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    The Man behind The Message

    A review of Winn Collier’s A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson, Translator of The Message

    By Jessica Hooten Wilson

    November 3, 2021
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    • Marian

      I love Peterson, and your piece honored him well. It is beautifully written, and shows your respect for him and the beauty of his life and writings. And I think he would like what you said and how you said it. This is a beautifully written review and tribute.

    • Elizabeth Brink

      Thank you Jessica! I loved this biography as well, and I know I'll be returning to it in my own lifelong formation as a saint, God willing. I also loved how formed Peterson was by his novel and poetry reading. That's such a good point about how saints in our history translated the Bible and Peterson takes his place among them. I pray too that the goodness of Peterson's life will continue to bear fruit.

    Somewhere along the journey of life we realize that “What am I going to be when I grow up?” will never be finalized. Where once we assumed the question referred to a vocation, we come to see it as about our identity. We are ever trying to know who we are and what we are meant to be doing with our one crazy, terrifyingly beautiful life. Perhaps that is one reason I am drawn to biographies, where life makes sense by the last page. My own life seems more often a dark wood than a marked path. In a biography I see a complete story where even the obscure episodes are brightened by the light of a good end. Reading Winn Collier’s A Burning in My Bones highlighted the providence of God in the story of Eugene Peterson’s life. The book is a hagiography without the sentimentalism. It is a story about what it means to grow up to be a saint.

    Peterson confided in his diary regularly, “All I want to do is become a saint – but secretly, so no one knows it – a saint without any trappings.” We can only guess what Peterson meant by the trappings, but likely he refers to the adulation of human beings that he found distasteful. Collier knows his man and refrains from placing Peterson on a pedestal, even while illuminating the most venerable aspects of Peterson’s life. As Leon Bloy put it over a century ago, “… the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” It is the universal calling. Collier writes, “Eugene lived with an intensity of desire for God and holiness – a consuming desire to be holy – but this desire always loomed in front of him, always beckoned him further.” To read Collier’s biography, we witness that longing of a saint in a way that feels reachable and, more than that, necessary.

    The Message

    Most people know Peterson for creating The Message translation of the Bible. The reaction to Bible translations are always as incendiary as they are complimentary. When I heard Peterson talk on his translation at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing in 2010, I was moved by his motivation, his process, the attention to detail. He seemed to be participating in the redemptive movement of God to overcome the chaos of Babel with his rendering of the Hebrew and Greek into accessible English, what he terms “koine American,” acknowledging the common Greek of the New Testament. Peterson spent a decade of his life in this effort, with the hope that he could reveal to people the vitality of the Word. “The Bible was not a dead book. It was vibrantly alive,” Collier writes of Peterson’s belief. Answering letters of contention with his translation, Peterson writes to himself in his diary, “No one notices or remarks on what it is that I have done with the translation – read and listened to the text with my heart, not just with my head – kept the stories in my imagination alive and present all the time.” While naysayers debated Peterson’s translation choices, they missed the vitality that Peterson offered. Who but the saints of the church – Jerome, Wycliff, Luther – have translated the Word of God in its entirety? Peterson joined these ancestors in his life’s work.

    A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

    The Message, finished when Peterson was a septuagenarian, was one grand work blossoming from decades of fruitful planting as a pastor. Before Peterson began his translation, he inquired in prayer, “Is God bringing another piece of my life into harvest?” His vision of his life was influenced by the Book he translated, seeing the agricultural metaphors of both testaments as spiritual readings of his life. For three decades, he planted, sowed, and harvested the congregation of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. Most of his life was spent in this vocation and his time in that church taught him the difference between the holy versus the American way. When he wrote a memoir of his life, he titled it what he saw himself as – The Pastor. In The Pastor, Peterson writes, “I love this place in which I have been placed – its language, its history, its energy. But I don’t love ‘the American way,’ its culture and values.” He refers to a lesson learned during the early days of founding his church, when attendance began dwindling. A mentor advised him to encourage attendance by starting another building campaign. Peterson refused. To use a building as a recruiting tool, Peterson felt, would exploit people’s itch for materialism. He was not going to submit to consumerism, fast-paced faith, competition, or any of the dehumanizing ways that turn people into transactions, roles, or numbers.

    During the middle of his life, Peterson learned slow, “long obedience” (to borrow the title of one of his books). Collier writes that until his middle years, Peterson “had lived from goal to goal: Get good marks in school. Beat the time on the track. Gain your degrees. Get your professional qualifications. Work to move up the ladder. But now he was trudging through … with no goal he could identify to press toward.” Nearing my own over-the-hill birthday, these pages in Peterson’s biography resonated with me. What does it look like to make “every step an arrival,” a quote from Levertov’s “Overland to the Islands,” one of Peterson’s favorite poems?

    Eugene Peterson

    Eugene Peterson

    For Peterson, it meant slowing down. He told his elders that he wanted to be an “unbusy pastor.” He opened up his schedule to be able to read stories with his kids, visit with parishioners without looking at his watch, dedicating ninety minutes per day in prayer and Bible study. Peterson questions, “How can I lead people into the quiet place beside the still waters if I am in perpetual motion? How can I persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if I have to juggle my schedule constantly to make everything fit into place?” Peterson chose people over a to-do list. In an essay on ambition, “Lilies that Fester,” Peterson describes quoting Mark 16:6–7 on his way to every visit, meeting, or appointment: “He has risen … he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” “When I arrive and enter the room,” Peterson writes, “I am not so much wondering what I am going to do or say that will be pastoral as I am alert and observant for what the risen Christ has been doing that is making a gospel story out of this life.” Although Peterson struggled with the demands of his congregation, he opened up space in his life for the people who needed him.

    Take and Read

    In addition to those that needed Peterson were the mentors that he needed for himself: instead of pastors, Peterson leaned on poets and novelists. He would pencil Dostoevsky into his calendar on a regular basis, three times a week from 3–5 p.m. Collier observes, “Over the decades, poets and novelists proved to be among Eugene’s most trusted teachers. … Dostoevsky sat at the top.” When Peterson became a professor at Regent College in Vancouver in his seventies, he taught theology through novels – The Power and the Glory, The Book of the Dun Cow, The Brothers Karamazov. Collier records how one of Peterson’s graduate students confessed her doubts and struggles, but rather than encouraging her to read the Bible, he handed her ten novels: “Come back and talk to me after you’ve read these.”

    Peterson knew the encouragement to be found in such books. In 1990 Peterson wrote in Christianity Today that Dostoevsky helped him recover his passion for God. He learned holiness from Prince Myshkin. When Peterson lists characteristics of a saint in his diary, they sound like he’s been reading The Idiot: “Humility, number one. Unpretentiousness, having no idea that they’re a saint.” The potentially beautiful soul of Myshkin attracted and uplifted Peterson, and Dostoevsky became his mentor. In this Peterson’s experience spoke to mine, for Dostoevsky has also formed my faith. In Dostoevsky there is no moralizing: “He really does understand how faith works, how prayer works, how deceit works, how sin works,” Peterson writes, “He doesn’t make it easy. You have to enter his imagination.” The challenge of Dostoevsky requires participation, in Peterson’s experience and my own. Readers of Dostoevsky cannot reduce or simplify the world, and thus they are transformed. If only more pastors read Dostoevsky as well or as religiously as Peterson did!

    Peterson spent a decade of his life in this effort, with the hope that he could reveal to people the vitality of the Word. “The Bible was not a dead book. It was vibrantly alive.”

    Peterson’s diet of literature also included Wallace Stegner, Denise Levertov, Wendell Berry, and others. I remember Peterson advising pastors to read more poetry, that the language of the poets would enliven their sermons and enrich their ability to name the world. Collier pays homage to Peterson’s penchant for poets and novelists by quoting various writers as epigraphs to each chapter. At the end of Peterson’s life, while he was in hospice, he jumped up suddenly and quoted the first line of a Levertov poem, “Let’s go!” And, while his memory faded, his son quoted Julian of Norwich in an attempt to console them both: “All shall be well.” “And all manner of things shall be well,” Peterson replied, continuing the passage. Can you imagine being so filled to the brim with the beautiful voices of our literary tradition that they are the last things you forget?

    The Unnecessary Pastor

    Although Peterson received much fame and attention, especially in the latter decades of his life, he gave all credit to God, even in his diary. At a writers’ conference, someone ranked Peterson with Nouwen and Buechner. “Am I that good?” Peterson wondered. “I hope to be, but doubt it. But I am going to keep at it – and keep at it pursuing excellence … I feel quite detached from the compliments and praise – something that is apart from me – a gift, not an achievement.” The drive for excellence was not that he may receive praise, but that he might rightly invest his talents. Peterson did not rest on his laurels. He pastored until God moved him to write. Then, he wrote until he could not write any more. And, when Peterson succeeded, even in worldly ways, he hid from the limelight, receding to the sanctuary of obscurity in Montana. When people would seek out Peterson’s church in Montana, they would look for him at the pulpit and miss that he was the usher holding the door. The humility that Peterson admired in Myshkin, he lived out himself.

    Practice Resurrection

    If saints seem outdated or distant to our reality, Peterson’s vocation of holiness brings sanctity back into our living room. I listened to Collier’s biography initially, then I had to own a hard copy of the book, and I read it front to back and then backwards to front again. I bought Eat this Book and read several other pieces by Peterson, wanting more and more to soak up the wisdom of this man whose story had planted seeds in my soul. They say that saints perform miracles and are in communion with us even after they have died. “Eugene’s life said amen,” Collier poetically puts it. I believe Peterson’s life is miraculously bearing fruit after his passing. We should all hope to imitate such a story.

    Contributed By

    Jessica Hooten Wilson is a Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence at the University of Dallas. She is the author of several books, including her upcoming The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints.

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