“Write What You See.”
A review of
The Pastor: A Memoir.
By Eugene Peterson.
Reviewed by Margaret D’Anieri.
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The Pastor: A Memoir.
By Eugene Peterson.
Hardback: HarperOne, 2011.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
In an article titled “Books in Search of an Author,” Lillian Daniel wrote, “Pastors are always complaining about what they did not learn in seminary. The book I wish for is along these lines but is not about boiler repair, tuck-pointing and the exact measurements for an elevator that will hold a coffin. I wish I knew more about these things, but I do not want to read about them. As a pastor, I simply long to read more books by pastors about being a pastor.”[i] The search has found its author. Peterson himself notes an encounter with someone described to him as a “leading pastoral theologian”, author of eight “influential” books. Peterson later found out this man had been an associate pastor for one year; he looked in the index of all eight books and didn’t find a single reference to prayer.
This memoir is a reflection on the ingredients that have gone into Peterson’s formation as a pastor, the refining of his own call in a period of time he calls “the badlands”, and his understanding of pastoral identity in our day and age. Best known as the author of The Message, a contemporary paraphrase of the Bible, Peterson grounds his vocation as writer and pastor in words from the book of Revelation:
I, John, with you all the way in the trial and the Kingdom and the passion of patience in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of God’s word, the witness of Jesus. It was Sunday and I was in the Spirit, praying. I heard a loud voice behind me, trumpet-clear and piercing: “Write what you see in a book. Send it to the seven churches…” (Rev. 1:9-11, The Message)
Peterson writes: “Pastor John of Patmos provided the biblical DNA that gave me my identity as pastor. In the badlands that identity was given texture as I became a writer … writer and pastor were two sides of a single identity for John.”
Peterson is a storyteller. He shows the Holy Spirit’s understated presence as he grew up – working in his father’s butcher shop; attending his mother’s Sunday night gatherings of loggers and miners during the depression; hearing stories of his cousin Abraham that freed him to think beyond the “fiercely guarded sectarian church” of his upbringing. He tells of the year his family didn’t have a Christmas tree because of his mother’s reading of a portion of Jeremiah:
My mother’s “No tree this year, brother, just Jesus”, accompanied by my uncle’s “damn, damn, damn” lay dormant in me for years, but in time it developed into practiced pastoral discernments – Jesus without tinsel – as I daily face the seductions of culture-religion.
He tells stories of parishioners, and how they challenged his understanding of what the church ought to be, even as he wrestles with those in the congregation who were uninterested in Scripture, prayer and theology: “I was reading Karl Barth and John Calvin; they were reading Ann Landers and People magazine.” (I’ll note that he’s an overachiever in his reading compared to most clergy I know.)
The most valuable part of the book is the description of his time in “the badlands”. After starting a church from scratch in his basement and working with them as they built a sanctuary, he found himself and his congregation in a time of “malaise”. He felt that his parishioners “were reducing me to their level – flat and complacently self-satisfied in the wake of our achievement”:
I was realizing how my already well-honed competitive instincts were exacerbated by the competitive and consumerist church culture that surrounded me. Was it realistic to think I could develop from a competitive pastor to something maybe more like a contemplative pastor – a pastor who was able to be with people without having an agenda for them, a pastor who was able to accept people just as they were and guide them gently and patiently into a mature life in Christ but not get in the way, let the Holy Spirit do the guiding?
Many clergy, finding themselves in a vocational crisis akin to Peterson’s, leave the work of priest and pastor and find a place in which the culture and the message of the church are not so obviously at odds; or they give in to the secular models that have insinuated themselves into the church: pastor as social worker and motivational speaker, and church as ecclesial business: “the vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans.” Fortunately for all of us, Peterson chose a third way: six years of asking questions – of himself, of God, of his parish family, of spiritual companions, living and dead.
Henri Nouwen names three temptations facing Christian leaders in the context of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness: the seductions of relevance, popularity, and power. Peterson has given us is a model of pastor and congregation that renounces the cultural assumptions that anything ancient is irrelevant, that bigger is better, that we need to show results in the form of solving people’s problems. Peterson has particularly strong words for the church growth “movement”, describing it as a cancer, a growth that doesn’t strengthen the body but actually impairs the body’s health. When one of his colleagues is attracted to a larger, prominent pastorate, Peterson writes him:
Size is the great depersonalizer. Kierkegaard’s criticism is still cogent: “the more people, the less truth.” The only way the Christian life is brought to maturity is through intimacy, renunciation, and personal deepening. And the pastor is in a key position to nurture such maturity. It is true that these things can take place in the context of large congregations, but only by strenuously going against the grain. Largeness is an impediment, not a help.
During his time in the badlands, Peterson found writing as a way to pay attention, and as an act of prayer. It’s our privilege to have his words, full of insight and truth. This book might be considered a long prayer for pastors, summarized as follows:
I had received a theological education adequate for preparing me to be a professor in the classroom, dealing with truth and knowledge – “faith seeking understanding” (Anselm). But now I was a pastor, and a great deal of my life consisted in dealing with souls as they went about their lives in households and workplaces. Scripture and worship and gathering a congregation I was ready for. But the life of the soul and the attentiveness of souls to God that is prayer I had taken for granted … I realized that I knew a lot more about scripture and truth than I did about souls and prayer. I also realized that for me as pastor, souls and prayer required an equivalent demand on my attention as scripture and truth. This is what pastors are for – to keep these things alive and yoked in everyday life.
Margaret D’Anieri is an Episcopal priest in Norwalk, Ohio
[i] The Christian Century, May 6, 2008, p. 36
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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