On Story: With Eugene Peterson

I just finished reading Bono’s autobiographical tome, Surrender, and was delighted to find out that the great lyricist was a friend of the late Eugene Peterson. Peterson pastored for thirty years before becoming professor of spiritual theology at Regent in Vancouver, B.C. In my last post I shared excerpts from a conversation I had with him about rest. What follows is what he told me about “story”—excerpted from a conversation we had while he was still a prof and I was starting out as one. 

SG: In the academic environment it’s easy to intellectualize everything. How can we keep from developing the kind of mentality that would view the Trinity as “a great three-point sermon outline”? 

EP:  I have never had the luxury of just reading the Bible in isolation. It’s not a luxury really. It’s a curse. So I’ve always had to think about, pray about, talk about the doctrine of the Trinity or whatever in terms of the people I’m with. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word Trinity, in fact. I’d rather show it in action than use it in words. Of course, that is what spiritual theology is—theology in its working clothes. As a pastor I was lucky. I had a congregation of new Christians or non-Christians. They didn’t know anything, so I couldn’t assume they knew anything. We had drug addicts. Pagans. So I could never get away with using Christian talk. I always had to re‑think it, re‑formulize it. The biggest influence on The Message was my parish. 

SG: How can we interact with truth for ourselves without focusing on how we can “use” material in our ministries? Is that possible?

EP: Yes, I think so. I was speaking at a pastor’s conference. I thought it was supposed to be a renewal weekend, but then I realized, Hey, they’re all writing this down. Everything I say they’re writing down. And I said, “Stop it. Put down your pencils. Put down your notebooks. I’m talking to you and not to your congregations.”  They were all preparing next week’s sermons.  

When [a mutual friend] was talking about how she’s read my books and how they’ve changed her, it occurred to me that I’ve never written for anybody. I don’t think I’ve ever thought, “I need to write this for people.” I think almost all of my writing has been self‑education—trying to figure it out, trying to guess what I was thinking, make it articulate for myself. So it always surprises me when people say, “This has meant so much to me. I think, “But I wasn’t writing it for you! How did you get in on it?”

SG: I’ve heard you say that reading novels has helped you in your ministry. How so? 

EP: At some point, I think it was in college, I realized that novels were important to me in what I guess you would call a spiritual sense. They shaped my imagination in a story form so that I wasn’t being flattened into statistical things, reductionist. 

I realized at a point quite early that novelists and poets were important to me for spiritual reasons. That is, they kept the story alive and kept my attention to words alive—the poets in the use of words, primarily how words work; the novelist in terms of developing a narrative sense. 

It’s something you learn and relearn. In my early days as a pastor, I didn’t tell stories. I had sermons that were packed with information like German sausages. And then I realized, “These people I’m preaching to—they’re not just empty barrels of ignorance that I have to fill up with facts. They are people. They are stories. I’ve got to learn to know them. This is the way the gospel comes. It comes in stories. It’s not alien in their lives. It’s in the very form in which they live their lives. I talk about story a lot, but I don’t really mean telling stories. I mean inhabiting stories. 

I find I don’t tell stories so much as I get stories told. I get interested in you and I don’t even know you have a story, but by asking questions or filling in blanks I can show the story nature of your life. Then you suddenly realize, “I’m not just a list of things to do. I’m not just my aptitude test and my I.Q. test scores.  I’m living in a plot with characters, and all the stuff connects in some way or another.” What happens today, even though I don’t understand it and it doesn’t make any sense, thirty chapters down the road it’s going to. 

So it’s important to develop this narrative sense of life, which is the way the Bible is given to us. I need help to feed that because we don’t live in a storytelling world. We live in a list‑making world. Take Bosnia and Croatia. Who knows about them? A couple of years ago, I went to the library and found out what’s been going on there for five hundred to seven hundred years. It’s a story. The newspaper makes no sense without knowing the story. It’s a wonderful story. It’s a terrible story. But it’s a story, not just body counts. 

So I, at least, need nurturing in that. And a novelist does that for me. I read novels as a defense against a plotless, characterless world in which I live. People have said to me that The Message read like a novel. I was not deliberate. It wasn’t conscious of doing that, of storying it. 

SG: What do you read now? What do you recommend? 

EP: I don’t read the newspaper. I listen to the CBC [news] broadcast twice a day for five minutes in the morning and evening. That keeps me informed about the important stuff. I don’t have a TV. Wendell Barry says to put a TV in the middle of the floor and carefully take it apart with a crowbar. 

I read The Atlantic Monthly and two periodicals, Interpretation and Theology Today. I go to the library once a month and read the more scholarly journals for the things I need to keep current on. But beyond that, I read novels. I read Walter Wangerin. I loved George Eliot’s [Mary Ann Evans Cross’s] Middlemarch. I like Ivan Doig, Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver, Frederick Buechner, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, William Faulkner. Find what nourishes you and then read and re‑read it. 

SG: And you write out of your experience . . . 

EP: Yes. I always knew writing was part of my life. People ask me “How do writers find time to write?” I answer, “How does an alcoholic find time to drink? You just do it.” Fortunately, I am the type of person who can write in small segments of time. But I never feel like I’m just writing something to write. I’m writing out of my living. It was easier to do this when I was a pastor because the classroom is not as natural a place to pastor. Students are different from parishioners because you’re not integrated into their lives. In the pastorate, I never attended committee meetings. I let the elders and deacons do it. But now I go to committee meetings. You should see twenty professors in a committee meeting! 

I don’t know students as well as I knew my congregation. I haven’t been to their homes; I don’t know their parents. There’s not the same sense of intimacy as in a church. It doesn’t feel nearly as rhythmic. There was a rhythm to being a pastor. So it’s different writing out of my experience now. And it’s a slow process. 

Photo by Maegan Martin on Unsplash

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.

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