Eugene Peterson is a pastor and author of more than thirty books, including A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, The Contemplative Pastor, and Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, one in a multi-volume series of book-length “conversations” in spiritual theology. He has also written a bestselling Bible translation, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. In his most recent book, Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers, Peterson invokes Emily Dickinson’s words: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant — / Success in Circuit lies / Too bright for our infirm Delight / The Truth’s superb surprise.” Throughout his work, Peterson has insisted on the centrality of the imagination to the life of faith. He suggests that God’s revelation comes through the ambiguities and nuances of story and lyric poetry—highly charged language that calls on our active participation and response for its full meaning to be grasped. Peterson is an alumnus of Seattle Pacific University and professor emeritus of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He founded Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, where he was pastor for twenty-nine years. He was interviewed by the poet Luci Shaw.
Image: You have written generously and steadily over many years in many books, beginning with A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, later with your translation of the Bible, The Message, and continuing with your recent series on spiritual theology. What is “spiritual theology”?
Eugene Peterson: Spiritual theology is simply theology lived. A great deal of theology has to do with doctrine, with getting it right. Spiritual theology aims to bring that together within a lived life. The conviction behind spiritual theology is that the Bible—and all of Christian belief—is livable. It’s not just something to be held in your head or performed through your actions and ethics, but actually embodied. The model for spiritual theology is the incarnation, and spiritual theology is understood in the context of the Trinity, where everything is relational. There is no disembodied Christian truth. There’s no abstraction about the Christian life. It is all intended to be lived in a coherent way.
Image: How has your own process of writing and scripture study taught you to frame your thoughts in words?
EP: The people who have taught me to do this best are artists, poets, and novelists. They look at life and try to articulate it in a way that embodies who we are and what we’re doing. If all I read is systematic doctrinal theology, I’m just dealing with mental processes. If all I do is read about the moral life and right behavior, I’m just doing what the teachers tell me to. But the artist works with language in a way that integrates who we are and what we think and what we do. I don’t know any other place to go for help.
Image: Reading and reflection on your books has all been soul work for your readers. How has this work of writing and teaching benefited your own soul? Do you see it as an extension of your pastoral ministry?
EP: At some point quite early in my life, I came to the conviction that if I was going to speak about life, if I was going to be a representative of the gospel, I had to live it first. Maybe I can’t live it in a complete way, but I have to be in on living it. I’ve got to be a participant in it. If I don’t do that, no matter how well or how accurately I speak, I’m falsifying the word of God. When I finally became a pastor, I felt that I not only had that responsibility for myself, but for other people.
Denise Levertov has a poem that’s been influential for me. Its last line is a quotation from Rilke: “Every step an arrival.” I’ve had occasion in the last several years to reflect on my life, and I’ve realized that I didn’t often know what I was doing. Instead of having a destination, a goal, a vision, I was immersed in a way of life in which every step was an arrival at a new place.
Of course you need community to do that. I have a wife and children. For a long time I had a congregation. I had lapses, but I was mostly in touch with what they were doing and thinking; I wanted to be on their side and not impose anything on them, but to participate with them in what was going on. That sense of participation keeps me from standing outside their situations and telling them what to do—or “vision casting,” in this terrible phrase that has infiltrated the Christian church. The work of the Christian life is participating with people and with the Spirit of God. You can’t live it without the Spirit or without people. A pastor has the task of making sure that people understand that as a possibility—and an attractive one.
Image: It seems you’ve spent much of your life in conversation—through prayer, within your own soul, but also through being a pastor, with the students you teach, with the people you write for.
EP: I’m glad you picked up on the word conversation. I realized at one point that if I was going to be a pastor and was going to write, I would have to find a way to write that was relational. So much writing on religion and spirituality is didactic. There’s no conversation there. I think of a farmer plowing a field. When you get to the end of the row, you turn back again and plow right alongside the work that’s already been done, going back and forth. Language in essence is conversation, dialogue. It’s dialectic. It always requires a response. In that way, everything in scripture is conversation. God does not speak and then walk off. We don’t say something to God and walk off. So many people have questions about difficulty in prayer, and I think most of the misunderstanding takes place because they think they’re the sole speakers. But in a conversation, listening goes on.
Language in conversation is always changing. That’s why the poet is so important. Poets pay attention to the nuances and rhythms and sounds. For them, language is not just words on paper or words dictated. It’s always conversation. That’s why poets are so essential for pastors. They immerse us in conversational language which is making something, which is saying something in relationship.
Image: How does poetry move you, in a way distinct from prose? What are your responses to the poetry of the psalms, the prophets, the preachers in scripture?
EP: One of the reasons that the psalms have been so important to me, and that I’ve spent so much of my time reading and praying them—along with the other great poetic piece in the Bible, the Revelation of John—is that they constantly train me in listening to the rhythms and getting into the nuances, so that I’m not just reading for information or entertainment or inspiration. At least half of the Bible is written in poetry. Why don’t Christians immerse themselves more in poetry so that we can learn how language works? We live in a culture where very few poets get attention. Language is related to information, for getting things done. But the Christian life, the spiritual life, is not about information or getting things done. It’s about living. I want to live. I want to find out how. I want encouragement to live. I need companions in living.
Image: Walter Brueggemann has written about the need for pastoral ministry to include poetic thinking. Do you also see this as an essential part of Christian ministry?
EP: Yes. Walter Brueggemann is one of our finest scholars, and that’s because he’s aware of the poetic dimension of language. I’m grateful to the scholars. I couldn’t live without them, but they’re not enough for me. Brueggemann is a joy because he lets the poet have a strong voice, an essential voice.
Image: I know you are a lover of Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, for both of whom nature was a lens for viewing the divine, for discovering transcendence. What worlds does their writing make more vivid for you?
EP: Hopkins and Dickinson have a similar effect upon me. As with all poets, a major part of their work is the use of metaphor. These two are conspicuous in how they pick up the ordinary, natural world and use it as a link between the visible and invisible. Most of existence is invisible and inaudible. How do we make a connection with this huge world? By metaphor. The Bible is lavish with metaphor, but metaphors can very easily become clichés. The poet is a defense against clichés. For me, Dickinson and Hopkins have been primary in taking the ordinary stuff of life and putting it in such a way that you see or hear something other. I love Hopkins’s word “inscape.” It took me a long time to understand what he meant by that, but once I did, I saw it everyplace. Dickinson seems less self-conscious. So much of what she wrote seems to have come out of the blue. She didn’t seem to be writing for publication. I’m sure there was a possibility of it in her mind, but I think the writing was just spontaneous. That’s influenced me as a pastor. Can I do nothing in terms of publication, publicity, or getting a job done, but instead focus on getting this language into myself—written, spoken, prayed—unselfconsciously? If I can, then I’m being honest.
The task of preaching, as the task of poetry, is to say the old thing in a new way. Some expository preaching is just a repetition of what’s in the Bible: a listing of texts, proving things by a text. Instead, as a pastor you should think about what you want to say, re-say it, live into it, and then you’ll be able to say it in language that’s alive. I think one of the primary motives behind The Message was an attempt to find new metaphors for metaphors than had become clichés. I translated “mustard seed” as “pine nut.” You wouldn’t believe how much objection I got to that. “It’s not what the Bible says,” people said. I’ve never seen a mustard seed, but I’ve seen a lot of pine nuts.
Image: What poets do you read and benefit from? What theologians?
EP: W.H. Auden has meant a lot to me. I learned more about prosody from Auden than anyone else. Some of his poems seem to me so probing of the human condition and the culture in which we live. He was very much aware of the nature of the culture, and had a clear sense of how the gospel and redemption work in it.
At one point in my life T.S. Eliot was the poet who was most important to me. The contrast between The Waste Land and Four Quartets seems to me such a stark illustration of what happens when a sharply attentive non-Christian mind becomes a sharply attentive Christian mind. As a pastor, it’s easy to find out what’s wrong with the world and condemn it and preach to it. It’s a very different thing to look at that same world and pray it. That’s what I wanted to do, and Eliot was primary in my learning how. I’ll always be grateful to him for that.
The two writers who’ve most influenced the way I use language and the way I developed vocationally as a pastor are Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Theologically I was brought up on Calvin and Luther and later on Barth. They’re all magnificent theologians, and not without imagination. They care about words, but I think of them as mountain climbers. They go to the heights. They see the whole thing. But five or ten years into being a pastor, I was introduced by a friend to Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. They are theologians of a very different kind. I think of them as theologians of the valley, where people live. Teresa is a storyteller. Everything she writes is storied. John is a poet. Much of his writing is explication of his poetry, but all of it is rooted in the poetry, which has its basis in the Song of Songs. I realized that as a pastor I need Teresa and John right alongside Luther and Calvin and Barth. My job is not just announcing the truth of God; it’s getting people into the country where the truth is lived. Teresa and John do that magnificently. While Luther and Calvin and Barth are proclaiming the truth from the mountain, Teresa and John are down in the valley plowing the fields, sowing the seeds, pulling the weeds. That’s what pastors do. That’s also what poets and novelists do. I couldn’t live without the mountain climbers, but I couldn’t do my work without the farmers.
Image: What fiction writers have enlarged your thinking?
EP: In terms of my pastoral and writing life, the first writer who really started shaping my imagination was Dostoyevsky. He wrote about the whole of human experience with such seriousness. There’s no moralizing in Dostoyevsky, no preaching. He really does understand how faith works, how prayer works, how deceit works, how sin works. Perhaps the best thing about him is that he doesn’t make it easy. You have to enter his imagination. In the world of spirituality and religion, reduction and oversimplification are just endemic, and the minute that happens, we lose our participation. We stand off at a distance and criticize and evaluate the options. Dostoyevsky doesn’t much do that. He’s not an analyzer.
The English novelists who’ve influenced me most are George Eliot and Charles Dickens. Eliot always surprises me a little bit. She was not a believing Christian, or at least not a believer in any orthodoxies, and she seems to not reject anybody. I’ve learned a lot from her and still do. She has an enormous capacity to understand the moral and spiritual life.
Dickens is similar. Here’s a person who understood life in all its complexity: sin, the dirtiness of the world, the innocence, the poetry. He was not a believing Christian either, as far as anybody knows.
When I realized how much I was learning from Eliot and Dickens, who probably would not have felt comfortable in my congregation, that released me. God has a lot more ways of working than I have any idea of. When I willingly took them on as companions, as brothers and sisters, something happened to me imaginatively, and in the way I live my faith. Something changed in how I lived with my congregation. My spectrum of judgments about people—good Christian, bad Christian, half Christian—was taken away. I had so much more freedom and, I think, credibility.
Jan and I have read all of Ivan Doig’s books two or three times. He’s a local writer to us because he writes a lot about Montana. Wallace Stegner is in the same category: a western writer, not a confessing Christian (he called himself an agnostic), who knows how life is lived in the West. Alongside those two I’d put Wendell Berry, who is a Christian, though wary about going to church. We’re rereading his novel Jayber Crow, and if I were a professor now, teaching a course in pastoral theology, I would make this required reading. Jayber Crow knows what it’s like to be a pastor. He’s living the pastoral life behind a barber chair, and he gets it right most of the time.
Image: In Leap over a Wall, your inspection of King David’s character through the lenses of the players in his life, story is preeminent. What can you tell us about the power of narrative to bring a fresh dimension to our thinking?
EP: The power of narrative is the power of inclusion. Everything works. You can’t take a story and pull characters out. If you do that, you’ll lose the story. David is a particularly interesting character in this regard. We know more about him than anybody else in scripture, including Jesus, actually, because we have David’s entire life, and we only have three years plus some snippets of Jesus’s. Jesus is described as the son of David. There’s an explicit connection made between their lives. David’s is an incredibly complex life in terms of the mixture of good and evil, faithfulness and adultery, loyalty and murder.
The half of the Bible that isn’t poetry is narrative. Even the hortatory teachings of the New Testament are embedded in story. They’re conversations. If you try to talk outside of a story, you get either gossip, which is story without soul; illustration, which is an extract from a story without roots in relationship; propaganda, which eliminates people as they are and tries to turn them into something else; or examination papers, which are abstract knowledge outside of a living context. The Bible doesn’t do any of this, but we do it all the time. What distresses me most is when we do it in church, and all of us do. Language is the most distinctive thing about the human being, and we need to pay attention to the way it works. One of the things I hoped I could do in my lifetime was to recover some of the reverence for language within the Christian community by people who are not novelists or poets.
Image: Where does this desire always to analyze and critique come from? This desire to figure out how things work and make them work better? Is abstraction a normal part of the human condition?
EP: We all do it. The way we do it is sin. Sin is an abstraction. Sin is a fragmentation. The old temptation of the garden, to be like gods, is rooted in knowing good and evil. We want to know, and we can’t. Humility is a prerequisite for the accurate use of language. We live in a world made by God, but we refuse to live in mystery. We’re always trying to figure it out. Now mystery doesn’t mean obscurity. It doesn’t mean ignorance. Mystery means living in a trusting presence to what we cannot control or explain. All our big words—redemption, salvation, grace—when Christians try to pin that all down so they can create a police state in the church and get rid of all the evil, the bad thinking and bad behavior, we destroy the church. If you ask any pastor who knows his congregation, you’ll hear that congregations are a mess. God does not seem to scruple over who he’s going to bring in for us to rub shoulders with. Unless we’re ready to live in that mystery, we’re not ready to live in what we’re given by the grace of God.
Image: You once wrote an essay for a festschrift I was putting together for Madeleine L’Engle. In it you point to the writers of the four gospels as the preeminent tellers of the Jesus story. How did each gospel writer shine a different light on the life of Christ?
EP: I think they could because they were living under the extraordinary circumstances of that second or third generation of the church. To be more personal about it, they were pastors. They were living with congregations, telling the story in a way that worked in relation to these people and their circumstances. Now scholars have done a good job of pointing out what’s theologically unique about each writer, but what’s interesting to me is that they each tell the story in a way that’s consistent and coherent with the whole story. We have this rich array of witness which doesn’t exhaust the story, but gives us license to re-preach it out of our own congregations, out of our cultures, out of America, out of India, in a way that’s livable, that’s not imposed, that grows out of the organic nature of what it means to be a community of Christ.
Image: I’ve always wondered, when we get to heaven, will there be the kinds of contrast we experience in this life, between light and darkness, for instance? It seems that we live by contrast.
EP: I get a lot of letters with questions like these. I answer them courteously, but I say that the Bible is our primary source of revelation, and that if it doesn’t tell me, I have to say, “I don’t know.” It’s okay to speculate, but if you speculate, don’t be dogmatic; remember that it’s speculation. We’ve been trained by our culture to think that if we just have one more piece of evidence we’ll know the whole thing. That’s what drives scientific exploration, which is a good thing, but it turns into a bad thing if the scientist becomes arrogant about what he knows, if he assumes that he understands the whole thing and can do anything he wants. This is one of the dangers of technology: if we have the ability to do something, we think we have the authority to do it. Maybe that’s why the Holy Spirit, in the inspiration of scripture, has kept quite a few things out of our purview, to keep us humble and open to mystery. Living with some tension, in mystery, is part of the life of faith, and it’s what keeps us growing. The minute we become dogmatic, we close our minds. There’s a lot to be said for saying, “I don’t know.” Some parents don’t say that to their kids enough.
Image: Speaking of parents, what do you think about parents who say to their kids, “You can be anything you want to be?” Is that a healthy thing?
EP: I think it’s a sick way to instruct our children. One of the important things we learn as human beings is limits: how do we live within limits? A lot of mischief is done in the world by people who want to be big, want to make a lot of money, want a lot of influence. I think it’s a mistake to say that to children. Look at the trouble it’s gotten us into.
The minute we take our humility, our inadequacy, our sense of striving out of the story, we destroy it. There’s no lack of excellence in scripture, and there’s no lack of failure and humility, but they’re all part of our organic whole, which Jesus holds together, with his presence, his forgiveness, his commands, his promises. The minute we start unraveling it, we get into a lot of trouble.
Image: How has being a bestselling author, and scribe for God, affected your soul health? And what is your deepest ambition?
EP: I feel very fortunate: I was rejected as a writer for many years, and when I started being accepted, it didn’t affect me. I was inoculated against it.
My deepest ambition, I think, is being present to what is right before me—this piece of creation, this detail of redemption. Recently I finished writing two books. One was the final volume of the spiritual theology series, and I followed that up with a memoir, which really wasn’t my idea, but I was asked. When it was done, for the first time in all my life, I didn’t have a deadline. I was seventy-six years old and asking, “What do I do now?” I’m still asking. I say no to a lot of things now, because I don’t want to fill up my mind. Now I’m able to have a kind of comprehensive experience of negative space. I don’t want to get in the way. I think God has something for me to learn, to be, to experience in the years I have left, and I don’t think it’s writing books or having a congregation. I don’t know what it is yet. But my ambition is to be open, uncluttered, free, present to what’s there.
Image: When the first sections of The Message were published, there was a wide spectrum of response from readers and critics, from rave reviews to harsh condemnation. How did you maintain your equilibrium during this time of public exposure?
EP: For one thing, I don’t use the internet, so I didn’t know about a lot of it. My editor would occasionally mention something, but I told him I didn’t want to know. Occasionally I would get letters asking why I did this or that, and I always answered them as courteously as I could. What surprised me was how soon that disappeared. The mean people got tired, and they quit. I rarely hear anything negative anymore. I’m surprised, to tell you the truth, because, as you know, Kenneth Taylor just got hammered for what he did in his translation, The Living Bible. It seems to me that it’s almost endemic to the revelation itself that it was written in the vernacular. Now when some of us try to put it back into the vernacular, we get banged around quite a bit. But I was sure enough of what I was doing that I wasn’t too bothered.
Image: I’ve had the responsibility and privilege of being a consultant for several English translations of the Bible, including Ken Taylor’s (The Living Bible), the Committee on Bible Translation’s (Today’s New International Version) and yours (The Message). The philosophy at the heart of each translation made for different approaches to periphrasis. In The Living Bible, for instance, in passages that are open to varied interpretations, including outright ambiguity, the translator opted for a single, simple understanding—the most obvious, or the most traditional—while other translations allowed several possible meanings to remain open, enhancing the rich potential of a word, or phrase, or passage. Can you tell me about your own approach?
EP: When there was ambiguity, I tried to preserve it. If Isaiah didn’t make it clear, I didn’t think I should do what he didn’t do himself. If Jesus didn’t make it clear, well, after many of the things Jesus said, people walked away scratching their heads. I tried not to explain. I’ve tried to make clear in other things I’ve written that in order to read the Bible you’ve got to read the whole Bible. This is a story. You can’t pull a sentence out. You’ve got to let the whole story tell its story. I think the nitpicking of translations, trying to find heresy in a sentence or a passage, is misguided. This is a living word of God, and you’ve got to let God speak his whole story. Language in itself is ambiguous. Poets know that. The only unambiguous language is mathematics, and you can’t say “I love you” in mathematics.
Image: Is translation an art or a craft? What prepared you for the major enterprise of opening up scripture for today’s reader?
EP: It’s both an art and a craft. There was a task to be done, and I was prepared to do it by being trained academically in the biblical languages. I studied Hebrew and Greek and taught them for several years. But the thing that made it possible for me to do The Message was being a pastor: preaching, teaching, praying, listening to people in hospitals, family rooms. I was hearing their language and trying to respond conversationally out of the scriptures. It’s both art and a craft. I learned the craft academically. I learned the art by being a pastor.
In another fifty years, maybe it will be time for a new colloquial translation. Meanwhile I think it’s the task of pastors preaching to congregations to keep the language current. That’s where it happens on the ground.
Image: When you read scripture yourself do you read it in the original languages?
EP: Yes, mostly.
Image: You have often warned us against our culture’s information overload—the overstimulation that comes with exposure to multiple media. As a public person, how have you avoided it yourself?
EP: It’s a conscious decision. I hesitate to say this, because everybody is different, but in my life I need a lot of silence. We don’t have a television. I don’t use the internet. If I were doing a different kind of work, a different kind of life, I would use all those things. My children do, and if I need to know something I call them up, which I’m not embarrassed to do. It’s not a matter of a puritanical keeping myself free of the world. It’s just what I need.
Everybody needs to be cautious about their use of technology. One of the most important writers today is Albert Borgmann, who analyzes technology and how devastating it can be to human relations. He’s a Christian. He’s not against technology; he uses email.
I think Christians need to be very cautious about the culture. This is not a God-fearing, life-reverencing culture. We live in a pluralistic, spiritual, religious world where anything goes. We’ve got a revelation to protect; we’ve got a way of life to pursue. We need to be as clear and as accurate—and relaxed—as we can. I don’t think we need to be nervous and uptight and cautious in the way we live, but we need to be discerning, and then relax and have fun.
Image: This may be an audacious question, but what spiritual disciplines do you observe?
EP: I read scripture slowly. I pray. I worship. I once tried to coin a new word, scriptureprayer. This is a conversation. There is something to the Zen Buddhist discipline of emptying the mind, but that’s only part of it. We’ve received the word, and we’ve got to listen. There’s someone to listen to.
A caveat about the disciplines: I’m uneasy about the word discipline. It’s a useful word, which Richard Foster has brought back into the Protestant vocabulary. But in practice it often encourages people to take charge of their own spirituality. When you practice a discipline, you’re doing something. There’s not much relaxation. There’s not much letting go. Some people say to me, “You’re such a disciplined person.” I ran marathons for twenty years, but it wasn’t a discipline. I loved it. I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything. I have the same feeling about reading scripture, prayer, worship.
I was talking just this last week to a retired businessman. He led Bible studies for most of his life, but at some point he realized that he wasn’t getting it inside of him. He went to his pastor for advice, but his pastor couldn’t really help. So on his own, without any direction, he developed a system of lectio divina, almost exactly the way the books tell you how. He compiled huge notebooks of meditation and reflection on scripture. He told me he’d been doing this for ten years, that he’d wake up at five-thirty in the morning and he couldn’t wait to start. It wasn’t a discipline. It simply got inside of him.
Maybe discipline has become a cliché. Maybe there are new ways to talk about it. Maybe we’re right on the edge of that.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.