Regional Pastor’s Bookshelf: A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson

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I presume that most Christian Reformed pastors reading this review have in some small or grand ways been blessed by reading one or many of Eugene Peterson’s books. If you haven’t, stop reading at the end of the next paragraph and don’t look at this review again until you’ve read at least three of his books! 

In no particular order, I recommend any of the following: Working the Angles, Under the Unpredictable Plant, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, A Long Obedience in One Direction, and Reversed Thunder. After you read two of the above (or any others you may choose), scurry off to his memoir The Pastor

There. By now you’ve surely learned a lot about the Bible and Peterson’s unique narrative style and trust that has been helpful in the professional nuts and bolts of Bible study for exegesis and sermon preparation; the quality of the writing and Peterson’s evident devotion to the Scriptures inspired me for years when I was still preparing sermons weekly. That’s a lot already. 

More though: When my wife and I read The Pastor soon after its release, we were moved both by the deep, self-critical, but overall gentle tone with which Peterson writes not only about those who influenced him, but also about those with whom he disagreed. Such a consistent, respectful, and curious posture in itself is instructive on how to respond to God’s call to the ministry. That is, one does not have to be absolutely right and perfect to be able to contribute to the spiritual health of one’s congregation.

We can learn from colleagues and scholars with whom we disagree without having to throw them under our own arrogant exegetical bus. We have all noticed the anger and polarization that has enslaved so much of our personal and ecclesiastical worlds in the last number of years. Peterson’s humble appreciation of others should work deeply into our pastoral souls in this sad day of pride and divisiveness. 

There. Now you’re ready to read A Burning in My Bones, the authorized autobiography by Winn Collier!

In most cases I suspect the honesty and thoroughness of biographies authorized by the family of the well-known persons, especially politicians and Christian leaders. In such works the temptation to varnish or airbrush certain character defects or downplay even minor unsavory events in the subject’s life looms large. Although the tiniest whiff of scandal never beclouded Eugene Peterson, we all remember that only a few months passed after Ravi Zacharias’s death until long-hidden and denied perversion discredited decades of celebrity ministry.

By my squinty-eyed estimation, Collier, who teaches at Western Theological Seminary and Peterson’s long-time friend, ran the tricky gauntlet of research and writing, finishing unscathed by white or grander lies in this splendidly readable and accessible work. Not surprisingly, Collier’s book and The Pastor memoir overlap in content, but differ in detail and perspective. Now—without lifting Peterson too high—the two books remind me of the Gospels written from different perspectives of Jesus’ ministry. 

For example, while Peterson polished many events of his early life with affection and love, Collier fittingly took a more complete view and described Peterson’s relationship with his butcher father. For example, in The Pastor, Peterson wrote admirably and without complaint of his young years butchering. Collier, though, notes that Peterson’s journals described the father-son relationship as respectful, but not openly affectionate, even a bit distant. However, his Pentecostal mother’s itinerant preaching deeply formed the young Montana man who headed east for decades of study, pastoring and writing.

As well, Collier tells the astonishingly devoted process of translating/paraphrasing The Bible, never detailed in The Pastor. Starting with Peterson’s dawning realization that most translations simply were not compelling even to well-educated members of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. Collier describes Peterson’s meticulous methodology of poring over the Greek and Hebrew to produce week by week passages used in the regular Bible studies he led. He figured Isaiah or Paul’s hearers never had to go to the library to understand their speeches, but could grasp them right then and there. 

In some ways, it’s unfortunate that Peterson is best-known for The Message, because that years-long work raised a huge stink among fundamentalist and conservative evangelical leaders who pilloried him mercilessly. Again, not surprisingly, Peterson never mentions the cruel backlash from co-religionists that Collier properly reveals.

Maybe, though, Peterson is more justly famous for his relationship with Bono. Bono had read many of his books and grew hugely in his faith through them. When he asked to make a personal visit to Eugene and wife Jan at the Petersons’ home on Flathead Lake in Lakeside, Montana, Peterson admitted he had never heard of Bono. Despite Bono’s often vulgar public mouth, didn’t that friendship grow a spiritual and even missional harvest among lost youth, far deeper and longer-lasting than the myopic and outraged cavils of self-righteous guardians of a literal Bible translation? 

Read A Burning in the Bones, enjoying its candour and insights into the life of a humble servant of God. It’s a sterling testimony to the riches of living and preaching the Gospel of Christ in today’s world.

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