Eat This Book: What I think of The Message Bible
One of my primary texts for life, from here on out, is Eugene Peterson’s “Eat This Book.” I read it through quickly this summer, and intend to spend more time with it soon. In “Eat This Book,” Peterson makes an elaborate and tangible case for a hermeneutic of action. He says that HOW we read the Bible is as important THAT we read it.
Drawing from John’s apocalyptic experience in Revelation – the one in which John is told to “eat the scroll” rather than copying it word for word – Peterson strongly suggests that scripture is to be so integrated into our life that it becomes both what we are and what we do. The question to be asked (and answered) of the text with as much gusto as “What does this mean?” is “How do I live this?”
A common theme of contemporary Christian conversation is what John Eldredge refers to as “Epic.” Though it is not new (Peterson regularly quotes Karl Barth along these lines), in “Eat This Book” we hear with clarity and conviction the invitation to enter into “the world of the Bible” (Barth) – to recognize and play our part in the story that God is telling.
Whether Eugene specifically made this point or not, I recall at least the implication that an approach to scriptures that addresses them solely for purposes of systematic theology is extremely deficient. And I know that I’ve done this: it is reading every word through the filter of our doctrine, and sorting the verses into categories or theological systems that have been pre-established. This is not a bad thing to begin with, and as it is fleshed out in the relational experiences of our lives it actually plays an essential role in God being seen in the world. But divorced from living, or taken to the all-too-common extreme of discarding, ignoring, or explaining away verses that don’t fit into our systems, this approach becomes the bane of true God-blessing faith.
Instead, Peterson reminds us to engage the narrative that is the Bible – the story that God is telling, the revelation it is of Him – so as to become part of it, or better said, to recognize that we are part of it already. Story is how the human race and individuals in it throughout history have found meaning, and learned what they most remember. This is evidenced in the oral traditions of nearly every people group prior to Guttenberg’s printing press. Since then somehow (perhaps arm in arm with Enlightenment rationalism), we’ve lost the sense of wonder and bigness that we are both born with and drawn to within the context of Epic.
When we were kids in Sunday school, we heard of a shepherd boy who slain a giant with a rock and we learned that God plus one is a majority. We heard of a man with a boat full of animals and learned that God takes seriously his desire for the families of the earth to live as he made them to. Stories teach without stating plainly the truths that they convey. And as such, we come to understand these truths in a way that is much deeper than merely being able to reproduce how’s and when’s and who’s. The ability to recall simple facts can lead us to believe we know something that we don’t yet really know. We may be able to answer the question, but are we living the truth affirmed with that answer?
I remember when it first occurred to me I could read the Bible like I read a novel: start at the beginning, read until I get tired or distracted, put it down, pick it up where I left off the next day, and do it again and again until I am done (I don’t feel badly if I don’t read three chapters a day of whatever novel I’m reading). I realize this may not be a particularly new idea to most of you, but it was to me. Like an old idea made new. I had been taught somehow that scripture was supposed to be used to make points, and the best way to do that was to find the verses that proved your point and ignore the rest. So this was how I read the Bible.
Until January 1998. For whatever reason, I thought I’d try reading the Bible this other way – as a story. It wasn’t that I abandoned “daily devos” or stopped thinking about doctrine or theology or anything like that. I just added to that an effort to enjoy reading the Bible. Just enjoy it. I got engaged in the story. I imagined. I saw. I felt. I wondered. And I enjoyed it.
And as I enjoyed it, I began to realize that I was a part of this story – that this God who was doing all these things with and through all these people knew me. And I was coming to know Him. And what is scripture, if not a revelation of God and his dynamic relationship with his creatures?
I should mention that, while I started with Genesis in 1998, I just finished Jeremiah this spring, eight and a half years later (that is, within the context of this progressive reading… I’ve read more elsewhere). But what I have read this way has gotten deeper inside me than what can be absorbed by study alone.
Peterson does go to great lengths to affirm the necessity of study, however. His aim is not to discredit serious scholarship. Peterson himself is an educated student of the scriptures, and “The Message” Bible (which he describes translating/paraphrasing in “Eat This Book”) is subsequently a serious work of scholarship as much as it is a work of art. He merely seeks to enlarge the spectrum of our interaction with the text.
I’ve long understood the responsibility of an artist (and a preacher, for that matter) to “make truth new:” to expose us to what we may already know or have already heard in a way that causes us to “notice” it again, or in a way we hadn’t before. This is one of Eugene’s intentions in “The Message.” He says himself of the work, “Writing straight from the original text, I began to attempt to bring into English the rhythms and idioms of the original language. I knew that the early readers of the New Testament were captured and engaged by these writings and I wanted my congregation to be impacted in the same way. I hoped to bring the New Testament to life for two different types of people: those who hadn’t read the Bible because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become ‘old hat.'”
It is commonly acknowledged that “The Message” is not a study Bible, but a readers Bible. It is aimed in part at reintroducing those familiar with the text to the wonder and amazement of it all… the bigness… the grandness of the story of which we are a part. (Walter Wangerin’s “The Book of God” does this in similar, though more liberal, fashion).
For those of us either critical or merely curious of Eugene’s “translation” of the Bible into “The Message,” he provides context and explanation for the work and his approach in the final chapters of “Eat This Book.” Referring to two archeological discoveries of the last century, he makes the point that much of the original text was written in a language that was part and parcel of the common everyday life language of the people for whom it was originally written. He makes a strong case for the translation process including an application of the cultural idioms of the currently addressed people group.
Acknowledging that many have preferred a more “formal” language in their interpretation of scriptures, he traces this to the assumption that the original text actually included certain words intended specifically for the purpose of speaking things of God. This assumption had been made historically on account of certain words that appeared only in the scriptures, which were absent in other pieces of literature from the same time period.
The two pertinent archeological discoveries uncovered these words, however, on shopping lists and personal correspondence (letters between family members), suggesting that, while the words were not used in formal literature, they were very much a part of the common tongue – the everyday life language of the people. The conclusion of these discoveries affirmed for Peterson his efforts to convey the message of the scriptures in language and form that does for us what the original language did for its original hearers.
The sum effect of his dissertation for me was liberation. Suddenly, in at least one way, I was off the hook. If in reading the Bible I read a verse that caused tension between it and my current understanding of systematic theology, it wasn’t my primary responsibility to reconcile the two in the realm of explanation, but to live what I did understand in the realm of experience. For Peterson, the best way to come to understand what we don’t know is to live what we do. It is, in essence, how we “eat this book.”
Lastly, while it might be simple for a critic to write off “Eat This Book” as a defensive move by one striving to vindicate (and perhaps sell) his paraphrase of scripture, I sensed Peterson to be far too pastoral in his writing to be accused of such capitalistic and egocentric motives. And I mean “pastoral” in the best possible way: one who cares as deeply as we understand a good shepherd to care for his sheep. I am one sheep who feels cared for as I read “Eat This Book.”
(Consequently, I also purchased Zondervan’s NIV/Message parallel Bible with a snazzy blue leather duo-tone cover. And I like it very much.)