First thing this morning, I saw Jonathan Merritt’s interview with Eugene Peterson, the headline of which was subtle:

Eugene Peterson on changing his mind about same-sex issues and marriage

No idea where that story is headed…

For the uninitiated, Eugene Peterson has been the rock-solid, boring, erudite, committed, faithful pastor that many pastors aspired to be. He founded a Presbyterian church in Maryland, and then pastored it for 29 years before retiring. He’s been a prolific writer, too, especially in the genre of pastoral literature.

I have to admit something embarrassing before proceeding, though. When I was a Christian, I read a ton of C.S. Lewis. I even took an undergrad class that focused on all the Narnia books, as well as his space trilogy. (The class was awesome; the space trilogy is terrible, especially when it devolves into lurid Arthurian nonsense in book three. Book two is sort of worth reading.)

     
For pastors, reading is both a survival mechanism—there are damn few people you can really talk to, after all—and an inspiration. All those sermon ideas have to come from somewhere, and books and movies are a good place to mine ideas. Lewis wrote “theology” so that people could feel smart and satisfied about choosing Christianity. They typically fall into the category of apologetics. Peterson’s books are in a different category, though, and I say this with respect: they are not the sort of books most church folks care to read. Peterson writes so that people act like Christians, a lost art form, for sure. That one of them is titled A Long Obedience in the Same Direction should tell you all you need to know about Peterson’s methodology vis-a-vis Christian behavior.

Eugene Peterson is the tortoise to the hare, and that is sort of what people should want in a pastor. Unfortunately, the world has not gone that way, and Peterson has rightly spoken out against “pastorpreneurs,” and how fucking great is that portmanteau? If you’re not a consumer of evangelical twitter, you probably missed the firestorm today. Peterson’s famous, easy-to-read translation of the Bible, called The Message, has been adopted by churches all over the U.S. and Canada, primarily because it is faithful to the message of the Bible without getting bogged down in Elizabethan English or religious constructions that are more faithful to ideology than a life lived. In what will come as a surprise to no one who is familiar with conservative evangelicals, Peterson has been disowned by notable church leaders, and Lifeway, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, may stop selling The Message, according to a story in Christianity Today.

This is all so pitifully predictable, and while I will unhappily track the progress of this story, the main point here has naught to do with Eugene Peterson, except that he walked into a revelatory moment in American evangelicalism. Why is it such a huge deal that a retired pastor has finally said that homosexuality is not that big of a deal, and that if he were a pastor today, he’d marry a gay couple? What is the obsession with human sexuality that makes the conservative evangelical church an angry, bitter witness in the world? Why is a pastor who has served faithfully and written with care and integrity such an enemy when he changed his mind? And how in the hell is anyone served by removing a solid, modern translation of the Bible from the shelf of a bookstore because the writer believes things that he did not put in the text? What breeds this form of herd lunacy?

The answer is simple, really. Having abandoned all biblical admonitions that would impinge on their lives, this sect of evangelicals has chosen two tribal markers to signify their faith: human sexuality and abortion. They have long since abandoned the Ten Commandments, even as they lobby to have stone monuments placed on government property with the erstwhile ethical guidelines to serve as a totem, despite it being bereft of power and authority. They do not keep the Sabbath. They take the Lord’s name in vain regularly—a commandment that has to do with actions done in the “name of the Lord,” not using naughty language.

They covet, divorce with impunity, kill “the enemy” regularly, bear false witness on political talk shows and from pulpits, and make idols of all manner of power, wealth, status and racial privilege.

In short, they need something to prove that they are faithful children of God. Alas, the commandments are too great a burden, so they choose things that don’t touch their lives. Until they do. And then, some of those who have been affected by a pregnant teen or gay child undergo a second conversion, or deconversion, if you will. Those who remain demand adherence to the two rules that matter: thou shalt not be gay, and thou shalt not terminate a pregnancy. It’s a sad, truncated message of grace, and their own sacred text warns them against themselves in words attributed to St. Paul: “Having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof: from such, turn away.”