Saturday, May 19, 2012

Reading 'The Message' in Church

The Message is a very popular paraphrase of the Bible, especially in some quarters. What is more interesting is that it is often read in Church services, and used in sermons as if it were a Bible translation. The cover, shown here, proclaims it to be "The Bible in contemporary language", but anyone familiar with the Bible in a good translation such as the English Standard Version will soon find that The Message is not that at all; it is Eugene Peterson's interpretation, not a translation.

Why the fuss? One may ask, Why write this; if Peterson is getting people to read the Bible, is that not a good thing? My concern is that what the reader of The Message is getting is the false impression that he or she is actually reading the Bible, rather than Peterson. Hence this piece.

This is basically a potted version of British Methodist scholar Neil Richardson's article "Should Eugene Peterson's 'The Message' be Read in Church?" from the November 2009 issue of the Epworth Review. Richardson concentrates on Peterson's rendering of Paul's Epistles. I have made some alterations, giving some passages in full rather than merely giving a reference. I must confess that Richardson's article has woken me up to the real danger posed by churches and Christians treating The Message as a Bible.

The great question we must ask about any rendering of the Bible is; is it accurate? Hearing The Message, a congregation, "Will hear something comprehensible, but unless they compare it with a translation which is closer to the original Greek or Hebrew, they can't assess whether it is an accurate interpretation or not." It is not an accurate interpretation.

Richardson identifies nine classes of problems in The Message. They overlap, but can be described separately.

1. Inaccuracies of translation. There are many places where, though a direct equivalent of a word should be used (lists in particular), Peterson gives a less-than-equivalent rendering. So in Galatians 5:19-21, Peterson renders Paul's description of 'The Works of the Flesh' as: "It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on." It would be difficult to find the equivalents for some of these in the original text or indeed in a decent English translation. In Romans 1:18 Peterson writes that, "But God's angry displeasure erupts as acts of human mistrust and wrongdoing and lying accumulate". The original word here is apokaluptetai, which means "is being revealed", and is significantly the same word used in the preceding verse of God's righteousness. For the sake of a striking metaphor, Peterson has actually abandoned what Paul wrote. Romans 8:35 is another example of a list where Peterson has significantly amended what Paul wrote, "Bullying threats" is not a satisfactory equivalent to the more accurate 'danger' in the ESV. In Romans 8:38, rather than the accurate (and sublime) "neither life nor death", Peterson has "Nothing living or dead," which is flat and dull.

2. Misleading readings. These are paraphrases that misunderstand Paul. The first example Richardson gives is Romans 2:10, where The Message reads, "if you embrace the way God does things, there are wonderful payoffs". The context shows however that Paul's perspective is the future, the Second Advent, not the present. In Romans 8:26, we read, "If we don't know how or what to pray, it doesn't matter". The words "it doesn't matter" have no antecedent in the Greek at all. At times Peterson is trying to smooth out Paul's style, which is never a good idea. Romans 5:10 in The Message reads: "If, when we were at our worst, we were put on friendly terms with God by the sacrificial death of his Son, now that we're at our best, just think of how our lives will expand and deepen by means of his resurrection life!" Even if "While we were at our worst" is accepted as a half-way decent rendering of the Greek, "now that we're at our best" is by no means an acceptable rendering of what should be translated "now that we are reconciled." Paul is often uneven in his writing style, but that is Paul; one should not try to smooth Paul out, for then he ceases to be Paul.

3. References to Jews and Judaism. Peterson is not a proponent of the New Perspective on Paul. He is however far too ready to overplay the legalism of Pharisaism, so that in Romans 7:6, instead of 'Letter', we have, "oppressive regulations and fine print". The rendering of 2 Corinthians 3:15, "Whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds," as "Even today when the proclamations of that old, bankrupt government are read out, they can't see through it" is simply awful. Then there are such gratuitous additions to the original as "all their talk about the law is gas" in Galatians 6:13. There is simply no need to do this.

4. Colloquialisms and anachronisms.  In Romans 8:3 The Message reads, "God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son." Really? The image may be striking, but seems unwarranted by the original text. There are some places where a colloquialism obscures the meaning of the text, such as 2 Corinthians 7:13, "That's what happened—and we felt just great." Which is all very well, but the original literally reads, "Because of this, we have been comforted." The anachronisms include a reference to sandwiches in 1 Corinthians 11:33. Anachronism is always a danger in a paraphrase of didactic material like the Pauline letters, but should be avoided as much as possible due to the danger of distorting the original and distracting the reader. Introducing sandwiches in 1 Corinthians 11 is a good example of unnecessary anachronism: "go home and eat" would have been just as understandable.

5. Additions. A paraphrase is bound to be longer than the original, but Peterson is guilty of addition for the sake of addition in many places, and many of these are misleading and distort rather than clarify Paul. For example in Galatians 6:14-15 we read, "I have been crucified in relation to the world, set free from the stifling atmosphere of pleasing others and fitting into the little patterns that they dictate." Gone is Paul's striking image of the world crucified to him, and in its place is this long 'explanation' of the idea of Paul being crucified to the world that explains nothing. One gets the impression that there are places where Peterson is making Paul say what he thinks Paul ought to have said, rather than what Paul actually meant to say.

6. Disappearances. Paul's 'And the world is crucified to me' is certainly not the only omission. What is striking in fact is that the phrases that are missing are often ones that are somewhat difficult; one cannot avoid the impression that where Peterson did not understand what Paul was saying and knew that he did not, he just left that bit out. The phrase "God will destroy him" is lacking in 1 Corinthians 3:17. In Romans 12:20-21 Paul's striking metaphor of heaping coals on an enemy's head by kindness is excised. In 1 Corinthians 10:6 the phrase "These things happened as examples for us" has been replaced with the rather bland, "the same thing could happen to us." The troubling thing is that phrases and passages are being omitted despite the fact that they appear in every Greek manuscript; the omissions are not textual choices, they are entirely at Peterson's pleasure.

7. Blandness. Though in places Peterson has introduced striking metaphors, overall The Message tends in the opposite direction, replacing Paul's striking language with bland platitudes. So in Romans 5, where Paul wrote, "Where sin abounded, grace abounded far more", Peterson renders it, "When it's sin versus grace, grace wins hands down." "Abba! Father!" at Romans 8:15 becomes, "What's next, Papa?" At Romans 8:18, "The revelation of the children of God" becomes "what's coming next?" Roams 8:37, instead of "more than conquerors" we have, "None of this phazes us." The rendering of 1 Corinthians 4:8 completely eliminates Paul's biting sarcasm. In 1 Corinthians 7:29 an escatalogical reference becomes, "Time is of the essence", and worst of all, in Romans 2:4, "the riches of his kindness" becomes, "because he's such a nice God." One gets the impression that Peterson really is not competent to paraphrase Paul.

8. Unnecessary. There are places where some of the additional material is quite unnecessary; Peterson seems to have let himself go and often paraphrased for the sake of paraphrasing rather than just where it makes the text clearer. There is no need to paraphrase where the original is clear enough already. So why add "How can they render justice if they do not believe in the God of Justice?" to 1 Corinthians 6:6? That has nothing to do with Paul's point, and the text is clear enough without it. And of course "The Message" is not an adequate, or clearer, substitute for "The Gospel."

9. Reductionist renderings. Richardson explains, "By this I mean paraphrases which reduce or remove the extraordinary, eschatalogical, counter-cultural nature of Paul's writings." Peterson does not always do this, of course, but he does it a lot; "affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity" are just not adequate replacements for, "Love, joy, peace" in Galatians 5:22, and the list of the fruit of the spirit gets worse from there. "Be cheerful" is not the same as "be joyful" (1 Thessalonians 5:16). Again, Peterson's tendency is to reduce the Bible to his own level, rather than being lifted by it.

So what is to be done? The Message is obviously not a Bible translation, or even a terribly good paraphrase. Rather than allowing the Bible to expand his understanding, Peterson has often contracted the Bible to fit his own ideas, omitting those bits that he cannot fit, and adding his own material in far too many places. With the aim of making the Bible and the Gospel comprehensible, he has actually done something quite different; he has made them manageable, which is not to be done. While paraphrases can be useful, they must be faithful to the original material, and that is precisely where The Message falls down. To read The Message in Church as if it is a Bible translation is misleading and wrong. When The Message is read, the reader must be aware that he is reading what Eugene Peterson thinks God meant to say, not what God actually said. The charge may sound harsh, but it is quite accurate.

[Neil Richardson's original piece is found in The Epworth Review Vol. 36, No. 4, Pp. 71-77. And yes, I am aware of the irony of paraphrasing an article about a paraphrase. What follows is my own]

The Message should not be marketed as a Bible at all, and there the publisher is emphatically to blame. What ought to be marketed as a paraphrase (because it is) is being marketed as a Bible version (which it emphatically is not), and being read in churches. Preachers are making points based on The Message, points based on things that the original text does not say. It would be funny, if it wasn't so serious. The Message does not belong in the pulpit. No-one should use it as their primary Bible, because it is not a Bible. If you read only The Message, you are not getting all of God's message.

So why has it been marketed as a Bible version? The simple answer is because of the desire of all the major American Christian publishers to have an 'in-house' Bible version that they can use in their publications. Crossway has the ESV, Zondervan the NIV, Broadman and Holman the 'God's Word' Translation, and Thomas Nelson the NKJV. Navpress have The Message, and are determined to use it as if it were a Bible translation. So we have as their offering in the lucrative study Bible market, The Message Study Bible. So much for comments that "The Message is not meant to take the place of study Bibles" (introduction to the 2003 edition of The Message). 

Brethren, these things out not to be so. The Message is not a translation of the Bible, it is not a Bible at all, it is a paraphrase of the Bible. There it differs from every Bible version, in that it is one man's interpretation, and one that, if his mangling of Paul is anything to go by, is far from adequate.

There is another reason why The Message should not be treated as a Bible version; there is no lack of people who would like to re-imagine the Bible for their own purposes, creating a 'Bible' that left out or completely re-worked passages they find difficult or challenging. Treating The Message as though it were a Bible makes such projects seem that much more acceptable in our postmodern age. Peterson is relatively innocuous compared to those ideologues who would alter the Biblical text in a few key places to remove the condemnation of certain specific sins, and whom an acceptance of Peterson's work as a Bible would encourage to do just that.

In conclusion, then, The Message is not a Bible, and should not be treated as such.


Pip said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Highland Host said...

I have deleted the comment that was made here because it was of a peculiarly unhelpful type. Nothing is gained by suggesting that Eugene Peterson is guilty of unnatural sins, and having been the victim of such insinuations myself I am particularly sensitive to them being made about others.