On my second reading of A Burning of My Bones, I am not sure how to say something new or roughly the same things without making it seem like there was no value in rereading. But after sitting with the second reading for a little while, my thoughts are pretty similar and I finished reading the book deeply encouraged.
I still am not really fond of the start of the book, and I don’t really find myself drawn in until the chapters on seminary and early ministry. I am honestly not sure what it is about the early chapters that do not speak to me, but I suspect it is related that there is just less material for Winn Collier to draw on. I re-read this again as part of the Renovare book club. And one of the reasons I enjoy the book club is that they have resources to give background and understanding to the book. Most of the time, there are multiple interviews with the author, a couple of essays, and then a message board for readers to discuss. In one of those interviews, Winn Collier talked about reading Peterson’s journals and letters and sermons and books, and I have to imagine that the resources that Collier could draw on for Peterson’s early life were limited.
But again, in this reading, I settled into the pastoral years, and I was encouraged both by Peterson’s growth as a pastor, his love and orientation toward the people in the parish, and his limitations. Limitations are so important to recognize and embrace. And it is not that we embrace our limitations as an excuse or as a way to overcome them, but we embrace them because we are human, and part of what it means to be human is to have limitations. Those limitations are part of why I personally turn to God. I think the denial of human limitations is what is spiritually dangerous about wealth and much of our culture of autonomy.
I read Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow soon after finishing A Burning in My Bones, and part of what I felt about the parallels in that novel and the story of Eugene Peterson is that they both pointed to the reality of the community as part of what is essential for a human-focused life. So much of our culture, whether in the 2020s or the 1950 and 60s that was the focus of Jayber Crow, is the orientation toward progress as a way to overcome our human limitations. I am not against tools or modern conveniences, I am highly dependent on them, and I love them. But as so many have pointed out, we often become dependent upon them in ways that make us the servant of the tool and not the other way around.
Eugene Peterson pushed back against culture in ways that were not for everyone. His resistance to email and the internet was part of his time; you could resist email and the internet differently in the 1990s to the early 2010s than you can now. It isn’t about the particularities of his push against dehumanizing tools as much as that his example reminds us that we, too, should be pushing back against our dehumanization. And not just for ourselves, but for others as well.
After my first reading, Eugene Peterson’s weaknesses were the most encouraging part of the book for me. Of course, I know that will not be true for everyone. But when the weaknesses of many spiritual leaders are being revealed regularly, I appreciate that there is space to see weaknesses that are not rooted in the abuse of others. And that Eugene tried to grapple with in spiritually healthy ways. And that he didn’t stop struggling to be who God wanted him to be when he turned 50, but in many ways, it was more of a struggle as he aged because he because more aware of himself and God over time.
I do not want to idealize Eugene Peterson, which would be easy for me to do. However, the particulars, I think, really help add nuance and humanity to my view of him in ways that still allow him to be human.