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My Conversation with Eugene Peterson on the Arts

Bono had already left the Peterson home on the afternoon of April 19, 2018, in order to fly back to British Columbia. He and his bandmates had been in the middle of rehearsals for the Songs of Innocence tour that was to begin just under a month later, on May 14, in Vancouver.

I was sitting at the Peterson’s kitchen table, processing my interview with Bono and Eugene on the psalms. Phaedra, my wife, was with me. I noticed that the film crew had yet to put away their gear. I looked out the window to see that Eugene was sitting by himself on the deck, looking out over Flathead Lake and, beyond it, to the Mission Mountains that form part of the Rocky Mountains.

I’d had a longstanding desire to ask Eugene his thoughts on the arts, but figured that I’d do it through letter correspondence. (He didn’t do email). But when I realized that everybody was idling, catching their breath, as it were, I took the opportunity to ask the crew if they wouldn’t mind recording an additional conversation with Eugene. They agreed to it and we decided to set it up on the steps that led onto dock, facing Hughes Bay.

I’m deeply grateful for the model of a human being that he left us—of someone who was thoroughly shaped by the gospel, or what he liked to call 'the large country of salvation.' W. David O. Taylor

I began the interview by asking Eugene what novels he was currently reading. He told me that he and Jan, his wife, had just finished reading, out loud, as was their custom, Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home. “We’ve read all four of her novels now,” he said. “It’s one in a sequence, and we just think she’s a marvelous writer and enjoy them.” He also mentioned that he’d started a new novel by the Montanan writer, Ivan Doig.

I asked him which author had captured his imagination as a young man. He said Wallace Stegner; then he hesitated and corrected himself. “Herman Melville,” he said, as if remembering something long forgotten. He explained:

Earlier in my life as a pastor, I read all of Melville’s books. I don’t know what attracted me to them, but Moby Dick was the first one. I realized what a healthy counter-balance he was to the whole transcendental New England stuff, because they didn’t believe in evil, and he knows everything about evil. I just thought it was, for me, it was a good prophylactic against over-idealizing my congregation.

I asked him which authors he’d read as a boy. With a smile on his face, he said the Sugar Creek Gang books. Published by Moody Press, this series of books had been wildly popular in the 1940s and ‘50s. I then asked him the $64,000 question. If you could take only three novels to the proverbial island, what would you take? “That’s pretty easy. Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, and probably Wallace Stegner.”

I asked him how the arts had helped him to think about death and dying, and whether there was anything specific that he’d say to young artists on this topic. Bluntly, I wondered out loud: “How does it make you feel to know that you won’t have the same powers of the imagination to write as you’ve done thus far?” Eugene talked at length about the role that his peers, along with his family, played in helping to process his mortality.

I then pursued a line of questions around the continued, and perhaps steadily increasing, departure of young Christians from the faith and young artists from the church. This is a question that I had wanted to ask him since I was his student at Regent College, in Vancouver, in the mid-1990s.

I ended my conversation by asking him what he would say to a roomful of pastors who expressed interested in the arts. Where should they start? What should they do or see or experience? And I asked him what word of encouragement he would give to young artists, to older artists, and to worship leaders. His answers to these questions make it into the short film that was released yesterday.

I should also say, finally, that when I met with Bono three months later in New York City, I asked him the same set of questions, particularly around the subject of mortality, to see what he’d say in light of the biking injury that he’d suffered in December 2014 and that had required five hours of surgery, as well as in light of the death of their longstanding and deeply beloved chaplain Jack Heaslip in early February, the death of Larry Mullen Jr.’s father on May 14, and the death of their manager of thirty years Dennis Sheehan on May 27. It turned out to be a very rich conversation.

I’ll forever be grateful for Eugene’s ministry and writing. His influence shows up on nearly every page of my book, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life. But more than this, I’m deeply grateful for the model of a human being that he left us—of someone who was thoroughly shaped by the gospel, or what he liked to call “the large country of salvation.” An artist himself, he loved artists and the worlds that they made possible. To him, their work, at its best, served as a glimpse of the new creation that awaits us, as a kind of sign and a foretaste of Aslan’s country.

It’s this love for the arts and, more importantly, for artists as persons that we witness in this all-too brief exchange that I shared with him on a late afternoon in Lakeside, a small town in the middle of mostly nowhere.


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