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I recently finished reading Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor. It took me several months to get up the gumption to tackle the book. I wasn’t too interested because . . . I had a hunch it might be . . . well, boring. (Go ahead — start composing your comments about my puny attention span. I welcome them. The editors welcome them. The 12 has been waiting for someone to make a ridiculous statement to get some comments rolling. Hopefully, I just did.) Eugene Peterson is about as colorful as a bowl of vanilla ice cream. Today’s memoir requires the whole sundae – mixed flavors with a lot of syrup and, above all, a generous helping of nuts. That’s not Peterson. He comes across as genuine, humble, normal, gracious, kind, considerate, trustworthy, loyal, obedient, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent and inclined to helping elderly women across streets. Geez. Those traits won’t sell many books.
I fear Peterson doesn’t have the requisite amount of self-adoration for this genre. It takes a large ego to write a memoir. Many of us might tire after 150 or 200 pages about ourselves, yet good memoirists are just getting warmed up at that point. But Peterson? Half the time it’s like he doesn’t even have the letter “i” on his keyboard. He doesn’t blame his neuroses on his parents. (Worse yet, he doesn’t appear to have any neuroses.) He hardly writes a word about his wife or children. He doesn’t dish much dirt on his congregation, and the people he does say an unflattering word or two about all appear to have been dead for 35 years or so. Where is the self-serving recasting of history today’s memoir craze demands?
As I started the book, I assumed a large section of it would be about the work he did to write The Message. I know if I were in his shoes, I’d have spent about 75 pages of my memoir telling the world what a great accomplishment The Message was and how I deserve a spot in the Bible Hall of Fame. I would have gently asserted my superiority over Goodspeed, Kenneth Taylor, and J.B. Phillips and claimed my place alongside William Tyndale and Martin Luther. Plus, I would have made up a fictitious chapter entitled “Bruce Metzger’s Jealous Rages.” That’s what I would have done. Peterson, on the other hand, spends two pages on The Message. And you get the idea those pages were reluctantly added at his editor’s insistence. What fun is that?
No, it’s hardly much fun at all. A real flop of a memoir by today’s standards. Good memoirists narcissistically invent crises and then reveal how they found the amazing inner-strength to overcome them. Not our boy Eugene. He writes much, much more about the state of the American church and the intricacies of the pastoral vocation than about himself.
Instead of writing a flashy, self-absorbed tome, Peterson has produced a remarkable book of insight into what it really means to be a pastor. As a result, it’s the most compelling book (and least “memoir-ish” memoir) I’ve read in a long time. I find now, a couple of weeks after finishing it, that I’m still thinking about it. I’m thinking about things like the distinction he draws between a vocation and having a job (see also Theresa Latini’s excellent January 5 entry about that in this space); the quip he’d heard about a pastor being “invisible six days a week and incomprehensible the seventh”; and his discovery that his job as pastor was not to solve the personal problems of his congregation (or see the people as problems) but to lead those people in the worship of God and in living a holy life. After all, he says of the congregation, “They are not problems to be fixed, but mysteries to be honored and revered.” I’ve been contemplating that – plus, I’m thinking about his comments that the American church has traded worship for entertainment and community for programming. I’m thinking about his assessment of “church growth” as “church cancer.” I’m thinking about how he’s immersed himself in prayer and the scriptures and how ministry flows naturally from that center.
It’s a truly insightful, wonderful book. I imagine it’s the perfect read for the type of folks who gravitate toward this blog. Yes, it fails miserably by the standards of the self-infatuated memoir craze that has filled our bookstores. We should all be grateful for that. It’s a dish of the most flavorful vanilla ice cream I’ve ever enjoyed.