Eugene Peterson and the poetic imagination

American-born pastor, professor, author, and poet Eugene H. Peterson passed away on October 22 at age eighty-five. He’s best known for his idiomatic translation of the Bible, The Message, which has sold twenty million copies worldwide since its publication in 2002. He developed this translation over his nearly three decades as a Presbyterian pastor in Bel Air, Maryland, as a way to reinvigorate his congregation’s engagement with scripture. Its most quoted verse is John 1:14, describing the incarnation: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

Eugene Peterson

The church culture I grew up in regarded The Message with disdain, as they thought it plays fast and loose with the words of scripture and lacks all reverence. Nurtured on a KJV-only diet, I felt rebellious purchasing an NIV Study Bible in middle school, and though I had overcome a lot of this kind of unhealthy narrowness by the time I had finished college, adding a used copy of The Message to my checkout basket at the Montague Bookmill a few years later still felt a little awkward. But I was finally ready to imbibe this translation (or as some would say, paraphrase) of which I had heard so much but read so little.

What I found was that Peterson’s scripture translation, while no doubt sounding very different than the translations arrived at by committee, is full of reverence—and joy, and play, and wonder. It takes the familiar words of the Bible and re-presents them in a new way so as to really bring out their tone and meaning. Take, for example, Psalm 96:4–7. The King James Version reads,

For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!

The Message has

For God is great, and worth a thousand Hallelujahs.
His terrible beauty makes the gods look cheap;
Pagan gods are mere tatters and rags.
God made the heavens—
Royal splendor radiates from him,
A powerful beauty sets him apart.
Bravo, God, Bravo!
Everyone join in the great shout: Encore!
In awe before the beauty, in awe before the might.

Now, I love the poetry of the King James Version. But I also love Peterson’s renderings. They enliven the texts. That’s not to say God’s word isn’t already living and active, but that sometimes it can grow stale in the ears of those who have been reading it for a lifetime. The jubilance of Psalm 96 in The Message is amplified by the use of contemporary expressions—Bravo! Encore!—to denote enjoyment and praise. As I read this, I am enticed to “join in the great shout.”

While I wouldn’t advise using The Message as your sole or even primary Bible (which Peterson himself agrees with in the preface), I do uplift it as a wise, fun, and spiritually nourishing supplement. You’ll see that I occasionally feature Peterson’s verse translations in Artful Devotions because they communicate God’s truth with such color and force (see, e.g., Ps. 19, Ps. 51, Rom. 8:6, 2 Cor. 4: 1–6Eph. 2:1–10). His motivation all along was to expose a new generation to the beauty of the gospel. “Getting the words of the Bible into [people’s] heads and hearts, getting the message lived,” is what he characterized as the primary work of his life (preface, The Message).

When I think of Eugene Peterson, I think imagination. He exemplified that Christian duty not only in his Bible translation but in his various professional ministries: as pastor, professor, and author. In each role, he sought to awaken Christians to the goodness of imagination. Listen to him speak on the topic with On Being’s Krista Tippett, in a podcast episode recorded in 2016.

My pursuit of the arts has been indirectly influenced by Peterson, because he was a critical influence on and mentor to W. David O. Taylor, one of the three people in the field whom I look up to most. An assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, Taylor wrote a beautiful personal tribute to Peterson the other week. “It’s one thing to be given permission to do a thing,” Taylor writes. “It’s quite another to be encouraged, and supported, and patronized, and inspired, and resourced to do a thing. Eugene’s one of those key people in my life who encouraged me to pursue the arts.”

Peterson was Taylor’s professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver. “He used the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the literature of George Eliot, Karl Barth’s theology and Frederick Buechner’s novels, Greek mythology and stories from his Pentecostal childhood as a way to help his students understand who God was and what God was on about it in this expansive vision of Holy Scripture,” Taylor says. “All of it felt immensely exhilarating to me; it still does.” I’ve come to Peterson’s other writings mainly through Taylor, who cites them with deep respect.

Peterson was an especial lover of poetry. He discussed the topic on film with former Poetry editor Christian Wiman and with U2 star Bono (in an interview by Taylor on the Psalms, above), and he has written about it in numerous books of spiritual theology. He’s even written a volume of original poetry called Holy Luck, from which I featured the poem “Aaron’s Beard” last year, and has contributed to some of Luci Shaw’s poetry anthologies, like A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation (see “Tempted”). Here is some of what Peterson had to say about poetry:

  • Poets are caretakers of language, shepherds of words, protecting them from desecration, exploitation, misuse. Words not only mean something, they are something, each with a sound and rhythm all its own. Poets are not primarily trying to tell us or get us to do something. . . . I do not have more information after reading a poem; I have more experience.” (Holy Luck, xiv)
  • People who pray need to learn poetry, even if they’re not adept at it.” (source)
  • “Poets tell us what our eyes, blurred with too much gawking, and our ears, dulled with too much chatter, miss around and within us. Poets use words to drag us into the depth of reality itself. Poetry grabs us by the jugular. Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal.” (Answering God, 11)
  • “We cannot speed-read a poem. A poem requires rereading. Unlike prose which fills the page with print, poems leave a lot of white space. . . . There is a lot to see, to feel, to sense. We sit before the poem like we sit before a flower and attend to form, relationship, color. We let it begin to work on us. When we are reading prose we are often in control, but in a poem we feel like we are out of control. . . . In prose we are after something, getting information, acquiring knowledge. . . . But in poetry we take a different stance. We are prepared to be puzzled, to go back, to wait, to ponder, to listen. This attending, this waiting, this reverential posture, is at the core of the life of faith, the life of prayer, the life of worship, the life of witness. . . . Read it again, read it again, read it again.” (Subversive Spirituality, 180)
  • “It takes a while to get the poets. . . . It takes a while to get the gospel. . . . We have to quit getting in a hurry. . . . I think the besetting sin of Americans is impatience.” (source)

Though I never met Eugene Peterson, I am so grateful for his witness, and for the many ways he has blessed the church over the years. His words, be they on the screen or on the page, have tutored, and continue to tutor, my imagination and, yes, deepen my love for Jesus and his gospel.

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