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The Message as Motherese

On the effects of The Message on Bible readers

Published on:
July 17, 2017
Read time:
6 min.
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I became fluent in Spanish by talking to cows. From the time I put on my manure-caked boots, I began an unbroken monologue with the vocabulary of a Spanish toddler. Call my methods unorthodox, but I aced all four years of high school Spanish.

In college I traded Spanish for Hebrew, and, without my bovine friends, lost a good deal of my skill with Spanish. Later, I hit seminary and started working at a hotel to pay the bills. I was the only native English speaker not in management. By that time, the little Spanish I had in my head looked a lot like a bowl of Chex Mix with only the pretzels left.

Modern Americans have just as much a chance to understand the Bible overnight as they do to learn Swahili in an afternoon.

Then something miraculous happened. I discovered that most of the people I worked with spoke a kind of English-Spanish blend. If they didn’t have an easy Spanish word for something, they’d take the English and conjugate it in Spanish. For example, punch out on the time clock became punchar. It felt a little like chucking banana slices into my Chex Mix bowl, but in weeks I was fluent again. 

Kind of.

It may sound strange, but Eugene Peterson’s The Message does for the Bible what my coworkers did for my Spanish.

The Origin of The Message

In the introduction to The Message, Peterson recalls the Sunday school class that fell asleep during his lesson in Galatians. On a whim, he started reading his paraphrase of Paul’s letter rather than the text, and heads started nodding in excitement instead of sleep.

Peterson’s Galatians paraphrase later made it into one of his books, and his editor couldn’t stop thinking about it. He requested Peterson translate ten chapters of Matthew as a proof-of-concept. Though reluctant at first, Peterson soon got swept up in the project. Years later, The Message was born.

The Goal of The Message

Peterson’s goal was rather straightforward. Translate the Bible in colloquial English—capture the spirit of the text in aggressive, modern idioms. He wanted the Bible to smack the imaginations of his audience the way he imagined the originals might have. 

In the introduction to The Message, Peterson aims his project at two distinct groups of readers: those who’d never read the Bible because it was antiquated and those for whom the Bible had gone stale.

In more ways than one, The Message is for modern readers what that hotel Spanglish was for me—an easy onramp to a new language.

Whether he intended to or not, Peterson wrote a Spanglish version of the Christian language.

And let’s be fair: the Bible is a new language. I don’t mean the Hebrew and Greek. I mean the strange metaphors, the theology, and the chapters upon chapters about treating skin diseases. Modern Americans have just as much a chance to understand the Bible overnight as they do to learn Swahili in an afternoon. So any help we can get with understanding and appreciating the Bible is good, right?

Learning the Language

I spent two years working at that hotel. I grew fluent again in what I thought was local Spanish—I even stood in the language gap for the wait staff and upper management. So when I tried having a cheeky conversation with a Mexican-American businessman at my church, I was stunned when he couldn’t understand a word I said. Even when I cleaned up my pronunciation, he spent the next five minutes trying to correct my grammar and vocabulary. Eventually he gave up.

It turns out bananas really don’t go well in Chex Mix. I hadn’t actually relearned Spanish. Instead I’d replaced it with a pidgin—a hybrid of two languages that chucks formal grammar in the garbage disposal and goes with the microwave efficiency of ease-of-use.

In his recent book The Old Testament Is Dying, Brent Strawn points out the peril of pidgins when it comes to the language of the Bible. When the scripture collides with a foreign “language”—a way of thinking about the world—a pidgin inevitably pops up. Strawn scrolls through the channels of Christianity showing pidgin after pidgin, highlighting how each one leads away—not toward—biblical literacy.

Which brings us back to Eugene Peterson’s The Message. In a 2002 interview with Christianity Today, Peterson essentially described his translation method as pidginizing the text of the Bible.

When you’re doing a paraphrase translation like I’ve done, the demand is not on your demonstrating the world [of the Bible], although you kind of do that, but there’s more of an imagination and a poetic aspect to it, because you’re trying to recreate those rhythms or those images and metaphors in this culture.

The Task of the Translator

Every Bible translator has to make tough decisions on how to render the original languages in readable English. But Peterson’s own term “paraphrase” depicts something more than choosing an accurate-but-flavorful word or phrase. The Message attempts to re-culture the Bible—to lift it from its ancient roots and embed it in twenty-first-century America—all for the expressed purpose of making it accessible.

Whether he intended to or not, Peterson wrote a Spanglish version of the Christian language. 

You don’t need to read much of The Message before it starts sounding very different to the Bible you memorized in Awana. For example, consider David’s lament of repentance in Psalm 51.

Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean,
    scrub me and I’ll have a snow-white life.
Tune me in to foot-tapping songs,
    set these once-broken bones to dancing.
Don’t look too close for blemishes,
    give me a clean bill of health. (Psalm 51:7–9)

Peterson’s language dances across the page like a musical. It’s entertaining precisely because its informality is almost scandalous—picturing God as a heavenly washerwoman in the Deep South scrubbing away sins. But therein lies the problem. The down-home depiction of God is completely foreign to the Bible.

In Peterson’s pidgin, the dominant language (American culture) squeezes out the idioms of the unfamiliar language (the original text). So, instead of David’s beautiful allusion to the Passover sacrifice with the word hyssop in verse 7, we get an Appalachian honky tonk. It might resonate with our American identity, but it walks us farther away from the Bible’s intended picture of God and our sin.

The Message demands very little from the reader on purpose.

In all fairness to Peterson, all modern translators struggle to balance accuracy and readability. But The Message stands out because it’s left the world of translation and become a pidgin. It’s not quite modern Western thought, but neither is it the Bible. Instead, The Message contains biblical ideas transcultured into the idioms of Broadway—quite literally (in the case of Psalm 51) the Beverly Hillbillies.

If Christians learn to speak the language of the Bible only from The Message, they’ll be speaking pidgin.

Now, I have to stop here and point out that pidgins aren’t by default bad. In talking about how new Christians or children can learn the Bible, Brent Strawn gives pidgins a starring role: When an infant is learning her first words, her parents speak to her in a baby-talk pidgin. The vocabulary is limited, the pitches all climb, and grammar is non-existent. Linguists call it “motherese.”

For the first half of Peterson’s target audience (people who’ve never read the Bible because it’s distant and irrelevant), The Message may actually work as a sort of motherese. It’s less intimidating and it’s entertaining—it’s an easy way to learn the language.

But just like we’d be horrified if a freshman in college told his teachers, “Homework hard. I no do,” so too should we be concerned if a Christian “grew up” reading nothing but The Message. He’d speak a Bible-like language, sure. But it wouldn’t get him past “God good, sin bad.”

And for the second group of readers (those who find the Bible old hat, and thus stale), a word of caution: Peterson’s work is entertaining, and in many places beautiful. But, as author Zadie Smith once put it, “When you practice reading and work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it.” The Message demands very little from the reader on purpose, so the reader is likely never to grow in either her ability to read or her ability to speak the language of the Bible.

The Bible is difficult. Ironically, despite his paraphrase, even Eugene Peterson believes so: “The fact is, the Bible is hard. It’s not an easy book. I don’t think we should compromise the accuracy of the Bible just for ease of reading.”

And that’s okay. Learning to read and speak the language of scripture is and should be as demanding as learning a new language. There are no shortcuts. It takes time. The burden of biblical literacy lies in the hands of us as readers. Will we be willing to do the hard work, and leave baby talk behind?

Jed Ostoich
Jed Ostoich is a writer, editor, and the Dwight of his office. He has his BA from Moody Bible Institute in Hebrew, and his ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary in OT Biblical Theology. When he’s not marking up other people’s words, he’s reading up on Magic the Gathering or down the rabbit hole of YouTube. Jed lives with his wife and four kids in Grand Rapids. You can find him on Twitter @TheJeditor.

Cover image by MCML–XXXIII.

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