Eugene Peterson is perhaps best known for writing The Message.
Eugene Peterson was a pastor for 29 years in the Baltimore area, has written more than 30 books and is a former professor of spiritual theology. He is perhaps best known for writing The Message , a translation of the Bible into modern English. He recently talked to Neue about relevance, technology and the future of the Church.
You’ve said most of what we’ve been taught about God is wrong. How can that be?
Maturing is a long process of correcting misperceptions. Everything we experience is distorted by sin. Our desires and experience distort God’s reality. Why do you go to church every Sunday? Because your eyes get dirty. We need to get our perceptions cleansed, get the wax dug out of our ears, so we can hear it accurately, see it accurately. It doesn’t happen all at once. It happens incrementally.
Jesus lived at odds with the values of the culture in His day. How can we live in the tension of following Christ without adopting the values of culture?
Our church culture is ignoring that tension. When you see how the Church has become part of the political world—this embrace of right-wing power and politics—and made that its primary way of sharing the Gospel, furthering the way of Christ, then it is using Herod’s ways. There is a place for Christians in politics, but not when we embrace the structure of power and politics. Some lose their souls to the political world. It is the same with using the religious establishment—which Jesus didn’t use, either. He didn’t boycott the religious establishment—He just didn’t use it. Institutionalism may be necessary, but it’s not primary. Ever. What people want is to have their own needs, wills and desires met. But the Gospel does not do that. Everything the world wants is sin distorted. So when we try to shape a Gospel to meet those needs, we distort it. People don’t want God. People want to be their own gods. This pervasive stuff of culture that goes through churches—we don’t have a hunger for God. We have a hunger for idols.
Not much has changed since the Exodus accounts!
In the name of relevance, the Church starts to substitute idols, creating a god we can manipulate. When we use religion to get what we want out of life, we destroy the whole thing. Having successful churches is an idol. It astonishes me that so much of the Church is so celebrity conscious and seeking prominence. Most of the Gospel is very ordinary. It has to do with your family and doing good work.
But there has to be some relevance, doesn’t there?
I tell pastors that they should quit trying to be relevant to this culture. If you’re relevant to the culture, you’re diluting the Gospel. You can’t be relevant to this sick, sick culture.
What’s sick about it?
It’s totally depersonalized. Everything in the culture is against anything relational. You are defined by your function. You can do most jobs competently and excellently without caring one bit about people. This depersonalization is so pervasive, and the heart of the Gospel is relational. So when the Church tries to be relevant to culture, the first [thing] they do is depersonalize it, so it can be relevant and efficient and successful. But the minute you start being personal and relational, you are not successful in terms of the culture, because you’re not efficient. The crowd we’re trying to draw has grown up watching football games in big stadiums, shopping in malls where no one knows their names. They’d much rather be in a crowd than in a room with a few people. Technology removes us from firsthand participation in basic realities. If we’re going to save our lives, society and culture, it is important to restore practices in which we are part of what we are doing.
Are you anti-technology?
I drive a car, but I walk a mile and a half each day to get a newspaper. I listen to the radio. I write on a computer. I have a cell phone. But I refuse to have my life run by technology. Some of the best writers I know write longhand. Wendell Berry and Frederick Buechner write longhand, and you can’t accuse those two of not knowing what’s going on in the world. They know a lot. I want to use technology—I don’t want it to use me.
Modern worship seems to use a lot of technology.
And it creates continued depersonalization. There is a great book for preachers by Richard Lischer called The End of Words . There is a long section on using PowerPoint in worship. He says that the audience’s attention span decreases when you do multimedia, or when you juxtapose video with oral communication. The human voice is the most engaging sound there is. A sermon is a voice that is looking at you and has some relationship with you. That provides a livelier sense of community than if you have a PowerPoint presentation. Preachers preach. You’ve got something to say. Make the most of that sanctuary—don’t turn it into a movie theater. The Church’s job is to bring people into relationship with each other and God. That’s what we’re about—being in an attentive, believing, obedient relationship with God that is reciprocal with what we’re doing with each other.
Are you hopeful about the Church’s future?
I’m dismayed at the way the celebrity church, the so-called relevant church, has taken over the imagination of the Christian culture. It is doing enormous harm and making things difficult. But I also see a lot of vitality in some churches—it just doesn’t get the headlines. Statistically, churches are diminishing. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. You can’t be a member of a church anymore without making some decisions. A lot of churchgoing used to be cultural—you just did it. It’s not cultural anymore. It’s easy to be distracted and seduced. But those who are staying are staying out of a certain conviction and determination, and I think there’s a lot of that going on. The fact that the novel Gilead is a best seller should tell you something: There are still a lot people who will buy a not very exciting book about the faith in an institutionalized form in a small church with a pastor writing letters. That’s not a formula for an important book, is it? I don’t think we’re as far gone as some think we are.
Should the Church be more attentive to its past?
There’s never been a perfect church. If we’re looking for models for what will be successful and work, forget it. The Church has always been in trouble. We should be aware of where the lines of tradition have kept the Church on track, but we shouldn’t look to the Church for success stories. William Wilberforce was a success story, and we need to know those things, but we can’t replicate them. We need to discover ways to do it here. The ways to do it are not having a 20,000-member church. That’s never worked. When it has so-called “worked,” it has been a disaster. We need to learn how to be faithful in this time. That means being wary of technology—not discarding it, but being wary—because it’s seductive. And be wary of making the Gospel attractive in a consumerist way. The Gospel is not a consumer thing. It’s a sacrificial thing.