I love reading different translations of the Bible to gain new perspective on verses, but I accompany that with introspective comparison of variant readings, as well as word studies in the original languages.
When I read The Message (copyright Eugene Peterson), it seems like listening to a great-sounding preacher who doesn’t directly refer to the Bible. Afterwards I feel like finding the passage he was talking around, and reading the entire chapter for myself in a standard translation, because I’m not quite sure what his “message” has to do with the word of God.
That has nothing to do with the idea that any particular translation is anointed by God or that his interpretation conflicts with my preconceived ideas. It has to do with humbling myself enough to be open to spiritual guidance from other, more mature believers, rather than accepting everything that feels good to me right now.
Some of Peterson’s interpretations directly conflict with the spiritual discernment of generations of mature, intelligent, trustworthy believers, as expressed by their confidence in “literal” translations. Although I heartily endorse opposition to Christian Pharisaism, Peterson’s overall “message” is not one that will build up the spiritual strength of the church. It weakens spiritual discernment by trying merely to be acceptable to modern sensibilities, by submitting to the reader’s laziness instead of teaching and challenging him, by treating him like a spoiled child whom the Heavenly Father dares not bore or intimidate for fear of alienating him.
Pablum is for Babies
Don’t get me wrong about what it means to read God’s Word. I think it should be available in as many forms as possible. However, what is permissible is not always edifying, especially as we grow up.
If the only way you can understand the gospel is with a ground-up, predigested and regurgitated version of the Word, that’s fine for starters. That is why Jesus taught in parables, so that the people would have no excuse for rejecting Him superficially.
However, once you get the basic idea and you are ready to grow in the Spirit, you need real food. Otherwise, you are just sitting in your high chair, fingerpainting with your baby food, when you should be sitting in a real chair at the King’s table and using the tools given you by the Spirit to dig into something substantial.
This is a lesson quickly learned in any martial art. For example, when fencing, the novice tends to stay back a little too far and attack his adversary’s blade. He is intimidated by his adversary’s blade and has no physical courage. His adversary can easily feint and make one touch after another. Eventually he gets frustrated at never getting a touch, and he launches into a wild, foolhardy flèche. He is still intimidated when he does this, but he has momentarily overcome his fear in a surge of undisciplined emotion. The adversary can, with little effort, deflect the novice’s blade and deliver a devastating touch as the novice careens off the strip.
The Word has been joyfully received, but has fallen on shallow soil.
With practice, the fencer learns that he can judge distance, that he can lunge gracefully and take the line. Through determined effort and familiarity with his adversary’s weapon and tactics, the fencer inadvertently learns that he has the courage to boldly use his Sword as a weapon against the Adversary.
The Word is the Reason
There is a reason why certain Christian issues are still being debated despite centuries of ecumenicalism, unification, schism, reformation, inquisition, excommunication, co-optation, dilution, and televangelism.
It isn’t because Love Is All You Need, the infallible Vicar of Christ reigns on earth, or the Warrior Messiah came to foment insurrection. It isn’t because of systematic theology, purpose-driven prosperity, 17th-century hymns, or Godblogging.
The reason is that we are talking about a person and a text of divine origin. The person described in this text doesn’t pander to us or stroke our vanity. He doesn’t teach like the teachers of the law, but as one who has authority. He says it’s better to lose part of your body than to go to hell because of it. He says if you’re not for him, you’re against him, and if you don’t obey him, you’re not his friend.
The text shows him being humiliated and beaten before he is executed. It shows his crowds of listeners as needy, capricious, and vindictive, while his close followers are faithless, stupid, deceitful, and cowardly. Among the gospels, the epistles, and the revelation to John, there is something to offend almost everyone.
This story just cries out for serious editing, to make it more consistent, less discriminatory, more positive, and just plain fun. Moreover, every time someone tries to make it “useful” for some political or social purpose, someone else goes back to the text and points out why they’re wrong. It’s almost as if God expects us to think for ourselves! I hate it when that happens.
Giving a mature believer the weak rhetoric, adolescent symbolism, and feminized wording in a “seeker’s Bible” is like feeding a grown man a bunch of candy for dinner. He’s going to have a storming glucose level followed by an insulin-soaked crash and a lot of nausea. Is it any coincidence that this could be used to describe the spiritual state of the modern church?