We have an excellent upcoming Cascade title. Edited by Jason Byassee and L. Roger Owens, Pastoral Work is a collection of essays exploring the prolific work of pastor and writer Eugene Peterson. The bevy of penetrating essays include commentary by the editors, Stephanie Paulsell, Lillian Daniel, Anthony Robinson, and others. All of the writers are profoundly appreciative of Peterson’s contribution. All talk about how Peterson’s reflections on the pastoral ministry have made a deep difference in the pursuit of their vocations. But this is a tribute in the fullest, most authentic sense: the writers take Peterson seriously enough to sometimes be critical.
One of the best examples of this appreciative but critical approach is William Willimon’s essay, “Eugene Peterson: American Pastor.” Willimon generously praises Peterson. He talks about how students in his seminary classes consistently considered assigned texts by Peterson the best and helpful things they were reading. And he writes: “I treasure that Peterson once blurbed me as ‘the most interesting writer on preaching today.’ I now trump the compliment: Eugene Peterson is our best writer on ministry.”
But Willimon has a bone to pick with Peterson. “Through a succession of books, Peterson displays a warm, positive, generous spirit toward the church and its leaders—with one notable exception—his scorn for the institutional framework for ministry.”
Willimon notes that Peterson barely mentions his seminary formation in his memoir, The Pastor. He complains that Peterson has little praise and plenty of criticism for his Presbyterian polity and its pastoral oversight. Though he is careful not to accuse Peterson himself of a kind of anti-institutional docetism, he worries that Peterson’s writings may play into the hands of those who may be guilty of just that. To wit:
I suspect Peterson might say that the only faithful canon for judging these matters is scripture. Fair enough. But on the basis of scripture—itself a product of a succession of institutions—I do not believe that Peterson sufficiently accounts for the power and the inevitability of institutional Christianity (is there any other form of Christianity?). Nor does he sufficiently guard against the abuse of his ecclesiology by those of us who may be tempted to use his anti-institutional scorn as a rationale for freedom from any institutional responsibility or accountability for the fruit of our ministry.
Peterson does a fine job of showing the friction with and the seduction by American consumerist culture (come to think of it, how much of American culture isn’t “consumerist” to some degree?). But the church has, from the first, had friction with and tendencies toward idolatry in every culture in which it has been present. From my angle on scripture, the way to resist the allures of pagan culture is not to presume that God will miraculously extricate us from culture but rather by the typical, God-given means of resistance to godlessness—enculturation by a community strong enough to raise godly children and to give us the grace to say, “No!” That is, baptism into the countercultural people called church. The lures of American consumerism are too great to resist as lone individuals, even as biblically well-formed individuals.
This gives you a taste of Willimon’s fine essay. And plenty of others in the collection are just as good. Pastoral Work will be nourishing, challenging fare for pastors, especially, and will sharpen their continued reading of Peterson’s exemplary corpus.