The Only Time is Now, the Only Place is Here
We imagine language was invented so we might communicate with each other better.
Language is oft about exclusion—across an ethnic border where we speak differently or across borders we build intentionally, to separate and divide. In language we keep the other out. We can only be decoded or deciphered by one who speaks our language, by one who speaks us.
Across class or geography, across disciplines like medicine or economics, jargon and acronyms are given to separate us from those who must never grasp what we have taken years to learn. Human beings love to not be understood.
A confusion of tongues.
These texts become sacrosanct, their parsing and exegesis in the hands of lawyers and linguists, high priests and low ones.
Even our sacred Scripture has been made to fit our view rather than the other way round. The King James translation of the Bible, now four hundred years young, with its baroque English and oaken sonority, is one of my favorites. The work of fifty-four translators over seven years, its 788,258 words went on to shape the course of the English many of us now speak. But its translation of the New Testament can sometimes bear little resemblance to the rough-hewn Aramaic and Greek of the original authors.
All our writing and reading, all our translating of the texts we read, are seen through a prism of our own time and place, our own people and politics. King James’s team of candle-lit scribes inevitably reflected their seventeenth-century England, their subsequent holy writ infused with Tudor tones and high-mass Protestantism.
Eugene Peterson is up front with us in saying that his own translation, The Message, is a paraphrase. That we should receive it as through the filter of his own life as a pastor with a special love of language and a passion for the Rhema, the living word, as it reveals itself today. He understands that for the word to live, for it to leap from the page and into our lives, the only time is now, the only place is here. As he has put it eloquently, “If Holy Scripture is to be something other than mere gossip about God, it must be internalized.”
When the good book connects with our good lives, when the word sings in our hearts, there is a holy spirit busy in the translating. The most luminous of all translations of the word was the one into a single unique life, that of Jesus of Nazareth. The poetic heart of The Message is that there is no dogma apart from the flesh becoming word.
I discovered Eugene Peterson’s The Message through the Psalms. In the dressing room before a show, we would read them as a band, then walk out into arenas and stadiums, the words igniting us, inspiring us. Some nights I would half remember and invoke the psalmists’ words directly over the plangent opening fanfare of “Where the Streets Have No Name”—a song which is an invocation itself. No matter how good or bad a U2 show gets, this is one of those moments when the unreliable arrival of the divine presence in the house is more, not less, likely.
As most musicians know, God is reliably unreliable in the matter of being “invoked,” but with more certainty than usual we find He will sometimes walk through the room during the playing of “Streets.” Maybe it has something to do with relocating a psalm within a song. The Psalms, of course, were originally sung, and David is the favorite of all musicians—not just because he reminds this scribe of Elvis (check Michelangelo’s marble) but because he does the kind of things musicians look up to, like dancing naked in front of his troops! In fact, for any flawed male who has had his girlfriend’s ex killed, David is the one, the life that can be turned around.
Peterson too has the heart of a musician, his intellectual rigor and humility saving him from the vicissitudes that have the rest of us banging tambourines as he lays out a feast on the altar. While a lot of the time we’re all still babbling in Babel, in The Message Peterson is often speaking in tongues—a language that decodes and deciphers us, the reader; a language to approach the very subject of God.
Bono is the lead singer of the internationally acclaimed band U2 and a global activist. This essay first appeared in TheMessage100, a daily reading Bible published in 2015 by NavPress. A documentary film featuring Bono and Eugene H. Peterson in conversation was released by Fuller Seminary in 2016.
 Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), p. 20.