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Pity Eugene Peterson, the latest victim of social media's theology wars

Sam Hailes interviewed Eugene Peterson shortly before his remarks on gay marriage caused controversy. 

The translator of The Message version of the Bible and well respected contemplative pastor Eugene Peterson caused quite a stir this week for his statements on gay marriage.

The retired pastor was asked by Religion News Service (RNS) during an interview: "If you were pastoring today and a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith asked you to perform their same-sex wedding ceremony, is that something you would do?" Peterson had given a one word answer: "Yes".

Cue much rejoicing from LGBT-affirming Christians. Praise was heaped on Peterson. He’d been so brave. On the traditional side there was sadness at another leading Christian who many perceived to have taken the easy way out and sided with the culture, rather than the Bible.

The debate was as polarised as ever, with many leading Christians itching to get their hot take on Peterson out to their audiences.

The Gospel Coalition, which takes a traditional view on sexuality, had asked 'Should we still read Eugene Peterson?' in the light of the statements. The fact that this question even needed to be asked is surely troubling. Both sides should be agreed: If The Message was a good translation last week, it’s a good translation today. The opinions of its author don’t change the quality of the product. Of course we should still read him.

And then, something happened which no one had expected.

This careful, cautious and slow to speak pastor released a statement, backtracking on his previous comments.

The statement read: "I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything."

It continued: "This reporter asked a hypothetical question...if, if, if. Pastors don’t have the luxury of indulging in hypotheticals. And to be honest, no is not a word I typically use...When put on the spot by this particular interviewer, I said yes in the moment. But on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that."

Peterson’s statement, which was published on the Washington Post website, came 24 hours after the RNS interview was released. For the contemplative pastor who lives in a remote log cabin on a lake, it was a quick reaction. For the world of social media, it felt slow.

There’s an irony here. Those on both sides of the sexuality debate had claimed Peterson has taught them so much, he’s a wonderful man, a wise teacher etc. And yet many of these same people couldn’t wait to use this retired pastor as an example for their cause. "Look at this great guy – he’s on our side!" Progressives put him on a pedestal. And in doing so, went directly against Peterson’s wealth of teaching. The eagerness from some conservatives to not only blog against Peterson's new position, but write off this man's ministry, was similarly depressing. 

My interview

I had the pleasure of interviewing Peterson just a few weeks before the RNS interview was conducted (read it here). You’ll see I didn’t ask him about his views on gay marriage because I didn’t think they were relevant (it seems I was wrong). There’s a strong argument to be made that I should have quizzed this aging pastor on one of the most pressing issues of our time. The fact that I’d been alerted to Peterson’s endorsement of the book Very Married (in which the author Katherine Willis Pershey takes an affirming stance) should be been another clue there might have been a story waiting to be broken.

That said, if Christian journalists like me are expected to ask every prominent pastor for their views on LGBT issues, we’re in danger of falling into a dangerous trap where views on sexuality become the litmus test for a person’s ministry. Our culture has already made LGBT issues a litmus test. Just look at what happened to former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron – it didn’t matter that he’d voted in favour of gay marriage. He held private theological beliefs that society didn’t like, so he felt forced to resign from being a political leader. Surely the Church (and Christian media) should not go in the same direction as much of mainstream society and media which punishes people like Farron for going against the grain. 

When my request for a phone interview was forwarded to Peterson, he’d replied: "Sorry. We no longer conduct interviews by phone. But thanks for asking.”

I was told by my contact that his answer was likely due to "age and hearing". Instead it was suggested I send questions via email so that Peterson could write back.

This was done and Peterson kindly wrote back. But with a caveat. It read: "[X] has passed on to me questions you have put before me to work into an interview. It is not a format that I am fond of. The Christian life, or maybe I should say, "The life of maturing in Christ" does not lend itself to words without a voice to give them texture or personality. The depersonalization of a conversation (which is what we will be doing) leaves out the distinctive characteristic of language itself, namely, the personal, the distinctive human voice, the Holy Spirit's way of using language to engage what is unique to each one of us. But to that caveat (and it is a formidable caveat) I will do my best."

I agreed with every word. It’s why I’d originally asked for a phone interview!

The replies to my questions which came after this caveat also made for interesting reading. At one point I’d asked what pitfalls Christians may fall into when reading scripture. The reply was typed up in all caps: "HAVING AN AGENDA". There was no further explanation.

The editorial team agreed we couldn’t run the interview without some follow up questions to what turned out to be a lot of very brief answers. In the end I was allowed 10 minutes on the phone with him. But if I’m honest, Peterson seemed more comfortable and confident when writing rather than speaking.

I’m not being disrespectful or ageist when I say this. Peterson himself has said, "With most interviews I’ve done, I generally ask for questions in advance and respond in writing. That’s where I am most comfortable."

So which is it? Does he prefer phone interviews (because of the depersonalisation issues) or email interviews (where he is more "comfortable")?

I think the answer is 'neither'. Eugene Peterson is a pastor. He deals in flesh and blood. (For the record: I prefer face to face interviews too, but Peterson lives in Montana and I am in London…)

We can do better

It’s become almost a cliché to bemoan how Christians respond to one another online. But sadly once again there was more heat than light in a lot of the social media debates re Peterson’s views on gay marriage. One of the most saddening accusations made in the midst of this mess is that Peterson U-turned in order to keep his book sales going. While it’s true that Lifeway (the largest Christian bookshop chain in the USA) threatened to pull Peterson’s books if he no longer endorses the traditional position, the idea that Peterson gives two hoots about his book sales is laughable. This is a man who has long preached the importance of humility, denying yourself and shunning worldly success. He’s reported to give the money he makes from books away. Judging people’s motives is a fraught with pitfalls at the best of times. But there can be no excuse for cynicism when it comes to Peterson and profits. He’s never been in ministry for the money. 

The problem with the rush to get clicks from controversy and the trial-by-social-media that frequently happens in the aftermath, is that everybody is breathlessly rushing to get their opinion heard, and rarely actually listening to anyone else. It was telling that when I asked Peterson how he's spending his retirement he answered: "I listen to people a lot. I do a lot more listening." Perhaps we should follow his example?

Peterson, who has faithfully served the Church with wisdom, grace and integrity, has been written off within 24 hours by angry people on both sides of a controversy he didn’t ask to be drawn into.

Maybe we could all do with a log cabin in the middle of nowhere, preferably without an internet connection.

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