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A Burning in my Bones

I wanted to note the publication of the authorised biography of Eugene Peterson: A Burning in my Bones, written beautifully by Winn Collier.

(To see my review of the book visit here.)

The title of the book comes from The Message translation of Jeremiah 20:9: “The words are fire in my belly, a burning in my bones.”

This brilliantly captures the distinctive personality and ministry of the prophet Jeremiah and opens a window on what made Eugene Peterson such an influential figure. His was a life that was shaped by words, especially the words of Scripture.

Peterson delighted to pay attention to the God who speaks, and to allow those words to sink deep into his life, thought and practice. He took seriously the advice given in the title of one of the volumes in his five-part spiritual theology: Eat this Book. It was this internalizing of the biblical message that made his books so compelling and laid the foundation for his best-selling paraphrase of the Bible: The Message.

He was clearly surprised and humbled by its runaway success. He knew it was not his book but his fresh re-hearing of God’s book. The Message is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some see it as too loose a translation and too full of Americanisms.

Peterson responded that he was not offering a literal translation of Scripture but a literary one. His deep immersion in the biblical languages and his love for literature in general led him to produce a phenomenal piece of work which, although it divides opinions, has had a dramatic impact on people’s reading habits.

For preachers Peterson’s many works, including the volume of his sermons: A Kingfisher Catches Fire, are masterclasses in how to communicate timeless truth in a fresh way. Peterson managed to communicate in the present tense, in clear and penetrating language.

The biography relates how one of his first editors persuaded him to eliminate adverbs from his writing so that it would flow more smoothly.

I am so glad to have “Gene” as one of my “print” friends. I owe him such a great debt for the way he has helped to steer approach to my Bible reading, prayer life, pastoral ministry and preaching

One story towards the end of the biography reminded me of what we explored in the last blog. In 2017, months before Peterson’s physical health began to rapidly deteriorate, he gave what was to be his final public interview. Asked about his views on the morality of same-sex marriage and whether he would conduct a same-sex marriage ceremony,

Peterson’s replies raised the eyebrows of the interviewer, and, when published, led to the US’s largest religious store chain issuing an ultimatum: either Peterson clarify his view or they would remove all of Peterson’s books from their stores. His response was:

“To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything … When put on the spot in this particular interview, I said ‘yes’ in the moment. But on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that. That’s not something I would do out of respect to the congregation, the large church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage. That said, I would still love such a couple as their pastor. They’d be welcome at my table, along with everybody else.” (Winn Collier, A Burning in my Bones p. 295)

This is a response of someone who had understood the rich contours of truth. Biblical truth is not flat and one-dimensional but full of wisdom and nuance.

Navigating the complex seas of theological, moral and political debate requires more than policy statements, it requires a grasp of the bigger picture. How our words and decisions honour God, serve the church and treat all people with respect.

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