Making a case for ‘The Message’

Oct 11, 2016 by

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Two months ago, I decided to do something radical: I began using Eugene Peterson’s The Message as the basis for my daily devotionals. At first I referred to this practice as “my daily dose of heresy” in a rather tongue-in-cheek way; however, this particular interpretation has not only grown on me but has become an incredible source of wisdom, insight and spiritual nourishment.

Prior to reading The Message, I often faced a certain resistance toward the text. Being a biblical scholar and fairly familiar with the ancient languages, I felt that Peterson’s work was highly lacking in scriptural accuracy. Additionally, many of my more conservative friends were highly opposed to Peterson’s attempts to modernize and “jazz up” the Scriptures.

However, the most profoundly immature response I have ever experienced toward Peterson or his writing happened at my university. I remember in my second year, Tyndale decided to host Peterson for a conference. Since it was during the student reading days, a few friends and I decided to spend the day in downtown Toronto at the Royal Ontario Museum. Around 4 p.m., after a long day of sightseeing and eating delicious food, and right before the traffic got bad, we were walking back to campus when we noticed some police cars out. By that point, the riot had died down, but we were informed to go directly to our dorm rooms and not stand around and gawk. Later that evening, we were told that some KJV-only protesters were threatening Peterson, holding picket signs suggesting he was the “antichrist” and even jumping on the cars of those coming to hear his lecture. Although I do realize that these crazy kooks are in the minority and most conservatives (although they might not agree with Peterson’s writings) would never act so juvenilely, it still set the precedent for me about how his work is interpreted by many as an unacceptable or “second rate” option to the true Scriptures. However, I’d like to make the argument that there is more than one reason to read The Message.

#1: A Scripture for when Scriptures are inaccessible

Recently, I was reading Eugene Peterson’s description of why he created The Message and what he hopes it will be to its readers. What I was initially struck by was his honesty in stating that The Message is NOT the only Bible out there, but rather it is a book of preference. Peterson essentially writes, “Some like to read the Bible in Elizabethan language. Others prefer a fresher, more vibrant option.” This is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with reading Shakespearean writing. Particularly with passages like the Psalms, the brilliant form of writing, the mechanics behind the grammatical structures, and the pastoral images the verses evoke are breathtaking and delightful. Similarly, those in older generations who grew up with the KJV often may feel a sense of familiarity or comfort from reading that which brings them back to their first memories of Scripture. On the other hand, there is a good case for saying that the KJV is outdated, irrelevant, and — as most Biblical scholars readily admit — not the most Scripturally accurate translation either.

When considering the needs of those around us — whether they may be a person with a disability, a youth, a young adult or a child; whether they may be “un-churched,” “semi-churched” or “re-churched,” it seems clear to me that we need a different approach. Trying to convince a young adult hipster who hasn’t gone to church since his christening, grew up in a nominal Christian family (if he could even call it that), and is only now trying to find his way back to the church to read a gigantic 2,000-year-old book will likely not only seem foreign, but even intimidating. Especially if he does not have someone to help guide him while reading, he may easily give up on daunting chapters and outdated language.

Even though there are so many versions of the Bible out there, there is something quite unique to Peterson’s work. Unlike other Bibles, his writing is clear and easy to read — even just in terms of the page layout. You’ll often notice that when reading Bibles, verses are disrupted right in the middle of sentences or key thoughts. Actually, the idea of Bible verses would have been quite strange to the original interpreters as the ancient languages usually were written in a rather constant style with verses added later in order to more readily find a verse. However, what I love about Peterson is that he divides his work into paragraphs. This means that reading his work is more like reading a novel or a letter from God to us. We don’t get so preoccupied with verses and chapters, but rather we can just read complete thoughts.

Another cool thing about Peterson’s writing is that he is a fairly dynamic and dramatic writer. Reading his work still gives the inescapable flare of infallible Scripture, but it is done in a fun, light-hearted way. Peterson also shows quite a high level of cultural sensitivity in his work without neglecting the core doctrines that Scripture provides. One great example of this is when he writes about the role of women in the church. Whereas, many other versions give the wrongful impression that women should have no leadership at all (which deviates significantly from the ancient languages), Peterson writes in a more open-minded way that presents the reader with the opportunity to form his or her own opinion while still looking at the socio-historical context. Thus he softens the blow and encourages ownership from his readers while still continuing key themes in the Biblical narrative.

#2: A Scripture for the weary overly-theological soul

Those of you who are frequent viewers of this blog or who know me personally know my story of how I gave up reading the Bible for seven years (ironically, the length of time I was in Bible college and seminary). After graduating from seminary, I finally decided to try reading the Bible again, but I often felt unmotivated and resentful. It’s not a matter of disbelief. I still believed in God in the same way and interestingly I discovered my prayer life and my desire to be an active, evangelical Christian was increasing even while my desire to read Scripture decreased. This may make me sound like an irresponsible Christian, but most of my problem lay in my inability to distance myself from my academic pursuit and to put on a more spiritual formation type of hat. I once went on a retreat where my spiritual director encouraged me to find other ways to tap into that more mystical side. I tried all of them. I tried listening to the Bible by audio, but I just got distracted. I tried a variety of spiritual disciplines, but I still reverted back to Greek and Hebrew. Eventually, I just gave up and put the Bible back on the shelf.

Fast-forward to two months ago. Since I started reading The Message, my devotional life has greatly increased and even become a joy (instead of a burden) to me. Reading Peterson’s work is like reading the Bible again for the very first time. It’s given me a whole new spin — a completely different way to read all-too-familiar passages. I have once again discovered the joy that new believers often face when they encounter the Bible for what it truly is. I no longer dread my devotional times or simply see them as another box to check off on my to-do list, but rather I look forward to how I will be fed and nourished and in turn be able to nourish others.

Recently, I started spiritual direction with a good friend from Tyndale who is working on her M. Div. In our last session, I remarked that while I feel The Message is finally getting me back to a more regular rhythm of Scripture, I still am unsure about it because lots of my friends tell me it isn’t a true translation. She wisely responded, “Well, you have the skills. You have the education, you know what a good translation is and what it’s not. Just remember: you’re doing your devotions for yourself not for anyone else. If others disagree with your chosen method, that’s their business, but God knows your heart. If it’s working for you, keep at it.”

If you’re longing for a Bible that doesn’t just engage your intellect, but also your heart — the seat of your emotions — and that refuels the passion you once had but that has since gone stagnant, try reading The Message. Open your heart up to the possibility that it can change your life, then see what happens.

#3: A Scripture for the sin-sick yet biblically-bored Christian

Perhaps you are not a Bible scholar and you don’t struggle with English or with reading, but you just feel bored and complacent. The Message is perhaps the first Bible I have come across where reading Leviticus was mildly interesting (it was still rather bland, but much better than in several other translations I’ve read). Peterson’s work often has a bit of a “punch” to it, and I love it not only because it’s poetic, but also because it’s practical and prophetic. There is usually a message of what to DO in each passage. When other Bibles bog you down with mere theology, this version has a bit of a “pop” and “pizazz.”

If you’re a worship leader or a preacher, consider reading a passage or two during a morning worship service and see if it adds something to the congregation. You may encounter some resistance, but more often than not I have found that what I was so hesitant to do at first has actually enhanced the overall feeling, ambience or mood of those gathered. Sometimes it even acts as a way to making church more accessible, welcoming or engaging for visitors. Just think how you would feel if you’ve never set foot in a church before and the pastor was reading from a Bible you could actually understand and get something from in modern 21st-century English, rather than in something that sounded strangely like garbled up Latin.

#4: A Scriptural supplement for the actual Scriptures

Although I have found The Message to be a great addition to any theological bookshelf, it’s really only that: an addition. Peterson himself did not intend for The Message to be the only Bible you ever read — he meant it as a supplement.

When I studied preaching in university, we were taught to read at least four versions of Scripture in order to break open the text and see what the Spirit was saying to us. Among these four we often included the KJV (since it’s the most readily accepted, especially by elderly folk), a more common version that everyone is familiar with such as NIV or NASB, the Greek/Hebrew text (if you know the languages), and finally The Message (or a similar translation like the VOICE). The reason we were told to read The Message is because it gives us a completely different feel. On the other hand, we would never be told just to break open The Message as a stand-alone option.

Peterson himself claims that The Message is NOT a study Bible; it’s a devotional Bible. He doesn’t try to hide his intentions or make it out to be something it’s not. Peterson actually is a brilliant language scholar himself — well versed in Biblical languages, and his work reflects that careful analysis and painstaking labour of parsing verbs. However, if you want to do an in-depth theological project or write a doctoral dissertation, The Message is not exactly what you’re after. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a way to re-ignite your spirit, this might just be a great tool for you.

The Message is indeed a flawed translation written by a flawed man, but then again, if we were to be honest with ourselves, any translation is simply that — a translation. If you speak more than one language fluently, you know that it is nearly impossible to give an absolutely direct translation. When words are transferred between languages, cultural idioms, figures of speech, mannerisms and understandings we take for granted are almost certain to be lost (especially when the text is written). Therefore, I’d urge you — please don’t dismiss The Message right away without even giving it a chance. You may disagree with it after you’ve read it, and that’s fair. But for now remember, God is using this Bible in many incredible ways, especially to reach out to many people who would never have considered reading or owning a Bible before. Be proud of the way God is moving and consider how you, too, can be part of this incredible kingdom work.

Deborah-Ruth Ferber studied religious education at Tyndale University College in Toronto, and peace studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. This post first appeared at Zwiebach and Peace, her personal blog.


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