Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Book Review: Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading by Eugene Peterson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

Eugene Peterson, perhaps best known as the translator of the popular modern version of the Bible called The Message, has, through his many other writings, also become one of America’s leading pastoral theologians.

Peterson is presently engaged in producing a five-volume work on spiritual theology that is being published by Eerdmans. Eat This Book is the second book in the series; the first book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, and the third book, The Jesus Way, are also available. Eat This Book is a book about the Bible; specifically, it is about the way in which the Bible is to be read if it is really to be the Bible. Peterson draws his title from the passage in Revelation 10:9-10 where John is commanded to “eat this book.” The book is at its core a case for a reclaiming on a broad scale the ancient practice of lectio divina or “spiritual reading,” which Peterson says is “reading that enters our souls as food enters our stomachs, spreads through our blood, and becomes holiness and love and wisdom” (p. 4). We cannot, Peterson maintains, separate our reading of the Word from our living of the Word.

In making his case Peterson is advocating for a reclaiming of the Bible as the material given to us by God for our formation as persons. Indeed, he says, we must move from regarding the Bible as primarily a source of information to a source for our formation. In our culture the material out of which we try to form ourselves is basically ourselves—our wants and our wishes. When we come to the Bible as a source of information, we will tend to try to bend and shape it to fit our agendas and to meet our perceived needs. What we need to be doing, Peterson says, is to be humbly seeking to be formed into the image of God with the Bible as our guide for that formation. “What we need is not primarily informational, telling us things about God and ourselves, but formational, shaping us into our true being” (p. 24).

Peterson appropriately stresses the participatory nature of our encounter with the Bible. He grounds that emphasis in theology: the revelation of God as Trinity shows that God is relational in his own identity. Since God is personal and relational, his revelation is personal and relational. Moreover, he draws us personally into his revelation (p. 27). He also grounds his emphasis on our personal participation in the text in hermeneutics: the Bible’s overarching form is that of story. We are drawn into that story and find ourselves in it. Thus, we become participants in the story. Furthermore, Peterson grounds this emphasis on participation liturgically: “Instead of limiting liturgy to the ordering of the community in discrete acts of worship, I want to use it in this large and comprehensive way, the centuries-deep and continents-wide community, spread out in space and time, as Christians participate in actions initiated and formed by the words in this book…” (p. 73). It all comes back to relationships and participation: because God is personal, because his written revelation is personal, because the Christian community is personal, we must personally participate in the biblical text, we must have it get into our lives so that we live it out, if we are going be formed as God intends for us to be formed.

I’m convinced. Peterson’s philosophy of Bible reading seems to me to be right on target.

Having laid the foundation for it well, Peterson offers a helpful guide (chapter 7) to the practice of lectio divina, which is the art and practice of carefully reading the biblical text with an eye toward living it, the end result of which will be the life-forming assimilation of God’s revelation. He walks the reader through the four steps of lectio divina, which are read, meditate, pray, and live. I appreciate the emphases of Peterson as he deals with each step. In the section on lectio (reading), he stresses the importance of coming to grips with the fact that the Bible makes tremendous use of metaphor. In the section on meditatio, Peterson stresses the need to enter into the world of the biblical text in a way that respects its coherence and context. In the section on oratio (prayer), he places much emphasis on the fact that prayer, as dialogue with God, is done in the company of the Holy Trinity with the Bible providing our access to the language of prayer (p. 104), especially through the words of the Psalms and the teaching of Jesus. Finally, in the section on contemplatio, stresses the way in which the Bible is to be incorporated into and lived out through our everyday lives. The chapter is an excellent short course in the practice of lectio divina.

My one criticism of the book has to do with the final section, “The Company of Translators.” While I found it fascinating, particularly in its discussions of how scholars came to understand the grounding of the biblical language in everyday life and in Peterson’s autobiographical account of how he came to understand and apply that knowledge in his work of translation, I did not find the section to be particularly germane to the discussion of the book. It struck me as something of an apologetic for The Message. Perhaps the section was anti-climactic; it may have been more helpful as the first rather than the last section of the book.

But that’s a minor issue.

This is a book that could, if read and taken seriously, resurrect the art of Bible reading in the Christian community. Peterson gets to the heart of what makes the Bible the Bible. He offers inspiration for reading the Bible for personal formation in the context of our submission to God and instruction on how to read it that way. The book, in other words, has given me hope—hope that if enough people read it and get what Peterson is saying our lives will be transformed by our encounter with the who stands behind and within the Bible and with the Savior to whom it points and who provides its primary context (p. 102).

The title of the book calls us to eat, to devour, to assimilate the Bible, and that’s what we should do. The Bible is our main course. Eugene Peterson’s book is just the right appetizer; we should “eat” it, too, and let it permeate our lives--or at least our reading style.

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