The Bible is not a textbook. Nor is it a manual to be studied, mastered, and mechanically applied. Instead, pastor and author Eugene Peterson believes we should listen to the Word of God and reflect upon it like poetry till it infiltrates the soul. Peterson is best known for The Message, his paraphrase of the Bible. But in Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Eerdmans, 2006), he draws upon the ancient practice of lectio divina as a way for leaders to humbly listen to Scripture and experience transformation. Leadership's managing editor, Skye Jethani, spoke with Eugene Peterson about spiritual reading, and how the practice allows busy pastors to slow down and listen once again to God.
When were you first introduced to lectio divina?
To tell you the truth, I can't remember. But I was doing lectio divina long before I ever heard the term. In high school I was very much involved in poetry. You cannot read a poem quickly. There's too much going on there. There are rhythms and alliterations. You have to read poetry slow, slow, slow to absorb it all. That's how I began reading and praying psalms as a student, because I realized they were poems.
So reading poetry taught you how to read Scripture?
Right. The first time you read a poem, you usually don't understand it. You've got to read it ten times or more. You've got to listen to it. That's just like the four steps of lectio divina (see sidebar). The four steps are not sequential. They're more like a spiral staircase. You keep going around and around, coming back to this step and over to that one. It's fluid.
How did this more fluid relationship to Scripture affect your church ministry?
We formed small groups in my congregation. People called them "Bible study groups," but that was a problem. When you put the word study in the name, people think the goal is to master information. So they think the Bible is something you try to understand and explain. That is a huge barrier to break through. In fact, I can't say that I was very successful at it.
How did you try?
Well, I quit calling them "Bible study groups." I called them "conversation groups." We had conversations with the Bible. We would take a passage and listen to it; different people would read it in different voices and we'd try to hear the poetry of the language, the sounds, and the message. I took notes as people shared, and then after an hour I would finally bring out some commentaries. I would show them that we had uncovered virtually everything the commentary said just through our conversation. I was trying to break the stronghold that academic scholarship has over us. We don't trust ourselves to encounter God's Word.
Are you opposed to using commentaries?
No. Dictionaries, concordances, and commentaries are useful, but they sure get in the way of listening to the text. There is nothing terribly difficult in the Bible—at least in a technical way. The Bible is written in street language, common language. Most of it was oral and spoken to illiterate people. They were the first ones to receive it. So when we make everything academic, we lose something.
Why don't more people engage the Bible reflectively?
When you've spent twelve, fourteen, or eighteen years in school, your habits form in a non-reflective way. And it isn't a school's job to make us reflective. We need to learn information. We need to pass examinations and be able to read and retain. But most of us have never been taught to read and listen reflectively.