photo: Kristina Kupstienė | Flickr
About two weeks ago, well-known author, speaker, and pastor Eugene Peterson gave an interview that left many reeling from its implications. In the midst of a series of articles on Religion News Service, Peterson, who was announcing his retirement, gave his thoughts on topics from talking with the dying and megachurches to the president. In the course of the interview, he spoke to journalist Jonathan Merritt about homosexuality and the Church, stating that he would, under certain conditions, officiate a homosexual wedding. A little later, after some predictable hubbub from LifeWay Christian Stores, and after social media marshaled its respective forces in the Valley of Elah, Eugene Peterson returned to the mic via The Washington Post to clarify and retract certain of those statements, saying he “affirm[ed] a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman.”
That’s not what this essay is about, per se.
Through those few days, I grieved. I am grieved for him still. Why? Because I’ve been gibbetted on the business end of a microphone, too. Now, my words obviously don’t carry the weight of Eugene Peterson’s. One of us is an experienced pastor and student of the Bible; the other one is me. Still, my words represent me, and I like to be represented well. That’s hard when one is being filtered through the proxy of an interview. Once, I played a gig in Asheville, in a little café with a radio station up front. I arrived early to sit down for a little exchange with the DJ in hopes of rallying people to come to the show. In the course of our short discussion, I answered a question with the following unplanned bulldozer:
“Oh, I’m excited for people to come. I think it’s important for them to hear these songs.”
The DJ paused for an awkward moment.
“Well,” he quipped, “I guess you need to believe in what you’re doing.”
No. Unequivocally, no.
That hadn’t been my meaning at all. I hardly believed in what I was doing, when it came down to it. I had meant that my songs were honest bits of music and, like any song, they weren’t complete until they were heard. Yet, looking back, that’s not strictly what I said. Thirty seconds’ conversation could have unearthed a more honest and considered response and helped me to codify my thoughts, but in radio, thirty seconds is eternity. I was only just coming into these ideas anyway, finding them true and learning how to articulate them. I sounded like I was arrogant with a raging messiah complex. To be fair, that might have been an accurate indictment, but it still wasn’t what I had meant to say.
Big deal, you may think. That’s hardly equivalent to Peterson’s unfortunate position. True, but the principle remains. I’ve interviewed a number of artists myself, and I worry about misrepresenting them in either process, the questioning or the editing. Talk shows like Conan or The Graham Norton Show used to frustrate me. Sure, they were hilarious—Graham Norton’s especially so—but why didn’t they address more pressing topics? Why all the sugary comedy and so little meat? Now I understand: the format isn’t built for it.
If a dedicated news organization gets mixed results in trying to arrive at the seed of an issue, how can a ten-minute exchange with an actor or musician do better? The potential for misunderstanding is high—even higher for someone like Peterson, who has a wide sphere of influence. Interviews, even long-form interviews, are mostly conveyed through soundbites. Such morsels of rhetoric will never amount to the complexity of a single human being. We would be foolish to think that they did.
Still, we absorb the work of our favorite artists, writers, and thinkers, and we find ourselves plagued by the attractive deception that we know them well. True, there is a great deal of the artist in the art, but the lack of personal human context means that we cannot rely on our knowledge of these people in the same way we do our spouses, parents, siblings, or friends. I have disagreed with many of my heroes, and I’m sure the others are just waiting in the wings. That doesn’t mean their work as a whole is meaningless. It is worth as much consideration as it always was—consideration having always been the operative term. It is discernment we require.
The more weight a person’s word carries, the more people will notice when that weight shifts in transit. Peterson certainly fits into that category of people with whom I have disagreements, but then, so does everybody else. Of course, it might be better said that Peterson probably disagrees with me—or would, if we talked at length about some issue. Personally, I hope people will extend grace to me in my own blunders and hiccups, especially if they see or hear my words through a veil like print, radio, or the internet. Lest I grow hypocritical, I must endeavor to do the same for Eugene Peterson.