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In Memoriam: Eugene Peterson

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Rachel Toombs, YTI Professor of Theology and Old Testament

November 9, 2018

This October, Eugene Peterson passed away. Best known for his The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Eugene Peterson was a pastor, writer, poet, professor, and friend to many people. A number of thoughtful pieces have been written commemorating Eugene’s impact on people’s pastorates, personal lives, research, and faith. Today, I want to focus in on the indirect way Eugene impacted my life through the study of Scripture.

The Message and Me

The complete The Message was published in 2002, a year before I began my undergraduate studies in biblical studies. This timing is significant because The Message reintroduced the perennial question of how we are to translate, read, and study Scripture. I was convinced in those years that to study Scripture was to be concerned with “the world behind the text.” That is, the historical world that makes up the context of the events unfolding in Scripture. During this time, I fell in love with how archaeological discoveries and understandings of ancient Near East history fill out the stories we find in the older Testament. My posture towards The Message was antagonistic; its concern with keeping the translation fresh and approachable stood in the way—at least in my eyes—of getting at what the text meant to say in its original context. To contemporize language, I contended, was to remove us even further from the ancient world we were meant to inhabit.

Years later, I found myself in Canada beginning a master’s degree in Old Testament. I did not realize until I got there that Eugene Peterson was an emeritus faculty member and had actually completed a significant portion of The Message while on faculty. I also learned that Eugene Peterson was much more rigorous in his translation work than I had given him credit for. He knew his languages, gathered a team of scholars to aid in his translation work, and was himself a poet. Seemingly unrelated, I was also introduced in my graduate studies to Scriptures as more than an ancient text to be studied to reconstruct an ancient context. I discovered that reading Scripture alongside a diverse and vibrant community of readers who from generation to generation receive the text as their own enriched my own understanding of the text. I learned from past readers of Scripture that the stories of the Old Testament invite readers into the stories in a way more profound and involved than my own historical-critical approach. I learned to read Scripture as both theology and literature. I then returned to The Message with new eyes.

The Message and Readers

These new eyes helped me to see the beauty of Eugene Peterson’s translation and the way that beauty and accessibility make readers ready to hear the sacred Word. The other week, I was attending a women’s ecumenical bible study in Bozeman and we were studying Psalm 18. As we read the Psalm, with each woman reading a verse from her translation, I noticed that when The Message was read the entire room seemed to lift. In this Psalm, David cries out for God to rescue him from his enemies. Traditionally, this song is tied to David’s flight from Saul in 1 Samuel and then read in celebration of David’s kingship in 2 Samuel. David sings of the moment when God rescues:

But me he caught—reached all the way
from sky to sea; he pulled me out
Of that ocean of hate, that enemy chaos,
the void in which I was drowning.
They hit me when I was down,
but God stuck by me.
He stood me up on a wide-open field;
I stood there saved—surprised to be loved!

God made my life complete
when I placed all the pieces before him.
When I got my act together,
he gave me a fresh start.
Now I’m alert to God’s ways;
I don’t take God for granted.
Every day I review the ways he works;
I try not to miss a trick.
I feel put back together,
and I’m watching my step.
God rewrote the text of my life
when I opened the book of my heart to his eyes.
(Psalm 18:16–24, The Message)

Read that again. The Message offers us fresh eyes to read of God’s saving acts in Scripture. Eugene Peterson offered us a gift, not of a perfect translation or the only translation we will ever need, but a means of attending anew to Scripture and making what can seem old and antiquated accessible to a new generation of readers. For that, I will be ever grateful.