Conversation with Eugene Peterson
How The Message Helped Me Make My Way Back To the Bible
I have struggled reading and understanding the Bible for most of my life, feeling like its words were written for a different audience than myself. Sure, some passages would jump out and have greater impact. But overall, it was mostly just laborious. Until I found The Message. It’s not an “official” translation, but it brought the Bible to life for me, filling familiar verses with new passion and vibrant personality, written in a very conversational tone.
25 years ago I had the privilege of speaking with pastor and author Eugene Peterson for an article in Christian Retailing magazine. (He died in October of 2018.) I find great joy reading The Message, as well as many of his other books like A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, and his powerful autobiography, The Pastor: A Memoir.
When we spoke, Peterson told me that he wasn’t reading much new writings, but was going back and re-reading some of his favorites. Saying, “I’m not looking so much for new sensations or new ideas, but just going over familiar territory to make sure I’ve got it right.”
So I couldn’t help but ask, What does that mean to you...to get it right? He said, “A sense of reality...a sense of what our fallen humanity is like, [about this] world that grace works in...so I’m not confined to just my own feelings and experience and sensations.”
Why did you develop The Message? “I conceived it basically as an evangelistic tool. I was fortunate in having a congregation that had a lot of new Christians, people—who have never heard the Bible. So I got used to trying to teach it in such a way that they’d hear it in their language. What surprises me is that so many Christians respond to it. That’s been the surprise...and I’m pleased. I didn’t expect that.”
What do you see is the common theme of the Bible?
“I think the overwhelming emphasis of the Bible has to do with what God is doing and the revelation of the way God works, who He is, His salvation. And that really is it.”
“But the wisdom literature is a much smaller, proportionately, area that really pays attention to how we respond. There’s something pithy and sharp and honest and realistic about all of this. It’s such a contrast to the world around us where 95-99% of everything we read is about us. Here we find a much more confined area in the Bible, but maybe even more sharply realized because they just can’t go on and on about it. Or they don’t. So the aphorism and the short poem, or the oracle, become the way they do it.”
Do you view The Message as something to be studied? “In the evangelical church especially, maybe in the whole church, we’ve become so book oriented, or study oriented, that the Bible has become something to study. But when it was first written, it wasn’t written to study, it was written to read, and to hear the message and start doing something with it. Study is important and it’s part of the Christian life, but it’s not the first thing. The first thing is listening. And then responding. What I see happening, though really not my intention, is that people are discovering this first level response to the Bible through The Message, that they hear it as you say, without the ambiguities. They get the message without a commentary. I would really hate it if someone took The Message and then threw away their study bibles. I think this is primary, this is how we begin. And so when the church starts to get sluggish or lethargic or bored or complacent, there’s a place for something like The Message to call us back to some kind of fresh response to what we’re doing. That’s what I hope is happening. I think it is [based on] the kind of letters I get.”