Eugene Peterson on What It Means to Be a Christian

Editor’s Note: The following story first ran in April, 2017. This week, Eugene Peterson died at the age of 85.

There’s a poem Eugene Peterson can’t get out of his head. It’s a brief, difficult poem called “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” by 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, just the kind you might expect a thinky, reclusive person like Peterson to like. “Kingfishers” layers on simile, pointing to a “just man” (seemingly “just” as in “moral”), whom it describes as one who “Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—Christ.”

“As Kingfishers Catch Fire” is about things—or people—acting within their nature—behaving like what they are. Today, you’ll hear this called authenticity. And that’s what lingers with Peterson.

You see, he spent his life in the Church, pastoring, preaching and (famously) writing. But if you talk to him about it, he’ll readily tell you not all of his career accomplished what he now thinks it should have.

***

If you’re only a little bit familiar with Christian culture, you know Peterson’s work. He’s the author of some 30 books of theology, poetry and commentary, all of which are worth your attention. But one book in particular promises to make up his legacy. In 2002, Peterson published his defining work, The Message.

This groundbreaking idiomatic (read: casual and highly colloquial) translation of the Bible made Peterson a household name among Christians. The Message now exists in countless forms and editions (remember The Message Remix?). Incredibly, though not free from derision, The Message finds an audience with people normally intimidated by the Bible and, on the other side of the spectrum, scholars who recognize Peterson’s deep and impressive knowledge of Hebrew, Greek and English (yes, he did all his own translations from the original languages).

Before The Message, Peterson was a seminary professor  and pastor in upstate New York, where he first began to recognize the disparity in Christians’ lives that would simultaneously haunt and fuel the rest of his career. Later, he planted a church in Bel Air, Maryland, where he’d spend almost 30 years before turning more attention to academics—as a professor of spiritual theology at Regent College—writing and doing translations. 

At first glance, Peterson’s career may look eclectic, and that’s certainly true. But that doesn’t mean he’s not focused. If you look for it, you can see a uniting thread to Peterson’s work and ministry, and it all centers around answering—and helping others answer—the question, what does it really means to be a follower of Jesus?

The problem, as he now sees it, was that he wasn’t teaching people how to truly be who they are: Christians. Opposite from the kind of authenticity in Hopkins’ poem, church life stood disconnected from Monday through Saturday life. Sermons didn’t help people live. As a result, people listening to Peterson didn’t understand what it really means to be followers of Jesus. They were Christians, yes, but they didn’t grasp what that means beyond the points of salvation.

In Peterson’s words, he failed.

Peterson has a name for the problem he encountered all those years ago: “incongruence.” The idea is that what he preached and the way he lived were out of alignment, incongruous. He doesn’t mean hypocrisy, though, at least not the way Christians typically conceive of it. He means something more like disconnected. The problem, he says, stems from how people encounter the gospel message.

“I think the way we present Jesus and the whole story of the gospel is adapted in individual ways,” he says.

The kind of individualism Peterson means crops up, most clearly he says, in American Christianity. When the seeker-sensitive church model took off in the mid-20th century, the Church began thinking of salvation almost exclusively as something individuals experience on a deeply personal basis. The problem comes in when the Christian life comes across as a one-size-fits-all package. You could say it’s incongruous.

“I’m not a Christian the same way you are, although we accept the same basis of fundamental truth and relationship,” Peterson says. “That’s why spiritual formation is so important in this whole process because you can’t just copy it; you can’t just copy other things the people or the pastors are doing.”

Once he realized this, he spent the rest of his career as a writer, theologian and pastor—the past 30 years or so—trying to fix the problem, connecting people to what (and who) a Christian really is.

***

When you talk to Peterson about where the American Church got off track, he gets  prickly.

“The megachurch is the biggest perpetrator of the disbanding of a congruent place,” he says. “If you pack 5,000 people into a church, the pastor doesn’t know a single person’s name and as a result, when people come to church talking about how great the sermon was, the pastor doesn’t know what he’s done. He’s just entertaining people, which is usually what they do.”

The “entertaining” he’s talking about is the same thing he saw in himself back at the beginning of his ministry.

“I wasn’t preaching,” he says. “I was entertaining, I was looking for things that would catch people’s imagination for 20 minutes, and that’s it.”

The “that’s it” part is key, and it captures everything Peterson fears about incongruence.

Peterson doesn’t deny the applications of the gospel for individuals, far from it. But the true mark of the Christian life—what he calls the “essential Christian life”—is a focus on salvation, yes, and then how following Jesus affects others around you.

This is Peterson’s solution to disconnected ways of living the Christian life, and practically, it looks a lot like being a good neighbor.

“I mean treating the people in your home, in the neighborhood, in your congregation as fellow Christians or fellow non-Christians, instead of having a programmatic-style church life,” Peterson says. “I’m after something that has much more integration to it.”

It’s something he’s been after in his personal life.

“Since I was a pastor, I knew the names of everyone in the neighborhood,” he says. “It didn’t mean they all came to church—but they were all influenced by the way I conducted my life.”

This influence flows directly from the Bible, but it doesn’t stop with just listening to a sermon. The person preaching—or believing it—has to live it out.

“Scripture is at the core of this,” Peterson says. “Every sermon has some sort of application and you don’t get the application just by listening to the sermon—but by watching the man who is saying it.”

See Also

***

Christianity, he says, isn’t something you can reduce to a Sunday morning service. And the imaginations of Christians don’t need tickling, they need expanding. That’s a big project, one that stands against the tide of thousands of American churches. But big and ambitious doesn’t mean complicated.

“I’m trying to provide an imagination that develops congruence,” he says. “I don’t think it’s anything complicated: It’s just a matter of developing an imagination that gathers things together rather than just setting them apart in different things.”

He’s talking about a Christian life that fragments  church life from the daily life. And the problem there is the myriad influences that shape—Peterson would say “capture the imagination”—Christians’ lives.

And like everything in Peterson’s imagination, he sees the solution as something simple.

“There’s no trick or nothing that allows you to do it,” he says. But he will say there’s a big indicator, an often-ignored idea Christians miss in the pursuit of authentic Christianity: friendship.

“We are people who have feelings, and friendships are a big thing to me,” he says. “When you’re treating the people in your neighborhood and congregation as friends, you made the first big step in having a congregation that knows how to worship and how to love their neighbors.”

Peterson actually says friendship is fundamental to the Christian life, which you can see by looking, for example, at Abraham. The point for Peterson isn’t that Abraham is something special, it’s that it specifically points to God’s relationship with his people. Because Abraham himself isn’t special at all.

“There’s nothing in Abraham’s life that is spectacular,” Peterson explains. “It’s all faithfulness and doing good work. I mean, all those altars he built, what does he get out of that? But they are acts of devotion, acts of obedience and relationships. You know, you don’t just build an altar for yourself. It’s for your family or your community around you.”

And that’s it, in a nutshell. What it means to be a Christian is living shaped by God’s word, obedient to Him and prioritizing others over yourself. For Peterson, it’s just that simple, which is why he keeps describing the Christian life as “not complicated.”

For him, this is what it means to be a Christian: “To be a person who knows how to worship, how to be faithful. I think just those central things.”

“They realized the depth of the Christian faith and that it wasn’t just about getting saved but they were also finding out how this whole salvation relationship worked.”

You can see why Hopkins’ “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” captures Peterson the way it does. The poem forms an imaginative but simple look at the Christian life. In this way, “Kingfishers” represents a microcosm of Peterson’s  whole career.

And it all comes down to this: The poet and the pastor leave the world with an individual-reducing, yet simple vision for what it means to follow Jesus: It’s a community of people who live exactly like God sees them—as Christ.

View Comments (3)
  • your answer To Your love matters

    it’s not hard to understand why men who are experiencing sexual problems by way of example low ejaculation volume do obscure personal health all the while attempting to discover a permanent strategy. They examine the particular web for ways to assist them to regain distinct disappeared virility and end up being completely that they are the same individuals these were several years ago. therefore most, sperm decorative drugs has been added. allow us beginning that Semenax review report simply by saying that these ejaculation volume fixing supplements include several advantages and one exampleof these is that they career completely for those who are infertile from low sperm count just by low.

    methods horrible write men want to truly cure extremely ejaculation volume and among those men that terrifies them exposing their whole ailments defend manly persona. despite this may be the case these businesses nonetheless locate time to seek out long-lasting technique. the few surely browse the to find out ways to assist them to regain most of their burned masculinity and furthermore establish that they will have the priviledge return with a similar thing a man people were was previously. web templates causes of it, semen strengthening vitamin supplements were definitely created. about ejaculate take a look at, these kind semen volume beautifying medicaments suffer from tons of advantages as well as ideally work for the men that happen to be infertile outcome low sperm count as a result decrease in semen formulation.

    The ejaculation volume enhancers are the newest manufactured goods was made to solve the issues of men. our sperm enhancer is enabled to keep men sexually satisfied and content on working on his or her’s growth. Those who are enduring a lower semen volume imagine facts about exhausted but shy, Although this problem is not that horrible that other good scenario springing out of intimacies, But is generally a frustrating suffer suitable for so lots of men available on the market. you have got a low sperm end production that a lot of tendency is you’ll possess oligozoospermia at the same [url=https://www.prweb.com/releases/charmingdate/charmingdate_scam_protect/prweb11792473.htm]charmingdate review[/url] in give you inability to conceive which could potentially cause for relationship partner sexual intimacies issue. necessary this course is specifically created for those a person sex important things can offer chance to settle this item.

    regarding data against this Semenax take a look at has uncovered when small semen volume may affect some guy emotionally. due to the heightened sexual performance is literally bound to bigger level of ejaculate, small ejaculation volume is regarded as equated utilizing performance, And for a man, this is not good. inside, This is law both man furthermore patient merely because both gain joy starting from additional, incase the person is usually emotionally impinged on, He find it difficult to operate needless to say and the man deliver exhilaration to assist you to or perhaps erotic husband or wife.

    moreover, He won’t potential exude far too many ejaculate and therefore the lovers perhaps may be disturbed to conceive a child, hopefully is their soon. if you suffer from insufficient semen volume you are most likely to be barren while well. far less ejaculation volume might result to oligozoospermia that will cause for the inability to conceive to of the male gender.

    for men to secrete thousands on semen, the doctor must have a great many ejaculate, for that reason will help you them offer kids. combined with semen volume growth by your side surely you will feel good about yourself and you are favourable.

  • going on a date help Podcast

    Social technological know-how: 2 techniques for producing console

    appropriate now seemed i’d personally recover a few things that can help those reading this article to better learn getting romance. just one benefit of pick-up is you eventually set forth recovering with most of us tend to be go farther.

    understanding exactly level of comfort are often very highly consumed by anyone that can handle very little you know in many situations and not merely a friendship fixing; it is common that you better with normal folks furthermore. Social learning ability how, have the ability to of course extend as a complication to getting together with the best way to. in short, you can consider pickup truck a gateway way into the world of social anatomist.

    Imagine they have the benefit as a way to say all the proper ingredients that are essential to persuade other consumers to do something on your side. this key fact might could be medicine fictional, though it doable. notice certain men or women over states, In every day life. i am certain you can think of some people that seem to have a knack to receive receiving quickly.

    nights I were going to cover 2 tips that will assist, not only for win over womens, sadly conquer people in general. the following are tagged in The Benjamin Franklyn influence:

    this can be a rather high quality occurrence that may have a great affect men or women. doing this to talk about funny increase their odds of great in personals and as well so you can get additional to as you whole lot more in your life.

    the actual is to inquire of the following favor because of a partner politely. information technology doesn needs to be a large gain, It can be simple things like clutching your device split your money get something through the pocket. having said that, for whatever reason some individuals believe that could build a deeper experience of ensemble; Which for your efforts provide you get on reasonable hand side a lot quicker.

    So whether your goals is to buy a woman in the sack aka make sure you do business with you, you can actually score higher situations by just inquiring the theifs to don’t you a big favor.

    2) having a person brand very often when talking to them:

    without, i said such prior to the inside of outside of blogs, however we will high light a lot, tips on how efficient it is actually. without doubt that searchers for example,that seeing unique designation; that like discovering the noise of it and much more us consider highly valued.

    precisely other than these might a good number of sport frontrunners you should be so to be able to leave an bands so confronts imprinted [url=https://www.instagram.com/charmdate_official/]charmdate.com scam[/url] in currency during created?

    electrical contractor,in addition a good idiot to go with title and in addition say a tale someone complain about you idolize that may have the same name. I had a brief history coach here in rank course may possibly without exception reference a historic statue with name when we finally got model new individual charm.

    tiny problems like sacrificing the customer business name often in the discussion may make major difference in rotation to the a short effect up from simply to a great all right. there you have it small amount of scams to realize soon and for countless others that come. fiddle with them and gambling to be amused.

  • 140671 2673411 can undertake all sorts of advised excursions with assorted limousine functions. Various offer wonderful courses and several can take clients for just about any ride your bike more than the investment banking area, or even for a vacation to new york. ??????? 172201

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll To Top