Rough and Earthy Language

The media hardly noticed something that happened last week, but I noticed.  Don’t miss this entire blog post about “Rough and Earthy” language, because it may not be what you expect me (or Peterson) to say.

Montana resident and author Eugene H. Peterson passed away on October 22, 2018, and though I was happy for him to leave an imperfect world for a perfect one, it seemed sad for the world to lose such an outstanding preacher and writer.  I don’t idolize any human beings, living or dead, nor do I think any writer is perfect in all that they say, including Peterson, but I would say that his writings probably attributed more to my understanding of the true gospel than any other.  He spoke and lived the message of free grace, not of works. He also, in his humble way, had a way of directing followers, always, to other writers giving the same message that focuses completely on God, not on the believer.  In other words, it’s not all about us; it’s all about God and the finished work of Christ on the cross.

But the gospel–a word that actually means “good news”–is all about God not leaving us where we are, or even expecting us to earn our way to him.  God loved us so much that he provided the way for life–by sending his own Son.  Eugene explains it this way:  “Jesus is the descent of God to our lives, just as they are, not the ascent of our lives to God, hoping he might approve when he sees how hard we try.”  And that’s where the beauty and relevance of the Bible lies–not in our “good”-ness, our personal holiness.  The mystery of the gospel finds its greatness in God himself coming to us.   — Introduction, The Message Remix, Navpress, 2003, pg. 12

I recently shared that I have been reading through old scripture journals that I’ve kept through the years, and Peterson’s name comes up often in the quotes I’ve written down from his books, as well as in scriptures from his wonderful translation of the Bible — The Message.  His paraphrase has been criticized for not being an exact translation of original documents, even though it was intended to be a paraphrase, not a translation, and was intended to help people understand God’s Word better, in their own language–“rough and earthy.”  It certainly did that for me, as I compared his paraphrase with other paraphrases and translations.  I love how he explained this in his introduction to the New Testament (some of what he says here is indeed shocking to our way of thinking):

The arrival of Jesus signaled the beginning of a new era. God entered history in a personal way, and made it unmistakably clear that he is on our side, doing everything possible to save us. It was all presented and worked out in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It was, and is, hard to believe, seemingly too good to be true.

But one by one, men and women did believe it, believed Jesus was God alive among them and for them. Soon they would realize that he also lived in them. To their great surprise they found themselves living in a world where God called all the shots, had the first word on everything; had the last word on everything. That meant that everything, quite literally every thing, had to be re-centered, re-imagined, and re-thought.

They went at it with immense gusto. They told stories of Jesus and arranged his teachings in memorable form. They wrote letters. They sang songs. They prayed. One of them wrote an extraordinary poem based on holy visions. There was no apparent organization to any of this; it was all more or less spontaneous and, to the eye of the casual observer, haphazard. Over the course of about fifty years, these writings added up to what would later be compiled by the followers of Jesus and designated “The New Testament.”

Three kinds of writing, eyewitness stories, personal letters, and a visionary poem, make up the book. Five stories, twenty-one letters, one poem.

In the course of this writing and reading, collecting and arranging, with no one apparently in charge, the early Christians, whose lives were being changed and shaped by what they were reading, arrived at the conviction that there was, in fact, someone in charge, God’s Holy Spirit was behind and in it all. In retrospect, they could see that it was not at all random or haphazard, that every word worked with every other word, and that all the separate documents worked in intricate harmony. There was nothing accidental in any of this, nothing merely circumstantial. They were bold to call what had been written “God’s Word,” and trusted their lives to it. They accepted its authority over their lives. Most of its readers since have been similarly convinced.

A striking feature in all this writing is that it was done in the street language of the day, the idiom of the playground and marketplace. In the Greek-speaking world of that day, there were two levels of language: formal and informal. Formal language was used to write philosophy and history, government decrees and epic poetry. If someone were to sit down and consciously write for posterity, it would of course be written in this formal language with its learned vocabulary and precise diction. But if the writing was routine, shopping lists, family letters, bills, and receipts, it was written in the common, informal idiom of everyday speech, street language.

And this is the language used throughout the New Testament. Some people are taken aback by this, supposing that language dealing with a holy God and holy things should be elevated, stately and ceremonial. But one good look at Jesus, his preference for down-to-earth stories and easy association with common people, gets rid of that supposition. For Jesus is the descent of God to our lives, just as they are, not the ascent of our lives to God, hoping he might approve when he sees how hard we try.

And that is why the followers of Jesus in their witness and preaching, translating and teaching, have always done their best to get the Message the “good news”, into the language of whatever streets they happen to be living on. In order to understand the Message right, the language must be right, not a refined language that appeals to our aspirations after the best but a rough and earthy language that reveals God’s presence and action where we least expect it, catching us when we are up to our elbows in the soiled ordinariness of our lives and God is the furthest thing from our minds.

This version of the New Testament in a contemporary idiom keeps the language of the Message current and fresh and understandable in the same language in which we do our shopping, talk with our friends, worry about world affairs, and teach our children their table manners. The goal is not to render a word-for-word conversion of Greek into English, but rather to convert the tone, the rhythm, the events, the ideas, into the way we actually think and speak.

In the midst of doing this work, I realized that this is exactly what I have been doing all my vocational life. For thirty-five years as a pastor I stood at the border between two languages, biblical Greek and everyday English, acting as a translator, providing the right phrases, getting the right words so that the men and women to whom I was pastor could find their way around and get along in this world where God has spoken so decisively and clearly in Jesus. I did it from the pulpit and in the kitchen, in hospitals and restaurants, on parking lots and at picnics, always looking for an English way to make the biblical text relevant to the conditions of the people.  — Eugene H. Peterson, Introduction to the New Testament, The Message

This week and next I will be sharing many of these “rough and earthy” quotes from Peterson, both from his books and from The Message, which he humbly did not count as “one of his books”, as you can see in the memorial video below.  I do this simply to remember someone who, through his writings, took me by the hand and led me to God, rather than to himself; and hopefully, reading his quotes in the coming days here will do the same for you.

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