Witness

What Should Really Concern Us about the Eugene Peterson Debacle

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The social media world erupted this week when Jonathan Merritt, senior columnist at Religion News Service, posted his interview with Eugene Peterson who said he would perform a same-sex wedding ceremony for a hypothetical gay couple ‘who were Christians of good faith.’ Within hours, one of the most prolific and beloved authors within the evangelical world became a polarizing figure among those who joyfully affirm same-sex marriage and those who are vehemently against it.

A day later, as it is now widely known, Peterson retracted his statements, setting another firestorm of criticism and relief as people tried to get a handle on the swirling news. Jonathan Merritt also posted a reactionary column to Peterson’s retraction.

In the process of all of this, I followed Twitter very closely (and tried hard to monitor my interior world as well). As I reflected on what I was feeling and thinking, and observing in the comments, denouncements, and puzzlement of others, I thought it would be helpful to capture what I sensed was taking place (as what has taken place) in our public and online discourse. This story revealed much more about us than it did about Peterson.

These observations are not meant to point the finger at others. I have recognized these reflections in myself in my most emotionally-triggered moments. I write this as someone often tempted to quickly “speak out” when I see something that angers me.

That being said, we would do well to prayerfully take inventory of our lives, especially in the heat of polarizing debates. In short, the Peterson story reveals something about a deficiency in our spirituality, especially in the context of public discourse on polarizing issues.

Three self-reflecting revelations polarized debate uncovers:

We are not usually given to contemplation but to anxious reactivity.

I was taken aback to see how many pastors and leaders (well-known and unknown) on social media swiftly made judgments on Peterson. Whether leaders were questioning whether to recommend Peterson’s books moving forward or pastors were suggesting Peterson turned away from Jesus, the seemingly anxious reactivity revealed something about our spirituality—namely, that we don’t do well with contemplation.

A spirituality of contemplation is not just about slowing down our rhythms, but includes slowed-down spirituality that makes room for wonder and curiosity. A contemplative life is one that refuses to rush to judgment (think of Jesus writing in the sand as the religious leaders wanted him to come to swift judgment of a women caught in adultery) even in the midst of great social pressure.

When our lives are given to silence and prayerful reflection, we position ourselves to cultivate generosity of spirit, as opposed to flaring up antagonisms. Our culture of thoughtless, instant critique reveals a glaring departure from the witness of Jesus. In a sound-bite age, we too easily replace a spirituality of grace and truth with smugness and cynicism.

Our culture of thoughtless critique reveals a glaring departure from the witness of Jesus. Click To Tweet

Whether there was outright vitriol or not against Peterson, I observed plenty of cynical, condescending rhetoric in the name of good theology. But no matter how good and “buttoned-up” our theology, the ultimate test of it is love.

We are incredibly selective in our outrage.

The challenge with our moral outrage is the incredibly inconsistent nature of it. A good portion of the evangelical world is silent on things that God is vociferous about in scripture (justice, the poor, hospitality for the immigrant, idolatry, etc). The irony about our outrage is what it potentially reveals about us. If we are not careful in discerning our outrage, we end up tangling ourselves in a web of idolatry, all in the name of faithfulness to God and the Scriptures. When the article was initially published, I publicly noted my love for Peterson and my disagreement with him on the issue.

To have a position on some point of theology is important and sometimes requires public affirmation or dissent. My problem with this particular episode is the clear, impassioned articulation of a value (biblical sexuality as understood by historic Church tradition) while there remains deafening silence on issues on racism, Christian nationalism, ethnocentrism and the like. If we are going to be faithful to scripture, we can’t pick and choose what to be outraged about. Doing so simply reveals our subtle, myopic agendas at best and our idolatry at worst.

If we are going to be faithful to scripture, we can’t pick and choose what to be outraged about. Click To Tweet

I’d also add that we need to prayerfully discern our outrage in light of the invisible power of capitalism. The reality for many is that the decision to articulate outrage or remain silent is often tied to profit. When this is so, our outrage is compromised. As a pastor, I’m all too familiar with this. The pressure connected to financial sustainability can easily co-opt our outrage or silence. In the deep recesses of our hearts, we believe “if I speak out or remain silent, ‘my base’ will be appeased.” This is the way of the world. One clear remedy for this is a life given to God in individual and communal prayer, out of which we speak.

The context of online discourse often appeals to the worst in us.

Christianity is best lived in the context of incarnation. However, technological discourse too easily causes us (or rather reveals our propensity) to make entire judgments of people based on ideas and beliefs. When this happens, we miss seeing the entire person. This is the grave danger and limit of social media. We are emboldened to critique or disparage someone in ways we never would if we spoke with them face to face.

In light of this serious temptation, we need another way of framing our discourse. Perhaps we should ask ourselves “would I speak to this person like this over coffee?” Granted, you might, but chances are you won’t. Our speaking (and tweeting) is to be marked by grace, truth and love. What does is profit a person to gain a world of followers (based on clever, condescending rhetoric) but lose our souls?

Our speaking (and tweeting) is to be marked by grace, truth and love. @richvillodas Click To Tweet

In short, this Peterson story reminds us that we can disagree with clear theological convictions and not be part of a larger problem (failure to love well) in the process. For many decades, Eugene Peterson’s body of work (his pastoring, writing, preaching) has demonstrated a life of integrity, gospel faithfulness, and generosity of spirit. Whether he recanted or not, we have lots to learn from him on what a mature, Spirit-filled life looks like.

 


Rich Villodas was quoted initially in Hello Christian.’s article on LifeWay’s plan to stop selling Peterson’s books along with Happy Sonship’s article on the controversy. His string of tweets “The Eugene Peterson story reveals a few things about us. At least 8 things” seemed to resonate with many.

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