Today’s post is written by guest blogger, Kim Shippey: The founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist, Mary Baker Eddy, never for a moment left anyone in doubt about the source of her inspiration.
She spoke of the Bible as her “sole teacher,” insisting that it contains “the recipe for all healing.” She also said: “The Bible has been my only authority. I have had no other guide in ‘the straight and narrow way’ of Truth (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, pp. viii, 406, 126).
I can’t help feeling that someone else for whom I have the greatest respect, Eugene H. Peterson, would understand Eddy’s point of view. He happens to be one of the best-known Bible scholars, pastors, college professors, and Christian authors of our time.
As many of you will know, Peterson’s main claim to fame is his paraphrase, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Navpress, 2002), which resulted from a burning desire to make the original meaning of the Scriptures more understandable and accessible to the modern reader. As he put it, “When the prophet Isaiah preached a sermon, I can’t imagine that people went to the library to figure it out.”
But The Message was a huge undertaking, demanding fierce concentration.
You may have heard of the occasion when bandleader Bono (yes, that Bono!) was trying to get in touch with Peterson while Peterson was in the middle of translating the book of Isaiah. Various friends tried to persuade him to take a break and meet the U2 front man. “It’s Bono,” they pleaded. But his reply was typical: “It’s Isaiah!”
What’s less known is that Peterson faithfully shared his heart with the same congregation at Christ Our King Presbyterian, near Baltimore, for twenty-nine years. Who wouldn’t have liked to be a fly on the pews listening to him unpack the whole “counsel of God” (Acts 20:27)!
Yet that’s what Peterson has done for us in his latest of more than thirty books, As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God formed by the Words of God (WaterBrook, 2017).
As that subtitle suggests, this is a collection of those Bel Air sermons (or pastoral conversations, if you like) now published for the first time and presented as they were first delivered, without any anxiety to update them.
Peterson hesitates to describe these selections as his “best.” Who could ever make that call, he says, when really great teaching is as elusive as capturing a kingfisher in flight!
But he has conscientiously organized his material in seven groupings of seven, under the names of Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul, and John of Patmos. Each name, he explains, identifies a distinctive approach that needs to be included in the counsel of God.
Deftly, Peterson wove into his sermons personal anecdotes that his parishioners could easily relate to. For example, his recounting of the way he used to enjoy using the Bible to pick fights with evolutionists and atheists. He describes how he eventually set aside his “ignorant adolescent certainties” and let God speak his presence and reality. “I was gradually learning to let God tell me who he is and the way he works.”
And when Peterson originally prepared these sermons, he recalls in his preface, he never sought to make up something new. He wanted to develop a coherent biblical collaboration with his congregation, and avoid living “out of a suitcase full of cast-off items from various yard sales and secondhand stores.”
I imagine Mary Baker Eddy may have had similar feelings when she broke fresh ground with Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures toward the close of the 19th century, illuminating the ageless wisdom of the Scriptures on every page. She was driven by her belief that “the Bible is the learned man’s masterpiece, the ignorant man’s dictionary, the wise man’s directory”(Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896, p. 363).
Throughout his book Kingfisher—a title, by the way, drawn from the sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins—Peterson holds firmly to the belief of congruence—“congruence between what we do and the way we do it; … between what is written in Scripture and our living out what is written.”
Peterson’s tireless scholarship and wry humor remain as sharp as ever in this new/old offering. His light shines as radiantly as before. So it seems appropriate to let him have the last word (more or less):
“You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. … Shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16, The Message).
For me, a passage from Science and Health helpfully expands that Peterson paraphrase: “‘Let there be light,’ is the perpetual demand of Truth and Love, changing chaos into order and discord into the music of the spheres” (p. 255).
What light! And what music!