Taking the advice of C. S. Lewis, we want to help our readers “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” which, as he argued, “can be done only by reading old books.” To that end, our Rediscovering Forgotten Classics series surveys some forgotten Christian classics that remain relevant and serve the church today.
“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink,” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. While I can’t relate to the irony of a sailor feeling parched when surrounded by water, the phrase captures a feeling with which I’m all too familiar. We live in a society and an era in which words are ubiquitous, yet so often I’m starving for life-giving, deeply significant words.
In a day and age where words are quickly consumed, even reading the Bible can become rushed or perfunctory. Many Christians and even pastors are tempted to rush their Bible reading as if it were fast food. In an Amazon Prime culture of speed, believers aren’t immune to the temptation to mere “efficiency” in Bible reading. As teachers and handlers of God’s Word, it can be all too easy to forget that God wants to handle and form us through his Word.
Into this rushed and utilitarian backdrop, the late Eugene Peterson’s reminder to feast on and metabolize God’s life-giving words has never been more welcome.
Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading
Eugene H. Peterson
Eugene Peterson is convinced that the way we read the Bible is as important as that we read it. Do we read the Bible for information about God and salvation, for principles and “truths” that we can use to live better? Or do we read it in order to listen to God and respond in prayer and obedience?
The second part of Peterson’s momentous five-volume work on spiritual theology, Eat This Book challenges us to read the Scriptures on their terms, as God’s revelation, and to live them as we read them. With warmth and wisdom Peterson offers greatly needed, down-to-earth counsel on spiritual reading. In these pages he draws readers into a fascinating conversation on the nature of language, the ancient practice of lectio divina, and the role of Scripture translations; included here is the “inside story” behind Peterson’s popular Bible translation, The Message. Countering the widespread practice of using the Bible for self-serving purposes, Peterson here serves readers a nourishing entree into the formative, life-changing art of spiritual reading.
Eat This Book
Though it was written in 2005, I only recently discovered Peterson’s Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. But God’s timing, as always, couldn’t have been more on point. Rather than scouring and devouring the book, I slowly feasted on it. Peterson’s beautiful writing nearly forces the slow, meditative reading he champions. As he explains, “All serious and good writing anticipates precisely this kind of reading—ruminative and leisurely, a dalliance with words in contrast to wolfing down information.”
Peterson succinctly states the problem that many pastors and lay leaders face: “The challenge—never negligible—regarding the Christian Scriptures is not getting them read, but read on their terms as God’s revelation.” Peterson seeks to draw us away from the dominant text of the sovereign self that surrounds us and lives within us, and to “place personal experience under the authority of the Bible and not over it.” He does so by championing an eating of the Scriptures that metabolizes God’s Word, rather than merely consuming or using it to prop up our preferences.
The central analogy and thread throughout the book is drawn from the apostle John’s strange encounter in Revelation 10. While hearing a sermon preached by an angel who had one foot on the sea and one foot on the land (talk about a strange podium), John was commanded to grab the scroll and “Take and eat it” (Rev. 10:9).
In typical Peterson fashion, he writes: “He put away his notebook and pencil. He picked up his knife and fork. He ate the book.” Reading Peterson’s continual charges to meditate on and metabolize the Bible made me want to lay aside writing curriculum and remember the joy it is to feast on God’s precious Word.
Reading Peterson’s continual charges to meditate on and metabolize the Bible made me want to lay aside writing curriculum and remember the joy it is to feast on God’s precious Word.
Peterson’s reframing of exegesis as an “act of love” rather than stuffy “pedantry” reminded me, as one who spends a great deal of time doing exegesis, that careful study of God’s Word is an act of worship, not a scientific dissection.
Pork Chops and Praise
Only a writer like Peterson could point me to a more meditative reading of Scripture through a pork chop. Yet he did. Remembering a youth-group backpacking trip that featured a plethora of dehydrated foods, he talked about the wonder of watching “paper-thin dehydrated pork chops” transform into juicy, plump meat after being soaked in water for an hour.
Peterson reintroduces and recommends the traditional practice of lectio divina as a way to slow down and linger in the Scriptures so that both the word of the text and the contextual world of the text are enlivened. He spends a chapter bringing to life each step of lectio divina (reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation)—not as a formula to understand the Word quickly, but rather as a posture of approaching the living Word of God.
If you’re like me and protective walls come up when you hear the phrase lectio divina, allow me to assuage your fears. Peterson isn’t supporting a mystical, subjective approach to God’s Word. He’s merely inviting us to enliven an inductive approach with true biblical meditation on the very words we study and read.
Even though I don’t practice lectio divina, Eat This Book was a refreshing reminder to eat God’s Word slowly with full intentions to live it faithfully and daily. Peterson’s reminder to balance exegesis and synthesis (one eye to the particular text and one eye to the greater metanarrative of Scripture) serves as a challenging reminder that it is a both/and rather than an either/or. His clarion call to not only read but to live the Scriptures echoes James’s exhortation to the early church to be doers of the word rather than mere hearers (James 1:22–25).
His clarion call to not only read but to live the Scriptures echoes James’s exhortation to the early church to be doers of the word rather than mere hearers.
To Whom Shall We Go?
The same John who was challenged to eat the scroll while exiled on Patmos knew a thing or two about the life-giving words of Jesus. In his Gospel account, John remembers a time when many former Jesus followers and disciples began to walk away. “So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’” (John 6:67–68).
While Jesus’s words were hard to swallow and even harder to live out, his closest friends recognized something different about them, something otherworldly, something substantive. They recognized that one word from him—painful and penetrating as it may be—was a feast compared to the hollow promises of the world.
May we be reminded to grab our forks and knives and come to the table. The feast is set before us. And it is rich.