Good with Words, Good with Tone

July 20, 2018

I had a conversation recently with someone regarding salvation and the afterlife. A death in her family had prompted her to ask questions about life beyond the grave, so we talked about faith in Jesus, and she showed a great deal of interest.

“Where can I read more about what Jesus said?” she asked.

Of course, the correct answer is to say, “Read the Bible,” which I did.

And she took me up on it! A few days later she told me she had taken my advice and downloaded a Bible app on her phone and had tried reading it.

“But it makes no sense,” she said, exasperated. “I don’t understand it.”

I enquired what translation she was reading, and she looked at me as if I was stupid. “English, of course!” she snapped.

When I looked at her phone it was clear the app she had downloaded used the KJV as its default translation. I went into the settings and changed it to an NIV and asked her to read a section. It was better, she said, but still somewhat esoteric. So I changed it again, this time to The Message.

“Oh, that’s much better!” she exclaimed. “I can understand this one.”

There are many criticisms of The Message, some of them justified. It’s not a reliable translation if that’s what you need. It’s a rendering of the text, an attempt to make the Bible accessible in the common vernacular. But as a doorway into serious Bible reading, it has been a gift to the church. At least that’s how my friend has found it.

In his book on Bible reading, Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson writes about his motivations in writing The Message. He goes so far as to say it’s a form of sacrilege to speak of God in language that is “inflated into balloons of abstraction or diffused into the insubstantiality of lacey gossamer.”[1] And that is the reason he agreed to provide people with a paraphrase of the Bible that makes sense in contemporary language. He sees it as part of the mission of God’s people. He explains:

For those of us who take the Scriptures seriously as the word of God and the authoritative text by which we choose to live, translation is one of the primary defenses that we have against . . . letting language inflate into pomposities or artifices that are no longer current with the way we express our ordinary lives.[2]

Knowing this helps me appreciate The Message for what it is. It’s a protest against arcane and impenetrable religious language. It’s an invitation for ordinary people to enter the Scriptures once again.

But writing an accessible paraphrase didn’t arise only from his pastoral vocation, it goes even deeper for Peterson. In his 1997 book on spirituality, Leap Over a Wall, he opens by telling us how his mother used to recount Bible stories to him when he was a child. In quite a moving passage, he writes:

My mother was good with words; she was also good with tones. In her storytelling I not only saw whole worlds come into being, I felt them within me through the timbre of her voice.[3]

Sure, he admits, she took some liberties with the stories, adding extracanonical detail, but “she never violated or distorted the story itself.”[4]

Here we have our primary clue to reading The Message: it’s like sitting on Uncle Eugene Peterson’s knee and listening to him tell the Bible story, which is exactly what the woman I was talking to needed—the story!

Peterson takes the opening verses of Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters,” and renders them like this:

First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was like a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.

God’s Spirit hovering like a bird; a soupy nothingness; an inky blackness. The universe came from this? What reader wouldn’t be intrigued?

At other times the text has a surprising, fresh beauty: “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.” (Matthew 5:14)

God-colors? What a startling way to put it.

Then there’s this:

“God’s love is meteoric, his loyalty astronomic, His purpose titanic, his verdicts oceanic. Yet in his largeness nothing gets lost; Not a man, not a mouse, slips through the cracks” (Psalm 36:5-6).

And this:

“So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective.” (Colossians 3:1-2)

Sure, there are some slightly jarring colloquialisms: “God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son” (Romans 8:3). And some grating anachronisms: “The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it” (Romans 8:4). Or: “If you’re so hungry that you can’t wait to be served, go home and get a sandwich” (1 Corinthians 11:33).

And occasionally, a deeply moving verse like, “Because of this, we have been comforted” (2 Corinthians 7:13) sounds a bit lame by comparison: “That’s what happened—and we felt just great.” Well, golly gee.

Others have been far more scathing in their criticism of The Message: it’s inaccurate; it’s misleading; it overstates the legalism of the Pharisees; it flattens out the beauty of the Authorized version, etc., etc. I’ve heard them all.

But it’s not a translation, folks. It’s Eugene Peterson’s retelling of the old, old story that was told to him on his mother’s knee, the rich tone of her voice reverberating through his body, and now through ours. Twenty-five years later, it is still a story worth listening to.

Michael Frost is an internationally respected missiologist and theologian, and the founding pastor of Small Boat Big Sea, an innovative church in Sydney, Australia. His many books include Surprise the World and Keep Christianity Weird, both published by NavPress.

[1] Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book (London: Hodder & Stoughton), 2006, 138.
[2] Peterson, 140.
[3] Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall (New York: HarperCollins), 1997, 2.
[4] Ibid.

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