A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson, Translator of The Message
Years ago I had the chance to spend a day with the legendary basketball coach John Wooden. Someone asked him who the greatest coaches were, and Wooden said, “You’ve never heard of the greatest coaches. They are teachers in elementary schools and junior highs, patiently working with young people, showing them how to play the game, and teaching life-lessons in the process.”
Wooden’s aversion to celebrity coaches reminds me of Eugene Peterson’s aversion to celebrity ministers. Peterson understood that fame is a poison that pastors should avoid. He was never comfortable with his own notoriety and the celebrity status that came his way later in life, especially following the publication of The Message.
When Peterson relented to numerous requests to write a memoir, he called it The Pastor, and limited himself to only writing about that aspect of his life. That book is full of great stories and his usual pastoral wisdom and insight. But it is also incomplete. I wrote a review on our blog at the time saying Peterson lacked the requisite narcissism to write a memoir because he’d left so much out.
With A Burning in My Bones, Winn Collier has provided the rest of the story. What emerges is (thankfully) what you hope. The inner Peterson matched the outer Peterson. His life was congruent. In an age when so many pastors—especially celebrity pastors—turn out not to be who we think they are, Peterson’s integrity and authenticity are welcome news.
Colliler’s book is an “authorized” biography, meaning he had the full cooperation of Peterson, his wife Jan, and their three children. In addition, Peterson was an avid journaler who also saved copies of his correspondence and drafts of his many writing projects. Collier was given full access to all that material and, as a result, access to Peterson’s inner life and private thoughts. (These archives now reside at Western Theological Seminary, where Collier directs the Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination.) What emerges is a portrait of a devout, thoughtful, wise, and often uneasy man.
The knock on authorized biographies is they sometimes read a bit like Pravda, presenting only the subject’s approved gloss on their life. Peterson died in 2018, while the book was being written, and Jan died about a year later. As a result, there was no editing or censoring of the final draft by the subject. Peterson is presented as very human—he tended to neglect his young children as he poured his energy into his congregation, he and Jan went through dry seasons in their marriage (with crises caused by two women falling in love with Peterson), and Peterson expressed continual frustration and regret in his journal over his use of bourbon to unwind in the evening. I shudder to think of how my parenting, marriage, or consumption habits might look under this sort of microscope. We’ll never know if Peterson would have stopped the inclusion of these stories in the book. For me, they are sources of encouragement rather than discouragement. The great man was human.
Yet it isn’t Peterson’s very human struggles that have attracted the most attention in Collier’s book. In 2017, Peterson was interviewed by the religious journalist Jonathan Merritt, who concluded his interview by asking Peterson if he would perform a gay marriage. “Yes,” was the one-word answer. A firestorm of condemnation immediately came from the religious right when Merritt’s interview was published. A day later, Peterson retracted his statement.
Or did he? Collier reveals that Peterson was in the throes of dementia by the time of the interview, and instead of composing a retraction could only remember bits of the conversation a day later. The retraction came from Peterson’s agent, who saw that Peterson was about to be “cancelled” by the right. The retraction did not reflect Peterson’s late-in-life conclusions, which I heard first-hand when Peterson touched on the same subject in an interview at Western Theological Seminary in 2014.
“Eugene thought that the hardened, absolutized positions of opposing theological poles typically framed conversations in ways that lacked wisdom, humility, and a Spirit-inspired way forward. He suspected there were better questions and wider angles than our intractable skirmishes. Even more, Eugene had no desire to play the taking-sides game. For his entire life, perhaps in reaction to the factional Pentecostalism of his childhood, Eugene believed schism and the failure to love (to believe Jesus things in the Jesus way) were American evangelicalism’s greatest sins. He wanted to leave the door open as wide as possible, open to as many as possible. He wanted to keep the conversation going.”
There is incredible irony, then, along with great sadness, that someone whose life was dedicated to knowing God intimately, someone who called tens of thousands of pastors to rediscover the purpose of their vocations, someone whose plain American translation of the Bible opened the Word of God to millions, this sage and modern-day saint, would be a pawn in the culture wars at the end of his “long obedience in the same direction.” Collier shows what a mess the whole episode was, an episode that only left pain and loss in its wake.
It’s a cautionary tale in an otherwise inspiring book.