We do learn that while he grew up in a Christian family and from early on took his faith and scriptures very seriously, he never took pastors very seriously — and never contemplated taking up this calling. Perhaps that’s because most of the pastors he encountered in the Assemblies of God church of his youth came and went from his church in the small Montana town of his youth, or it might be because his father didn’t hold them in high regard. There was one preacher who did catch his ear, and that was his mother who sang, told bible stories, and preached to the men of the nearby logging and mining camps, at least until she was silenced because of her gender.
Although not having any good role models or encouragement, he finds in his parents the kinds of resources that he would later draw upon, including a biblical imagination. Indeed, he credits his work in his father’s butcher’s shop for giving him a sense of the way religious life transpires. He was also formed by his education, much of which, at least early on, came from time spent at the local Carnegie Library, where he encountered writers from Kant to Dickenson. He would go on to university and study literature and philosophy, and later, still not sensing the call to the pastorate, he went to seminary in New York, and while in seminary he became a Presbyterian. What really drove Peterson was his love of learning, but the only school that rivaled the Carnegie library was John Hopkins University, where he studied Semitics under William Foxwell Albright.
His sense of calling changed after meeting his future wife, Jan. At the time they met, Peterson was studying Semitics intent on an academic career, but Jan harbored a sense of calling to be a “pastor’s wife” (remember this is the 1950s, before the opportunity for ordination was open to women in much of Protestantism), and it was her sense of calling that led him to reconsider his own calling. After serving for a time as an associate minister, he answered a call to be the founding pastor of a new congregation in Bel Aire, Maryland. Being that this was the late 1950s, it grew rather quickly even though it met for two years in the basement of his house. He would serve this congregation until moving on to Regent College.
The bulk of the book tells the story of the experiences, both positive and negative, that he had as pastor of this congregation. We hear about the successes of the building project and the “Badlands" — an analogy taken from the Dakota Badlands he visited each year in his travels back to Montana from Maryland -- that emerged post-building-project. He tells about encounters with parishioners and fellow clergy, including the ecumenical colleague group he met with for much of his ministry. We also learn about the struggles he had in trying to free his own congregation from grasp of American culture. He also tells how he integrated his writing into his broader ministry – something that is of great interest to me. I found it interesting that one of the clues for him that it was time to move on from the pastorate was discovering that he hadn’t written anything for a considerable period of time.