Rabbit Room Press’s latest title, “Songs from the Silent Passage,” features essays from an assortment of writers on the influence of Walt Wangerin. One of those writers is Eugene Peterson, and we’re so grateful that his voice is part of this collection. If you’ve heard of Walt Wangerin but haven’t yet encountered his work, this collection of essays is a perfect place to begin. Read on for an excerpt from Peterson’s essay.
Chauntecleer and the Pastoral Imagination
Reading the Dun Cow novels turned out to be, in retrospect, a significant event in the shaping of my pastoral imagination. After I was ordained and admitted to the company of pastors, I expected to be in conversation with men and women who would be colleagues attentive to the nature of congregation: the beauty of holiness, the care of souls, the craft of preaching. What I found was a “company of shopkeepers,” preoccupied with shopkeepers’ concerns: how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from the competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers would lay out more money. I began to look around for congenial companions. The search was not easy, but help came in the form of a novel, The Book of the Dun Cow, written by Walter Wangerin Jr. It embedded itself in my imagination and along with his subsequent books has continued for nearly forty years to clarify and deepen my understanding and practice of the life of a pastor.
What I am writing here is not so much about Wangerin as such but about his considerable influence on my life as a pastor and writer.
Geoffrey Chaucer and Walter Wangerin Jr.
One of my assignments as a student at Seattle Pacific University in my final year (1954) was to write a weekly opinion column for The Falcon, our student newspaper. In one issue my opening sentence was, “This is the dullest thing since calculus and Chaucer . . .” (I no longer remember “the thing” that I was referring to). I soon got a call from my English professor, who was also advisor to the paper, asking me to come and see her. I showed up and she asked me, “Eugene, have you ever read Chaucer?” I confessed that I had not. She followed up with, “And I assume you know nothing about calculus either?” I admitted my ignorance. Without further comment she turned around, reached for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and as she handed it to me, said, quite severely it seemed to me, “Read this, and don’t come back until you have read the whole thing.”
She was my favorite professor and had always treated me kindly, but by the tone of her voice, I knew I was in trouble. I showed up four days later (it’s a long book) thoroughly chagrined, for those four days had put me in the company of twenty-nine pilgrims on their way to Canterbury who amused themselves on their journey by telling stories—of adventures and trials, some bawdy and some charming, some of moral philosophical reflection, some of tragedy and some of romance. Twenty-three of the pilgrims told stories and only one out of the twenty-three was dull. By this time, her severity had been replaced by her customary kindness.
In the years that followed, whenever she read a poem or essay that I had written for a periodical, she wrote a note of appreciation that kept our friendship up-to-date. I also learned from others that while teaching her writing course she sometimes would drop my part in the Chaucer incident into the classroom conversation.
Several years later, as a newly ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (UPCUSA), I was given an assignment to develop a new congregation near a small town in Maryland (Bel Air) that was fast becoming a suburb of Baltimore. I was pleased to be asked and, ill-equipped as I was, accompanied by my wife and two-year-old firstborn, embraced my new employment with enthusiasm.
There was a burgeoning interest in the church in those years, with experts offering seminars and books exploring the dynamics and procedures for approaching a “generation that knew not Joseph” to get them to listen to the story of Jesus and become part of the body of Christ.
It was the early sixties, the Decade of the Death of God. Church attendance was plummeting. Anxiety—among some approaching something more like hysteria—was widespread as the influence of the Christian church seemed to be swiftly eroding while secular humanism was replacing what many had assumed, probably mistakenly, was a “Christian Nation.” Innovations were proposed, desperate applications of tourniquets to staunch the flow of blood from the body of Christ. Churches were modified or designed so they didn’t look like churches. The “church growth” movement got most of the headlines—megachurches that seemed to some of us to be mostly “mega” and very little “church.”
Meanwhile the primary reaction of the established, so-called mainline churches in response to the challenge was to initiate strategies for developing new congregations. My denomination was energetically recruiting pastors to implement this particular strategy. I counted myself fortunate to be asked to be in on something fresh and new, challenging and demanding, but still “church.” I understood that my task was to implement a gathering of men and women who would sit still and be quiet long enough to become aware of God’s word and presence in the neighborhood in addition to attending to their own souls.
In anticipation of the population growth in the area, my denomination had purchased six acres of farmland two miles from the existing Presbyterian Church, an historic colonial congregation located in the center of the town but landlocked with no room for expansion. It was an aging but still vigorous body of Christ, so instead of relocating the church (to “where the people are”), a frequently employed strategy in those years, they requested the denomination develop another congregation.
I was aware, of course, of the advice being handed down by the growing cadre of experts who were telling men and women like me how to counteract the demise of the church by replacing it with something “relevant” to this new post-modern, post-church generation. I attended occasional seminars that seemed promising and read the current books that contained the latest wisdom. But a day came when I read this sentence, written by one of the acclaimed promoters of church renewal: “The size of your parking lot will have a lot more to do with the success of your church than any text you will preach.” That sentence raised a red flag. More and more I sensed that I was being encouraged to develop public relations skills borrowed almost verbatim from the world of business. None of these “mentors” seemed to have anything but a cursory interest in theology or people. Theirs was a mindset obsessed with statistics, programs, and demographics. I found myself immersed in a depersonalized world with no relationships.
That’s when I picked up and started reading Walt Wangerin’s novel The Book of the Dun Cow and overnight recovered what I would now name a “pastoral imagination.” I say “recovered” because I had already begun to develop a sense of coherence with congregation and worship, with people and God in the place and circumstances that had been given to me, a place where I would cultivate a sense of the holy in the ordinary.
Chaucer and Wangerin entered my story and replaced the experts on relevance that had been boring me to death.
You can read the rest of Eugene Peterson’s essay in Songs from the Silent Passage, available in the Rabbit Room Bookstore.