Open Bible on a table
#52: Eugene Peterson 2010
Submitting to Scripture, May 2, 2022
In Rewrite Radio Episode #52, Eugene Peterson and Scott Hoezee discuss teaching, preaching, and conversation at the 2010 Festival of Faith & Writing.
- "Tell all the truth but tell it slant—" by Emily Dickinson (1890)
- Moby Dick by Herman Melville 1851
- Wallace Stegner’s novels
- Calvin’s Ladder by Julie Canlis (2010)
- Real Presences by George Steiner (1986)
Jennifer Holberg: Today's Rewrite Radio remembers Eugene Peterson in an interview with Rev. Scott Hoezee. Together, they speak about our lives as sinners, our defensiveness, and how we can learn directly from Jesus.
I'm Jennifer Holberg, and along with Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.
Minister, theologian, author, and poet, Eugene Peterson was perhaps best known for his publication The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (2002). The Message won a Gold Medallion Book Award (now called the Christian Book Award) from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. And it has sold over 20 million copies since its release. Peterson is the author of many other works, as well, including As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, and A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. He was a founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church. And he was also the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College.
Here from 2010, with Scott Hoezee, is Eugene Peterson.
Scott Hoezee: I start out with a line that I read years ago from the writer Toni Morrison. Somebody once asked Toni Morrison if even when she was a little girl, she knew she wanted to grow up to be a writer. And she said, "No, I wanted to grow up to be a reader." And sort of taking that as a jumping off point, talk to us a little bit about how your own reading has nourished your writing. What are the connections for you between reading and writing and how one nourishes the other?
Eugene Peterson: And Scott, let me just match your quotation from Tony Morrison. I met a musician a few months ago, Jeff Taylor, and he told me that when he was young he told his father he wanted to grow up to be a musician. And his father said, "You can't do both."
I think my reading started early. I don't know how I learned to read, but I learned to read before I went to the first grade. And so I got in a year early because my mother took me and showed the teacher that I could read. All I could read was Hurlbut's Story of the Bible. But that was a, that's a pretty good start.
But as I grew and worked through the grades, I hate to say this, and I hope none of my—I think all my teachers are dead by now, so I can say this, but I didn't—this was a small town in Montana, and it really was not a very good school. So I was left on my own, and I discovered the library when I was seven or eight years old and just started exploring and found that I loved fiction; I loved stories and discovered it maybe by the time I was an adolescent; I studied, I discovered Dickens and Faulkner and Eliot and, and just a little one beyond that, Dostoevsky.
And so I was just immersed in story. And I showed up at my classes and passed my grades, but what I was really—what had happened in my mind was novelists and poets. So I think that when you read really good writers, you start paying attention to how they're doing it. And I was paying attention. I wasn't just reading for the story; I was watching, well, how do they do this? What's going on with them? So that's how I started.
Scott: Are there any contemporary authors right now whom you've been reading, whose work you've been—novelists or other types of writing whose work has been particularly meaningful to you recently?
Peterson: Well, my wife and I read together a lot in the evenings aloud, and one of our kind of basic writers is Wallace Stegner. And we read his novels, most of them several times. He's just, he's a Western writer and he has an enormous sense of dignity and care about his—about things that we care about: forgiveness, reconciliation.
And so we're halfway through his biography and finding all kinds of resonances with our lives. He and his wife have a lot of similarities to Jan and me, and that's just kind of fun to find somebody who is a writer and who cares about the same things that we do. He never confessed to being a Christian, but he was—when he was young and in graduate school, he was teaching at a Lutheran college.
And there was a coup, and the trustees and the evangelicals were thrown out by the fundamentalists, and they purged the school, and they wrote a letter to Stegner that the rumor is that you're an atheist and agnostic. He wrote back and said, "I don't see how I can be be both. Would you clarify?" So they clarified it by firing him.
Scott: Very good. If you were, uh, if you were specifically—we've got a very eclectic group of people who come to the Festival of Faith and Writing each time, but I know we also have any number of preachers who come here—they're maybe some of the same things you already mentioned, but if you were going to recommend a program of reading for preachers that would feed their work of writing sermons, are there any particular things you would would come to mind that you'd really want to say to preachers: "You know, this is the book or the kind of thing you ought to read?"
Peterson: Well, I think for pastors, for preachers, I think what we're really trying to do is to develop a sense of language and how language works. So I think you find good writers, not necessarily preachers or pastors, but just good writers. One of the, I think misfortunes in the work we do—preaching, being a pastor— is how much bad writing there is.
Pastors commonly don't seem to pay much attention to words. There's so many cliches, so much sloppy writing slogans... they just don't care about language. This, I mean, this is holy—these are holy words. This is sacred stuff. And language is right at the heart of the Gospel and of our work. We're—we major in language.
And I think that using language well is really important. Some people who have used language well, for me, who have been pastors, preachers, are Frederick Buechner, Richard Lesher—not a pastor or preacher, but Kathleen Norris. I used to read [unclear-E.B. White?] through every year to make, just to make sure I wasn't getting by with murder.
Scott: Very good. I mentioned when we began a moment ago that across the years, you've written and published in quite a few different forms. I mean, obviously you spent many years writing sermons but you've also written books of meditations; you've written reflection books on different parts of the Bible, Paul's letter to the Galatians, or your wonderful book on the life of David, Leap over a Wall.
You've written books like Working the Angles and the contemplative pastor books that were about ministry. And now recently you just completed your five-volume work on what you've called Conversations in Spiritual Theology.
Talk a little bit about the challenges of those different kinds of writing. Is there any one type of book or writing—and of course,you know, you've done paraphrasing too in The Message—is there any one type of writing that's been more challenging for you than others? Do you approach it differently, the writing task now, do you approach it differently if it's going to be a sermon as opposed to a book like Practice Resurrection or as opposed to a book like Working the Angles?
I mean, how, how does that, how has that gone for you?
Peterson: Well, Scott, I think most of my writing has been self-education. I wanted to be a writer early on when I was an adolescent. But I wasn't a writer. I—my first published writing was a letter to the editor in a local paper when I was defending the unpopular stance of one of my teachers. And people read it.
And I was, I was thrilled. I mean, I'm an author, I'm a writer. I got my name signed to it and they noticed it. But I think writing at that point was more of a romantic thing. It was just, I like to be noticed. But when I became a pastor—it probably helps to know that I came upon being a pastor late.
And so I really didn't, I hadn't really thought much about being a pastor. And when I realized that I was a pastor, I had to learn how to do it on the ground. And the first published book I had was—the title now is Like Dew, Your Youth; when it was published, it was Growing up in Christ—and it came out of my pastoral practice.
I had a bunch of adolescents that I was teaching in confirmation class. And when you have a bunch of adolescents who are having trouble, you have a lot of parents who are having trouble. And so I supplemented my teaching of the kids once a week with a gathering of their parents, and um. I wanted to, you know, I realized when I was doing that, that adolescents are trying to find out how to be adults.
And about 20 years later, their parents are trying to find out how to be adults. They've kind of put it off for a long time. So I got the parents together. And I said, you know, these kids are not the ones who have the problems. You do. So let's talk about what it means to be an adult, and then you'll understand what your kids are trying to do.
So instead of looking at the kids as problems, I tried to reimagine, reform their imagination to look at it, looking at them as gifts. These kids are teaching you how to be an adult. And it was, it was wonderful. I did that for, I guess, 10 years. And then I realized, you know, I think I'd like to write a book about that.
And so I wrote a book, and I was pleased at how it turned out and I got a publisher, John Knox Press. And so I was, you know, I can remember how fresh this felt to me, that I'd really come on something—and you know, the age of psychology—really trying to figure out what makes people tick and help them get through their problems and grow up.
And I was onto something which I later learned is—learned the name of spiritual theology. How do you live your theology? How do you live a full life in Christ, a mature life in Christ? And so I think I've been writing that book all my life. I don't think I've really diverged too much from that.
It's just a little incident, which has nothing to do with your question, but because I had a contract with a publishing house, a respectable Presbyterian publishing house, I started feeling, you know, I'm an author, I'm a writer. So when the editor would make changes and things, I'd think, "I'm the writer."
And so we had conversations, which, they were friendly, but they were a little testy sometimes too. And so the book was published and I hadn't seen it yet. I knew it was the press. And I had a dream one night. I walked into a drug store and there was my book on a rack of paperbacks, and it had a very provocatively posed nude woman on the front.
And at the very bottom in small print was "Growing up in Christ." I ran to the telephone and I called him up and I said, "Dick—Dick, what did you do to my book?" And he said in a very flat, cool voice, "We didn't change a word in it. But we have to sell it."
That was the dream.
So I called him up in the morning and I told him about my dream. He didn't think it was funny.
Scott: It wasn't because he had that in mind, was it? So much for that.
When you were writing sermons regularly, did some of your sermon work—and I'm thinking about, you know, Leap over a Wall about the life of David or Traveling Light on Galatians—were you able to use sermons that you did in the church to flow into those other books later, or were you able to kind of like double duty out of them?
Peterson: Not really. There was, you know, I was using, I was thinking through these things, praying through them, living through them, but no, a sermon is very different from a book and, uh, writing a sermon, I always wrote my sermons. But I don't think I ever took my sermons and reworked them into a book.
The stuff was there, but orality is very different than reading. And so I thought about that, you know, why—I know a lot of preachers do that, print their sermons, but it just didn't seem, it didn't seem like me. So I didn't.
Scott: Well, I took a lot of your books and turned them into sermons. So we did go the other way. It's true.
You—and this goes a little bit to writing, but also I would imagine this plays into preaching as well. One of your recent books you use that, you know, the line from that Emily Dickinson poem, "tell it slant."
Right? And I think everybody in the room probably knows it, but I'll just read it anyway.
“Tell all the truth, but tell it slant— / Success in circuit lies / Too bright for our infirm Delight / The truth's superb surprise / As Lightning to the Children eased / with explanation kind / the Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind—
You obviously like that poem. How, how was the ideas contained in that influenced how you preached, but also how you write even yet today?
Peterson: Well I think Scott, the, this business of telling the truth slant, I think I learned it from Jesus. I realized at some point, you know, when people asked Jesus a question, he didn't answer them. He either asked them a question or told them a story. And the story didn't seem to have anything to do with the question.
And I can just imagine these people walking off, scratching their heads—what's he talking about? And then maybe two or three weeks later, they realized what it was. Truth is not a confrontational way. Truth is not conveyed confrontationally. Because we're sinners. We have a bunch of defenses. We really don't want God, no matter what we say we do.
Deep down, we're trying to twist things around to our own liking. We want God to be on our side. We want to use God. And the gospel just reverses all of that. Now, how do I, how am I able, how do I get past that defensiveness? Which ever—which all of us have. And biblically, it seems to me, you do it obliquely. The Psalms are wonderful.
Poetry is basically, you know, oblique ways of speaking or writing, and much of the Bible is in poetry. So the stories that Jesus told, um, poetry—why do we have these big thick books? Exegete Paul, why didn't he say it simple? Now it's not complicated—I mean, it's profound—but he's telling it slant.
He's coming at it obliquely, getting past our expectations, the way we think God should have handled it. God for the most part, God doesn't act like we think he ought to. Why, God? Why, why, why?
Well, the truth, in order to survive, has to come—we've got to change our orientation from demanding something to receiving something and asking for something's a lot easier than receiving something, because when you receive it, you're not sure what you've got.
You don't know how to do it. So I think that's why that poem has been important. One of the writers on language that I like a lot, learned a lot from, is George Steiner. And George Steiner is a master at understanding the way language works. And he says in one of his books four or five years ago—I think it was Real Presences—that 90% of language is non-informational.
Most language, well, I'll maybe put it differently. 10% of language is information. 90% is not. So when we're using language just to try to get the facts right and get it understood in an easy way, I think we're kind of going across the whole way that language works. So, I don't think as preachers, we should try to make it a clear message.
I think we need to invite the imagination. I had a young man in my congregation who got saved at the Billy Graham crusade. And he was on fire for God; he was 16, 17 years old. And he'd complained to me about my preaching. He said, "You know, pastor, just tell me what to do. Just tell me what to do. You leave me just kind of hanging. I don't know what's going on."
So I—we talked about it and I finally gave up and I thought this, this is not working. So every, every third or fourth week I finished my sermon with, you know, three things you do now. And he leaves, "Oh, pastor, that was such a good sermon, but you know, one out of four, that's not too bad."
I want to involve his imagination in living this life of Christ, and the grace that’s coming and receiving.
Scott: What do you think given all of that? I mean, I think, well, of course, you know, the big change in preaching and in homiletics across the last 40 years, let's say, has been the move toward the more—the inductive sermon, the turn to the listener.
You know, the Fred Craddock type of thing. But for a very long time in the church, preaching was very deducted. It was 90% information, 10% imagination on a good day. And a lot of people outside the church when they hear the word sermon or preaching to this day, that's what they think of: heavy-handed didacticism.
And they're not wrong. That's not a caricature, and a lot of preaching still today, but certainly across the ages, that was what it was. How did the church get there, do you think? I mean, why did we get so far from Jesus and Paul telling it slant to, you know, the way preaching developed across at least recent centuries, especially in Protestantism.
How did that happen, do you think?
Peterson: Well, the Enlightenment project is the flipping point, I suppose it bears a lot of it just because we, across the board in Europe and then into America, we quit thinking about God primarily, and started thinking about ourselves. And so we wanted to get more information, know how things work. Mystery kind of slowly slipped out of our lives, sometimes not so slowly.
And then Protestantism, I think accelerated that because of the lack of a Sacramental liturgy or worship. So when we lost—we lost touch with these sacraments, which are—that's telling it slant really well. We got impatient. And so we did it kind of pro forma. But there's been a—happily, it seems to me there's been a return to more of an affirmation of the importance of paying attention to the mystery, not trying to figure it out, to receive it.
My son grew up a good Presbyterian. And then he was seduced by a woman who was an Episcopalian. He's raised his children in this little Episcopal church in Montana, and Hans, when he was about five years old, had a good friend, Sam, who received communion every day, every Sunday.
And Leif wouldn't let Hans receive communion because he didn't understand it. And so the Bishop came to do something and Hans got him aside and he said, "Hans wants to take communion because his good friend Sam takes communion, and he just wants to do it because Sam does it. And I don't think he understands it. What should I do?"
And the bishop said, "Do you understand it? I don't understand it. Bring him to the altar."
Scott: Very good. Very good. Well that kind of leads to another thing I wanted to ask you about—and it'll take a little bit of background before I can ask this, this question—but it talks a little bit about. I mean, you've been thinking about spiritual theology intensely with these last few years as you've been working on your book series with Eerdmans, and so I just want to ask a question, not so much about writing for just a moment. We'll get back to talking about writing in a minute.
But just sort of your take on where things are at. In the last book in your series, the one that just came out, Practice Resurrection, you make a really interesting point regarding a fairly well-known line in Ephesians four. Paul begs the Ephesians to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called. Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you've been called.
You point out that the word there, "worthy," the Greek word is axios, which is actually a scale. And you pointed out that, you know, so if you've got a scale, you've got a one-pound lead weight on the scale and you put flour on the other side, when the two balance, when they're in equilibrium, that's axios. That's being, you know, the flour is worthy and so forth.
And so your point there is that when Paul says to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you've been called, your point was that, that means that we are in balance with God. That we almost have equilibrium with God. So reflecting on all of that, a couple of related questions. First, how do you think the church in North America is doing in that regard?
I mean, when people from the outside looking in especially look into the church. Do you think they see God, they see Christ in us in the church world, do they see us as being in balance with, with God? And then kind of related to that, then there is sort of a writing-related thing.
What, what do you think is the vocation or the role that writers, poets, and preachers play in helping get us in that kind of a balance with God? So how do you see the church today? And what can preachers and poets and writers do to address, you know, helping make that a reality?
Peterson: Well, Scott, I have a, I've got a, um.
I'm not very axios about this. I've got a, you know, the scales are tipping all the time. And—but part of writing that final volume of the series, Practice Resurrection, I think I gathered up a lifetime of working in the church, working as a pastor, gathering a congregation to worship. And I really believe that this is Christ's church.
And flaws and all, sin and all, this is Christ's church. This is the church he founded. And we're not there by a long ways, but still the whole, the center of it, is what God has done. He could have created a perfect church, you know? Or he could have made the standard so high that only the people who really had it together got in so we wouldn't be an embarrassment in the world.
The Holy Spirit doesn't seem to mind being embarrassed. I mean, we're all calling ourselves Christians, and he lets us. So I've got, I'm trying to understand how this works. And—but I think the thing that I realized, realized as well, ever since I started being a pastor, is that if there's one thing that's conspicuous about the American church, it's that there's no ontology.
There's no theology of church. It's all pragmatics. Our question is "How can we do church?" You heard that? "How can we do church better?" Just scrap that question. You know, we, this is the church we have. Now, how can I enter into what God is doing here?
And this pragmatic definition of the church, it seems to me, is responsible for an enormous amount of unhealth because we're now in charge of the church. It's like we have this idea that we get saved, and that's all God's work. You know, I think we're pretty clear about that in terms of how we think of this.
It's all by grace we're saved. And then when the minute we're baptized or become members of the church, we kind of say, okay, now how do we do this? And it's no longer God; it's us because he, he made us to do this. And so there's this tension within me. How do I embrace the church God gave me? So that I enter into what's going on rather than nitpicking—“Why do they do this?”—classifying people and criticizing them, angry with them, and then hiding my anger with a nice smile.
It involves pastors, those of us who, or anybody in leadership of the church with a lot of conflicted stuff. And we're no longer just present with what's there.
And I think one of the things that those of us who have some concern about the health of the churches is to be present to what's there, not trying to fix something so it works the way we think it ought to. I kind of meandered around there, but am I close to what you asked?
Scott: Yeah, I think so. You know, well indeed, just reflecting on your own experience, I guess you already said this a little bit, but that, you know, how do you in preaching, but also in pastoral care, how do you negotiate your own feelings, the frustration that these people, this church, isn't farther along and yet want it to be gentle, nourishing, and nurturing enough that it's not just about your frustration, but that you turn that into something positive?
How do you negotiate or how have you negotiated some of that in your own interactions with people and congregations?
Peterson: Well, I'm glad you asked that because it's a really key thing in what I think is right at the heart of Christian language. I use the word "conversations" very deliberately in this series of spiritual theology books, because the primary language of spiritual maturity and understanding is conversation.
We've got three kinds of language, just roughly, that we use. Charismatic, which you're in charge of as a preacher, in the teaching of preachers. And there's a sense in which that is the heart of everything we do. Kerygma, the proclamation. This is the way the world is since God made it and redeemed it. And I think it's very proper and accurate that the pulpit is the center place in our worship. Our whole is the center place.
And there's another, another kind of language which you use, which is quite different. That's didactic language. There's a lot to understand about this. So we get professors, teachers, we get Bible teachers. We have Bible classes. And we look at this and we say, ah, "How do we do this? What is involved in all this?"
This is, this is not just a big cruise. This is a lot of intersecting truths. And so we've trained people to train us in how to read the Bible, to read theology, but there's a huge middle part in this, which I call paracletic language—the paraclete, the Holy Spirit.
It's not a preaching language. It's not a proclamation. It's not a teaching language. It's a conversation language. It's the language we use when we're getting acquainted, when we're being friendly, when we're understanding ourselves, when we're out to dinner with some friends and we're talking. We're not making pronouncements, we're not explaining things,
"This is, this is broccoli. It comes from this kind of a plant, and this is the way you cook it." And we don't do that. We, we, all of us use paracletic language a lot. And that's a good part of this 90% of the language that's not informational. But in the church, and maybe more in Protestantism than in the Catholic or Orthodox churches, this paracletic language is—it's not Christian. It's—it's not important. But it is important.
And so for pastors, especially, but not just pastors. In fact, I quit using the word pastor, I think, almost entirely these five books. Because I realized that pastors are the hardest ones to change in this world. And I mean, let me work the laypeople for a while. That's what I've worked with all my life is the laypeople, not pastors.
But when you're, when you're in conversation, you listen a lot. You listen a lot. Now that, it seems to me, is a huge part of Christian language, is listening. And that's what pastors get to do a lot, if they will. Somebody asked me once how to get a spiritual director. And I said, well, this is what I did once, but only once.
I said, well you find somebody you trust, you ask him to meet with you once a month or every six weeks, and the only two things he or she has to do is show up and shut up. And then you got to get a real conversation going. And of course prayer is the paradigmatic instance of this, where listening has to have at least equal billing with speaking. But that's not common among us. "God do this. God do that. God do that. Why this, why that?"
And then we get off our knees and go about and don't listen.
Scott: Well, the other is, thinking about the whole concept of a conversation, is that for true dialogue to happen, for a true conversation to take place, there also has to be the possibility of it being mutually transformative.
Peterson: That's right.
Scott: Whereas the charismatic and didactic languages, I've got something to give you, sit down and shut up and listen, and it's one way, whereas the other one is mutually nourishing. Yeah. Yeah.
Peterson: And I think for, you know, the work you and I do, preaching can have a paracletic or a conversational aspect to it. So that people are invited into what is being proclaimed and not just pounded with it.
You mentioned Fred Craddock earlier. I think he's a master of this and we've got some really good preachers who do that.
Scott: You mentioned theology a minute ago and so forth. In one of the books—I can't remember which one—but in one of the books the epigram you've got for one of your chapters is from Marilynne Robinson, and Marilynne Robinson's line that says, "Great theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or saga."
What's that quote mean to you, and who today is writing theology other than you who kind of fits into what Robinson is saying there? 'Cause I think when most people hear the word theology, they don't think great and intricate poetry. They think of something quite different, but who today in writing theology do you think kind of gets close to what Marilynne is talking about there?
Peterson: You know, who ruins great theology is theologians. They're trying to figure out who's right, and who's wrong, how far off this one is…. You know, when I grew up, I hated theology. I grew up in a church where all theology was was argument. And I went to a college where all the arguments took place in the religion department.
And I just got fed up with it. And so I studied literature and philosophy. It wasn't—you didn't have to argue that—well, philosophers sometimes do. When I became a pastor, I didn't know much theology, I really didn't. And I heard Douglas Steere—who was a Quaker philosopher, dead years now—give a lecture on Calvin, Calvin's Institutes.
And he was talking about great theological—a great spiritual writing. And McNeill's translation had just come out. And so I decided, he kind of ignited my curiosity and desire. And so I decided I would read—this first year I was ordained, I'd read through the Institutes. And then for the next 10 years, I would keep reading them and just absorbing them.
How do you write about the gospel, scripture, truth with grace and dexterity? And, um. I wasn't trying to learn particularly what Calvin said. I was trying to find out how his mind worked. And I would say that the Institutes are a symphony or it's—but in lectures I hear by some people they're—it's not, it's not an, it's not music.
It's not, it's not an epic, it's not a symphony. Nothing's tied together; things are pulled out. And here's a—I'm just reading a book. Which I think is, does honor to Calvin in a way. And I overstate things. So don't, you know, I've got a lot of room for negotiation in my mind. I have a middle name, which begins with H and my wife—it's my mother's maiden name, Hoiland—and she says that's not true. Stands for “hyperbole.”
So I don't want to overstate this, but it's a book that's just coming out, Eerdmans is publishing, in a couple of months called Calvin's Ladder and it's written by Julie Canlis. And it's just lovely. I mean, lovely is the word for it. It's graceful. It's—it sings Calvin. And it's very precise and elegant academically, but there's a spirit that infuses the book, which is just a delight to read.
So, you know, there are people who do this. But sometimes, somehow the people who argue a lot have the loudest voices, and they get the most attention. Now, what did you ask me? Marilynne Robinson.
Scott: Yeah. What, what, well, that's an example of what theology today fits her definition. So that's….
Peterson: Well, you know, Augustine's, you know, I think all of us should be familiar with this.
I mean, he's comprehensive, everything gets worked in and he's not fighting battles. He's discovering things. Um, I think Rowan Williams in contemporary does the same thing; his writing is just—it's lyrical in many places. Stanley Hauerwas in this country is, I think, well, he's the American theologian that has influenced me most.
So we've got them. We've got theologians who are writing well and lyrically. Charles Partee at Pittsburgh Seminary. We were colleagues for a while. He's just come out with a book on Calvin in the last couple of years. It's a delight to read.
But don't you love that, that sentence by Marilynne Robinson?
Scott: Yes. Yeah. Well, and of course she certainly regards John Calvin as fitting into that. I mean, she was, uh. She read Calvin because she wanted to learn about Melville's theology behind—the theology behind Moby Dick and ended up falling in love with Calvin. And we love her around here for that.
Kind of another question on writing, um, Mark Twain once said that he really envied Adam in the garden of Eden, because Twain said Adam had one great advantage: when he said a good thing, he knew nobody had ever said it before. So everybody who writes sooner or later gets a feeling that we're repeating ourselves, or you kind of get the feeling that others have said this before.
And they've probably even said it better than I have. I mean, you surely in writing must sometimes feel that way or get to those moments of saying, oh, it's all been said before. I mean how do you motivate yourself to keep going? How do you kind of—if you get into a little funk like that, where you think, you know, Augustine said it all years ago and what more is to be said, I mean how do you kind of motivate yourself to keep going or to find new and fresh ways to say it after all or attempt that in any way?
Peterson: Augustine, one of Augustine's sayings is three—I think it was Augustine. The three most important things for a writer are humility, humility, humility. We're coming in long in the game. It has been said before. Well, let me tell you something, which I kind of—when you're writing, you know, sometimes you do write a sentence, you think, wow, how did I do that?
And you know, just nobody's ever said it quite like that before. And when I was translating The Message, the hardest thing for me to do, it um, it came remarkably easy, you know, to tell you the truth. I felt nice when I was doing that, I was just doing what I've been doing all my life, except now getting it in a book.
But as this was coming toward an end at the New Testament, I was just really glad that I was getting to the end of the New Testament. And I would say to Jan, you know, I really, I've loved doing this, but I really like to do my own writing. I'm just tired of coming in second place.
Never as good as Mark, never as good as John. And I had these five books kind of in my head and after things happened and consultations with NavPress and others, I agreed to do the Old Testament. And that was 10 more years. I had 10 more years I had to put off my work. But it's true. You know, we are, we—once in a while you might get a sentence nobody else has done, but not very often.
But to submit ourselves to scripture. And to—and I would expand that I think, but submitting yourself to scripture, there's a sense of humility. There's a sense of submissiveness. There's not a sense of, oh, I've got the truth. Now I can run with it. You never do.
You're always obedient. Prayerful. That's good practice. And I think it's good practice training for how we use language, how we treat each other, how we do leadership. It's, you know, that kind of atmosphere starts to pervade. I would call it a paracletic atmosphere, Holy Spirit atmosphere, where we're being led instead of leading.
Scott: Since you mentioned The Message, I just wanted to ask you about this before and well, now's my chance. When, when, when you translate or paraphrase for The Message you said that came remarkably easy, which is amazing to me, uh that's a wonderful gift you have, but what were the hardest parts to do in that project, Old Testament or New Testament, Psalms, what were the hardest parts, and what really went smoothly and readily for you in that project?
Peterson: I think the hardest parts were the gospels because there's such—there's a kind of a limpid clarity to the gospels. They're restrained. There's a simplicity and a directness. There's a lot of obliqueness also, but it's not overdone it's, you know, there's, it's hard to do that. And it's hard to get it from Greek into American.
So I would say the gospels were the hardest. In some way, Paul is easy because he gets all tangled up in his syntax. And it's kind of fun to kind of re-poetize what he does. He's a poet, you know, he really is. He's not explaining things. The part of the Old Testament that I think gave me the most pleasure was Isaiah.
And I think it's because of the quality of his poetry. And it was just really good to enter into that. The hardest part was uh, had nothing to do with language. The last section I did was Joshua and Judges. And so Judges was the final thing I was doing. And when I got to those last six chapters of Judges, I thought "Lord Jesus, why did you—why did I do this this way?" Why couldn't I have gotten this done years ago, but it's just all rape murder, man. And you know, I wasn't ending on a high note.
But it was—I've never really had any doubts about the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in scripture, but I must confess that I struggled through that one. Yeah. But I recovered myself.
Scott: Probably my last question here. If you could sit down—my question is if you could sit down with a group of aspiring young writers and pastors—but as a matter of fact, you are sitting down with a group of aspiring writers and pastors. I can see some of my seminary students here, first-year students and others who are here.
So if you could say, you have this chance to talk to some aspiring writers and future pastors, people who are going to represent the next generation of influential writers and preachers and the voice of the church, what would be the top two or three things you'd recommend to them?
What should they strive to do in their writing and preaching that you think will make a difference here in the 21st century and for the years to come. So advice for young writers.
Peterson: Oh, that's a hard one, Scott.
Scott: Well, it's my last question. It's like Judges without the rape.
Peterson: This just occurred to me. And so I'll just say it. And this applies mostly—I suppose it goes to our writing as pastors and teachers. But learn your Greek and Hebrew really well. Get those two languages deep into your imagination.
As you enter into this great corpus of writing we have, which is the Bible, get as close to the source as you can. And as you do that, you're not only dealing with material, with content, with information, you're entering into poetry, rhythms, metaphors, how metaphors work—you know, the Bible is just chock-full of metaphors.
And when we miss the metaphorical setting in which they are, we just try to explain them and then you miss the whole thing. So I was very fortunate. I—that's what I started out doing, being a teacher of Greek and Hebrew, and I spent several years doing that. So when I became a pastor, well, when I became a writer, I should say that, I was working out of a different context.
I'd been trained to pay attention to words and get them right. Get them into my imagination. I'd just step out of the dictionary. So that. But that's very personal too. So it might not suit you. I would say make, make really good friends with three or four poets. Poets are the high priests of language. And learn how poets make words work. Or enter into the way words work.
Just three or four, you don't have to read everybody. You're not a literature professor, but find yourself four or five poets who you just live with, for the rest of your life. And you're being trained with, how to use language or how language—how other people who were really good at language used it. And, uh, it will rescue you from a lot of cliches and slogans and cute phrases.
And then I think third, learn to read and write prayerfully. We're not just doing this for ourselves. We're working in the context of the word made flesh. And so prayer becomes the, kind of the substratum about the way we use language. So prayer isn't something we just do before we start writing, and then after we say, and then at the end of it, it's a way of living into the language of the Spirit, scripture.
And the language of our readers who are going to be reading this or listening to this. You asked for three, I'll acquit a three.
Scott: Very good, very good. Are you just—and just one last little follow up—not so long ago, people kind of predicted the death of the book and the death of reading because of video and so forth.
But that really doesn't seem to have happened. Are you optimistic about the writing and also the reading of good books for the 21st century? Are you optimistic that people are going to continue to want to devour good literature and good writing?
Peterson: I'm optimistic. I don't think Twitter is going to have any lasting effect on the culture.
Scott: Yeah. Yeah. Well, wonderful. Well, Eugene Peterson, you honor us by your presence among us this week. And we thank you for this hour and look forward to hearing you again tomorrow. So thank you.
Heidi Groenboom: Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find more information about the Center, our initiatives, and our signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at CCFW.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CCFWgr. You can also subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more from our archives.