Remembering Eugene Peterson

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Published:
October 26, 2018

Eugene Peterson: November 6, 1932 – October 23, 2018, age 85. 

Several individuals throughout my education have been pivotal in my Christian development. At Pacific Union College it was Morris Venden and later Malcom Maxwell, and Richard Osborn. At Loma Linda University School of Medicine, it was Graham Maxwell, Jack Provonsha, and Wilber Alexander. 

Later, I received a Graduate Degree in Christian Studies at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia. At Regent College, I experienced a unified Christianity, not emerging from one denomination, but enhanced by insights from numerous professors from numerous denominations: Darrell Johnson, Iain Provan, Gordon Fee, Marva Dawn, Rikk Watts, Rod Wilson, J.I. Packer, and Eugene Peterson. These professors still reverberate in my mind, especially the quiet and humble ways of Eugene Peterson as teacher, speaker, poet, and writer.

In 2001, I enrolled in a summer school session at Wycliff Hall, Oxford, England, Regent College’s sister college. There I attended three courses by Eugene Peterson. I pulled out old notes and papers from that summer. Peterson gave a public lecture series at St. Aldate’s Church, a 12th century house of worship in the center of Oxford, entitled “Follow the Leader.” Peterson in his classic “gravelly voice, crinkled eyes and broad, delighted smile” contrasted four leaders at the time of Jesus: Herod, Caiaphas, Josephus, and Jesus.

Peterson put forward that humans are first followers before we are leaders. Do we follow Herod the contentious Judean King who embarked on one of the world’s greatest building sprees, most notably the Jewish Second Temple, Masada, and Herod’s Herodium burial mound? Herod’s building and ruling style was buttressed with intimidation, fear and violence. It was said, “it was better to be Herod’s pig, then to be Herod’s son” (Herod killed three sons). Or do we follow Caiaphas the Jewish High Priest who integrated Roman authoritarian power to oversee and enforce Jewish tradition and doctrine? It was Caiaphas “who had advised the Jews that it was expedient for one man to die on behalf of the people” (Jn. 18:14 NAS). Or do we follow Josephus, “the genius of realpolitik. The leader who knows how to change with times, adapt to circumstances, pick the winner and get in on the winnings?” Or do we follow the resurrected and ascended Jesus Christ, the incarnate God in human flesh who gave and still silently gives Himself in self-sacrificial love for all humans and the cosmos?

Eugene Peterson taught a second course on Martin Buber’s book “I and Thou,” one of the few books Peterson said he yearly read. Peterson posited the “I-It” worldview of the 21st century is focused on the three-dimensional material world of what we can touch, see, and smell with our senses. Although grand and filled with technology, it is a truncated world view, often blinded by the lies of consumerism. Humans need the fourth dimension of the “I-Thou” or the God infused “Kingdom of God” for life to become real and meaningful.

The third course by Peterson was “Biblical Spirituality” centered on the Trinity. Although Peterson’s training included a B.A. in philosophy from Seattle Pacific University, a B.A. of Sacred Theology from New York Theological Seminary, and a M.A. in Semitic languages from Johns Hopkins University, Peterson said his practical Christian training and joy came from working with parishioners as a founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, Bel Air, Maryland.

Peterson surprised me when he said the most significant thing he did to jump start his spiritual life was to keep the Sabbath. Peterson said his pastoral duties on Sunday did not allow him time for spiritual rejuvenation. He and his wife Jan set aside Monday as their day of Sabbath rest, of contemplation, of turning off the phone and quietly focusing on God. Peterson’s respect for Sabbath rest is reflected in his interpretation of Exodus 20:8-11 in the Message Bible, where God’s Sabbath rest is not an afterthought of creation but central to God’s desire for an intimate relationship with you and I.

“Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Work six days and do everything you need to do. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God, your God. Don’t do any work — not you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your servant, nor your maid, nor your animals, not even the foreign guest visiting in your town. For in six days God made Heaven, Earth, and sea, and everything in them; he rested on the seventh day. Therefore, God blessed the Sabbath day; he set it apart as a holy day.”

Eugene Peterson wrote over 30 books. My library includes Peterson’s Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and The Praying ImaginationLong Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant SocietyTell it with a Slant: Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers, The Message Bible: The Bible in Contemporary Language, and The Daily Message. I often turn to these books for timely inspiration. Peterson’s lectures and courses are still available for download from Regent College Book Store.

Eugene Peterson’s most remembered Christian contribution will be the Message Bible. The Message Bible is not a direct translation or paraphrase, it was written in the words of Peterson, “for two different types of people: those who hadn't read the Bible because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become 'old hat.’”

For me, Eugene Peterson’s contribution to Christianity is on par with C.S. Lewis. Peterson’s interpretation of Galatians 3:1-5 puts his style, legacy, and passion for Christ in clear unvarnished prose. 

“You crazy Galatians! Did someone put a hex on you? Have you taken leave of your senses? Something crazy has happened, for it's obvious that you no longer have the crucified Jesus in clear focus in your lives. His sacrifice on the Cross was certainly set before you clearly enough. Let me put this question to you: How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God's Message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren't smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it? Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing? It is not yet a total loss, but it certainly will be if you keep this up! Answer this question: Does the God who lavishly provides you with his own presence, his Holy Spirit, working things in your lives you could never do for yourselves, does he do these things because of your strenuous moral striving or because you trust him to do them in you?”

 

Ron Reece is a physician and fourth generation Adventist, who completed a Graduate Diploma of Christian Studies at Regent College, British Columbia in 2010.

Image courtesy of Regent College.

 

Further Reading:

Eugene Peterson and Me by Sari Fordham

Thank You Pastor Peterson by Emily Star Poole

 

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