Poetry Week: From an Interview with Eugene Peterson

Morning Bliss in Eden. Photo by David Cornwell

Note from CM: If you’ve read Internet Monk for any length of time, you know that both Michael Spencer and I have benefited immensely from the work of Eugene Peterson. For many, many reasons, not least of which is Peterson’s love for language and his insistence on rich conversation as a main ingredient of pastoral work.

On this Poetry Week, I’d like to set before you this excerpt from an interview he did with Luci Shaw at Image Journal, in which EP talks about his love for art, literature, and, particularly, poetry, and how these have shaped and formed his life as a person and a pastor.

Lots to chew on here.

• • •

Image: It seems you’ve spent much of your life in conversation—through prayer, within your own soul, but also through being a pastor, with the students you teach, with the people you write for.

EP: I’m glad you picked up on the word conversation. I realized at one point that if I was going to be a pastor and was going to write, I would have to find a way to write that was relational. So much writing on religion and spirituality is didactic. There’s no conversation there. I think of a farmer plowing a field. When you get to the end of the row, you turn back again and plow right alongside the work that’s already been done, going back and forth. Language in essence is conversation, dialogue. It’s dialectic. It always requires a response. In that way, everything in scripture is conversation. God does not speak and then walk off. We don’t say something to God and walk off. So many people have questions about difficulty in prayer, and I think most of the misunderstanding takes place because they think they’re the sole speakers. But in a conversation, listening goes on.

Language in conversation is always changing. That’s why the poet is so important. Poets pay attention to the nuances and rhythms and sounds. For them, language is not just words on paper or words dictated. It’s always conversation. That’s why poets are so essential for pastors. They immerse us in conversational language which is making something, which is saying something in relationship.

Image: How does poetry move you, in a way distinct from prose? What are your responses to the poetry of the psalms, the prophets, the preachers in scripture?

EP: One of the reasons that the psalms have been so important to me, and that I’ve spent so much of my time reading and praying them—along with the other great poetic piece in the Bible, the Revelation of John—is that they constantly train me in listening to the rhythms and getting into the nuances, so that I’m not just reading for information or entertainment or inspiration. At least half of the Bible is written in poetry. Why don’t Christians immerse themselves more in poetry so that we can learn how language works? We live in a culture where very few poets get attention. Language is related to information, for getting things done. But the Christian life, the spiritual life, is not about information or getting things done. It’s about living. I want to live. I want to find out how. I want encouragement to live. I need companions in living.

Image: Walter Brueggemann has written about the need for pastoral ministry to include poetic thinking. Do you also see this as an essential part of Christian ministry?

EP: Yes. Walter Brueggemann is one of our finest scholars, and that’s because he’s aware of the poetic dimension of language. I’m grateful to the scholars. I couldn’t live without them, but they’re not enough for me. Brueggemann is a joy because he lets the poet have a strong voice, an essential voice.

Image: I know you are a lover of Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, for both of whom nature was a lens for viewing the divine, for discovering transcendence. What worlds does their writing make more vivid for you?

EP: Hopkins and Dickinson have a similar effect upon me. As with all poets, a major part of their work is the use of metaphor. These two are conspicuous in how they pick up the ordinary, natural world and use it as a link between the visible and invisible. Most of existence is invisible and inaudible. How do we make a connection with this huge world? By metaphor. The Bible is lavish with metaphor, but metaphors can very easily become clichés. The poet is a defense against clichés. For me, Dickinson and Hopkins have been primary in taking the ordinary stuff of life and putting it in such a way that you see or hear something other. I love Hopkins’s word “inscape.” It took me a long time to understand what he meant by that, but once I did, I saw it everyplace. Dickinson seems less self-conscious. So much of what she wrote seems to have come out of the blue. She didn’t seem to be writing for publication. I’m sure there was a possibility of it in her mind, but I think the writing was just spontaneous. That’s influenced me as a pastor. Can I do nothing in terms of publication, publicity, or getting a job done, but instead focus on getting this language into myself—written, spoken, prayed—unselfconsciously? If I can, then I’m being honest.

The task of preaching, as the task of poetry, is to say the old thing in a new way. Some expository preaching is just a repetition of what’s in the Bible: a listing of texts, proving things by a text. Instead, as a pastor you should think about what you want to say, re-say it, live into it, and then you’ll be able to say it in language that’s alive. I think one of the primary motives behind The Message was an attempt to find new metaphors for metaphors than had become clichés. I translated “mustard seed” as “pine nut.” You wouldn’t believe how much objection I got to that. “It’s not what the Bible says,” people said. I’ve never seen a mustard seed, but I’ve seen a lot of pine nuts.

Image: What poets do you read and benefit from? What theologians?

EP: W.H. Auden has meant a lot to me. I learned more about prosody from Auden than anyone else. Some of his poems seem to me so probing of the human condition and the culture in which we live. He was very much aware of the nature of the culture, and had a clear sense of how the gospel and redemption work in it.

At one point in my life T.S. Eliot was the poet who was most important to me. The contrast between The Waste Land and Four Quartetsseems to me such a stark illustration of what happens when a sharply attentive non-Christian mind becomes a sharply attentive Christian mind. As a pastor, it’s easy to find out what’s wrong with the world and condemn it and preach to it. It’s a very different thing to look at that same world and pray it. That’s what I wanted to do, and Eliot was primary in my learning how. I’ll always be grateful to him for that.

The two writers who’ve most influenced the way I use language and the way I developed vocationally as a pastor are Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Theologically I was brought up on Calvin and Luther and later on Barth. They’re all magnificent theologians, and not without imagination. They care about words, but I think of them as mountain climbers. They go to the heights. They see the whole thing. But five or ten years into being a pastor, I was introduced by a friend to Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. They are theologians of a very different kind. I think of them as theologians of the valley, where people live. Teresa is a storyteller. Everything she writes is storied. John is a poet. Much of his writing is explication of his poetry, but all of it is rooted in the poetry, which has its basis in the Song of Songs. I realized that as a pastor I need Teresa and John right alongside Luther and Calvin and Barth. My job is not just announcing the truth of God; it’s getting people into the country where the truth is lived. Teresa and John do that magnificently. While Luther and Calvin and Barth are proclaiming the truth from the mountain, Teresa and John are down in the valley plowing the fields, sowing the seeds, pulling the weeds. That’s what pastors do. That’s also what poets and novelists do. I couldn’t live without the mountain climbers, but I couldn’t do my work without the farmers.

• • •

Photo by David Cornwell at Flickr.

7 thoughts on “Poetry Week: From an Interview with Eugene Peterson

  1. Please let me know if you’re looking for a author for your weblog.
    You have some really great articles and I think I would be a good asset.
    If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d love to write some articles for your blog in exchange for a link back to mine.
    Please blast me an e-mail if interested. Cheers!


  2. “Most of existence is invisible and inaudible.”
    That’s precisely why Jesus said, “…eyes to see” and “…ears to hear”. Paul said, “…having your senses trained”. Peterson talks about the dialectic nature of prayer and listening to that ‘silence’. That is a trained discipline that requires contemplative exercise and creative imagination. As in any discipline there are lots of stumbles, hits and misses but after a time we begin to hear and to see, still dimly through a glass most of the time, what the Spirit is saying and there is great joy in that. When I begin hearing I lose the need to drone on about this and that in prayer. On those occasions when I do hear in the silence there is great peace. Seems very odd to say but “faith comes by hearing.”


  3. Christ is risen!

    *Every one* of David’s photos is a gem. I don’t have to work nearly so hard to enter into his images as I do to enter into most poetry, alas.

    About 10 years ago I had the opportunity to shake Eugene Peterson’s hand and thank him for his work and his conversations, and all the energy he has had to muster to make them happen. I wasn’t able to form the words then, but when I began to take steps out of Evangelicalism, I used “The Message” nearly exclusively in my Scripture reading for almost 2 years. His translation (yes, it IS a translation, of the NT at least – he’s quite competent in Greek) was just the language I needed to help clear out a whole lotta cobwebs and help me see Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly and attempt to follow him more nearly…



  4. Mike, much needed post for me today; thanks. I find it much easier to exegete truths than to create metaphors; but my congregation will likely only remember the metaphor, the image.

    Oh, and I LOVED the opening pic by David.


  5. Robert, I think when Peterson speaks of “getting people into the country where truth is lived,” he is simply talking about introducing them to the language of faith, the story, the metaphorical world of the message. This is not evangelism, this is what Jesus did when he said, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” He proceeded to stimulate people’s imaginative capacity so that, if they were willing, they might “see” a world much different.


  6. I like the photo you chose CM. It shows when the grass actually is greener on the other side of the fence and how we will stick our heads through the barbed wire and risk getting poked and bled to get a bite. Is this the Christian life? The kingdom is here for us now, but we have to bleed a little, take a risk to reach it. Sorry it’s somewhat off topic of what was written.


  7. My job is not just announcing the truth of God; it’s getting people into the country where the truth is lived. Teresa and John do that magnificently.

    Except for a few here and there, I don’t think Teresa and John, or Luther and Barth for that matter, or a host of others, mystics and theologians and most especially poets, actually get people “into the country where the truth is lived”. For the most part, these voices are not attended to, or heard, nor are the names of their owners known by all that many. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be listened and attended to; it just means that, if they should be listened to (and in my opinion that depends variously for the different voices), it is because of the significance of what they say, not whether they will get many, or any, other people into the country. Evangelism is not the point here; evangelism misses the point here. Neither poetry or mysticism is evangelistic; and much theology isn’t either. The thing in itself is what counts; it needs no justification beyond itself, however lonely that may make our interest in it.


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