On Being a Part of the Music

July 20, 2018

Alexander Pope said it: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Then Elvis came along and sang it: “Wise men say only fools rush in.” (You’re probably singing that in your head right now.) When NavPress approached the two of us about working on some revisions for The Message in celebration of its twenty-fifth anniversary, we hesitated for about a minute, then said yes.

Foolish? Maybe. Why take such a beautifully influential creation and tinker around with it, with at least a fair chance of messing it up? That’s a good question, and one we asked ourselves. But we knew it was an opportunity to play a small part in the ongoing lyrical approach to God’s Word inaugurated by Eugene Peterson. In other words, it was a chance to be a part of the music. The Message has played a significant role in both our lives, from being the text read round the family dinner table in the evenings to being one of the reasons we’ve still got our “eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). So, fools or not, we rushed in.

We were instructed to approach any edits with a light hand. This was not an effort to take an engine apart and then put it back together. Besides, we’re not mechanics. No, it was more a thorough reading to determine if there were words or phrases which, over time, had become un-contemporary. Such words and phrases were tagged, compared to other translations, then wrestled with to see if we could suggest not something better, but something similarly different. If you don’t think this was a humbling labor, then you might want to pinch yourself and wake up. Trust us, it was quite the daunting assignment, one angels might have even refused. But we’re not angels either, so we put our hands to the plow.

We’d love to tell you there was some divinely inspired plan we used to decide who would take what books to work through. The only problem is there wasn’t. We started out working on the same books in an effort to see if we were complementary as opposed to contradictory. We were, thankfully, the former, both seeing many of the same things and feeling a unison about suggesting possible edits. After a few books together, we felt confident to adopt an approach of “you take Galatians, I’ll take Ephesians.” And that worked quite well. There were also those times when one of us would indicate a desire to work on a specific book, and that worked well too. At the conclusion of each “batch” of Scripture, for example Paul’s letters or the Minor Prophets, we would look over each other’s work and comment or challenge as need be. All of our work was done from a distance, one of us on Canadian farmland and another along Colorado’s Front Range. This, too, worked just fine. It could have been difficult or problematic in some way, but it wasn’t, and for that we are sincerely grateful. Our suggested edits were submitted to the NavPress editorial team, then forwarded to theological scholars for their review, then on to Eugene for final approval.

There were about as many times we would conclude, “Yes, let’s suggest an edit” as there were times we would concede, “You know, Eugene got it right. He really did. Let’s leave it as is.” Those moments of concession were wonderful to realize, for they evidenced a man truly in a rhythm, highly attuned to just the best word or phrase to communicate Scripture’s intent to today’s ears.

Time after time, page after page, verse after verse, it was clear that Eugene Peterson is a man who loves God’s Word and intensely desires people to read it. And that was one of the additional joys of this project—a thorough reading of God’s Word, from beginning to end. The all-too-common practice of cherry-picking not just verses but even words leaves the body of Christ poorer and our witness sorely at risk. This is God’s message to us, all of it.

To say working on this project was one of the highlights of our lives would be an understatement. It was a gift to be asked, and a gift to be trusted to steward this work well. We conclude with these words from Jude, rendered by Eugene. (We did not suggest any changes in these particular verses. We’re not fools.)

But you, dear friends, carefully build yourselves up in this most holy faith by praying in the Holy Spirit, staying right at the center of God’s love, keeping your arms open and outstretched, ready for the mercy of our Master, Jesus Christ. This is the unending life, the real life!

Grace, always grace.

Ann Voskamp and John Blase were commissioned in 2016 by NavPress to undertake an “aesthetic revision” of The Message in advance of its twenty-fifth year of publication. Each is a critically acclaimed writer; Ann writes from her farm in southern Ontario, while John works as an editor with Waterbrook Publishing. He served as Eugene Peterson’s editor on the 2017 release As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

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