Book Review – Eat This Book (Eugene Peterson)

Anyone who single-handedly paraphrases the entire Bible is probably worth hearing on the subject of Bible reading, so I chose this book as my introduction to the writings of Eugene Peterson. It is not the first in his “Spiritual Theology” series, but stands alone as a guide to what he calls “spiritual reading”, or what has been know in the past as “lectio divina” – the Scriptures are not merely to be read, but lived.

The first section utilises the picture of the apostle John being given a book to eat in Revelation 10:9-10. These are words intended to get inside of us. He stresses the importance of the Bible if we are to be those who know who Jesus is, where he is going and how to walk in his steps.

When reading a spiritual book, we need to pay close attention to form – it is not just what is said, but how it is said that matters. And the form is a story. He talks about how we need to move from reading the Bible to see how God fits into the story of our lives, to reading it to discover how our lives fit into his story.

Peterson stresses the importance of exegesis – exegesis is the care we give to getting the words right. It is loving God enough to stop and listen to what he says. This is not to say that he feels that true understanding of the Bible is the domain of experts only, but he does recommend that commentators be our companions as we seek to give care to properly comprehending what the Word says.

He proposes a “hermeneutic of adoration” (it reminded me of N T Wright’s “hermeneutic of love”, but the concept is slightly different). Our culture makes self the authoritative text to live by, and the church has bought into this. He warns that just as eating the book gave John stomach ache, so the Word of God not only comforts us but disturbs. We cannot necessarily systematize to get rid of the “difficult bits”.

Peterson is a very profound and creative writer, but I must admit there were a few places where he seemed to get so profound that he lost me. He proposes that Bible reading should be “liturgical”, but not what most people understand “liturgical” to mean, but rather something that pertains to the whole of life. He moves on to give some good advice on the importance of reading “in context” – not so much meaning reading the bits before and after, but understanding the context into which the words were first spoken.

The second section of the book, goes through the art of spiritual reading – lectio divina. This quite practical section leads us through lectio – we read the text, meditatio – we meditate on it, oratario – we pray the text, and finally contemplato – we live the text. He encourages us that “anything goes” in prayer – the Psalmists demonstrate that prayer is about honesty before God, not about being “nice”.

The third and final section talks about Bible translation, a subject dear to Peterson’s heart. He is somewhat critical of “literal” translations, as they can lose the impact of metaphors. He tells the story of how he came to write The Message, a translation into modern American. He sees himself as following in the tradition of Tyndale, whose passion was to put the Bible into everyday language – an aim that was partly undone by the translators of the King James version.

Overall I found this to be a very stimulating read on a topic that is not often written on (at least from this angle), and certainly more lively than some textbooks on hermeneutics I have read. I’ll probably try a few more in his Spiritual Theology series.

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