Eugene Peterson's All Out War on the Nonprofit Industrial Complex

Eugene Peterson and His All Out War on the Nonprofit Industrial Complex

Often we hear historians say that the greatest critiques of the church come from the radicals inside her. Eugene Peterson has fit this bill for years, pastoring pastors on how to pastor instead of coddling and enabling them to stay in their addictions to greed and power and graceful lusts and fame. I’m reminded of that Chesterton line lust that had lost its laughter, fear that had lost its shame. All addicts are disarming and charming and the clergy is clearly not an exception. Like an AA sponsor, Peterson offers no excuses and calls them to “come out of her” almost like how in the army one who has been in the trenches will say, “Just stay sober tonight and tomorrow we’ll get absolutely wasted.” Of course tomorrow never comes because it’s always time for sobriety tonight. Peterson’s call is a daily call to turn from money and fame and influence and the prohibition stake that stabs the soul of the church towards stasis. His call comes as clean and common as the call to prayer, like a rhythm each book calls us out of our vices. His books work something like a pastoral Canterbury Tales: they expose just how greedy and power-hungry American Christians really are. This goes against conventional wisdom. Goes against the common denominator resting on the bottom line of his publishers’ deepest desires. Goes particularly against the Evangelical mob that runs cities line Nashville and Indianapolis, through the radio waves and blogs they have commandeered in a naval brigade that stretches from one heresy (that of Olsteen) to the other (that of Bell). What strange bedfellows greed and power keep. What awful orgies. Peterson doesn’t stand for it and he remains one of the few American pastoral writers — indeed one of the few advice-oriented nonfiction writers at large — who’s worth reading both for some (but not all) of his prose and especially for his consistently on-point rebuke of the nonprofit industrial complex. Christ Plays in 10,000 Places was no exception to his ambitious, lifelong quest.

He’s a man who used the words “ecclesiastical pornography” to describe what others might call the “church career ladder.” A man who once responded to a letter of mine by saying,

Don’t be in a hurry to publish. Especially by ‘Christian’ publishers. They are looking for writers who make things easy and popular; they are very selective about marketing. I wrote seriously for fifteen years, accumulating stacks of rejection letters before I was published. I had determined that I would not cheapen my vocation by writing what would “sell.” Let your gut and the Holy Spirit shape your writing, not the marketers in publishing… face the reality that the pastoral vocation is in ruins these days. It is almost entirely shaped by satisfying consumer tastes—giving people “what they want”—and measuring everything by size and numbers and celebrity. If you let that world infect your imagination, you will never be a writer, just a propagandist for Jesus (or maybe worse, a pornographer for Jesus—Jesus-marketed, with all the personal relationships and holy reverence deleted).

Those words saved me from a great long series of mistakes because that weekend a mega church pastor tried to wow me with his yacht and mansion during a job interview, a scenario that provoked the setting for my short story Cast. Peterson’s a man who rebukes the addiction to wealth with Jesus’ vow of poverty. Who rebukes the American evangelical addiction to racism, protectivism, and nationalism with Jesus’ habit of eating home-cooked meals with aliens and swindlers and con men and prostitutes and terrorists and bankers and evil politicians and homeless orphans. A man who responds to the demands of workaholism with sabbath and to the allure of idleness and gossip and conspiracy theories with an honest day’s work. A man who sees the church’s bet on religious formulas and programming and raises them Jesus.

In this volume, he has emphasized the forgotten mode of being that we so desperately require as people bent on doing things our own way with God. Which is another way of saying people bent on having our way with God.

Flipping the script, he puts us at the receiving end and we find ourselves unmolested but rather caught in a neoplatonic romance with the lover of our beloved souls. He reminds us as C.D. Wright would that we too poetry. That we pray to have intimate encounters with the Author of Life and we poetry to have intimate encounters with his work and word. Peterson reveals again the lost power of the silence of God and the forgotten dream of redemptive clockwork — of a God so fully invested in our good that he will take our worst deeds (rape, genocide, global fraud and conspiracy, climate change) and bring out the greatest good in spite of us, resolving our deepest dissonance to sing true to the rhythm of The Good and The True and The Beautiful that was and is and will be Being. 

He has a ton in common with David Bentley Hart’s mind, though his gentle and pastoral spirit makes him the more palatable revolutionary.

And it is a revolution he calls us unto: one of nonconformity that refuses to bend or break when the stakes of the world run as high as the dealers who turn to take them. He refuses to buckle to conference culture or break under the weight of the similar sort of Christian circlejerk that goes by any other name but smells as sour.

He is not bought.

He is not bullied.

He is not bored or boring.

And therefore he finds the space to fling out broad his name: a man who, for his flaws, speaks true and well of the intimacy he shares with all things. Like Chesterton said of St. Francis, Peterson is pagan enough to be Christian and he sees Christ in all things and that makes him a very, very good man. Book by book, the weight of his persistent publication will continue to pick up steam and then once it moves, it will be as unstoppable as the glaciers he mentions at the end of this book. It won’t be unstoppable because he’ll go down as one of the great prose writers: yes, there are others who may string a sentence together into a more beautiful bough. But his are beautiful first and foremost because they are true and taken together, they are beginning to right the ship of American Christendom.

For we will be nothing if our souls will not be saved.

Perhaps Rob Bell was right about one thing: Jesus does want to save Christians. Save them from their greed, their idleness, their workaholism, their addictions, and their unending quest for political power. It will take monks disguised as old married pastors to tune us true.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
— Gerard Manly Hopkins

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