(RNS) — After writing more than 30 best-selling books, 84-year-old Eugene Peterson has decided to hang it up.
The theologian and writer widely respected among Christians pastors and laypeople alike is best known for “The Message Bible,” a contemporary paraphrase of the Christian Scriptures that has sold more than 16 million copies worldwide.
Despite his ongoing popularity, Peterson said he has published his final book, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” And he’s no longer teaching or traveling.
But Peterson still has much to say. The influential Christian leader does not mince words as he explains why he is calling it quits, what he thinks about Donald Trump and how he changed his mind on same-sex issues.
What about “Kingfishers Catch Fire” made you say, “OK, I can put down the pen now. My work is done.”?
Well, I’m 84 years old. That’s one. I think I’ve pretty much mined everything I’ve learned and made art out of it. That’s basically it, I think.
I’ve spoken to others who have had robust careers like you’ve had, and by the time they reach your age, they say, “I’m tired.” What about you? Do you feel tired?
No, I don’t feel tired. I just feel like there’s a sense of completion, or maybe satisfaction. I think I’ve done a better job of everything I’d done before in this book. I might do something else, but I don’t think so. These days, I write a lot of letters. I’m still keeping up with people and answering their questions or responding to what they are doing. I think it’s more just a sense of completion.
What do you think of what we’re experiencing right now, politically? What are your views of Donald Trump and the political mood animating our world?
I think we’re in a bad situation. I really do. Donald Trump is the enemy as far as I’m concerned. He has no morals. He has no integrity. But I have good friends who think he’s wonderful. But I think they put up with it less and less. People are getting pretty tired of him, I think. Some of us were tired of him before he was elected. I think we can put up with it, though. I don’t think it’s the end of the road.
You’ve seen the church change a lot. Are you more encouraged or more discouraged by what you’re seeing in the American church?
I’m not sure it’s either/or. I do feel like pastors are not doing their job. Look at what’s going on in the church, at least in my Presbyterian church. It has a consumer mentality. It’s about what we can sell and how we can attract people to come to church.
I think the thing that’s most disturbing is the megachurch because megachurches are not churches. My feeling is that when you’re a pastor, you know the people’s names. When 5,000 people come into the church, you don’t know anybody’s name.
I don’t think you can be a pastor with just a bunch of anonymous people out there. In the megachurch, well, there’s no relationship with anybody. I think the nature of the church is relational. If you don’t know these people that you’re praying with and talking with and listening to, what do you have? I feel pretty strongly about that.
Now, there’s a lot of innovation in the church, and overall, I can’t say I’m disheartened. I’m just upset by the fad-ism of the megachurch, but I just don’t think they’re churches. They’re entertainment places.
You are Presbyterian, and your denomination has really been grappling with some of the hot-button issues. I think particularly of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Has your view on that changed over the years?
I haven’t had a lot of experience with it. But I have been in churches when I was an associate pastor where there were several women who were lesbians. They didn’t make a big deal about it. I’d go and visit them and it never came up for them. They just assumed that they were as Christian as everybody else in the church.
In my own congregation — when I left, we had about 500 people — I don’t think we ever really made a big deal out of it. When I left, the minister of music left. She’d been there ever since I had been there. There we were, looking for a new minister of music. One of the young people that had grown up under my pastorship, he was a high school teacher and a musician. When he found out about the opening, he showed up in church one day and stood up and said, “I’d like to apply for the job of music director here, and I’m gay.” We didn’t have any gay people in the whole congregation. Well, some of them weren’t openly gay. But I was so pleased with the congregation. Nobody made any questions about it. And he was a really good musician.
I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over. People who disapprove of it, they’ll probably just go to another church. So we’re in a transition and I think it’s a transition for the best, for the good. I don’t think it’s something that you can parade, but it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.
A follow-up: 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?
One last question. You’re entering the final stage of your career, your ministry and your life. One day, as with all of us, Eugene Peterson will be somebody who existed once. When that moment comes, how do you hope people will remember you?
I don’t know. I tell you, I’m still getting used to it all. I’m still getting used to being noticed. People write to me. Boy, the stuff that comes in my mailbox is just enormous, so I do a lot of letter writing and telephoning. And I’m just amazed, really.
I haven’t been part of anything big. I’ve never been a big church preacher. I’ve never been on the radio or anything like that. I’m so pleased that people care about what I’ve done and support it because these are difficult times for the church. I’m quite aware of that. Anyway, I guess I’m just surprised that anyone would remember at all.
I know I speak for countless others when I say thanks for your courage, for your witness and for your words all these years. You will be remembered, Eugene Peterson. For how could we forget?
(Senior columnist Jonathan Merritt writes the “On Faith and Culture” column for RNS)