Posts Tagged ‘The Message Bible’

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)