On Friday Kitty and I (we met Judith later) had a lovely lunch after the rain storm at Con Pane in Point Loma before heading to the university for our second interview with The Writer's Symposium by the Sea. Eugene Peterson, the man who translated The Message, was interviewed by Dean Nelson. At first I thought, "How is this venerable pastor going to do in a rare televised interview?" But he actually had us laughing more than Anne Lamott did on Wednesday.
I had no idea he was so literary! He said, "Stories invite us into a world larger than ourselves." He spoke about the impact of Joyce's Ulysses on his pastoring (I have a long history with that work that I'll share some other time). He thought his congregation was boring, ordinary -- nothing like the "cool" congregations of his friends (later found out they were lying). But after reading Ulysses, a huge tome about one day in the life of the most ordinary of men, Peterson began to see through Joyce's eyes how interesting one ordinary person could be -- and this insight helped him greatly to have compassion and love for his congregation.
Peterson said that fiction writers (Christian or non-Christian) probe the depths -- they see truth and expand on it, making it real. He said that he STRONGLY believes that the first two years of seminary should be a study of the great literary classics because they can help a pastor really see human nature in a way that will greatly help them in their ministry. He talked about how pastors are the most impatient people on earth -- how hard it is for them to "wait and let the story unfold." In his books and sermons he refers to works of detective fiction, to the works of Annie Dillard, Flannery O'Connor, Dickens, James Joyce, Wendell Berry, Dostoyevsky, Anne Tyler, Frederick Beekner. He said this TWICE: "Every time a story is well-told, the Gospel is served." Pretty cool stuff!
Then Dean referred to Bono's quoting of Eugene Peterson. Peterson had no idea who Bono was at first, but after listening to U2's music, he's a great fan. Bono later invited Peterson to "hang out" with him for a few days, but Peterson was right in the middle of translating the Old Testament and had to turn him down. Dean looked incredulous and said, "But it was BONO!" Peterson immediately quipped back, "But it was Isaiah!" Definitely the funniest moment of the entire conference.
Peterson then turned to the idea of translation. He said, "The worst translations are the literal ones. Every time the Bible is translated, it becomes larger." He used a different editor for every book of the Bible. He was always thinking, "If Isaiah [or whoever] was saying this in contemporary America, how would he say it?" He said that he felt as though he was always working on the "edge of a precipice" as he translated the Bible.
He then said that "Reading itself is a kind of translation," and has written a book on how to read literature called Eat This Book. He said that he does a great deal of rereading; if a book is really meaningful, he'll start it again as soon as he's finished and read it a second and perhaps a third time. He said that we need more storytellers -- writing is a sacred calling. He even said that writers should be ordained as pastors are because writing is so integral to the life of the church. He also said that there is "too much thin soup" in most religious writing; he's rather read good secular literature than poor Christian literature, which is far too frequently the case.
William Blake, he said, capitalized the "I" in "Imagination" because he felt that imagination is the Holy Spirit at work -- it's almost the same thing as Faith. Imagination pulls us from what we see into what we can't see, just as Faith does. Peterson also spoke about the sanctifying imagination, how it concerns and expands reality. "Novelists don't make up their characters," says he, "they discover them." We need imagination, not facts.
Peterson talked some more about other topics as questions were asked of him: Revelations (loves it), Paul's letters (loved untangling and retangling his ideas), wariness of "faddish" things (like emergent church) in theology (especially as most of what he reads is over 500 years old). He doesn't like theology that makes Christianity "too easy" -- it's not. He also talked about his family -- how his mother was a storyteller, how he grew up in a blue-collar family where he was the first one to ever attend college, how he's awed by the mystery of language, epecially in children and his own grandchildren.
It was an amazing talk, one I felt blessed by. His sense of the importance of literature and the writer to the Christian life was freeing and encouraging. I wish that artists were given more of a place in the evangelical church. It seems we're only good for writing moralistic skits and weekly bulletin announcements. The place of the artist is a sacred calling, which is something God has been revealing to me over the last six months. May He use us for His glory as we create excellent work through His Holy Spirit!
Next year at the Writer's Symposium: Philip Yancey! Woo-hoo!