I recently finished the second book in Eugene Peterson’s ‘conversation’ series. This volume is entitled Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. The first volume of the 5-volume series is Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, of which I reviewed in this article a couple of years ago.
I personally appreciate Peterson’s thoughts on so many topics, mainly because of his pastorally wise approach to both theological and life issues. Though evangelical at heart, I believe that, because he has such a pastoral manner in addressing issues, he approaches topics without an overly tight and rigid perspective.
And, so, in a book discussing a theology of Scripture, for me at least, this was an important approach to take. Many can claim what is and what is not a proper evangelical view of Scripture. But you never sense Peterson take up such a cause. Yet he truly shares a deeply profound and beautiful perspective on Scripture, and an evangelical one at that. Though he comes to us as a wise, fatherly sage, you are also aware of the deep passion he has for Scripture.
One point Peterson looks to emphasise in the book is that God’s revelation comes to us in language. The primary organ for receiving God’s revelation is not the eye (though we do read the text now). Rather, the main organ is that of the ear. Those to first receive the God-breathed revelation heard it. The call to hear God’s revelation is still true today.
Peterson goes on to share the risk God took in using spoken language as the means by which He would reveal Himself:
‘I sometimes marvel that God chose to risk his revelation in the ambiguities of language. If he had wanted to make sure that the truth was absolutely clear, without any possibility of misunderstanding, he should have revealed his truth by means of mathematics. Mathematics is the most precise, unambiguous language that we have. But then, of course, you can’t say “I love you” in algebra.’ (p93)
At times, it is easy to approach Scripture as an algebraic formulation. Such a desire arises in me at times. But the Scripture is not comparable to a car instruction manual. No doubt it is instruction, but instruction of a father to a child (the word torah, which we translate as law in English, really means instruction). And this fatherly instruction is embedded in a story rather than a how-to manual.
God took a risk, but one worth taking when a Lover looks to reveal their heart to the Beloved. I suppose we wouldn’t use math in penning a poem for our spouse.
I can probably say that this statement below was my favourite in all of the book:
‘Christians feed on Scripture. Holy Scripture nurtures the holy community as food nurtures the human body. Christians don’t simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’ name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in company with the Son.’ (p18)
So much of my young life has been spent in theologizing the text of Scripture that I actually don’t get out and about, putting the text into practise, living out the God-breathed text as a real human being amongst other human beings. I suppose that, at the end of my life, I will not have wished that I had read one more book or understood one more theological term. I will have wished I had better walked out the call of Christ, which was not firstly that I have top-notch theology, but rather to follow him and serve others.
I also appreciated Peterson taking time to share his thoughts on the practise of lectio divina. Such can be looked upon strangely from the evangelical world. We connect mainly with Roman Catholicism. Of course, some might head down off-base paths with any practise. But, in its simplest form, lectio divina is about prayerfully and contemplatively reading the Scripture text. I think most of us undertake this practise in our lives. But we simply use other terminology to describe it – devotional times, quiet time, etc.
Peterson defines the practise this way:
‘Lectio divina comprises four elements: lectio (we read the text), meditatio (we meditate the text), oratio (we pray the text), and contemplatio (we live the text).’ (p91)
I’m not sure any Christian could disagree with this particular focus as we read Scripture. Matter of fact, I am challenged to see these four aspects in my life as I engage and interact with the biblical text.
One final note to make is that Peterson takes the time to share why he created The Message version of Scripture. No doubt he has taken some great slack from many a brothers and sisters over The Message, at least from the more evangelical scholarly world.
Because I know this particular work, Eat This Book, will not rise to the top of many reading lists, I can only hope the third and final part of the book is reproduced somewhere else, maybe as an appendix to newer prints of The Message. It not only shares the story of how it came about, but it also shares why he believes something like The Message was/is needed.
God’s revelation has always come to the people in their language, in the common language of the people. This was the underlying foundation for the first English translation by William Tyndale. God has always desired all people, even the commoner, to hear and understand His revelation. So, though we celebrate its 400 year anniversary in 2011, the King James (Authorised) Version was not as easily accessible to the plowman, field worker, etc. Hence why many are glad we have some of the modern translations of today (NIV, NKJV, ESV, NLT, etc; though we also probably have a little too many nowadays in our consumer mindset).
And so, out of the context of a little Galatians Bible study at the church where he was pastoring, The Message was birthed. Finding that the few who attended the study were more interested in the coffee than the text of Galatians, Peterson began to consider a way to make the text accessible to the sheep of his local church, the normal Christian. And it worked.
But, again, if you can read these pages of the book, you will see not only the story, but the ‘theology’ behind the creative story of The Message. Beautiful!
As I said from the outset, I do appreciate Eugene Peterson. His approach is always refreshing, like a cool cup of water on a hot summer’s day. He doesn’t always dot his I’s and cross his T’s to satisfy the theological teacher like myself. But he shares deeply out of the decades of pastoral and theological wisdom that he has acquired. And such was done in this book about the Bible.
I look forward to engaging more and more with his writings in the years to come. Up next could be the third volume in this series – The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way.