Reflection: Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson

Everybody knows how bad it is to eat in a hurry with proper digestion. The same applies to our reading habit, but we tend to still rush through our time on reading the Scripture.

Beautifully and skillfully written, Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book encourages us once again to recover the habit of eating the word of God unhurriedly and carefully with love. This has become one of the most life-changing books for me.

I loved how Peterson quotes Bonaventure’s statement, “To know much and taste nothing – of what use is that?” Too often, we read, but what we read remains in our brain only without entering into our spirit and soul. As Peterson says, however, John, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all “ate” the book and they became what they ate,

 “This is the kind of reading named by our ancestors as lector divine, often translated ‘spiritual reading’, reading that enters our souls as food enters out stomachs, spreads through our blood, and becomes holiness and love and wisdom.” says Peterson (pg. 4).

Karl Barth was an example who showed that a writing that is “revelatory and intimate rather than informational and impersonal” must be done by a reading “that is receptive and leisurely instead of standoffish and efficient” (p. 6).

Peterson writes,

“Christian spirituality is in its entirety rooted in and shaped by the scriptural text. We don’t form out personal spiritual lives out of a random assemblage of favourite texts in combination with individual circumstances; we are formed by the Holy Spirit in accordance with the text of Holy Scripture. God does not put us in charge of forming our personal spiritualities. We grow in accordance with the revealed Word implanted in us by the Spirit.“ (pg. 15)

In other words, we need both the Scripture and the Spirit. We cannot have one without another. Without the Spirit, we turn the Scripture into mere “intellectual challenge or moral guidance or spiritual uplifts without receiving any revelation from the Lord”. On the other hand, if we forsake the importance of Scripture, “we may read the Bible without submitting ourselves under the authority of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. “ (pg. 15)

The Bible is one grand story, “a narrative that is immense sprawling and capacious” (pg. 40). Through reading it, we are drawn into the reality of God; we are invited to participate in His story.

But sadly, as observed by Peterson, we live in an “unfortunate time where this grand story has been reduced to mere illustrations, testimonies, or inspirations”. We often understand God as mere information, be it doctrinal, philosophical, or theological even though “our God cannot be reduced to a formula” (p. 41). Meanwhile, some “extract truths to turn them into ‘principles’ that we can use in a variety of settings at our discretion” that often end up as a slogan or motto sitting on the desk (p. 48).

How urgent is it for us to recover the narrative of God’s story?

Peterson also points out the importance of learning to listen, which includes knowing the way it is said – form, and how it is said – content (p. 43). Exegesis, in his word, is “an act of love”: it “loves the one who speaks it enough to want to get the words right” and loves God enough to “stop and listen carefully to what He says” (p. 55).

Words written are dead word, for “the letter kills” (some may argue the “letter” refers to the O.T. law, but in general I agree with Peterson that any written word in the scripture, without being read under the guidance of the Spirit, are dead letters). “All the words written, confined in the books of the world, buried in the libraries of the world, are dead words. But it is not as bad as that: these are not just dead words but dead words awaiting resurrection, for ’the spirit gives life’ (2 Cor 3:6). (p. 84)

Another reason why our reading should be marked by life is because “our spiritual reading of the Holy Scriptures signals a recognition of an organic union between the word ‘read’ and the word ‘lived’.” (p. 113)

“Life originates in Word. Word makes Life. There is no word of God that God does not intend to be lived by us.” says Peterson, “All words are capable of being incarnated because all words originate in the Word made flesh.” (p. 114)

Peterson also marvels at how God decided to reveal Himself through the  “ambiguities of language” despite mathematics is the most precise language we have. “But then,” writes Peterson, “you can’t have ‘I love you’ in algebra.” (p. 93)

Pride as a result of reading the word is dangerous, “Sometimes we read and take the text to graduate ourselves into a superior class of Christians.” (pg 57). Such an act builds walls and not bridges, “Pretentious language is just a violation of sacred text.” writes Peterson, “We use them to keep others out of our neighbourhood.” (pg. 138)

He also makes an observation which I have experienced many times in my life, that we often defend the word rather than receive, submit to, and pray the word (pg. 140).

In this book, Peterson also talks about the formation of The Message.

Peterson first “translated” the book of Galatians only for his own congregation, yet it was later passed on by many and had helped many. Eventually, his friends encouraged him to translate the entire New Testament and then finally the whole Bible. Initially, he thought this was an impossible task, for he had used two years to translate Galatians. He also believed there were already enough translations and paraphrases out there.

However, Peterson’s editor insisted. Looking back, Peterson believed it’s simply the Holy Spirit doing the work through him. People who do not know this paraphrase and Peterson often accuse him of twisting the Scripture. Here he is, however, saying that this “translation” is meant to supplement, “The Message was born out of a specific time in the American culture, and is not meant to replace but rather supplement the other excellent translations.”

There are a few pastoral figures whom I have never met in my lives and yet from reading their work, I can sense nothing but the fragrance of Christ filled with humility. Among these ones is Peterson. Like Russell Moore, I found myself end up having more highlighted parts than the unhighlighted when reading Peterson’s book. I look forward to read more by this now 84-year-old servant of the Lord.

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