Eugene Peterson spent nearly six decades providing spiritual guidance to millions through his books, and his famous paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. When told that Bono was quoting The Message at U2 concerts Peterson at first replied, ‘Who’s Bono?’ In more recent years he formed a friendship with the rockstar; they filmed indepth discussions together about the Psalms, art, and worship. Eugene Peterson, who passed away on October 22, 2018, was a guest on the national talk program Open House hosted by Sheridan Voysey. This is a transcript of that memorable interview.
SV: It came as quite a surprise to you, I believe, that Bono was quoting The Message in front of 20,000 fans at a time.
EP: Yeah, it did come as a surprise. My students, who all love Bono and U2, quickly re-educated me!
After forty-five years as a church minister and scholar, you are now officially retired. Does that really mean anything? You’re still churning out books.
Well, it means something, but it doesn’t mean that I’m not working as hard as I ever did. I just spent two days with a group of camp directors from all over the country in a retreat place just a mile from our house. So most of the people come to me now—I don’t go to them.
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The Message has been so popular, hasn’t it?
It’s just astonishing. I had no idea that would be the case.
Why do think it has resonated with us so much?
You know, Sheridan, I really don’t know. I had no idea that I was doing anything extraordinary. I have been doing this all my life in my congregation—a very small congregation. Nobody thought it was so great there. Somehow it has caught the imagination. I was trying to get [the Bible’s message] into the colloquial language that I was listening to all my life—with my congregation, my kids, the neighbourhood—and it just struck fire somehow.
Is it true that you assembled The Message from Bible study notes you’d written over the years for your congregation?
Yes. I was thinking of these new Christians, and Christians who had got tired of reading the Bible, who thought they knew it all. So I was trying to wake them up to what was going on there. And they woke up.
It must have been quite a weight on your shoulders to actually translate the Scriptures. If I was in that role part of me would be thinking, ‘Well, I hope I get this right. I don’t want to lead people astray.’
Well, Sheridan, it wasn’t quite like that. I had scholars who would check what I did. For every book of the Bible there was an evangelical scholar who had written a commentary on that book and I would submit it to him or her. So I felt I had a safety net, so that they could find inadvertent mistakes or things that would cause some shade of mishearing or mis-meaning in the text. I felt very light, actually. I felt very joyful. It was a twelve-year project, and to tell you the truth I never did get tired of it.
Let’s go back a few years. Your early years were spent in your father’s butcher shop in Montana. Did that apprenticeship of sorts provide any basis for the spiritual apprenticeship you would later offer to others?
Yes, it did. In fact, it might have been the most important influence on my life as a pastor.
My father was a butcher, wore a white apron, and my mother, when I was about five years old, started making little white aprons for me. I would work in his butcher shop. Well, work—I was there and messed around. But I was gradually given jobs to do. And I knew the story of Samuel, whose mother made him a priestly robe, and I pretended that I was Samuel and my father was a priest. In fact, my father acted like a priest. He knew everybody who came into the store by name. He was an affable, cheerful, relational person. And of course we were in a place of sacrifice—we were killing chickens, goats and lambs. So I felt quite at home, and I realised later when I became a pastor how much that place of exchange had on me. My father’s priestly presence was very important.
Would you say he was the greatest spiritual influence in your life?
Yeah, together with my mother. My home was the nurturing place for my vocation. My mother was a great storyteller and so her love for words, stories, her language—that was in my genes from her. But this other kind of public presence of personal and relational care of people, making sure they were getting what they needed, that came from my father.
How did your faith journey begin? When was the moment when God became real to you?
That’s hard to say when you grow up in a world where everything is so congruent and fits together. My whole world was the world of faith. There was an outside world, but I wasn’t much part of that. But I had moments of realisation during conversations with my parents. I saved up money and brought my first Bible when I was twelve. The Psalms became very important to me at any early age. So I started praying the Psalms when I was about twelve, thirteen or fourteen and have done it ever since. It’s been the basic text for my life of prayer. I think I have probably written about the Psalms more than any other single part of the Scripture.
What disciplines and practices do you undertake to maintain your relationship with God? Are you comfortable exploring that with us?
Yeah I am, but I guess I’m a little bit reluctant—I don’t want anybody copying me. They should be doing it themselves. But, you know, I’ll tell you what I do. I have been doing this as long as I’ve been an adult and previous to that, actually. I get up early in the morning and I have an hour-and-a-half or two hours which starts with a mug of coffee. I grind my beans and steep my coffee and take a flask of it to my wife and go to my study.
“If there was one deliberate thing I’ve done that has made more difference to me than anything else…it’s been keeping a Sabbath. “
To tell you the truth, Sheridan, I really don’t think of that time as devotional time. I’m praying, I’m reading the Bible, I’m meditating; I’m just trying to be present before God. But when I leave my study, that’s when I begin. I feel like [that morning time] is the stretching and callisthenics you do before you run a race. Then you’re into the world and you’re praying. That’s when the praying starts—grappling with life in Jesus’ name.
If there was one deliberate thing I’ve done that has made more difference to me than anything else—to my wife, to my family, to my congregation, to my children—it’s been keeping a Sabbath. We started to keep the Sabbath when our children were young. I worked hard on Sunday, of course, so that couldn’t be my Sabbath. So we took Monday for our Sabbath. We kept it pretty strict. Except for emergencies like deaths and accidents, we didn’t do any work activities. We asked the congregation to help us do it, and they did. We defined our Sabbath as ‘play and pray’—we didn’t do anything necessary. We usually started it by going to the woods and spending five or six hours walking along the rivers and through the woods, not with a Bible but with binoculars. We spent the first three or four hours in silence, had lunch together, then talked on our way back home. When we got home the kids would be coming home from school and we would just play. And we’ve done that for forty years. I think in terms of deciding to do something and keeping a deliberate practice, that has probably been the most significant thing we have done.
A Sabbath puts the handbrake on this hectic life of ours, doesn’t it?
Yeah. It just says stop, quit. Watch what God is doing for a while, just today. Just watch what he is doing. He is watching what you are doing for six days—it’s pretty generous of him. So just watch what he is doing. Listen to what he is saying.
How can we watch what God is doing? Where do you think the signs of his presence are in the world?
Well, we’ve got a pretty good text book to know what to look for. We read Scripture with a kind of attentiveness, and we listen to people in a different way—listening to the meaning beneath their words or within their words. People around us are great carriers of God’s presence, whether they know it or not.
One of the things I regret among my fellow friends and neighbours is that we really don’t take Scripture seriously, personally, and read it as attentively as we do the newspapers. What’s going on? I live out in the country. I walk twenty minutes to get the morning newspaper. But I’ve spent an hour-and-a-half or two hours by that time trying to pay attention to what God is doing as revealed in Jesus, in the Scriptures. I get my paper, open it up, and I look at the front page and see what the editor thought was important for me to know. It takes me about five minutes and I’ve had enough. There is nothing new in that newspaper. Every day there are murders, rapes or drug deals; there is almost never anything new. But when I open my Bible, you know, I’m surprised every day. Why didn’t I ever see that before? Even evangelicals, who read the Bible every day, are not paying attention to it.
I wonder if this relates back to a statement of yours I read once, that spirituality is in a mess today. How do you think spirituality needs to be reformed?
That is hard to say. I have written twenty-five books or so trying to address that topic.
I’ll tell you what I think I know about what’s gone wrong. We have been so taken by the secularised world, the celebrity world, the world of addictions, of stimulus, of adrenalin—we have brought into that whole thing. For instance, I can’t believe that everybody has a television set in their home. Why do they do that? Who wants all that poison coming into your house? The addiction to the internet. The haste—everybody is in a hurry. Why do they do that? Doesn’t anybody want to learn how to live simply?
I was in a monastery a few years ago and there were thirty or forty people making retreat there, and the guest master gathered all of us together and said, ‘If there is anything you need, come and see us. We will tell you how you can do without it.’ I’ve been trying to do that as a pastor for all my adult life but, you know, that is not a very popular way to be a pastor.
After a lifetime of walking with God, what one aspect of the person of Jesus most captivates you today?
His absolute embrace of ordinary stuff, and ordinary people. He wasn’t going after the big people in his day. He ignored them. He went after the little people, the outsiders, the bystanders. I’m writing right now about the way we use languages. I’m just immersed in the parables, the way Jesus talked and how he was able to enter into the ordinary lives of people who didn’t even care about God, didn’t know about God, weren’t interested in God. And suddenly by entering into their life using their language, not importing a spiritual high-powered language into their lives, he gently got into their lives and then they got into his life. He is the word made flesh, and language becomes such an important way in which he communicates, creates, heals. Your question is what most impresses me. That’s what impresses me. That presence. His speaking presence.