Review: Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson

by Apr 22, 2021Books, Exegesis, Piety

Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading by Eugene H. Peterson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve said before that I’m an emotional reader. My five stars for this book represent my rapture at great prose and, more importantly, my fervent amens in the final portion of the book.

I realize now—how could I have missed this?—that I never actually did get around to reading a Eugene Peterson book (aside from select portions of The Message, which kind of does and kind of doesn’t count) until a friend recently urged me to read this one. Said I’d love it. I sent him a message telling him I’d gotten to the portion that, I’m sure, made him think of me. And it was indeed that last portion, a portion focused on Bible translation.

If you’ve always assumed, like I half-consciously did when The Message came out, that it was a watered down Bible pandering to the same market that buys the kitsch on Christian bookstore shelves, you need to read Peterson’s eloquent and intellectual defense for his work. You will see that he taught the original languages in a seminary before entering the pastorate, that he spent 30 years in the pastorate before sitting down to 10 years of producing The Message, and that he had learned academic reasons for choosing the tack he chose. He appealed in particular to the “Light from the Ancient East” that Deissmann and others helped bring us so long ago. It really is true, and so important, that we see clearly the language God chose for the New Testament. It’s not as simple as saying, “It was the language of the common man.” As Peterson carefully acknowledges, the language of the NT moves up and down the social registers of the time. But the key words there are “of the time.” The NT was revealed using the language of a particular time, language actual people actually used. When Grenfell and Hunt discovered a trove of Koine Greek papyri at Oxyrhynchus, this was what came out. As Peterson shows with some patient detail, there were many words that were hitherto thought to have appeared only in the New Testament but which proved to be part of common coin.

If you know my work, you know that I cannot help but hear everything I say about the Bible through the ears of our KJV-Only brothers. And in the case of this topic, I hear it also through the ears of my own conservative evangelical tribe. Both groups—rightly!—wish to show honor and reverence to the words of God. Both groups instinctively rely on tradition to help them do so. The KJV-Only appeal to the KJV tradition; my tribe tends to appeal to the tradition of formal/literal translation philosophy. I see great good in both traditions. But I think both groups have worked so hard to protect the Bible from desacralization that we have thereby, at times, hyper-sacralized it. What if, instead, we did what we all say we’re doing? What if we let the Bible itself dictate the social register of our translations?

At the very least, we’d all have to entertain the possibility that Peterson saw something we didn’t, something that was really there, when he made The Message. He himself says in this book that The Message was only meant to be a “supplement” to the study translations. But I see Peterson’s paraphrase with a new seriousness, as a supplement that showed us an element that was missing in many of our main translations—an element that was present in Tyndale, an attempt to really and truly make the biblical writers speak English and not Biblish.

Don’t hear me saying here more than I am. I don’t think the ESV, for example, which my church uses, is so deep into hyper-sacralization that we ought to stop using it. I simply think that’s the ditch it is nearest, and that people who use the ESV in church, as I do, would do well to go to the other side of the Bible translation road on a regular basis and read the NLT—and even The Message. English speakers have an embarrassment of riches to read.

Peterson has many other valuable things to say about Bible reading. If, as some reviewers have pointed out, he is a little fuzzy on some important particulars of doctrine (and I tend to think they’re probably right), this is a book in which that doesn’t matter so much. If people heed the call he’s given to good Bible reading, I’m Protestant enough to believe that much good will come. Peterson did what my friend said he would do: he helped rekindle my desire to Eat this Book.

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