Condemning a Volkswagen for Not Being a Mercedes Benz

Posted: January 17, 2021 in Bible Translations, Bullying, Fred Anson, Grace, Recovery from Mormonism, Service
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An appeal to the translation shamers of Eugene Peterson’s “The Message”

by Fred W. Anson
For years I’ve watched as well-meaning but largely uninformed Christians have torn into Eugene Peterson’s highly vernacular translation of the Bible, “The Message”. I’m old enough to have been around when he was just beginning his work on this unique translation and loved it from the first time I saw his very first translations of the Psalms published in Christianity Today back in the day (I even clipped the very first article and tucked it away in one of my many Bibles, I liked it that much). So from before even the very first imprints rolled off the presses and hit the shelves at Christian bookstores I “got” what Peterson was trying to do – after all, he never made it any secret.

However, a whole lotta folks never seem to have bothered to try to understand, let alone listen to what Mr. Peterson himself said about the translation. The term that he frequently used to describe it is that it’s a “Pastoral Translation” of the Bible that’s intended to speak to the reader in a way that more literal, formal translations can’t and don’t. Thus, it was intended to be more a devotional Bible than anything else.

And nowhere did he express his intentions, translation philosophy, or goals better than in the Preface – you know, the one that no one ever bothers to actually read because they’re either too busy blissfully loving and benefiting from The Message or misunderstanding and publicly shaming and bashing it – typically, out of uninformed ignorance.

To use an imperfect analogy, one need only read that preface to will see that what the latter group is doing is condemning The Message for not being a Mercedes Benz when it was never intended or meant to be one. Rather, it was meant to be a Volkswagen – that is, steadfast, simple, direct, approachable, readily available, and uncomplicated. And like a Volkswagen, it was never intended to replace or compete with a Mercedes Benz, it’s only meant to complement them and fill a niche that they can’t or won’t.

Thus, whenever someone compares The Message to the many excellent tighter more formal word-for-word translations of the Bible it’s very much the same. But however you slice it, both a Mercedes Benz and a Volkswagen will get you to your destination even though the ride may be very different. Both serve a function and a niche in the market. They are designed to serve their particular audience well, and they do.  And, to stretch this analogy even further, if you’re older, more mature, and more established in life (like this author is) while your current car might be a Mercedes, is it really a problem if your first car was a Volkswagen? Your Mercedes meets you where you are today, just as the Volkwagen did back in the day.

So then, tell me, given all this why is it that well-meaning but misguided, more mature and established Christians so often translation shame fragile new Christians – like those coming out of controlling Churches, like the former members of the LdS Church that this author specializes in –  for using the Message? Why do they use insensitive language like, “You really should be using a good translation, you know!” Friend, can you feel the condescension and arrogance just dripping like acid in those words? Well, guess what, so can these often struggling baby Christians who just trying to find an English translation of the Bible that speaks to them and meets them where they’re at! They’re trying to figure out this new Christian thing that they’ve gotten themselves into and instead, they’re being Bible translation shamed by their elder siblings. No one likes being “should” on, and given where they’re at and given where they came from these folks are particularly sensitive to it. I see it all the time – and it makes me cringe all the time.

So older, more mature, and more established in the Christian faith friends, I appeal to you – no, I plead with you in Jesus’ Name – if The Message connects with someone and helps them in their walk with Jesus, please, please, please just let them be. Please!

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t recommend that they also get a more literal, word-for-word translation for meetings and Bible Studies (since The Message isn’t designed for or a good choice for those functions) but if they like the Message for devotional and other personal reading (which is specifically what it was designed for an how it was intended to be used); if they find that it meets them where they; and if they find that they’re growing in the faith through The Message in private outside of meetings, then why oh, why can’t you just let them be?  Can you find it in your heart to have a little empathy for these dear new ones in Christ, please? Be the older, wiser, more compassionate brother or sister in Christ, not the shaming, judgmental, intolerant Church Lady.

So with that introduction, it’s my hope by republishing the Preface to “The Message” in its entirety (and sharing it whenever I encounter a “The Message” basher – of which there are many these days) perhaps I can do my own small part in bringing some peace and understanding to this increasingly ridiculous situation. Friends, if you’re going to criticize something don’t you think that you should first make at least some attempt at understanding it first? And when it comes to “The Message” all you have to do to gain that understanding is simply read the preface – it’s all right there.

“The Daily Message” is the one year devotional Bible that Eugene Peterson produced using The Message as a basis. (click to zoom images)

Preface
TO THE READER
If there is anything distinctive about The Message, perhaps it is because the text is shaped by the hand of a working pastor. For most adult life I have been given a primary responsibility for getting the message of the Bible into the lives of the men and women with whom I worked. I did it from pulpit and lectern, in home Bible studies and at mountain retreats, through conversations in hospitals and nursing homes, over coffee in kitchens and while strolling on an ocean beach. The Message grew from the soil of forty years of pastoral work.

As I worked at this task, this Word of God, which forms and transforms human lives, did form and transform human lives. Planted in the soil of my congregation and community the seed words of the Bible germinated and grew and matured. When it came time to do the work that is now The Message, I often felt that I was walking through an orchard at harvest time, plucking fully formed apples and peaches and plums from laden branches. 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.

I didn’t start out as a pastor. I began my vocational life as a teacher and for several years taught the biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek in a theological seminary. I expected to live the rest of my life as a professor and scholar, teaching and writing and studying. But then my life took a sudden vocational turn to pastoring in a congregation.

I was now plunged into quite a different world. The first noticeable difference was that nobody seemed to care much about the Bible, which so recently people had been paying me to teach them. Many of the people I worked with now knew virtually nothing about it, had never read it, and weren’t interested in learning. Many others had spent years reading it but for them it had gone flat through familiarity, reduced to clichés. Bored, they dropped it. And there weren’t many people in between. Very few were interested in what I considered my primary work, getting the words of the Bible into their heads and hearts, getting the message lived. They found newspapers and magazines, videos and pulp fiction more to their taste.

Meanwhile I had taken on as my life work the responsibility of getting these very people to listen, really listen, to the message in this book. I knew I had my work cut out for me.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. 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.

And all the time those old biblical languages, those powerful and vivid Hebrew and Greek originals, kept working their way underground in my speech, giving energy and sharpness to words and phrases, expanding the imagination of the people with whom I was working to hear the language of the Bible in the language of Today and the language of Today in the language of the Bible.

I did that for thirty years in one congregation. And then one day (it was April 30, 1990) I got a letter from an editor asking me to work on a new version of the Bible along the lines of what I had been doing as a pastor. I agreed. The next ten years was harvest time. The Message is the result.

The Message is a reading Bible. It is not intended to replace the excellent study Bibles that are available. My intent here (as it was earlier in my congregation and community) is simply to get people reading it who don’t know that the Bible is read-able at all, at least by them, and to get people who long ago lost interest in the Bible to read it again. But I haven’t tried to make it easy — there is much in the Bible that is hard to understand. So at some point along the way, soon or late, it will be important to get a standard study Bible to facilitate further study. Meanwhile, read in order to live, praying as you read, “God, let it be with me just as you say.”
(Eugene Peterson, “The Daily Message”, Preface, Navpress. Kindle Edition)

In the foreword to “The Message Devotional Bible” Peterson continued that same Pastoral approach to scripture:

Our conversations with each other are sacred. Those that take place in the parking lot after Sunday worship are as much a part of the formation of Christian character as the preaching from the sanctuary pulpit. The small talk that happens around the ritual of putting children to sleep for the night is as sacred as the most solemn of Eucharistic liturgies.

But conversation, as such, though honored by our ancestors, is much neglected today as a form of Christian discourse. If we’re to be in touch with all the parts of our lives and all the dimensions of the gospel, conversation requires equal billing (although not equal authority) with preaching and teaching.

The conversations I would like to have with you are more casual than formal—the kinds of conversations we would have if we walked through the mountains together, stopping here and there to catch our breath. We’ll travel a lot of terrain together, some of it breathtakingly scenic, some of it ploddingly plain, and some of it precariously uncertain. Here and there along the way I’ll point out details in the biblical landscape, drawing attention to a particular word, pointing out a pertinent piece of historical background, pausing a moment to talk with you and to lead you in prayer.

With that in mind, it’s my personal joy to come alongside you in the wondrous and perilous journey that is your life and my pastoral privilege to walk with you through the Scriptures. I come as a guide as well as a fellow traveler.

Traveling mercies for us both.

Eugene H. Peterson
(Eugene H. Peterson, “The Message Devotional Bible: featuring notes & reflections from Eugene H. Peterson . The Navigators”)

And this is the reason why I love The Message, why I use it, and why I will continue to include it in my devotions – period. My “default setting” is to analyze and study scripture rather than enter into a conversation with God through scripture in my devotions. My natural tendency is to go deep into the text rather than just let God speak through the text.

So, I was challenged by a good, discerning Pastor to stop doing this during my daily devotions and simply start reading scripture experientially rather than intellectually – after all, goodness knows, that I do enough of the latter in my Religious Studies work. Reading a more literal, formal translation (such as the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Bible, or my beloved New King James) tends to keep in that “default setting”. However, reading a high vernacular translation like J.B. Phillip’s New Testament, The New Living Translation, or The Message tends to push me out of my default setting and approach the biblical text like a conversation rather than a textbook – it skews me into a more visceral mode that for guys like me that like to live in their head can be very balancing. It works, try it.

Oh, and by the way, my Pastor was 100% right, treating my daily devotions strictly like my daily devotions, and nothing more has changed my life for the better.  We all need both bible study and daily devotions and my spiritual life was suffering from a full experience of the latter. I cycle through all good translations as I read the Bible each time through in my devotions – that means both formal and vernacular translations, and that includes The Message.

The bottom line to all this is this: The Message, though not a tight, formal translation of the Bible serves a purpose: personal devotional Bible reading. Just like a Volkswagen if it’s used within its role, limits, and purpose it’s a great resource. Yes, outside of those boundaries, it’s no longer an appropriate resource – and like a Volkswagen, The Message can and will be abused from time to time – we have all seen that. Regardless, Bible Translation shaming someone for using The Message and hating on it because it’s a Volkswagen rather than a Mercedes Benz not only makes no sense, it’s rude, insensitive, and inappropriate behavior. The very antithesis of what Jesus would do.

Perhaps no version of The Message captures the purpose, intention, and role of The Message like the Devotional Bible edition. It’s here where Eugene Peterson’s vision of the translation as “Pastoral” and “devotional” come together. (click images to zoom)

Comments
  1. For everyone’s reference and consideration, this is from renowned and widely respected Bible Scholar, Manuscript Expert, and Translator, Daniel B. Wallace. The role and/or place of highly vernacular paraphrase translations of the Bible is explained in the second paragraph. I hope that you find it of value in your consideration of my article. Thank you. — Fred W. Anson

    “One of the myths of a good translation is that to be accurate it must be a word-for-word translation. Languages don’t work that way. A word in one language cannot always be translated by one word in another language. For example, Greek has four different words for love, six different words for mind. Sometimes a paraphrase is necessary to bring out the nuances of the Greek into English. Further, idioms in one language are often, if not usually, unique to that language. In Matthew 1.18, the KJV says that Mary was ‘with child’; the NET says she was ‘pregnant.’ But the Greek idiom says, literally, that she was ‘having [it] in the belly’! Every woman who has ever been pregnant knows what that is like! Very graphic, but not particularly appropriate for a translation. Ironically, the most literal translation is probably the worst translation because it fails to communicate the Greek or Hebrew into acceptable English, misleading the reader.

    Finally, I suggest that every English-speaking Christian get a Bible that is readable, lively, and captures the ‘feel’ of the original. The more accurate Bibles usually don’t do this (including the NET and ESV). The NIV comes close, but Eugene Peterson’s The Message, the Living Bible, and J. B. Phillips’ The New Testament in Modern English do well in this regard. These are Bibles that are meant to be read one chapter (or passage) at a time, not verse by verse. In fact, Phillips stripped out the verse numbers and only had chapters so that the reader would not get bogged down when reading the text.”
    (Daniel B. Wallace, “What Bible Should I Own?”, Credo House website 2010-09-06; https://credohouse.org/blog/what-bible-should-i-own-dan-wallace; retrieved 2021-01-19 )

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    • Here is the roster of Bible Scholars who consulted and reviewed The Message prior to its publication. I would encourage the reader to research and review the credentials and accomplishments of these gentlemen – they are hardly “lightweights” when it comes to Bible Scholarship and translation.

      THE TRANSLATOR AND HIS FRIENDS
      EUGENE H. PETERSON
      is a pastor, scholar, writer, and poet. After teaching at a seminary and then giving nearly thirty years to church ministry in the Baltimore area, he created The Message —a vibrant Bible paraphrase that connects with today’s readers like no other.

      It took Peterson a full ten years to complete. He worked from the original Greek and Hebrew texts to guarantee authenticity. At the same time, his ear was always tuned to the cadence and energy of contemporary English. Eugene and his wife, Jan, now live in his native Montana. They are the parents of three and the grandparents of six.

      TRANSLATION CONSULTANTS
      Peterson’s work has been thoroughly reviewed by the following team of recognized Old and New Testament scholars, who ensured that it is accurate as well as faithful to the original languages.

      OLD TESTAMENT TEAM
      Robert L. Hubbard Jr., North Park Theological Seminary (chair)
      Richard E. Averbeck, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

      Bryan E. Beyer, Columbia Bible College

      Lamar E. Cooper Sr., The Criswell College

      Peter E. Enns, Westminster Theological Seminary

      Duane A. Garrett, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

      Donald R. Glenn, Dallas Theological Seminary

      Paul R. House, Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry

      V. Philips Long, Regent College

      Tremper Longman III, Westmont College

      John N. Oswalt, Wesley Biblical Seminary

      Richard L. Pratt Jr., Reformed Theological Seminary

      John H. Walton, Moody Bible Institute

      Prescott H. Williams Jr., Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

      Marvin R. Wilson, Gordon College

      NEW TESTAMENT TEAM
      William W. Klein, Denver Seminary (chair)

      Darrell L. Bock, Dallas Theological Seminary

      Donald A. Hagner, Fuller Theological Seminary

      Moisés Silva, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

      Rodney A. Whitacre, Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry”

      (“The Message 100 Devotional Bible: The Story of God in Sequence” (pp. 17-18). The Navigators. Kindle Edition; https://smile.amazon.com/Message-100-Devotional-Bible-Sequence-ebook/dp/B00UCEP91O )

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      • I think that the “paraphrase” issue needs to be addressed straight forward and head-on since a common objection to The Message is, “It’s a paraphrase, not a translation”.

        Now, I know that folks (including myself) like to use the term “paraphrase” as shorthand for a “loose, thought for thought, highly vernacular translation” but the fact remains that whenever you create new target text in a language from a source text that’s in another language it IS a translation. Period.

        From David B. Capes is the Dean and Professor of New Testament in the School of Biblical & Theological Studies at Wheaton College:

        “The difference between a translation and a paraphrase is pretty straightforward. Any time you start with one language (the donor language) and end in another language (the receptor language) you are engaged in translation. In the case of the New Testament, if you start with the Greek text and end with an English or Dutch or German text, you have just done a translation. Now there are levels of formality or strictness that enter into the process, but that is another question altogether. Julia Smith, a 19th century women’s activist, did her own translation of the Bible in the late 1800s because she felt the King James was too “foot loose and fancy free.” What she ended with is a translation, but it is so strict it is hard to read. Obviously, it never caught on because you’ve probably never heard of Julia Smith.

        Paraphrase involves starting and staying with the same language. To paraphrase means to restate the meaning of a text using using different words in the same language. If I were to paraphrase Thoreau’s famous line: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” I might say “Most people endure life’s frustrations calmly and peacefully.” Now my version isn’t as artful as Thoreau’s, but it means roughly the same thing. “Brevity is the soul of wit” as Shakespeare noted. In other words, “It’s always better to use fewer words if you can.” You get the picture.

        So if you were to take the King James Version, remove the “thees” and “thous” and replace them with more modern pronouns, and then put some of the harder theological language in more contemporary idiom, then you would be paraphrasing not translating. The goal of a paraphrase generally is to make something clear or to explain it. You could preface a paraphrase with “in other words” or “to put it another way.”

        Recently I’ve heard some people refer to Eugene’s Peterson’s, The Message, as a paraphrase. They weren’t aware that Peterson worked from the original languages. Because he did, The Message is a translation. People often mistake an informal “sound” with paraphrase. If it “sounds” to them informal or different than what they are used to, it must be a paraphrase. Not exactly. Translation and paraphrase are processes not a result. When you begin with one language and end in another, you’ve got a translation on your hands.”
        (David B. Capes, “What Is the Difference between a Translation and a Paraphrase?”; https://davidbcapes.com/2013/09/30/what-is-the-difference-between-a-translation-and-a-paraphrase )

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  2. Jesse says:

    I do not trust this translation of the Bible. I think that there are better ones we can use. How about other versions such as the New English Translation and New Century Version?

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  3. I’m unfamiliar with the New Century Version, but, IMO, the New English Translation is one of the best modern translations currently available on the market today. And the Study and Margin notes in the “Full Notes” edition are absolutely fantastic. As a Study Bible, it’s absolutely phenomenal. It is, to my way of thinking, extremely trustworthy and reliable. However, it is designed and intended to be used in a complete way and context than The Message is – as the article clearly articulates.

    The Message isn’t a Study Bible and it’s not intended to be a tight translation like the NET Bible and the other English Translation is that space. It is specifically designed to be what Eugene Peterson called a “Pastoral Translation” – that is, loose, vernacular, approachable, and instructive. And it does it extremely well, IMO.

    So this isn’t “either/or” it’s “both”. You don’t use the handle of a screwdriver to drive in nails, you use a hammer. You need BOTH in your toolbox, not just one or the other.

    And THAT was the point of the article.

    I hope this helps.

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  4. Jesse says:

    What are your thoughts on the Life Application Study Bible, New International Version?

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  5. I’ve never owned or read that particular Study Bible so I have no opinion on it. However, I know that it’s wildly popular in general and that the Ex-Mormon Christians in the support group that I’m an administrator in really, really, really seem to like it. And it is the best selling Study Bible in the world right now, so apparently, they’re not alone.

    As for the New International Version translation of the Bible, I by far prefer the original 1978 edition to subsequent editions. But that’s me, others disagree with me on that, I understand their reasons for it, and I think that they have some valid points to consider.

    By the way, since you seem to have a lot of questions regarding Bible Translations and editions in general I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend the Bible Versions Discussion Facebook group to you (see https://www.facebook.com/groups/bibleversions ). It’s a great group and I suspect that you’ll enjoy it, most folks seem to.

    Thank you.

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