Q&A: Eugene Petersen
Eugene Peterson (EP) has written more than 30 books on spiritual themes. He was a pastor for 29 years and recently retired from being professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, so he could write full-time. He is perhaps best known for writing The Message, a translation of the Bible into modern English, which took him 10 years to complete. Books such as A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Reversed Thunder, and his series on pastoral vocation make him one of the most widely read authors in Christian publishing. He recently talked with Dean Nelson (DN) for Holiness Today.
DN: You have said that we like to talk about spirituality, but nobody likes to live it. Why is that?
EP: Living the spiritual life is living in a relationship with God, whom you don't understand. Some things are revealed that we understand, but mostly it's mystery. That's why we need poets and writers and artists and musicians and preachers-they help us see what's not there. Living the spiritual life is hard work. I wish the Christian community would honor and commission the poets, musicians, writers, filmmakers, artists, journalists, and other masters of imagination as much as it does pastors and missionaries.
DN: Modern culture doesn't seem to embrace mystery, though.
EP: We hate mystery. We're enamored with knowledge. We have incredible educational institutions, all offering a certain kind of knowledge that has to do with information and function. If there is a problem, our first response is to find out what's wrong and find the technology to fix it. If we can't, we've failed. But most of life is mystery. A person in my congregation said to me, "I want to leave each church service knowing exactly what to do." So about every six weeks I would give a sermon and say, "Now do this." He'd always say, "Thank you, pastor. Now I know what I'm to do." But I realized I wasn't doing him any favors, so I quit.
DN: You read a lot of fiction, and you think seminary should be rooted in the study of literature. Why is that so important for pastors?
EP: We are a storytelling people. Our lives are stories. And stories invite us into a world larger than ourselves. If we just live within ourselves, determined by our own needs, desires, and wants, our world becomes small, without much action. Good stories-good fiction in particular-provide us with good patterns. Every time someone tells a story well, the gospel is served. Stories invite us to participate, to identify with the characters, to get caught up in their emotion. The Bible is essentially a big narrative that invites us to participate in its ongoing story.
DN: When you started translating the Bible, you didn't really think you were going to translate the whole Bible, did you?
EP: It started out as a Bible study with a group in my church. We were reading Galatians, and no one was really into it. So I went home and tried to say it the way I thought Paul would say the same thing to my congregation, using present day language, and they became very interested.
DN: Don't you risk losing some of the meaning when you translate into modern language?
EP: Jesus used the language of the street in His day. I tried to do the same for our day.
DN: Some people criticize The Message, saying it isn't a literal translation.
EP: There is no "true" translation of the Bible, because one language doesn't translate literally to the next. Hebrew and Greek don't translate literally into modern languages. German doesn't translate literally into English. Every language is different. The worst translations are those that try to be literal. You end up with misinformation and misunderstanding. The Bible is like a gemstone, and every language turns the stone a little and shows a different hue. That doesn't mean the stone itself changes. The Scriptures have to be understood in our present situation if they are to be lived.
DN: Didn't Martin Luther say, "Literalists are lemmings?"
EP: He did. We're translating all the time. Preachers translate Scripture every time they preach. Reading is a type of translating. I have come to believe that people who call for "literal" translations prefer unthinking to thinking.
DN: So how do we make the Bible, or any other aspect of the spiritual life, understandable without distorting it or oversimplifying it?
EP: It is not the pastor's job to simplify the spiritual life. Our job is to make it accurate. Simplification is almost always dilution or reduction. The pastor's job is to keep the perceptions clean. I am not a popularizer. I'm not trying to make it easy. This is hard stuff because it deals with the core of sin and salvation. I don't appreciate writers who try to make the spiritual life easier than it is.
DN: In fact, you don't even like having your books in the Christian inspiration section of the bookstore, do you?
EP: Religious writing is often thin and soupy. Much of it is badly written. I would rather be over with the cookbooks, because people who buy cookbooks really want to cook. People often buy religious books as a substitute for serving God.
Dean Nelson directs the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. His most recent book is The Power of Serving Others, written with Gary Morsch of Heart To Heart International.
Holiness Today, November/December 2007
Please note: This article was originally published in 2007. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.