Why I Read “The Message”

Earlier today, I finished Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson titled A Burning in My Bones. I remember Peterson’s first book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction published back in the early 1980s. That almost seems another time, another place and in many ways that captures just how out of place Eugene Peterson was in our world of megachurches, celebrity CEO pastors, and congregations modeled on the latest management theories.

Complexity shadowed Eugene Peterson through his 84 years on earth. An average student who became a brilliant linguist in terms of the biblical languages. An introvert who valued silence and solitude whose pastoral ministry focused on engaging people and being their spiritual friend and guide. Someone who grew up in Pentecostalism and found his way into the Presbyterian ministry. One who travelled in broadly Reformed circles who wasn’t much of a Calvinist. A human being who sought seclusion but much to his surprise wound up hanging out with Bono and U2.

Translations and Paraphrases

Eugene Peterson is best known for is his paraphrase of the Bible simply called The Message. My leather bound copy of the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs sits at my kitchen table marked with my underlines and marginal notes. For my devotions, I like to read the biblical text in different translations. One year I will use the NASB; the next the RSV; the next the NIV; and so on. That gives me opportunity to read different translations and discover how they present in English texts that were written originally in koine Greek and Hebrew. I also like to use specialty translations and paraphrases like The Kingdom New Testament done by N.T. Wright or The First Testament translated by the Old Testament scholar John Goldingay. My goal is simple. I want to read the text in a way that allows God to speak to me from its pages.

Along with my selected translation which for 2020-21 is the NIV (its most recent edition was published in 2011 and that edition fixes many of its earlier problems), I read the same passage in The Message. Beyond that I use The Message for longer blocks of Scripture reading. For example, when I start with a biblical book like Mark’s gospel, Paul’s letter to the Romans, or the Old Testament wisdom book of Ecclesiastes, I like to read it through in one setting to sense the larger context and discover what the author seems to be up to. And I use The Message to help me catch that larger context. (I don’t use it for preaching and teaching unless it is for illustrating the point of the NIV text I use for those activities.)

More Than Mere Words

Reading Winn Collier’s biography gave me an even deeper appreciation for what Peterson was up to in paraphrasing Scripture. His academic training in the biblical languages helped him grasp how those languages worked. Translation or paraphrase is not merely of converting a word or phrase from Hebrew or Greek to one in English. Languages are far more than mere words; they frame how people think and communicate in the era and the context in which they live. Moreover, all translation is interpretation and the point of translation is capturing the essence of what the biblical writer communicated in his cultural context and expressing that in ways that are sensible to English readers today.

Winn Collier captures Eugene Peterson’s sense of this work. “Languages are not mathematical equations; they are complex and expansive modes of thinking and communicating” (218). But there is more, because translating (or paraphrasing) involves communicating the written word of God. “Eugene believed translation is a kind of ‘lectio divina–more than only getting the words right, there is spirit, the vibrancy of the text, the livingness of the message.’ The Bible was not a dead book. It was vibrantly alive” (218). What Peterson was trying to do was paraphrase the biblical text into idioms common to the folks who worshipped at the congregation he served in the Baltimore suburbs and even more to working-class folks like his father, a butcher, and the people he grew up around in Kalispell, Montana.

Slow, Hard Work

It was slow, hard work. “This is going slower than I expected–and sometimes I think I’m doing excellent work, but sometimes it is pretty pedestrian….The translation continues to reinforce my feelings of inadequacy–and pushes me to prayer–trust–egoless work” (220-21). In addition, Peterson invited evangelical biblical scholars to read and critique his work and often adjusted the words and idioms based on their feedback. The Old Testament took ten long years. But the product offers a fresh window into Holy Scripture. Let me illustrate. Perhaps my favorite passage in the New Testament is Romans 12:1-2. Peterson’s paraphrase captures Paul’s intent and communicates it in idioms that we can grasp:

“So here is what I want you to do. God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life–your sleeping eating, going-to-work, and walking-around-life–and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you” (Romans 12:1-2, The Message).

That’s what a good paraphrase does. It captures the biblical writer’s intent in ways that he might say it if we were his original audience. The Greek that the New Testament writers used was not the classical Greek of the philosophers; it was the “street Greek” used by common folks in their daily lives. That was Peterson’s goal, to paraphrase the biblical text into the “street English” of our day, and do that while capturing the essence of what the biblical writers communicated in their day.

Did he get all of it right? Does any English translation or paraphrase? I know just enough Greek to be dangerous, but one thing I do when reading is when I read something that seems to be a mistranslation, I pull out my trusty purple pen and make a note by the text. That is not to judge the hard work of so many who have given us good translations like the NIV, RSV, ESV, NASB, and others, nor does it besmirch the work of Peterson, J.B. Philips, Eugene Nida, and others who have offered paraphrases that hopefully capture the essence of the biblical texts.

I love reading The Message, and if you are looking for a good paraphrase that captures well the overall contexts of Holy Scripture, I recommend it to you. Eugene Peterson died in October 2018, but God has used him to our generations a marvelous gift. My guess is that long after I am gone, someone else will craft a paraphrase that captures the “street-English” of the mid- to late-21st century.

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Winn Collier’s new biography of Eugene Peterson was released in March 2021 and titled A Burning in My Bones. It’s published by Waterbrook Press. Collier was given access to Eugene Peterson’s personal papers and his private journals, and spent significant time near Kalispell, MT interviewing and conversing with Eugene Peterson before Peterson’s death in October 2018.

Author: Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer recently retired after 24 years as Librarian and faculty member at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He loves good books, especially the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, and C.S. Lewis. He also enjoys film, especially movies that cause him to reflect theologically and culturally on important themes and questions.