This post has been amended for the sake of clarification. If you read Version One and were offended, I ask you to read Version Two closely. Thank you!

Eugene Peterson, author of The Pastor and sometimes-celebrated/sometimes-criticized translator of The Message, is — in my humble opinion — a national treasure.

I may not always prefer his translation of Biblical passages over other translations, but I am grateful for The Message in how it serves as one powerful lens in a useful array of lenses on the original Greek and Hebrew texts.

And I am just as grateful, if not more so, for Peterson’s series of theological meditations that include Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places and Eat This Book. From his lakeside perch at Flathead Lake, Montana, Peterson has contemplated and written about the scriptures and the Christian life as profoundly as any contemporary Christian writer I have encountered.

Full disclosure: I’ve had the unlikely privilege of getting to know him as a friend and as a counselor over the last decade through our mutual membership in a writers group called The Chrysostom Society and through Peterson’s occasional participation in The Glen Workshop. So I’m more than a little biased. He is as humble, as generous, and as large-hearted as you might have heard. And his smile is as explosively joyous as any I’ve seen.

So it is a joy to see his work celebrated in any fashion. I was particularly pleased to see him receive the Denise Levertov Award from Image, an award that acknowledges distinct and substantial contributions to conversations about faith and art.

And here is Peterson again, receiving a glowing tribute from Fuller Studio by way of a personal endorsement from by a man who is both the biggest name in rock music and the biggest name in evangelical pop-culture cred.


Filmed by my friend Nathan Clarke (director of an excellent documentary called Wrestling for Jesus), and hosted by Fuller seminary faculty member David Taylor (editor of For the Beauty of the Church), this short video chronicles a visit by the U2 front man to Eugene Peterson’s Flathead Lake home for a conversation about the Psalms.

The film gives admirable attention to the context of their conversation, a place so beautiful it practically shouts out echoes of the Psalms. (Flathead Lake is where I was hiking when I got the inspiration for my own four-book fantasy series, stories that gave me a way to explore how the created world and our own creativity do a redemptive work in the world. “What a spot!” — indeed.)

There was so much buzz about this video before its release that I found myself anticipating a monumental conversation about the Psalms. As it turns out, the video scratches the surfaces of some really intriguing questions. But it still plays only like a trailer for the conversation that the teaser made me hope for. Each little chapter of this 20 minute video feels like an advertisement for a larger, more adventurous work.

Amendment #1: One of the filmmakers tells me that the actual event captured and shared here took very little time at all, and that part of the contract involved limiting the video to this short span of time. Fair enough. That doesn’t mean my expectations should have been different — the teaser didn’t tell us it would be such a brief conversation. But it’s good to know that they’ve given us what they could.

Even though it’s a short video, I kind of wish that the project either bore a different title (one that kept me from expecting that the film’s primary focus would be The Psalms) or had been split into two parts: An introduction, which would have been about how the rock star and the pastor came to be friends; and then a second video, which would have documented this fleeting chat about the the Psalms. As it is, it feels about 50/50… part fanboy event (a meeting of good friends captured on film so their fans can savor the sight of it — something that I admit I enjoy), and then an earnest but fleeting consideration of the Scriptures.

Don’t get me wrong — the story of the famously self-effacing megalomaniac “opera singer” and the quiet whisper-voiced Protestant minister is one worth telling. I remember how my heart rate accelerated when Jan and Eugene first showed me snapshots of their startling first encounters with Bono, and laughed about how they had initially ignored Bono’s phone calls because they didn’t know who he was. I think it’s fantastic that Peterson’s quiet, humble, disciplined work has blessed Bono and influenced the lyrics of the world’s biggest rock band. And so I’m relieved that this Fuller Studio video plays more as a tribute to Peterson’s meditative interpretations of the Scriptures than as yet another Christian pop culture artifact laying claim to Bono as “one of us.”

And, frankly, I like this video as much for its acknowledgement of Jan Peterson’s gift of hospitality as for anything else. I’d have put Jan’s name in the title alongside Eugene’s. Jan is a glorious human being, a model of generosity. Eugene’s work would not be what it is without Jan’s tremendous love and care. You get a sense of that here.

Having said that, I do love what they say here, however briefly, about the Psalms.

It was only recently that I overcame many years of troubled feelings about the Psalms and their evident call for violent judgment, for their often searing displays of rage and desire for destruction. It just seemed so contrary to the spirit of Christ. But a prison chaplain — Chris Hoke, author of an excellent new memoir called Wanted — recently got me thinking about how the Psalms are not meant to be an endorsement of asking God to kill our enemies, but as a demonstration that God can take and hold all of our flawed expressions, all of our volatile emotions. We are invited to vent, to rant, to express the full truth of our imperfect thoughts and emotions in the presence of God’s grace and affection.

And then what happens? How does God respond to those impassioned and temperamental poems and prayers? God answers our complicated and somewhat corrupt prayers with an answer: Christ himself, who shows that the only way to overcome the sins of our enemies is to receive them without retaliation, to save the world from sins by absorbing them without perpetuating them.

Christ, as Peterson acknowledges in this video, responds to violence with love, saving the world. The Psalms are not complete without God’s response to them. We need to see the whole picture. If anybody holds up David’s appeals for God to smash his enemies to a bloody pulp and says, “See? This is what God wants!” … they are doing harm to the full purpose and glory of the Scriptures.

Insofar as this video reminds us of this, I am deeply grateful for it.

The easy thing to do would be to stop there — to just pile on, to gush with love for two amazing guys and a video that honors them.

But Bono says right here in the video that he wants Christians to be more honest about the good things and the difficult things. So here goes:

I just can’t shake the discomforting sense that the larger-than-lifeness of these personalities will, for some, distract from the subject at hand. I wish that there could have been more attention given to the Psalms themselves, in proportion to the super-coolness of this meeting.

Amendment #2: Okay, so the actual conversation had strict time limits that prevented this from being a monumental theological discussion. I understand that. But still, since that information is not given to us in the video…

I’d rather have a window on this brief conversation than not, so I’m content to be grateful for what we’ve been given. But I must admit that in a 20-minute video called “The Psalms,” it’s a little disappointing that we don’t get to the Psalms at all until almost halfway through the production.

And there’s another thing — something that isn’t the fault of the filmmakers or anyone involved, but that I should admit I experience as I watch this video.

As the credits for this video roll… and roll… I cannot help but feel a familiar struggle rising in my heart and my gut.

Amendment #3: What do these lists of names represent? I matter-of-factly concluded that this was a very expensive production, and that these credits represented support of some material means, financial or otherwise. I’ve been informed that the list is long because David Taylor is graciously thanking friends who offered all kinds of support, including friendship and prayer. So, while my assumption comes from a lifetime of reading end credits lists and watching for the list of donors, movers, and shakers, I was in error in thinking that these organizations actually funded the production.

Amendment #4: What follows here has been described as a “stab” or an “attack” on the people who supported this video. I ask you to please read it carefully and observe that I clearly state otherwise.

Forgive me, friends who worked on this video — I don’t mean to condemn the effort at all. I only mean to voice, in honesty, a conflict that I feel as I watch it.

Any event like this is necessarily complicated because of the reality of celebrity. And when I see so many Christian organizations rallying around this event, responding with enthusiasm to the opportunity to highlight cultural celebrities talking about the Scriptures, it makes me wish for a similar collaborative enthusiasm on projects that aren’t about big names.

Bono and Eugene Peterson are both giants on the world stage because of the quality of their work, sure, but also because the enthusiastic responses to their work generate a kind of ripple effect, a glamour, a desire to be close to those who are so popular and beloved. I feel this difficulty even in this blog post, when I mention my personal connection to Peterson: Why do I mention that? To bring some credibility to my claims? To impress people that I know Eugene Peterson? It’s a difficult issue, and I’m sure that I am sometimes guilty of name-dropping for the hope of gaining some kind of admiration from the association with a famous person. What an absurd thing to do.

(More than one person has noted, with the arrival of this video, that I myself am now only “one degree of separation from Bono… through multiple people!” Whatever. If I let myself get excited about that, what does it say about me and how I measure the value of my relationships?)

I’m not accusing anybody involved with the video of being celebrity-obsessed. I’m just acknowledging that it is a complicated thing.

And that complication makes me somewhat suspicious whenever I see long lists of organizations and people “supporting” a production involving celebrities. I’m sure many of them were totally sincere and innocent in doing so — whether donating or offering moral support or praying. That’s great.

But wouldn’t it be even more inspiring to see a collaboration of Christian arts organizations like this for something that isn’t guaranteed to draw a million eyeballs with the gravitational pull of celebrity?

What about all of those Christians in the arts who are doing honest work, and who, given collaborative support like this, might surprise Bono with exactly what he seems to think is missing?

 

When I hear Bono talking in this video about how “suspicious” he is of Christians in the arts, I get what he’s saying — there is a lot that passes as “Christian music” that is really just crowd-pleasing mediocrity, wish-fulfillment choruses, the musical equivalent of aromatherapy. But there is a whole world of music out there being made by Christians that is at least as substantial, honest, raw, and complex as anything U2 has recorded. Why does Bono seem so ignorant of that? Part of the answer has to do with an unwillingness among many Christian organizations to support art that takes risks, that acknowledges ambiguity and doubt and trouble.

If a lightning bolt of luck were to catapult any one of the profoundly talented artists I know to global success like Bono’s, Christian organizations would rally to associate themselves with that artist. But how many are brave enough and generous enough to be there at the critical stages of formation, willing to participate in the unglamorous planting as well as the joy of the harvest?  I know so many whose art has received worldwide acclaim, but because of the lack of material support from those who have the resources to make a difference, they’ve had to surrender their work for the sake of making a living, and have faded into cultural obscurity.

Personally, I’m more moved when I see shows of support for artists at the ground level, support for the hard work of manifesting beauty and truth when there is no glamorous name or brush with celebrity involved.

I can think of several organizations — Image, for example: a community devoted to the cultivation of beauty and art and to supporting artists of faith, one that has to struggle to meets its costs week to week, that relies on a trickle of donations to survive — that commit themselves on a daily basis to the cultivation of great art rather than chasing the Big Names.

I can think of others too — I see some of them in the end credits here.

Amendment #5: I repeat, I’m not pointing an accusing finger at anybody listed in the credits of this video. Some of those people really do devote themselves to the cultivation of great art.

I realize that this sounds like a cynical conclusion to a YouTube event that does, in fact, glorify the Scriptures and celebrate two — no, more than that! — humble servants of God.

I realize that it could sound like a criticism of those who made this video.

And one more time with feeling: That’s not what I’m saying. I’m glad this video exists, and I’m happy to see several friends of mine doing good work to bring it about.

I just want to see this collaborative spirit of support lasting longer than this visit from the rock star to the pastor. Here’s hoping that it does.

No hard feelings, folks. But it’s worth talking about.

 

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