“Eat This Book” – What Eugene Peterson Taught Us About the Bible

Eugene Peterson didn’t give us the Message per se. The Good News itself preceded him.

But Eugene did grace us with a rendering of the Bible that woke us up, causing us to take notice of the startling, disruptive power of these holy words all over again.

Eugene knew from teaching Sunday School in church that we are all susceptible to the Holy Bible doze. He was teaching Galatians and folks were stirring their coffee, nodding off. He was astounded. Galatians! Paul is so angry he’s swearing, and people are bored and mentally wandering away?

Eugene was like Anne Lamott, reminding us this gospel thing is actually like dynamite, while we come into church and sit calmly, oblivious, worried about wrinkles in our pants. “Hey, hey people! Have you actually read this? Do you get what it says?”

So, yes, The Message was a gift. The God-given words of grace, gracefully written. A presentation of the Bible to make us think again about what we thought we already knew. It helped us feel again what words with power can do. It made the case for the Bible not by arguing for it, but simply by embodying the Scriptures as a speech act—words that do more than stand around shuffling their feet on the page. These were words to accomplish things, executing God’s own actions in us and for us by promising, convicting, healing, and restoring.

Eugene Peterson gave us back the Bible, made fresh.

Living and active, fully in the present tense.

But there’s more. Eugene also wrote about the Bible and our reading of it. The point, he said, is not just to read it, but to read it for living. “What I want to say, countering the devil, is that in order to read the Scriptures adequately and accurately, it is necessary at the same time to live them.” In Eat This Book, which he subtitled A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, we find all the elements of good reading laid out plain and clear.

Realize what’s at stake, he said:

“The opening page of the Christian text for living, the Bible, tells us that the entire cosmos and every living creature in it are brought into being by words. St. John selects the term ‘Word’ to account, first and last, for what is most characteristic about Jesus, the person at the revealed and revealing center of the Christian story. Language, spoken and written, is the primary means for getting us in on what is, on what God is and is doing.” (3)

and this:

“I want to pull the Christian Scriptures back from the margins of the contemporary imagination where they have been so rudely elbowed by their glamorous competitors, and reestablish them at the center as the text for living the Christian life deeply and well. I want to confront and expose this replacement of the authoritative Bible by the authoritative self.” (17)

Receive the Bible, don’t merely use it, he said:

“C. S. Lewis, in the last book he wrote (An Experiment in Criticism), talked about two kinds of reading, the reading in which we use a book for our own purposes and the reading in which we receive the author’s purposes. The first ensures only bad reading; the second opens the possibility to good reading.” (30)

Read big, not piecemeal, he said:

“Meditation is the aspect of spiritual reading that trains us to read the Scriptures as a connected, coherent whole, not a collection of inspired bits and pieces. . . . What is surprising today is how many people treat the Bible as a collection of Sibylline Oracles, verses or phrases without context or connections. This is nothing less than astonishing. The Scriptures are the revelation of a personal, relational, incarnational God to actual communities of men and women with names in history.” (100-101)

Read it as a story, he said:

“Story is the primary verbal means of bringing God’s word to us. . . . Unfortunately, we live in an age in which story has been pushed from its biblical frontline prominence to a bench on the sidelines and then condescended to as ‘illustration’ or ‘testimony’ or ‘inspiration.’ Our contemporary unbiblical preference, both inside and outside the church, is for information over story.

“. . . Spiritual theology, using Scripture as text, does not present us with a moral code and tell us ‘Live up to this’; nor does it set out a system of doctrine and say, ‘Think like this and you will live well.’ The biblical way is to tell a story and in telling, invite: ‘Live into this—this is what it looks like to be human in this God-made and God-ruled world.’” (40-44)

Enter into the drama, he said:

“As we cultivate a participatory mind-set in relation to our Bibles, we need a complete renovation of our imaginations. We are accustomed to thinking of the biblical world as smaller than the secular world. Tell-tale phrases give us away. We talk of ‘making the Bible relevant to the world,’ as if the world is the fundamental reality and the Bible is something that is going to help it or fix it. . . . What we must never be encouraged to do, although all of us are guilty of it over and over, is to force Scripture to fit our experience. Our experience is too small; it’s like trying to put the ocean into a thimble. What we want is to fit into the world revealed by Scripture, to swim in this vast ocean.” (67-68)

Eugene Peterson gave a good portion of his life’s work to bringing the Bible to us in “American”—in distinctly American language and addressing particularly American ways of misconstruing the world. For him, pastoral work was always local, but we can be thankful that the size of his parish increased over time, benefiting us all. Eugene exerted himself greatly, deploying his love of language and the Scriptures to invite us all back into the bigger, grander, hope-filled world of the Bible.

Rest well in peace, Eugene. We’ll express our gratitude to you properly when we all rise together at the great resurrection.

“Words—spoken and listened to, written and read—are intended to do something in us, give health and wholeness, vitality and holiness, wisdom and hope. Yes, eat this book.”

The Great Commission, Discipleship, and the Bible

There has been discussion for many years about the relationship between the evangelization of the world and the return of Christ. Completing the Great Commission, it is often said, paves the way for the second coming of Jesus.

Where does the idea of this connection come from?

It has its roots in Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus, particularly the claims of King Jesus and his mission-defining mandate to his disciples. But to get to the heart of this definitive and vocation-creating call, we must take a closer look at what Matthew is actually doing and saying. (As always, the key to understanding short statements in the Bible is bigger and better reading of the context.)

The Great Commission: Jesus Is Building Something New

The ending of Matthew’s Gospel brings to a head and then resolves the narrative tension that’s been growing throughout his story. Jesus has burst onto the national scene as a rabbi and prophet, bringing a renewal movement to Israel. But Israel’s leaders want none of it—they have their own narrative about how Israel’s story is supposed to go. The heart of the confrontation has to do with authority: who is authorized to speak for God? who can see clearly where Israel’s God is taking their story?

This conflict reaches its breaking point when Jesus enters Jerusalem as a king, the blessed Son of David, to the adulation of the crowds. From this point on, every day Jesus is becoming more and more open with his challenge to Israel’s current regime:

Did you never read what the Bible says?” said Jesus to them:

“ ‘The stone the builders threw away

Is now atop the corner;

It’s from the Lord, all this, they say

And we looked on in wonder.’

“So then let me tell you this: God’s kingdom is going to be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce the goods. Anyone who falls on this stone will be smashed to pieces, and anyone it falls on will be crushed.”*

Standing in the Temple courtyards, Jesus announces that he himself is the cornerstone of God’s new building. The challenge is to see and recognize what God is doing, or face the crushing consequences. Now Jesus gets specific and direct, predicting the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple within a single generation:

Jesus left the Temple and went away. As he did so, his disciples came and pointed out the Temple buildings to him. “Yes,” he said, “and you see all these things? I’m telling you the truth: not one stone will be left standing upon another. All of them will be thrown down.”

As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his disciples came to him privately.

“Tell us,” they said, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that you are going to appear as king, and that the end of the age is upon us?”

“Watch out,” replied Jesus. “Don’t let anyone deceive you. You see, there will be several who will come along, using my name, telling you ‘I’m the Messiah!’ They will fool lots of people. You’re going to hear about wars, actual wars and rumored ones; make sure you don’t get alarmed. This has got to happen, but it doesn’t mean the end is coming yet. Nations will rise against one another, and kingdoms against each other. There will be famines and earthquakes here and there. All of this is just the start of the birth pangs.

Then they will hand you over to be tortured, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will find the going too hard, and they will betray each other and hate each other. Many false prophets will arise, and they will deceive plenty of people. And because lawlessness will be on the increase, many will find their love growing cold. But the one who lasts out to the end will be delivered. And this gospel of the kingdom must be announced to the whole world, as a witness to all the nations. Then the end will come.”

The next steps in the story are clear enough: Jesus tells his disciples there will be turmoil and trouble, both for them and for the world. Something new is struggling to be born, and there is pain in this, as in any birth.

But God’s new world is surely coming! A stone building in Jerusalem can no longer contain God’s intentions.

Jesus tells his disciples that the announcement of God’s reign is not just good news for Israel, it is the gospel of the kingdom for all people. The biblical story is making a massive turn, telling us how God is reclaiming the world—the turn that God had in mind all along. The strange and surprising victory of Jesus (he went out, alone, to die? and this was winning?) has laid the foundation for a whole new building project.

The disciples are to persevere through suffering, misunderstanding, and persecution to tell everyone that Jesus is not merely Israel’s Messiah, but the world’s true Lord and Ruler. The turning of the ages—from the present evil age to the promised new time of God’s life and light—is happening now, so the disciples have to be ready for a fresh assignment.

The ending of Matthew’s Gospel clearly confirms that the gospel announcement is precisely news to the nations about a new king:

So the eleven disciples went off to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had instructed them to go. There they saw him and worshipped him, though some hesitated.

Jesus came toward them and addressed them.

“All authority in heaven and on earth,” he said, “has been given to me! So you must go and make all the nations into disciples. Baptize them in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit. Teach them to observe everything I have commanded you. And look: I am with you, every single day, to the very end of the age.”

Making disciples is all about teaching allegiance to the new Lord of the cosmos, instructing them to do what he said. These followers of Jesus from all the nations, who live by their loyalty to King Jesus, together constitute God’s new global structure, the place he is taking up residence.

Knowing and Living the Bible Is the Doorway to Discipleship

For those involved in ministry with the Bible, the implications of all this are clear. Jesus said disciples must be taught—the peoples of the world are called to know and understand and live the story of the Bible. To follow Jesus one must know the story of which he is a part. To know that story is to be immersed in the Scriptures.

It is not enough to translate and distribute the Bible globally, as crucial as that is. Disciple-making on the model Jesus instructed requires big reading and deep engagement with God’s word. Having a Bible in my language does not automatically make me an effective follower of the Lord of the world. Having it on my shelf or my phone does not automatically transform me into a disciple. The research into Bible reading and literacy reveals that Christ’s church has to be more intentional about helping people actually read and understand the Scriptures they already own.

Reading, knowing, understanding, and living—this is what a fully formed follower of Jesus does with the Bible. Making more followers like this is what the church is called to.

Jesus said disciples are made.

Jesus said disciples are taught.

There is no gospel of the kingdom without deep Bible engagement. This is the task we all must embrace. Then the age that Jesus said is coming will indeed fully come, and God will return and make his home with us.

* All Scripture quotes are from The Kingdom New Testament, HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.

Verse of the Day “Therapy” is Shrinking the Bible

Image designed by Anthonyboyd

It turns out the modern Bible is getting smaller with use.

That is, increasingly those who use the Bible, particularly in social media, are focusing on a shrinking numbers of verses.

Dr. Pete Phillips, director of the CODEC Research Center at Durham University, reports in Premier Christianity magazine on the growing phenomena of therapeutic or “feel good” Bible verses being passed on in tweets and posts. As he says, it is “good ‘clickbait’ in our age of social media to share these Bible verses which speak of the positive, healing influence of Christian faith.”

It turns out that electronic Bible providers are employing “a data-centric model” which regularly regurgitates those verses which are already the most tweeted or shared by their user communities. The result is basically a repeating loop of verse of the day Bible balm. This means those who get their Bible online will receive plenty of “I can do all things” (Philippians 4:13) and “I know the plans I have for you” (Jeremiah 29:11), but not so much of the rest of the Bible.

Apparently no one is intentionally choosing a wide selection of verses to more adequately convey the wider range of biblical teaching. Dr. Phillips particularly laments the absence of verses on what he calls “propositional” Christianity—texts which “set out what God has done for us; how we are saved; the power of the cross.”

The prognosis is not so good, however. Phillips ends with the less-than-hopeful question: “Does this mean that we lose out on doctrinal or propositional input into our Bible reading online?” And if we do put more than therapeutic Bible verses out there, will they all merely land on “deaf ears, blind eyes and dead screens”?

The concern here is appropriate. Constantly engaging the Bible verses that make me feel good is perilously close to turning the Bible into a prophet that tells me only what I want to hear.

This is the kind of prophet the real prophets warned us about.

But is simply adding more verses—propositional ones—to the playlist really the solution?

Isn’t there a deeper problem here?

Constantly engaging the Bible verses that make me feel good is perilously close to turning the Bible into a prophet that tells me only what I want to hear.Click To Tweet

Exposure to a wider variety of Bible verses might offer me more than therapy, but the entire approach is still based on providing would-be Bible readers little more than a morsel. The bigger issue is that we can’t rely on tweets, Facebook posts, or verse of the day deliveries to our inbox to fulfill the promise of Bible engagement.

The social media channel as a communication medium has built-in limitations. The Bible itself is so much more than a collection of verses, so much richer than a sourcebook of one-liners, be they therapeutic, propositional, or whatever. The Holy Scriptures are a gathering of complete literary works, meant to be read as a whole. These books come together to tell a story that can only be taken in, understood, and lived if it is fully encompassed, apprehended at length, and deeply embraced.

Sound bites can’t do this.

A constant diet of atomized fragments is a disservice to the Scriptures that God gave us. Let us rather respect and read the Bible holistically. Let us honor the word of God by giving it the gift of our time and full attention.

We don’t need a shrinking Bible delivered to us with a diminished set of expectations. May we rather welcome back a full-sized Bible—the stories, wisdom, instructions, and visions overflowing with all that God has for us and all he wants to teach us. Words to encourage and inspire us, yes, but also to instruct and correct and welcome us wholly into this long and winding narrative that in the end leads us exactly where we need to go.

Only the complete Bible can do this.

Only the books God gave us can do the work in our lives that he intended his word to accomplish.

So read big.

Why Bible Translation and Access Aren’t Enough

How do we get from here to there?

That is, how do we move people from unfamiliarity to deep knowledge of the Scriptures? How do we mobilize them from passivity to an alive and active implementation of the biblical vision in their own lives?

For two hundred years, the modern Bible missionary movement has been addressing the critical needs of Bible translation and distribution. Millions of dollars and millions of hours of labor have been spent on the exemplary task of giving people Bibles that speak to them in their heart language.

Bible translation and distribution are important foundations for the Bible to begin its intended work in human lives. But is that all? Does putting a well-translated Bible into someone’s hands mean our work is done? The evidence would say no.

Nowhere in all of church history has anyone had easier access to so many quality Bible translations as English-speakers do in North America today. The free YouVersion Bible app installed on most of our cell phones has nearly 60 English translations. We have a wealth of Bibles and resources to help us understand the Bible in depth.

And yet.

The research tells us that people own Bibles but mostly don’t read them. When they try to read them they struggle. They feel ashamed and dumb. Therefore, more and more people are completely giving up on Bible reading. Many of those who stick with it resort to merely referencing small pieces that seem accessible. Even seminary professors lament the biblical literacy levels of incoming students – and some have confided that it’s not much better when the students graduate.

These trends have been growing for some time, causing the spirituality pollster George Gallup, Jr. to remark, “The Bible is the best-selling, least-read book in America.”

We have a superabundance of access, which has been the goal of Bible agencies for two centuries now. But the state of things, we can safely conclude, reflects a failure.

It has become clear that people need more. Not more Bibles, but focused, intentional help in actually engaging the Scriptures well. The Bible is not the kind of book you can just hand someone and assume they’ll do fine with it. It’s actually easy to go wrong when reading the Bible. It’s quite old. It’s quite complicated. It’s quite long.

The Bible is not the kind of book you can just hand someone and assume they’ll do fine with it. It’s actually easy to go wrong when reading the Bible.Click To Tweet

The miracle of transformation does not happen just because there are Bibles on our shelves.

Readers of this sacred, vital text need to know:

  • What kind of book is this?
  • What are we supposed to do with it, exactly?
  • What’s the right way to engage this kind of material?
  • How does an ancient text relate to our lives today in a very different world?

It is not immediately obvious to people how to walk down the path of Bible engagement. People really do want help going deeper and understanding their Bibles. The hard work of supporting and walking alongside these people so the Bible can be all it was meant to be in their lives has to be done.

The translation of Bibles is important. The distribution of Bibles is important. But when the story ends there, it’s not enough.

Bible engagement leading to life transformation is the goal.

The Scriptures themselves assert that they are a divine speech act. That is, they are active words—words that do things: instruct, inspire, reveal, judge, convict, heal, and save. The Scriptures promise that they contain the power to bring change to the world, to transform the creation in the direction of God’s ultimate purposes for the flourishing of life. For this promise to be fulfilled, however, the Scriptures must be received, understood, and lived on their own terms.

The Institute for Bible Reading is focused on helping people reach this one goal. We’ve already been working on it, and some amazing progress has already been made. But until all people around the globe have experienced this revolution in Bible reading and understanding, we can’t and won’t rest.

Kids and the Bible: Are We Discipling Non-Readers?

Many adults are struggling to read the Bible. We know this. At some level it’s understandable, for the Bible is a big, complicated, and very ancient book. (At another level, the Bible is where Christianity gets its story, so the faith community needs to be deeply committed to knowing it well regardless of the challenges.) So if the adults are struggling, what would we expect from the kids?

If the Bible is tough going for the grownups, it’s going to be even tougher for younger readers, right?

It’s true, the challenge is not going to go away for younger readers. But maybe it’s time to look at how we’ve been trying to introduce kids to the Bible. What, exactly, has been our goal? What’s the right expectation for kids reading, knowing, and understanding the Bible? And what would the path to solid Bible fluency look like?

Where We’ve Been

Simply from taking a look at our standard Bible curricula it would seem that what’s actually happening is that we have other goals (spiritual formation, teaching morals, building faith, etc.) that use the Bible in certain ways. Often a deep engagement with the Scriptures themselves is not the intended destination. The result is usually that within any given lesson, the Bible is encountered as either a theme verse or two, or a safely paraphrased version of a “Bible story.”

Perhaps this approach is seen as a good and necessary adaptation of the Bible for readers who are younger and not yet proficient. It makes sense, right? Well, maybe not.

The problem with giving children a verse or two is that this approach tends to stick around as readers get older. We continue to show and teach the Scriptures by referring to “Bible verses” all the way through to adulthood. The consequence is that many people persist in thinking the Bible is in fact a collection of these verses (and if they are honest, admitting that some verses are better than others).

The problem with an ongoing diet of paraphrased Bible stories is that such tellings are not actually the Bible. They are typically told with any age-inappropriate elements toned down or taken out. And of course any paraphrase represents someone’s interpretation of what the essence of a particular story is.

All of this is appropriate as far as it goes, but there’s also a danger here. Many of these safe versions of the stories are never replaced with the actual biblical texts as kids turn into young adults. This means younger readers aren’t learning the way biblical language actually sounds and actually works. And older kids are never confronting the stronger, stranger, more complex versions of these stories that the Bible actually tells.

When do we get around to teaching young adults how to handle the real Bible?

Further, these collections of paraphrased stories are often treated as stand-alone lessons, so kids don’t ever learn how they are connected and build on each other to tell the bigger biblical narrative. And rarely are different kinds of literary writings ever acknowledged. A curriculum constructed of “Bible stories” will of course have difficulty incorporating things like letters, songs, wisdom sayings, and the other literary variety of our Scriptures.

So are we discipling kids into not being Bible readers?

What would any average child take away from their long-term experience with the Bible in our current teaching approach? Have they taken the first steps toward receiving the Bible on its own terms? Or have they been taught to use the Bible in simplistic and misleading ways?

What would any average child take away from their long-term experience with the Bible in our current teaching approach?Click To Tweet

I’m reminded of a conversation we had with a prominent publisher of children’s Sunday School resources and Bible curricula. After reviewing their programs and comparing them with our perspective on Bible engagement, one of their executives, deep in thought, looked up and said, “So you’re telling me that if our programs are successful, we are actually producing generations of non-Bible readers.”

Are kids growing up learning that the Bible is a book to be read? Do kids have an inkling of the big story? Are they falling in love with Jesus—that is, with a Jesus understood in the context of the overall narrative?

Where We’re Going

Okay, here’s where we admit we don’t know all the answers, but we believe that some things need to change. As youth within the church grow up, graduate, and head out on their own in various ways, it doesn’t appear that a healthy and hearty appetite for Bible reading is going with them. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that Bible reading and comprehension numbers are so low among adults in the church. People are following the path we’ve laid out for them, and then we scramble to convert adults into Bible readers after failing to show them the way in the first place.

So what would change look like?

The Institute for Bible Reading would like to learn more about all of this, and then do what we do, which is to provide fresh thinking and new resources that change the way the world reads the Bible.

We want to do more and better research on what the childhood Bible engagement landscape looks like in greater detail. What are the most popular current resources? What’s working and what’s not? What do kids say? What do parents say? What do teachers say?

We want to have in-depth, interdisciplinary conversations with all the right people and from all the right angles, so new learnings can take place. We want to listen well in an environment where different perspectives are presented and thoughtfully discussed.

We want to chart a course for a new future for kids and the Bible. We don’t believe that a Bibleless Christianity will be a vibrant and effective Christianity. The trajectory of downward Bible engagement in the church needs to be reversed if we are to fully receive the profound gift that we have in God’s word.

We want kids to know the Bible the right way at the right age and stage. We want kids to appropriately grow into the Bible. We want kids who not only love the Bible, but learn how to read it intelligently and well, so they don’t turn away from it the first time they encounter its opponents.

Please pray for us on this new journey. We need wisdom and resources and the courage to challenge old paradigms. Because God loves both his word and his children, and he wants them to flourish together.