Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book: The Art of Spiritual Reading (2006).

Eugene Peterson was pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, until he retired in 1991 to work on his 'magnum opus' - his translation of the Bible into modern American English (The Message).

In Eat This Book, Peterson is passionate about three things:

1. God's Word being in the language of everyperson - as was most of the Bible when it was originally written...

2. Peterson wants us to read the Bible for our spiritual formation - shaping us into our true being - rather than for information. ('To know much and taste nothing - of what use is that?' asks Bonaventure). He rues the modern tendency - even among Christians - for the 'authority of the self' to replace the authority of Scripture. 'The three-personal Father, Son and Holy Spirit is replaced by a very individualized personal Trinity of My Holy Wants, my Holy Needs, and my Holy Feelings'. Following his mentor Karl Barth, Eugene Peterson encourages us to approach the Bible 'as a book like no other book', which 'reveals the sovereign God in being and action'...

3. And Peterson wants us to know that the 'contemporary unbiblical preference... for information over story' leads us to organize biblical knowledge theologically, so that we can take charge of our own lives rather than submit to the message of the biblical narrative/s. It's what others have called our modern tendency to be 'over' the Word as its critic, rather than 'under' the Word in an attitude of submission and obedience.

Peterson's writing is sometimes heavy, even dour (he's Presbyterian, remember... oops!). You won't laugh at anything here. Occasionally Eugene the poet writes lyrically - especially in his chapters 'Scripture as Text' and the last chapter about Bible translations. (If you don't know anything about the massive importance of the Oxyrhynchus garbage dump and its influence on modern biblical research, read all about it first, from page 141. Exciting!).

And we learn more about Eugene the pastor here than in most of his other books (making coffee to be served in styrofoam cups to his bible study group for example...).

Some theologians will argue about his identification of 'the Bible' as 'the Word of God' without qualification (rather than, say, Jesus Christ being the primary 'Word of God').

An appendix offers us Peterson's seven top 'writers on spiritual reading' - Karl Barth's Dogmatics, Ivan Illich's In the Vineyard of the Text, Austin Farrer's The Glass of Vision, Northrop Frye's The Great Code: the Bible and Literature, Paul Ricoeur's Essays on Biblical Interpretation, George Steiner's Real Presences, and C. S. Lewis's An Experiment in Criticism.

Rowland Croucher

January 1, 2009