Understanding the Word: An Interview with Eugene Peterson

Eugene Peterson is known to most church leaders through The Message, a contemporary Bible translation which he developed. But as he will tell you, that work grew out of his nearly 30 years as founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Md. From that pastorate he went to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, then to Regent College as Professor of Spiritual Theology. He now writes and speaks full time from his home in Montana. He has written or contributed to more than thirty books. Preaching Editor Michael Duduit recently sat down with Peterson to talk about how his work with the biblical text related to his years as a pastor and preacher.

Preaching: When your name is mentioned, people immediately think of you as a writer, although you have also been a preacher and served as a pastor for many years. Over the years how have your writing and preaching informed each other?

Peterson: They are actually the same thing. A lot of pastors I know fight in order to get time to write. I never had to do that – it has always been part of the same thing. Though I didn’t always know I was a pastor, I always knew I was a writer – that was part of my livelihood since high school. It took me awhile to realize I was a pastor.

When I became a pastor I found that nobody else had the same idea of being a pastor that I did. I wasn’t fortunate with my pastors as I grew up. I really didn’t really feel that this was my vocation; I wanted to find out how to do it right. I wanted to be a novelist when I was growing up, and realized I wasn’t smart enough, so as I realized that I didn’t know how to be a pastor. As I was reading other people, they didn’t know how to do it either. So my writing was a self-education, discovering what was going on.

Writing itself is a hermeneutical process – you are learning, discovering, shadowing parts that you hadn’t noticed before. I think writing saved my vocational life, saved my pastoral life. I think if I had not written, I would have been swept along into the generic and consumer kind of world, marketing.

This also provided me a way to take the Bible seriously in a vocational way, not just personal. There are no pastors in the Bible. A pastor, the way we understand it, has really developed in a different kind of a culture setting. I was also committed to the fact that the Bible was our text, so I went to Scripture to find out what was going on. I was looking at the life of a pastor that was formed and shaped by the biblical revelation. It doesn’t give you a job description. So there has to be something different. There has to be a way of living in this boundary between culture and Christ.

So I began to read. My first major pastoral book was Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. The key came when I was starting a new church. I was a new pastor, I was trying to build some defense against consumerism, therapeutic models, entrepreneurial models. I discovered a passing reference in a book on the Hebrew prophets by Abraham Heschel; I can’t remember for sure which. There are five major festivals of the Jews, the required festivals, the three plus the two. At some point during the festival somebody got up and read: at Passover, the Song of Songs, at Pentecost, Ruth, and on and on. I thought it strange that they pick five little books to make a loaf. At these big festivals – preaching festivals, proclamation festivals – somebody stands up and reads Song of Songs, Ruth and Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and Esther.

That exploded in my imagination. This is what pastors d they stand in the middle of these great traditions, great proclamations and charismatic centers of what we are doing, and they say, “This is the way we do it.” So that is what started the book; it took me five or six years to write that book. I was a new church developer, I was practicing, I was using those texts to shape the way I was doing things. I think the tension between the big story, the kerygmatic proclamation and talking to individuals about this, talking about the Sinai, the revelation, Moses, finding Ruth in my congregation and Boaz, and Naomi, and then saying, “How do we live that out now?” So that is what happened and everything kind of came from there.

Preaching: As you progressed as both a writer and a preacher, did you find that your writing altered your preaching?

Peterson: I am not sure it did. Writing is very different from preaching. Oral ways of using words is very different from a literary way of using words. If I preached something first then wrote it, it was really hard, and the same way the other way. They don’t mix. I usually wrote my sermons; not always, most of the time. I had a hard time getting the written word into oral.

I never read my sermons, never memorized my sermons. I hate doing that; I miss the spontaneity of pastor/congregation. So I am not sure they helped each other, or maybe they helped each other just by the tension, the contrast. I think I found it harder to write into a book something that I already preached, because of the emotion, the energy; the adrenaline of the pulpit wasn’t there when I was writing it, so it was like starting over again. A number of things I have written started off as preaching, but nobody could take that and preach it; there is not enough juice in it.

Preaching: The Message has been a wonderful resource for pastors in preaching. As I read sermons, it is not at all unusual to see that as preachers are trying to explain a passage they pull the text from The Message because it does a wonderful job of adding flavor and understanding. How did working on that change the way you thought about some passages, the way you preached?

Peterson: It was the other way around. I could have never done that if I hadn’t been a pastor for thirty years. It was the way I preached – not so much the way I wrote – that shaped the way The Message came out.

I never thought of myself as a translator. I was always trying to translate – I was having this war between American culture and the Hebrew New Testament’s culture and wondering: how can I say this? If Isaiah had been in my pulpit how would he say this? That is what was going on in my head all the time. I was free to change metaphors; if a metaphor didn’t fit I figured out a way to do it. I was always working directly from the Greek and the Hebrew. I was trying to stay true to the rhythms, the syntax, the way those words worked in that culture.

When NavPress invited me to do this, Jan and I prayed about it for a year, because I knew I couldn’t do this and be a pastor. I finally decided that I was 58 years old and had been in this church for nearly thirty years, so we thought maybe this was what we were going to do. I had done Galatians and Matthew and many of the Psalms, which I had been accumulating for twenty years. We had been invited to Pittsburgh to be writer/pastor in residence for a year. It was a wonderful place for this; there is a small Presbyterian seminary there.

I was doing Romans, and my editor called me up one day and said, “Eugene, what in the world has happened to you, this is not what we started out doing?” I said, “Well, I am not in a very congenial place – everybody likes me, they are nice to me, and I respect them. I feel like these professors are all smarter than I am; they are all sitting on my shoulders critically looking at what I am doing. That is what professors do. I was just inhibited; I was getting very wooden, very literalistic.

He said, “Just let loose; if you go too far astray I will pull you back. You don’t need a team of twelve horses to hold you in.” When he did that I was free. I didn’t worry about what they said – or what I imagined they might say, because they were all very supportive and generous. I was back in my imagination, in my book, and in the hospital, and in visiting people in their family rooms. It restored my imagination to where I really belong in my vocation.

The academic world is not a good place to do translation. You have lost your imagination, or your feel for colloquial language – not just language, but personal relationships. There are times you are doing this – it took me twelve years – when you sit and look at the word for a half an hour, an hour, sometimes all day long, and say, “How do I do this? What does it mean?”

Jan was reading from The Message the other day and said, “Dolphin skins? Where did you come up with dolphin skins?” This is one of the things in the making of the tabernacle. I told Jan I sat for a whole day looking at that word; the scholars argue over what it was, it was the only time it occurs, but they were in touch with seafaring people in those days and there was a lot of trade along the Mediterranean. It just seemed like the right thing, and of course it catches your eye, too.

I often felt like it was effortless. I had been doing this my whole life. It’s like when you have been an athlete – a baseball player hits a home run, and they ask how he did that. I don’t know how I did it; I have just been doing it my whole life, and every once in awhile it connects. So in one way, doing The Message felt very much in continuity with what I had been doing as a pastor. So it pleases me when pastors refer to it; a lot of pastors do, almost no professors do.

No disrespect for professors; I learned a lot from them. That is not the world they live in. They live in the world of two thousand years ago; they need to. I don’t mind, it is just the nature of vocation and the gospel. Some of us do one thing, some of us do others. I am a pastor and I try to be professor. Regent called me a professor after I had left Christ the King; after I had been there for six weeks I said, “I am not a professor. I care about these students and I can care less [about the title].”

I was teaching a course in prayer. How do you grade someone’s prayers? I went to the president and the dean and I said, “You’ve the wrong person. I am not a professor.” They said we knew that. So I was free to be a pastor with the name of the professor.

Preaching: As you look back at what you did in The Message, are there some things you look at now and wish you had done that differently, perhaps phrased differently?

Peterson: Surprisingly, I don’t. Every once in awhile somebody will write me – it happened a lot earlier – and they’ll ask me about something, question me and I changed it. It wasn’t quite the right way and so in the next edition it was changed. There were not more than fifteen or twenty of those cases.

No, I don’t; that is what makes me feel good. It feels like The Message wasn’t a one-off thing. It was cumulative. I had been living this long enough that I could trust my hunches, my intuitions. The basic linguistic thing behind this is that the Bible is speech. It is not written; it all originated in speech. There is a liveliness about speech that is not in writing. I was really trying, all the time I was doing it, to get this written word to get its voice back, the voice of the Scriptures.

There is too much Bible study these days and not enough Bible living. We’ve got these evangelical churches becoming so scholastic and it has really killed the Bible. The thought of all these people trying to preserve the truth in scripture – which is important to do, I am grateful for their work – but I wish more that we would be concerned about the livability of scripture.

I was talking to a friend not long ago – he is a Pentecostal president of a seminary – and I was saying this. He said, “I am not sure it is true anymore, but in its early days that is what drove the Pentecostal church – that everything is livable. We just take it for granted that it is truth. What we are concerned about is not fighting for the truth, but insisting on the livability.” That is one thing that The Message can convey, that livability. And that is what pastors are for. Pastors are not professors; we are not trying to explain things, defend things and we are in the ball game trying to get people base hits.

Preaching: Based on what you have learned with The Message and your other writing, if you were starting over as a pastor are there some things you would do differently now?

Peterson: I wouldn’t work as hard as I did. I was a new church pastor. New church pastors are full of insecurities, we don’t want to fail.

I remember reading about Roger Bannister, the guy who ran the first four-minute mile. He said he spent a few years as a carpenter. He said he was never really good at it, but he made up for his lack of expertise by using a lot of nails. When I read that I thought: boy Roger, that is me as a young pastor; I made up for it by using lots of nails! It took me awhile to get over that to live a more contemplative life.

I feel very fortunate. I was able to live with a lot of continuity between the time I was twelve years old and the time I am now. I was lucky – I had good parents. I had bad pastors, which may have been good, in terms of “I don’t want to do it that way. I don’t know what I am doing, but I know what I am not going to do.”

Along the way, pastors live under enormous pressure to fit into the American culture and I was seduced a number of times to do this: therapeutic models, the civil rights models, activism. Those are strong, strong pulls. I got right to the edge two, three, four times, and then realized that this is my vocation, this is what I am supposed to do. I didn’t waste a lot of time in detours, and I could have. It is easy. I hope that if I did I would recover, but I didn’t waste a lot of time.

Preaching: As you think about your work as a preacher then as a writer, who are some of the people who have particularly influenced you?

Peterson: The primary influence for me as a pastor was my home. I grew up in a small town. My dad was a butcher; my mom was a kind of a preacher/evangelist. This is a Pentecostal church, the early days of the Pentecostal movement – at least the early 30s. That’s not the real early days but there was a lot of the original stuff there. So I felt on the inside of Christianity and the church.

I have been asked that question a number of times and I try to think of other people, but I really think that was the major influence. That is where all the images that now kind of carry me come out of – my dad’s butcher shop and my mom’s storytelling. It was a storytelling culture. There was a lot of morality. People didn’t read books by and large, but there was a lot of storytelling by pastors and evangelists. Most of them were really good storytellers. That story, narrative way of thinking through life was embedded in me pretty deeply.

Writing was harder to tell. I was mostly self-taught. I was always interested in learning in a culture that didn’t value learning. So I was always pushing the edges of reading and then – as I discovered a vocation and an interior vocation for writing – I just started reading a lot and saying: how do they do this? I never took a course in writing, but I think I taught a lot of courses.

There was a woman at Regent who I liked a lot and we had a good relationship. She was there four years and she never took a course from me. When she graduated I said to her, “I am really quite offended that you never took a course from me.” She said, “Eugene, I have been taking a course from you for four years.” I said, “Yeah, but you never paid for it!”

She is now a chaplain at a university theological school in Canada. She writes to me, these marvelous letters, and she did take a course from me. We have a really intimate correspondence over the way she does her pastoral work. So I think I did that with people also; I would pick out and read their things over and over and how they do what they do.

Preaching: Is there any additional word you would like to say to preachers?

Peterson: The thing is, I really care about pastors, I think pastors are just a beleaguered people these days. What I’ve really been trying to do is to restore dignity to the pastoral vocation; seriousness, too. This is important work. We have been so inundated with success models, consumer models and survival models; pastors ask, “How do I keep this congregation going? Half my congregation is going down the street to the church that has all these great things going.” So it is really tough.

It is hard to do that – to say, “How does God want me to pastor?” and not compare ourselves to anyone else. I think being a pastor is a very unique vocation. You know doctors pretty much have to do what doctors do. Lawyers have to do what lawyers do. But pastors – there are more ways to be a pastor then there are ways to be a doctor or a lawyer, a general or even a professor.

When we live in a culture when such little dignity is given to a pastor, the temptation is try to manufacture some worth or significance on other grounds, or not know what your grounds are. I hope my writing has provided some vocational identity – not how to be a pastor, but who you are as a pastor.