A Burning in My Bones, Winn Collier. New York: WaterBrook, 2021.
Summary: The authorized biography of pastor-theologian and Bible translator Eugene Peterson.
He pastored a congregation for nearly thirty years. He preached thousands of sermons, wrote dozens of books, translated the Bible into vernacular English, welcomed hundreds, if not thousands into his and Jan’s home, including Bono. He never sought popularity or engaged in the polemics that roiled American evangelicalism. In the end, what mattered most was contemplating the wonders of God in the words of scripture and the beauty outside his Montana home, loving Jan and his children. That was Eugene Peterson.
I have roughly two feet of his books on my shelves. I cull many books. These remain. Why? Because, unlike many others, these seem to speak from a place beyond my generation. How did he come to write such works? Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson begins to give me some clues. Collier enjoyed access not only to Peterson during the last years of his life, but also to his papers. He is now the director of the Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination at Western Theological Seminary. He offers a rendering of Peterson’s life that probes the formative influences of his life, the decisions he came to about pastoral integrity in his own ministry, the continued quest for congruence in his life, and the beautiful soul he became, amid both his flaws and longings.
We begin with his Montana upbringing, his boyhood in the beautiful country, his Pentecostal preacher mother and distant butcher father. We learn of his running career at Seattle Pacific that eventually culminated in a Boston Marathon and the beginnings of his writing career. After an aborted effort to plant a Pentecostal church, he headed off to seminary at Biblical Seminary in New York, and really discovered scripture as a narrative in which we encounter the living God, not a sourcebook for talking points. Then on to Maryland, studies with William Albright, where he would not only encounter biblical languages and archaeology, but Jan Stubbs, who would become his wife.
It appeared Peterson was headed toward an academic career when he turned down the chance to study at Yale with Brevard Childs to begin a church in Bel Air, a suburb outside Baltimore. The next choices of pastoral integrity came as he dealt with the conflict between his biblically informed intuitions of the work of a pastor and how he was being taught to “run the damn church” as he expressed it in his frustrations that came to a head when he uttered these words in a session meeting. In the end, the elders agreed to run the church, while he prayed, studied scripture, and cared for souls–and finally began to take the time he needed to with Jan and his children.
Collier doesn’t engage in hagiography. He discusses the trouble Eric, Peterson’s eldest had with knowing his father’s love, a consequence of Peterson’s absence in his early childhood. Peterson saw glimpses of his own struggles with his father but struggled to heal this wound. Then we learn of an incident in Peterson’s late fifties when a relationship with a spiritual directee in his church became emotionally if not physically intimate. Jan recognized this with some of the hardest conversations in their marriage to follow. Peterson broke off the relationship. Even the best of marriages are flawed and tested, as this one was.
He had the wisdom to recognize when the good thing of his pastoral ministry was coming to an end, even as his passion for writing was growing. His growing restlessness led to his resignation in 1991 and the beginnings of what became The Message. Collier goes into Peterson’s growing conviction that a translation in vernacular English that captured the unvarnished unsanitized language of scripture. As he did so, he moved on to teach at Regent College. Collier describes his unconventional teaching style, the raspy voice, the long silences, and his growing notoriety.
Once more, congruence called, and the retreat to the family cabin they named Selah House that became a kind of monastery. As Peterson’s fame grew with the completion of The Message (along with controversy about the translation), Peterson felt and inward and upward call. It was a call to cherish Jan and family, while still welcoming many, including Bono who made their way to his door. More and more he felt he was getting ready to die.
There is beauty and pathos in this story. Contemplation of the lake and the mountains, a final camping trip, reflections on the Psalms, writing that slowly came to a trickle after his five books of spiritual theology. He suffered a fall and head injury from which he was never quite the same. His valedictory book, As Kingfishers Catch Fire was marred by the controversial end to his interview with Jonathan Merritt where he confessed some of his personal struggles with the issue of homosexuality and if approached as a pastor, that he would perform a same sex marriage, only to subsequently retract this statement. At this point, Peterson’s vascular dementia was already advancing and Collier’s assessment was that “Eugene should never have been doing interviews at all.”
His end came a few years later. It was a good end that I won’t spoil because Collier’s telling is so rich and poignant. At one point in the book, the observation came up that Peterson only had one sermon. I only heard Peterson speak once, and what he said was indeed congruent with his books. He spoke to InterVarsity’s national staff after one of our largest Urbana conventions. He warned of the danger of success and the temptations that come with it and the quiet path of integrity, the “long obedience in the same direction” for which he was known. Collier captures all of this and a life lived with that deep congruity of love for God that loved both words fitly spoken or written and the silence that allowed others to let down and become themselves. Even as was the case with the things Peterson said and wrote, I will carry this biography in my mind and my heart for a long time as a precious gift.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.