Review of Eugene H. Peterson, Eat this Book: A Conversation in the art of Spiritual Reading (Eerdmans, 2006).
Best known as the translator of the Bible into The Message translation, Eugene Peterson is a pastor and spiritual guide. This is a simply marvellous book that introduces what it means for Christians to read the Bible. It is broad in its outlook, focussed in its application and generous in its spirit. I thoroughly recommend it.
Peterson begins from the observation that “in order to read the Scriptures adequately and accurately, it is necessary at the same time to live them” (p. xii). Thus he takes his theme from Revelation 10.9-10, when the Seer is given a scroll to eat. Peterson, with an imaginative move that characterises his approach, links this to Isaiah’s vision of a lion growling over his prey (Isaiah 31.4). He notes that the Hebrew verb translated as ‘growls’ in Isaiah is more usually translated as ‘meditates’ (e.g. in Psalms 1.2; 63.6). This visceral, edible approach to the Scriptures is Peterson’s emphasis. The Scriptures are to be eaten, and eaten with relish, growling as they go down!
Scripture is a revelation and it is personal. It is the Triune God that makes this revelation personal in every respect. Peterson rightly rejects a highbrow approach to Christian doctrine, and sees the doctrine of the Trinity as the work of ordinary Christians learning to read their Bibles. He warns of the the danger of using the Bible for our own purposes, and of the ‘replacement trinity’ of our own needs, wants and feelings that endanger our reading of the Bible.
Above all, the Bible is a story, “an immense, sprawling, capacious narrative” (p. 40) that we can find ourselves inside. Story is the form of the Bible and the form of God’s interaction with us. Stories must be honest, not sentimental, propagandist or trivialising. Ultimately the story of the Bible invites us into the story that is the life of God. Christian living is then a response to the invitation of the Biblical story. It is to cultivate habits of reading that allow the Biblical story to take charge of us. This involves hard things which are difficult to stomach. “Eat this book, but also have a well-stocked cupboard of Alka-Seltzer and Pepto-Bismol at hand” (p. 66). Peterson commends the liturgical reading of Scripture, reading within the community. Such reading takes us first of all in to the place of adoration and then sends us out into the world to live to the glory of God. Amen, let it be so.
The final part of the book, appropriately for the translator of The Message, looks at translating the Bible. Peterson holds both that the Bible is intelligible in translation, and that all translation involves interpretation, even mistranslation. Perhaps that is inevitable, given that (as Peterson reminds us) the first Biblical translator was Pontius Pilate, identifying Jesus in three languages. It is also worth noting that Peterson (rightly in my view) is critical of the Authorised Version, preferring William Tyndale’s translation that aimed to reach the ordinary folk of his day. “The King James translators put out a version of the Bible that became the literary classic of the Western World, but at the expense of Tyndale’s plowboy” (p. 163).
The heart of this book, however, is not Peterson’s understanding of the Bible, nor his insights into translation. It is his teaching on the ancient practice of Lectio Divina. This, for Peterson, is a form of living the Scriptures through the four movements of reading, mediating, praying and contemplating. Here prayer and Bible reading are seamlessly linked. It involves wrestling with difficulties and being honest as we come before God (“the Psalms are an extended refutation that prayer is ‘being nice’ before God” (p. 105)). But above all it is living the text of the Bible that Lectio Divina enables.
Although this is the second book in a five volume series, it stands very well on its own. It is well written, with good insight. There are some nice asides, such as the dangers of using the Bible as a Rorschach test, and reading commentaries as “analogous to the gathering of football fans in the local bar after the game, replaying in endless detail the game they have just watched” (p. 54). But above all it is deep, full of integrity and enabling of life. I highly commend it