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The Man Behind The Message: Eugene Peterson
Montana Senior News August/September 2015
Erudite yet earthy. Impulsive yet intentional. Multi-talented yet modest. These adjectives might appear mismatched but they all accurately portray Eugene Peterson, author of The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. For those not among the 11 million people who own a copy of Eugene’s bestseller or who are unfamiliar with it, The Message is a paraphrase, as well as an idiomatic translation, of the Bible. It also happens to be written by a man from Montana.

Although now published in seven languages, The Message initially was so controversial, no one could have predicted it becoming a theological megahit. The contention arose because of Eugene’s informal writing style. His interpretive approach features a sometimes-surprising vocabulary influenced by feelings as well as meanings. That explains, for instance, why upon occasion he replaces a traditional Amen with a very untraditional “Yes, yes, yes.”

“There was a lot of criticism. I was told it was too modern, too New Age, not reverent enough,” recalls Eugene, an ardent conservationist who grew up in Kalispell with a love of the outdoors and a passion for music and poetry. The son of a butcher, he eventually devoted 20 years to translating the Bible’s original Greek and Hebrew scriptural texts into language he considered practical for today’s readers.

“I was looking for something authentic to the language—a way to make the biblical text relevant to the conditions of the people. I wanted to use metaphors and words I heard my kids speak,” explains Eugene. “The book came out of a life not just out of a head.”

That clarifies why you encounter in the pages of The Message the slang and cliches of everyday life. So instead of reading about someone who “dwelt among us,” you find that person has “moved into the neighborhood.” And instead of the familiar “leadeth me in the paths of righteousness” you see “send me in the right direction.”

Eugene credits the Korean War with nudging him onto the road to writing The Message and 34 other religion-themed books he eventually penned. All together, he says, “they cover the whole pastoral waterfront in terms of how pastors do what they do and the kind of life needed to shepherd, preach, and counsel.”

Upon graduating from Seattle Pacific University, Eugene describes his younger self as, “an English and philosophy major without a strong sense of vocation. When I left college,” he recalls, “I didn’t know what to do. It was during the war and I knew I’d be drafted if I didn’t get back into school. I panicked and called one of my professors. Since I liked languages, I asked if he’d recommend me for entrance into New York Theological Seminary, and he did.”

With his acceptance in hand, Eugene drove across the country in three days. When he felt tired, he pulled off the road, tucked his sleeping bag under his car, then crawled in and dozed off.

“Back then I wanted to study languages and teach them. I always said I’m not going to be a pastor,” remembers Eugene. “The word seminary was the same as cemetery to me.” Though he felt no impulsion to complete the field work required for ordination, he nevertheless did finish it and was ordained as a Presbyterian pastor. Soon after, Eugene attended Johns Hopkins University to study Semitic languages and proceed on his path to academia.

When he received an offer to serve as an associate pastor for a New York congregation, where he could also teach the Bible, Greek, and Hebrew, Eugene accepted. Surprisingly, his ivory tower became claustrophobic as he found himself drawn to pastoring.

“Being a pastor turned out to be much more energizing and interesting because of the divorces, drugs, kids running away from home,” states Eugene. “I was attracted to help. I’ve always sought out underdogs and felt at home with them.”

One of the more humorous moments during this period occurred when Eugene enrolled in a local synagogue’s conversational Hebrew class. As the rabbi called off the attendee roster, he paused when he reached Eugene’s surname.
“He looked up,” recollects Eugene, “and said, ‘Peterson? Who’s Peterson?’”
Three years’ later, an opportunity arose to start his own church in Bel Air, Maryland. By then he and his wife, Jan, were raising their first child. Despite the fact that Eugene’s already-meagre pay would be drastically cut, he scheduled an interview. When the salary negotiation stage was reached, he was told, “Eugene, if you have to make a sacrifice for the Lord, this is a great place to do it.”
“I said yes and was hired on the spot. It was hard work. I went door to door inviting people to attend services. We met in the basement of our house until we could start building a church,” says Eugene. In three years’ time, Christ Our King Presbyterian Church had a solid physical, financial, and spiritual foundation; Jan had two more little ones to care for; and Eugene’s salary had improved. The Petersons remained for 27 more years nurturing their family along with their fledgling congregation.
“Writing was part of my life then but I never thought of myself as a writer. I found the church publications available to help me had nothing to do with the way you live. I got mad inside,” remembers Eugene. “I was learning on the job and wanting to know how do I do this? I wanted people to take God seriously. Families were becoming increasingly dysfunctional. There was a need to help people in trouble.”
The Message grew from his love of the Book of Psalms, which Eugene turned to when parishioners asked him to teach them how to pray.
“I would translate a psalm into American vernacular for just that individual. I was never thinking of something bigger,” he says. “Today when I read those translations, I still see the person I wrote each one for.”
In 1991, Eugene resigned and took a sabbatical as a writer-in-residence at Pittsburgh Seminary. His New Testament translations went into print and out into the world during that year. And as theological debates swirled around the book, Eugene accepted a professorship to teach Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, BC.
“No one knew what it meant, including me, so I could do whatever I wanted,” recalls Eugene, who taught the course for five years. He would likely have remained longer but as he says, “The New Testament translation was selling quite well by then and pressure to do the Old Testament started to build. I could only work on it in bits and pieces when teaching and knew I would have to retire to finish.”
So he and Jan returned to the Flathead Lake home, which Eugene’s father had built. For the next seven years he focused on completing the Old Testament translations and then wrote even more books.
The Message,
along with his other published writings, brought Eugene success and fame. But it is the closeness of the friendships and worship from days past in Bel Air that he counts as his true riches.
“I miss the whole world of gatheredness, of being involved in people’s lives on a very intimate level. Pastors get their fingers dirty in the soil of people’s lives. I’m still a pastor,” he says gently. “That’s who I am.”