Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading by Eugene Peterson
Eugene’s life was shaped by a single driving passion: for over fifty years he was “vocationally involved in getting the Christian Scriptures into the minds and hearts, arms and legs, ears and mouths of men and women.” Of course this pioneering pastor would care about God’s Word—he authored The Message paraphrase to help a new generation fall in love with it. So it’s no surprise that he would sit down and pen (though ‘serve’ might be a more accurate term) a treatise on internalizing Scripture. If the Bible seems quiet and unassuming, we’ve been fooled. These words are just waiting to get inside of us, to make us more than we are right now. With a hefty bit of brain and no small amount of sass, Eugene invites us to the table. We’re finished with inch-deep devotional reading; it’s time to eat the Book.
Some of my favorite quotes include:
Jesus speaks in such ways that the brokenness of the world and our experience develop into a dazzling holiness that evokes worship on a grand scale, involving everything and everyone in heaven and on earth.
Good storytellers, by enlisting our imaginations, tease us into participation in the story they tell. When the storytelling is good, we are pulled into a world that is both truer and larger than the one we ordinarily occupy; but it is not an alien world … It isn’t long before we find ourselves imaginatively (imagination and faith are, again, close kin here) entering the story, taking our place in the plot, and following Jesus.
Most, if not all, of what and who we are has to do with God. If we try to understand and form ourselves by ourselves we leave out most of ourselves.
We are fond of saying that the Bible has all the answers. And that is certainly correct … But the Bible also has all the questions, many of them that we would just as soon were never asked of us, and some of which we will spend the rest of our lives doing our best to dodge.
This Book has generative power; things happen to us as we let the text call forth, stimulate, rebuke, prune us. We don’t end up the same.
Neither stupidity nor sophistication puts us outside the magnetic field of story.
What we must never be encouraged to do, although all of us are guilty of it over and over, is to force Scripture to fit our experience. Our experience is too small; it’s like trying to put the ocean into a thimble. What we want is to fit into the world revealed by Scripture, to swim in this vast ocean.
My biggest takeaway was how easy (and dangerous!) it can be to approach Scripture with a wrong attitude. “How different [the Bible] is from books that can be ‘handled’—dissected and analyzed and then used for whatever we want them for.” But this Book isn’t any other book. As much as I enjoy studying the Word in depth, my typical reading stance toes the line of turning me into its boss: I’ll sit down, do some work, and get it finished. Then I’ll leave and go about my day. There’s no lingering, no wooing, just “the impersonal objectivity of the laboratory technician.” Posturing myself as someone who can master this text rather than as someone who desperately needs to be mastered by it will profoundly alter what happens as I read.
On the other end of the spectrum from what Peterson calls “the undertaker-scholar” is the exegetical toddler:
If you’re after devotionally cozy Bible reading, you have to pick and choose a good bit—there are such huge chunks of it that either put you to sleep or keep you awake nights. But there are little crib sheets readily available at most Bible bookstores that tell you what parts of the Bible to read when you want to be comforted or consoled—or whatever your present disposition requires.
Not allowing Scripture to speak as it means to essentially muzzles the Word. If I jerk a passage out of context because it gives me the warm fuzzies I need right now, I’m mangling my daily bread. “Bible verses are not fortune cookies to be broken open at random. And the Bible is not an astrological chart to be impersonally manipulated for amusement or profit.” Scripture is expansive enough to stand on its own, with its own agenda and its own meaning and its own voice. Attempting to force the words of God into some kind of me-shaped straightjacket is ridiculous and tragic. See what I mean about how easy (and dangerous!) it is to come at it all wrong? Finally, there’s the simple but lifelong challenge of actually doing something with what we read. “We are well warned: it is not enough to understand the Bible, or admire it. God has spoken; now it’s our move.”
Ten journaling questions inspired by the text:
- How can I not talk about but live the centrality and authority of the Word?
- What part of speech or bit of punctuation might my life contribute to this ongoing conversation between humanity and God?
- Where have I approached Scripture mechanically? shallowly? morally? dishonestly?
- Believers are meant to really live, to outlive everyone around them—how have I been doing? How can I improve?
- Which steady, relaxed rhythms could help cultivate an awareness of the holy in the long run?
- How has the gospel stabbed me awake to a beauty and hope that connects me with my real life?
- Where do I need to find myself at home in the story Jesus speaks into being?
- How am I living the difference between “Read your Bible” and “Eat this Book”?
- If I can’t be a Christian writer without first being a Christian reader, how should my habits shift?
- What needs to change so that I can avoid a lifetime of reading marked by devout indifference?