Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson, A Burning in My Bones, was easily one of my best reads of the year. Collier had access to the journals and papers of the pastor/writer who is best known as the translator of The Message version of the Bible. He also knew the man and brings an appreciative eye, as well as a pastor’s sensibility, to the project.
But the awkward thing is, Collier’s a better writer than Peterson. Despite his beloved status and deep pastoral heart, Peterson’s writing has never sparked my imagination. You might call Peterson’s writing gentle, but I experience it more as restrained, as if there is a fire being consciously contained.
Collier tells a wonderful story in the early part of the book about Peterson getting in a schoolyard fight and pummeling his opponent until he would confess Jesus as his Lord and Savior. “‘And he said it. [Cecil Zachary] was my first Christian convert…I felt a little vindicated in my evangelistic strategies,’” Eugene said. But that would be the first and last time he punched the gospel into someone.” (33) I wished for some of that fiery young Eugene as he aged and retreated.
Or perhaps I’m projecting onto Peterson something that I desire for myself. Collier is far more understanding and he weaves a rich portrait of Peterson’s spiritual and writing life. You get a sense of his deep formation as a Montana Pentecostal with a mother who “was the first to come to mind whenever he heard or spoke the word pastor.” (15) Collier documents the literary influences on Peterson, from Dostoevsky to Luci Shaw, and helps to place them in his work. It was a stray reference to Peterson reading a collection of poetry called Braided Creek that led me to another of this year’s best reads.
Collier brings Peterson alive in all his complexity. As he has done in his one fictional work, Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church, (a book blurbed by Peterson), Collier finds here the warm heart of Christian relationships and the strange beauty of small churches. He obviously has imbibed the wisdom Peterson wrote in his journal: “I would want to tell pastors to quit being so busy and learn quiet, to quit talking so much and learn silence, to quit treating the congregation as customers and treat them with dignity as souls-in-formation.” (238)
Others who have more familiarity with Peterson will probably find this biography even more affecting than I did. But even for me it was a thing of art.