At one point early on, you thought you would be a professor. But even that, the resonance of that word, in the world reading you now, as well as the world of church, is so radically shifted, changed. And I want to kind of draw you out as a public theologian because I think that all of that speaks to the world we inhabit today, even a world in which a lot of the context in which you grew up and in which you formulated your ideas and your writings is very different.
Song of Solomon
I think I became a pastor when I was in graduate school studying to be a professor. And I was going to be a Hebrew and Greek professor, basically. And then I got married. And I went — then we moved to White Plains.
So I got a job with a pastor whom I respected. I really never had very high opinions of pastors to tell you the truth.
They would come into our town, and hunt and fish for a couple of years, and go for a better place. And so they were — I liked them.
Psalm the message
They were fun, told good stories, but there was nothing about God that had any kind of connection with my life. And then I was teaching, and the first course I taught was the Book of Revelation. Peterson: Yeah, well, it was. And I struggled through that. And then I started reading the Revelation in a totally new way.
I had help from the one professor. But he wrote a book on the Revelation, which just transformed my imagination when I realized that John was a poet.
This was the first great poetry in the Christian faith. And when I realized that, then all that — the images, the symbols, and everything started to fit. And I quit trying to literalize them and began to see what was going on. Peterson: And so I finally found myself living in a world which is outside the classroom. And there were divorces, and suicides, and runaway kids, and it was just — I never knew what was going to happen on any day of the week, except Tuesday and Thursday when I dumped my classes. Tippett: [ laughs ] So, what you said a minute ago about the poetry — and you very — you have actually also — you are a writer, but also a translator.
Tippett: Right? And from Colombia and used The Message with his congregation of people whose first language was not English. Peterson: Yeah. All the prophets were poets. And make shambles out of it. Tippett: Talk about what difference that makes, even to 21st century people reading the prophets or having an imagination about the prophets. What difference does it make to know that they were poets?
His translation of the Bible, The Message , has sold millions of copies around the world.
We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish. Poets use words to drag us into the depth of reality itself. Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal. I would think it would be important for anybody. But to find a few poets that really strike home to you and then memorize them and use — to learn to listen to the dynamics of their language. And then that helps with the scriptures too.
And so I started translating the Bible in their language, not knowing what I was doing. And suddenly, they started paying attention to me in a way they never did before. If I had done that, they would have quit. Peterson: I think people who use language have to be pretty subversive. In general. We start out using them, and they end up using us.
And if — this is where a poet helps us. They sometimes use language in a kind of — they discover words. Peterson: And they start using them in ways we never thought of doing. You talk about if we pray without listening, we pray out of context. It seems to me the same thing kind of comes through about speaking. Peterson: And I have — people have taught me this. But one of the best teachers for me has been Karl Barth. Tippett: You propose quite a different relationship. Our answers are our prayers.
Tippett: Yeah, no it does. And, the ability to make the transfer from asking to listening is really profound. I remember a conversation I had when I was a pastor. You see you can stretch it out tight, and everything starts to fit. This is what you need. Just take one of these Psalms and just let your mind stretch around it. And see what happens. Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
Why did you dump me miles from nowhere? Doubled up with pain, I call to God all the day long. No answer. I keep at it all night, tossing and turning. Tippett: You can listen again and share my conversation with Eugene Peterson through our website, onbeing.
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His literary biblical imagination has formed generations of pastors, teachers, and lay seekers. Tippett: You say that the Psalms train us in the conversation with God that is prayer. Tippett: How — what is your practice of, I mean, so there is this traditional practice in Christianity of praying the Psalms, just praying through the Psalms. Do you have that kind of — have you had that kind of practice in your life?
Surprise and Wonder
Or how do you work with the Psalms in your personal spiritual life? Peterson: But for years I have — the first thing in the morning, I have about an hour of just quiet and coffee. And I memorized them. Tippett: When you say all these things, do you mean all the different moves, all the different moves that a Psalm makes from praise to fury to desolation?