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Ethics & Religion
Column #1,964
April 11, 2019
The Message by Eugene Peterson
By Mike McManus

No author has been more successful in translating the Bible than the Rev. Eugene Peterson, whose paraphrase of the Bible, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, has sold an astounding 20 million copies. It also won a Gold Medallion Book Award.

For nearly 30 years Peterson led a congregation in Bel Air, Maryland, where he had a congregation that "didn't read books." So he began translating the Bible into contemporary American language, and found that suddenly church members "started paying attention to me in a way they never had before."

His translation of Galatians was published by a magazine that caught the attention of an editor at NavPress, who urged him to translate the whole New Testament. He did so by 1993, and NavPress sold millions of copies. That inspired Peterson to translate the Old Testament as well, which was completed in 2002.

The King James version of John's Gospel states: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us." Peterson's translation puts it in today's language: "The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes."

In his Introduction to the New Testament, Peterson said his goal was to put the Scripture into the same language "in which we do our shopping, talk with our friends, worry about world affairs and teach our children. The goal is not to render a word-for-word conversion of Greek into English, but rather to convert the tone, the rhythm, the events, the ideas, into the way we actually think and speak."

This is best illustrated with examples:

  • The traditional John 3:5: "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."
  • Peterson: "Unless a person submits to this original creation - the wind hovering over the water's creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life - it's not possible to enter God's Kingdom."
  • Traditional Matthew 1:22: "All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet."
  • Peterson: "This would bring the prophet's embryonic sermon to full term."

For the most part, this works very well. Long and formal sentences in the original are often simply replaced with punchy phrases. "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you" is replaced with a jovial, "Enjoy the best of Jesus!"

More colorful language makes Scripture jump alive. For example, James 4:7: "Resist the Devil and he will flee from you" becomes "Yell a loud no to the Devil and watch him scamper."

However, sometimes the translation is too loose. His version of the Lord's Prayer begins well, but ends with utterly forgettable words:

"Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right.
Do what's best - as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You are in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You're ablaze in beauty!
Yes. Yes. Yes.

What we want to hear is "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen."

This is evidence that The Message cannot be the only Bible one reads. My wife and I have been doing our daily Bible study using The Message which we have found to be full of fresh, thought-provoking insights. But my regular Bible is nearby.

Eugene Peterson died last fall at age 85. Astonishingly, he wrote more than 30 books in addition to translating the entire Old and New Testament.

Unfortunately, he made one major mistake in an interview about a year before his death. He was asked if he would perform a same-sex wedding if he were still pastoring. He replied with one word: "Yes."

Peterson was attacked by evangelical leaders, such as Andrew Walker, director of policy studies at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who asserted: "How sad that a creative voice like Eugene Peterson would forsake the Scriptures." LifeWay Christian Stores threatened to ban all of his books from their shelves. Within one day, his literary agent released a statement saying that he "would not perform a same-sex wedding."

It was a sad, embarrassing close to the life of one of America's greatest writers.

However, The Message is attracting millions to Christianity.

Surely, that's far more important than one mistake.

Copyright (c) 2018 Michael J. McManus, a syndicated columnist and past president of Marriage Savers. To read past columns, go to Hit Search for any topic.


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