sex marriage is definitely a dealbreaker to many Evangelicals. If you’re gay, Christian, and wanna get married, it’s not negotiable. And if you’re anti-gay, figure it’s not even remotely possible to be both Christian and gay, and consider same-sex marriage to be a state-legitimized abomination, that’s not negotiable. This isn’t a minor debate in Evangelical Christianity right now. It’s one of the bigger deals.

Eugene Peterson stepped right into this wet pile of dooky, right up to his knees.

The visceral reaction.

I know Evangelicals on both the Christian Right and Christian Left. I myself kinda lean rightward, but I’m more in the middle—right in the sweet spot, where my lefty friends think I’m conservative, and my righty friends think I’m going to hell. Hey, I’m just trying to follow Jesus here; not the party platforms.

The lefties initially rejoiced at the original Peterson article: Yea, he’s in their camp! Then he retracted it. Then they mourned. And blamed others for driving Peterson back into the closet. Like the SBC, like LifeWay, like political conservatives, like all the homophobia we find among Americans of all sorts.

The righties were initially horrified at the original Peterson article. And are kinda of two minds about him and his retraction.

Some of ’em weren’t really surprised by Peterson’s “Yes.” Because Peterson’s always been a little bit lefty. He’s a pastor in the Presbyterian Church USA, a mainline denomination which voted to permit same-sex marriages in 2014. Peterson didn’t say a single thing that’s inconsistent with, or would get him booted, from the PCUSA.

After Peterson’s retraction, Merritt followed up by pointing out Peterson’s original statement isn’t inconsistent with anything he’s said in the past. He attached a video of Peterson speaking at Western Seminary.

Around the 2:23 mark, Peterson talks about being raised in a culture when gay was “really bad.” He says, “I accepted the status quo.” But recently, Peterson says, he thought about two homosexual men in his church, one who committed suicide and another who was divorced by his wife.

The result, Peterson said, was that, “I started to change my mind.”

Took him all of a day to change it right back.

It’s for these reasons these righties figure Peterson honestly spoke his mind in Merritt’s interview. So they believe he dishonestly took it back, just to avoid the controversy. Just because he stands a good chance of losing all that sweet, sweet royalty money from LifeWay’s sales of The Message and his other books. Remember, The Message still sells really well, and if you can’t find it on Walmart’s few bookshelves, you can still easily find it, in hardbound or paperback or audiobible or gift bible or Message/NIV parallel bible, at LifeWay. Do the math.

The other conservatives I know, blame Merritt. They think he has an ax to grind.

Y’see Merritt “suffers from same-sex attraction.” This is a Christianese term, which I usually hear Christians use when they mean they’re gay—but they don’t wanna be gay, and they’re pretty sure they can pray it away. That’s not how Merritt describes it; that’s how I do. To be fair to Merritt, here’s how he described it in a Christianity Today interview with Ed Stetzer.

I don’t identify as “gay” because I believe there can be a difference between what one experiences and the life that God offers. I’m a cracked vessel held together only by God’s power. And I’m more sure each day that only Christ can make broken people whole.

These conspiracy-minded conservatives suspect Merritt isn’t actually trying to suppress his same-sex attraction. Instead they imagine he’s secretly trying to lay the groundwork for normalizing homosexuality within American Christendom. How, pray tell? By getting prominent Christians, like Hatmaker and Peterson, to publicly say they’re okay with gay Christians and same-sex marriage. So as to tell Christians, “See! They say it’s okay. So should you. Get with the times.”

Meh. I’m gonna give Merritt the benefit of the doubt and say he has no such goal. These guys have been listening to way too many wingnuts on the radio. ’Cause such a strategy might sound clever, but it won’t work. It utterly underestimates homophobia.

I was raised to be prejudiced against gays. To not just think of homosexuality as wrong, but be viscerally bothered by it. You do realize what “visceral” means, right? Kinda deeper than a knee-jerk reaction. You don’t just unthinkingly respond, “That’s wrong.” A visceral reaction is when you recoil in disgust: “That’s nasty.” You’re not just meant to react; you’re meant to flinch.

Plenty of parents raise their kids to be homophobic in this very way. If they don’t see that visceral response, they’ll often badger their kids till they do see it. Even if the kids “doth protest too much” because they’re trying to conceal how they really don’t care one way or the other. (Or do care… but contrary to the way their parents were hoping.)

If you weren’t raised homophobic, you might actually think this method would work: Show the public some upstanding citizens who happen to be gay. Point out, “These are good people. Good role models. And they’re gay. Maybe hating and fearing them makes no sense, right?” And as people start to reconsider their beliefs, cue NBC’s “The More You Know” theme song.

In reality, here’s how it does work: Announce to the world that renowned Christian author Eugene Peterson would be okay with officiating at a same-sex wedding. The public’s response? That very same conditioned visceral reaction: “That’s nasty.” They’re not reconsidering their beliefs about gays. They’re reconsidering their beliefs about Peterson.

Just as my conservative friends and acquaintances were stating about Peterson last Wednesday.

  • “Ugh,” or “Sad and shameful,” or “Incredibly disturbing,” or “Another one who’s caved to the secularist worldview.”
  • Suspicions that since he’s in his 80s, Peterson’s lost his senses, gone senile, is retiring for good reason, or is a frail old man who got badgered into making his statement.
  • People who never said one thing or another about The Message in the past, suddenly declaring they never liked it, nor Peterson for that matter.
  • Outright condemnation: “May God strengthen Peterson’s church against his heresy.”

What about after Peterson’s retraction came out? Oh, they didn’t retract anything. ’Cause visceral reactions don’t need to be defended. Those who have ’em, figure they’re entirely natural, understandable, and acceptable. Everybody should be just as disgusted by what Peterson said, right? I mean, you were disgusted by it, weren’tcha? (And if not, why not?)

Look at LifeWay again. The SBC wasn’t gonna respond, “Oh, Eugene Peterson says same-sex marriage is okay? Well maybe Christians can agree to disagree on this issue. Maybe we all oughta take a second look at it.” Nope: They were set to pull a profitable author out of their bookstores nationwide. They may yet—if they suspect Peterson’s retraction wasn’t sincere.

If anyone thinks, “All we gotta do to change conservatives’ minds is find a Christian they respect to ‘come out’ on the other side”—man alive, do they not understand how humans work.

Fighting the visceral response.

Like I said, I was raised to be prejudiced against gays. I had to unlearn my visceral reactions. I’m still a bit prejudiced; I’ll totally admit that. Working on it. Bear with me.

But the very fact I’ve cast off my conditioning, to any degree, immediately raises a lot of conservative Christians’ hackles. Next, they worry, I’m gonna declare Leviticus is in error where it condemns male-on-male action, Lv 18.22, 20.13 or Paul was in error when he called homosexuality a symptom of idolatry and God’s condemnation. Ro 1.18-27 And so much for the bible; and I’m probably going to hell, right?

That’s why they condition their own kids to be repulsed. They don’t want anyone to actually consider being gay as any sort of option. Otherwise it’d undermine our Christian nation, trigger the cycle of history, and lead America to ruin. They honestly think they’re doing right by their kids when they condition them to hate and fear homosexuality.

They never consider the side effects of doing this to their offspring: That now their kids hate and fear gays. That if their kids ever “suffer from same-sex attraction,” they’re gonna hate and fear themselves. That some of ’em might even take this hate and fear into violent, even murderous or suicidal, directions.

Contrary, of course, to Christ Jesus’s orders to love our neighbors. Including our gay neighbors. That Jesus died for them too, that God wants to save them too, that who are we to shove them away from his kingdom when Jesus instructs us to invite everyone?

The PCUSA is a Calvinist denomination, so they actually believe Jesus didn’t die for everyone. Even so, they recognize God invites gays into his kingdom. I can’t personally agree they should go so far as to officiate same-sex weddings; I’m pretty sure the scriptures won’t let us go there. (I could be wrong, ’cause I’m wrong about lots of stuff.) But if all we have for our gay neighbors is hatred and fear, and the message God likewise feels nothing but hatred and fear for them, we’re absolutely in the wrong. Those traits don’t come from God. They’re fleshly. They’re evil.

The bile I’ve seen spewed against Peterson this past week, stems from that very source. Can’t be described as anything but evil. No matter how much people insist it’s righteous anger: Ain’t nothing righteous about it. Especially after Peterson retracted his statement—yet these same angry Christians won’t forgive him for it, and from now on they’ll always hold him and his works at arm’s length. God forgave them for all their actions, but their visceral response blocks them from sharing God’s grace further, with others. Which implies maybe they lack God’s grace—that they don’t know Jesus as well as they claim.

It’s a popular Christian myth that the sin of Sodom, Ge 13.13 the ancient Canaanite city which God destroyed by raining sulfur and fire on it, Ge 19.24 was homosexuality. (’Cause the Sodomites got super rapey when two angels came to visit Lot ben Nahor. Ge 19.5) But in Ezekiel, the LORD stated otherwise:

Ezekiel 16.48-50 KWL
48 “By my life,” utters my master LORD, “did your sister Sodom and her daughters
ever do the same as you and your daughters?
49 Look, this was the sin of your sister Sodom: Pride.
She and her daughters had abundant bread. Prosperity. Peace.
But they gave no helping hand to the poor and needy.
50 They were pompous and disgusting to my face. I saw it. I turned them away.”

The anti-gay faction in our country figures they’re righteously opposing modern-day Sodomites. But same as God described ancient Samaria, they’re the modern-day Sodomites. They’ve got pride, wealth, and peace, and do nothing for the needy. Gay people among them, who need Jesus same as everyone.

Me, I’m taking the side of the needy. And those who stick up for them. If I’m wrong, let it be on the side of grace. Never hatred and fear.