Known as the shepherd to shepherds, Eugene Peterson – author of The Message, a contemporary Bible paraphrase that has sold 20 million copies – died on Monday, October 22. He was 85 years old. One week prior to his passing, Peterson had entered hospice care.
“During the previous days, it was apparent that he was navigating the thin and sacred space between earth and heaven,” Peterson’s family reported. “We overheard him speaking to people we can only presume were welcoming him into paradise. There may have even been a time or two when he accessed his Pentecostal roots and spoke in tongues as well.
“Among his final words were, ‘Let’s go.’”
Peterson was ready. “The essential thing in heaven and earth is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction,” wrote German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), “there results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”
Peterson politely hijacked Nietzsche’s language and wrote a classic titled A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, lacing discipleship and a life worth living. Hepoetically and prophetically authored dozens of books, including Run With the Horses,The Pastor: A Memoir,and most recently, As Kingfishers Catch Fire.His crowning literary achievement, The Message, was a nearly decade-long ambitious project to utilize his Greek and Hebrew scholarship and wordsmithing to emphasize the vitality and unction of the Scripture in modern vernacular.
As pastor, author, and scholar, he spent his life patiently pointing men and women to a rendezvous beyond the boundaries of this mortal life. On his death bed, it was finally his turn to no longer look through a “glass, darkly” but to see his Redeemer face to face (1 Cor. 13:12, KJV).
Bible teacher Beth Moore aptly commented, “Don’t you just sorta hope when Eugene Peterson finally sees the gorgeous, glorious face of the Savior he has so long loved and served, that Jesus is the type that might greet him with something from The Messagetranslation? Like, maybe John 21:12? ‘Breakfast is ready’” (MSG). Peterson interpreted many such memorable stanzas:
• “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish” (John 1:14).
•“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:28-30).
As a young clergyman, Peterson began his ministry as an academic. But after taking a part-time job at a church while teaching in New York City, he came to believe that everything at the church was “going every which way all the time – dying, being born, divorces, kids running away. I suddenly realized that this is where I really got a sense of being involved and not just sitting on the sidelines as a spectator but being in the game,” he told Religion News Service.
Peterson became founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. He served that congregation for 29 years before retiring in 1991. “I loved being a pastor, almost every minute of it,” Peterson told the Christian Century. After decades of ministering to the modest-sized congregation, he returned to teaching as professor of spiritual theology at Regent College, a graduate school of theology in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was during this time that Peterson began pouring himself into The Message.
Although pastors have a special affinity for Peterson’s sage wisdom, The Messageproject was not for shepherds, but for sheep – those in the pews who were not interested in reading the Bible and those for whom the verses had “gone flat through familiarity, reduced to cliches.”
His endeavor was sparked during a Bible study on Galatians in his local church. “I began to realize that the adults in my class weren’t feeling the vitality and directness that I sensed as I read and studied the New Testament in its original Greek,” he reported. Peterson knew that the text was relatable to the contemporary era. “There’s hardly a page in the Bible I did not see lived in some way or other by the men and women, saints and sinners, to whom I was pastor – and then verified in my nation and culture.”
Peterson used his literary and linguistic gifts to build a bridge to the ancient sacred texts. “I lived in two language worlds, the world of the Bible and the world of Today. I had always assumed they were the same world,” he wrote in The Message’s preface. “But these people didn’t see it that way. So out of necessity I became a ‘translator’ (although I wouldn’t have called it that then), daily standing on the border between two worlds, getting the language of the Bible that God uses to create and save us, heal and bless us, judge and rule over us, into the language of Today that we use to gossip and tell stories, give directions and do business, sing songs and talk to our children.”
One factor Peterson could never have imagined occurred in 2001 when Rolling Stoneasked Bono about his reading list. “There’s a translation of Scriptures – the New Testament and the Books of Wisdom – that this guy Eugene Peterson has undertaken,” the U2 singer told the magazine. “It has been a great strength to me. He’s a poet and a scholar, and he’s brought the text back to the tone in which the books were written.”
Peterson’s seminary students were stunned that their soft-spoken professor was in the rock ‘n’ roll spotlight. Friends began sending him press clippings from all over the world. For his part, Peterson had no knowledge of Bono or U2.
That is a compelling irony in Peterson’s story. He would have never applied to be a rock star chaplain. In a world of Christian celebrity razzmatazz, Peterson was incapable of ostentatiousness. In a world of religious hype, he was gentle and sincere, deliberate and anchored, trusted and reliable. No smoke and mirrors. He intentionally lived far away from the maniacal fast lane of Christian celebrity that his fame afforded him. Instead, he liked practicing his banjo on the deck of his home overlooking Flathead Lake in Montana.
“In the dressing room before a show, we would read them as a band,” Bono writes about the Psalms in the forward to The Message 100,“then walk out into arenas and stadiums, the words igniting us, inspiring us.” It was a poetic, divine spark stoked into an artistic flame. You can witness the kinship of Bono and Peterson discussing the Psalms in a 2016 online video captured by Fuller Seminary.
Shortly after the death of his father in 2001, Bono told the Irish magazine Hot Pressthat he had read The Messagealoud at his father’s bedside. Since then, he has been anything but timid in promoting the Bible paraphrase – quoting it from the stage and dropping verses from the ceiling at concerts as confetti.
“Bono is singing to the very people I did this work for,” Peterson told Angela Pancella of AtU2.com. “I feel that we are allies in this. He is helping get me and The Messageinto the company of the very people Jesus spent much of his time with.” That was Peterson’s heartbeat.
It’s strange that what began as a meticulous scholar’s attempt to engage bored Presbyterians at a Bible study in a church basement ended up fluttering down through the air at rock arenas around the globe. The Lord works in mysterious ways, indeed.
Look, keep your King James. Keep your NIV. Keep your NRSV. For the pure joy, however, dip occasionally into Peterson’s text. “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,” writes Bono.
Peterson was an ordained poet. He also had 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,” wrote Bono. “While a lot of the time we’re all still babbling in Babel, … Peterson is often speaking in tongues – a language that decodes and deciphers us, the reader; a language to approach the very subject of God.”
With sorrow we say farewell to a gentle soul who extolled a long obedience in the same direction. With joy we know that he was welcomed to his home on the other side of the shore.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.