What does it mean to engage in a spiritual reading of the Bible? How do we read the Bible not for information but in order to respond in prayer and obedience? How do we read the Bible as a living book speaking to us and shaping us in our everyday living? These questions animate Eugene Peterson’s latest publication. In Eat This Book–the second volume in a projected five-volume series on spiritual theology–pastor, teacher, and Bible translator Peterson offers us insight into a kind of reading that goes beyond gathering information or deducing principles or deriving biblical truths. Rather, Peterson shares his considerable wisdom and experience in reading the Bible formatively–in order to live more faithfully as Christians.
His title, and main metaphor, is borrowed from John the Seer (Rev 10:9-1), with due credit also given to Ezekiel and Jeremiah, all of whom are called by God to ruminate on Scripture and assimilate it into their everyday living. We are to eat Scripture, insists Peterson, in such a way that the words “become interior to our lives, the rhythms and images becoming practices of prayer, acts of obedience, ways of love” (10). But what exactly does that mean?
Before describing more precisely the kind of reading he has in mind, Peterson first trains his sights on various problematic ways to view and to read the Bible. He argues that personal experience, and the sovereign self that often rules the roost, must be placed under the authority of Scripture. He warns that the triune God who reveals himself in the Bible must not be replaced by the unholy trinity of “my Holy Wants, my Holy Needs, and my Holy Feelings” (31). Peterson emphasizes how important the form of the biblical story is. Indeed, he claims that “the way the Bible is written is every bit as important as what is written in it” (48) and muses long on the nature of metaphor and the power of narrative. Over against lazy or sloppy reading he insists on rigorous exegesis: “exegesis is an act of love” for it “loves the one who speaks the words enough to want to get the words right” (55). And Peterson reminds us that the Bible is all too often uncongenial; it is not an easy read, not only because its world is so very different from ours but because our fat restless egos resist what it has to say. As he honestly observes, “We want to use it [the Bible] for comfort, and if it doesn’t work comfortably we reconfigure it so it will” (65).
All of this is right and good and necessary, but it is standard fare in many other books on reading the Bible. Where this book stands out is in its second and third sections–on lectio divina and Bible translation, respectively. Peterson patiently and creatively expounds on the four elements of lectio divina: lectio, meditatio,oratio, and contemplatio. For example, he unravels the power of metaphor to reveal deeper levels of meaning in the not-so-simple act of reading the Bible. He explains how meditation trains us to enter the world of the Bible and read a single verse as part of a larger, coherent whole. He illustrates how spiritual reading is prayer-full reading–using the Psalms as an example of praying participation in the reading of Scripture. And paddling against the current of popular understanding, Peterson describes contemplation not as something done by secluded monks in monasteries but as living the read/meditated/ prayed text in our everyday life. In short, with his contemporary exposition of this ancient practice Peterson brings together hermeneutics and spirituality in a way that infuses Bible reading with new life.
The final section of the book is a short treatise on Bible translation, including Peterson’s story of how he came to produce his own popular translation of the Bible called The Message. Drawing upon his long experience as a pastor as well as knowledge of the discoveries in the last century at Oxyrhynchus and Ugarit, Peterson makes a case for translating the Bible in the language of the street–in his case in colloquial American English. Peterson rightly insists that all translation is interpretation and all interpretation requires paraphrase. There is no “literal” interpretation that somehow completely captures the meaning of the original. This is not to say that all translations are equally good, but merely that attention must be given to both the meaning of the original and the rendering of it in understandable contemporary language. Both fidelity and felicity are important virtues in any translation.
While some will find fault with Peterson’s view of the Trinity or argue that he sells traditional historical-critical exegesis short, there is much to like about this book. Peterson’s writing is clear and engaging. He writes with a wisdom gained through much personal and pastoral experience. He is erudite (citations from Wendell Berry, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer appear along with Paul Ricoeur, Northrop Frye, and George Steiner) but never becomes pedantic. Peterson exudes an informed passion about a kind of reading of Scripture that will form us more faithfully in our everyday lives. In that way Eat This Book goes beyond typical “How to read the Bible” primers to become truly a book about the art of spiritual reading. Taken seriously Peterson’s new book will help us read God’s old Book so that we may “recover that original tone, the prophetic and gospel ‘voice,’ that stabs us awake to a beauty and hope that connects us with our real lives” (176). In a world of ugliness and despair, we desperately need such a voice.