Review: As Kingfishers Catch Fire

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (1)

Gentle Reader,

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.

Consider,

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?

No sarcasm.

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.

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I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

 

Might Be a Story, Might Not

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

If your head has been buried under a rock – or you just don’t hang out in the theological corner of the internet – you probably aren’t aware that some stuff went down. Some “ish” hit the fan.

In an interview with Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service, the final part of a series, published on July 12, 2017, Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message, author of several books, respected pastor and teacher, appeared to take an affirming stance on LGBTQIA issues. (For those of you who don’t know, “affirming” means that one views same-sex relationships are compatible with Christian faith; “non-affirming,” logically, means the opposite. Please know that “non-affirming” does not equal “bigot”). Cue weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

Lifeway, one of the world’s largest Christian retail chains, threatened to pull his books. (They get nothing but side-eye from me for that. I mean, come on. They continue to sell all of Sarah Young’s “devotionals”). Cue weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

He then clarified and/or took back his words (depends on how you interpret this article). He also released a statement through his literary agency. Cue weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

Merritt fired back with this, what can only be described as a petty entry into the ongoing saga, especially in light of the fact that he’d already published thisCue weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

What is going on? Neither “conservative” or “progressive” social media has any idea.

Truth: I am puzzled by Peterson’s all-over-the-map remarks.

Also truth: I don’t understand what Merritt is attempting to do at this point. This seems less like reporting and more like pushing an agenda. What exactly that agenda is, I don’t know, but first there were no follow-up questions in the (what he had to have known would be an explosive) final interview piece and now there’s this…what, throwing Peterson under the bus? Challenging his retraction?

Calling Peterson a liar, without actually making the accusation?

I’ve never met Peterson. I haven’t read all of his work. I can’t tell you the ins and outs of everything he believes. I know he’s an elderly man who usually only does interviews via email, as he is more comfortable responding to questions in writing. I understand that. Merritt chose to conduct the interview by phone for reasons known only to him. Peterson chose to participate in that format for reasons known only to him.

The only clear conclusions that I believe can be made:

  1. Nobody besides Eugene Peterson knows what Eugene Peterson actually thinks about these issues.
  2. Merritt’s bias is showing.

I hope that Peterson sticks to his guns and doesn’t say anything more. He doesn’t need to. He’s not going to influence anyone to change their stance on this and I can’t imagine that he could say much that would clear the muddied waters.

I hope that Merritt takes a step back and reflects on his role in creating, or at least assisting in the creation of, this mess. I also wish that he would come out and admit that he is “affirming.” That much really is clear based on the bulk of his reporting in this area. (If I’m wrong on that, I’ll happily admit so).

On that note, I wish that we would get away from the language of “affirming” and “non-affirming.” It’s nonsensical. To affirm means “to state as a fact; assert strongly and publicly” and to “offer (someone) emotional support or encouragement.” Many of my friends who affirm the validity of alternative medicine have also affirmed me in my struggle against chronic illness, despite our often sharp disagreements. Just as this is possible, it is also possible that those who affirm that Scripture does not support same-sex marriage can also affirm LGBTQIA people, despite often sharp disagreements.

You see, you can differ with someone and still love them. You can look a person in the eye and say, “You are dead wrong about this” and still have dinner together. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. We don’t have to compromise and we don’t have to shun.

Unless we dwell exclusively in echo chambers (and sadly, some do), we know this. There are people with whom we cross paths on a regular basis that hold opinions at wild variance from our own, who live in ways that we would never dream of. Yet we love them. We enjoy their presence. They are family members, friends, work mates. We shake their hands and listen to their stories and get into arguments with them and laugh together until our sides ache.

I don’t have to tell you that everything you do, think, say and feel is “okay” in order to be your friend. That is the example of our Great Friend, Jesus Christ. He ate with people – and called them sinners. He traveled with His disciples – and called them sinners. He hung on the cross – while we were sinners.

He never minces words. Never.

And yet there is no love truer, no affection sweeter, than that found in Him.

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