Eugene Peterson made waves with the release of The Message in 2003, a paraphrase crafted from the original texts of Scripture without aid from other English translations and without the input of a committee. In his own words, Peterson began this work because,
“While I was teaching a class on Galatians, I began to realize that the adults in my class weren’t feeling the vitality and directness that I sensed as I read and studied the New Testament in its original Greek. Writing straight from the original text, I began to attempt to bring into English the rhythms and idioms of the original language. I knew that the early readers of the New Testament were captured and engaged by these writings and I wanted my congregation to be impacted in the same way. I hoped to bring the New Testament to life for two different types of people: those who hadn’t read the Bible because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become ‘old hat.'”
– from the Preface to The Message
The truth is that a large segment of the Western church is bored by Scripture. The problem that Peterson faced was not and is not unique to that particular bunch of believers. So while The Message is not my preferred translation and I disagree with some of the choices that Peterson made (though I do use it from time to time as you can see throughout this blog), I do appreciate the heart behind the work. Scripture was not written in what we see as the “high falutin'” style of early modern English. God used ordinary people who wrote in ordinary language. Poetic at times, peppered with sarcasm, often attempting to describe the indescribable, but ordinary nonetheless. There is no reason why anyone translating the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek into any other tongue shouldn’t use terms that the reader will understand.
Thus my puzzlement regarding As Kingfishers Catch Fire.
I’m not the smartest person on the planet. Nor do I have much patience flowery-ness in the written word. Though I spend more than my fair share of time contemplating abstract concepts, I do so in a linear, analytical, orderly fashion. I prefer fifty cent words to five dollar terms. My own dabblings in poetry reveal my love of straightforwardness. Go for the jugular, as they say.
Thus more puzzlement as I attempted to read this book.
I am loathe to post a review of something I did not finish, but I couldn’t get through this book. A collection of sermons grouped under seven different topic headings (“Preaching in the Company of Moses,” “…of David,” “…of Isaiah,” “…of Solomon,” “…of Peter,” “…of Paul” and “…of John of Patmos”), it’s possible that this work is not meant to be read straight through. As with any other sermon, the hearer (or, in this case, the reader) needs time to contemplate what she has learned.
I don’t know what I learned or what I was supposed to learn.
Peterson doesn’t use the five dollar words for the most part, and when he does he provides explanation. I can make some sense of individual paragraphs, but, when strung together to make a complete essay-sermon, I can’t figure out what the main point is supposed to be. This might be attributable to the nature of reading a sermon versus hearing it; I am not privy to tone, pauses, facial expressions, all of which provide the hearer with physical context clues that can aid in understanding.
Yet I wonder if these would illuminate the murky text or not.
The Holy Spirit descended on this old world of ours, and there’s a Psalm 29 powwow in Elmo every day of the year: a grace-revealing gestures, a fresh snow-fall, a friend’s forgiveness, the first migrating yellow warbler, a miracle conversion, a truth-telling poem, a pasqueflower in bloom, the good death of a parent, resurrection – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – all the endless permutations of life. The beauty of holiness. And we have ringside seats. Henry James once said that a writer is a person on whom nothing is ever lost. That sounds like a focused Christian identity to me: the men and women on whom nothing, at least nothing that has to do with life – and virtually everything else – is lost.
– p. 84
This is the closing paragraph from a sermon on Psalm 29 and Revelation 4:1-8. Go and read those passages, then come back and read this paragraph again.
Now tell me, is the beauty of holiness found in the creation around us or in the presence of the God who created?
For the life of me I don’t know how Peterson would answer that question.
And this business of focused Christian identity – what? Really, what does he mean here?
I’m asking because I really don’t know.
As I wrote above, I am not the smartest person on the planet and I’m aware that my mind works in a specific way. It could very well be that another person could pick up this book and find themselves deeply encouraged and inspired in their faith. In fact, I have seen these people praise this book all across the internet. Someone like me, who is task-oriented to a fault, will find herself throwing the book across the room, yelling, “What do you want me to learn?!”
Perhaps the fault here lies with me, the reader. Maybe I simply can’t hear what he’s trying to say. I don’t know. I hope someone pondering this review does read the book, because I would love to hear your thoughts.
I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.