Eat This Book: The Art of Spiritual Reading – Book Review

Eat This Book: The Art of Spiritual Reading
Author:  Eugene H. Peterson
Publisher:  Hodder & Stoughton, 2006
ISBN:  0340863919

Book Review by  Tim Davy, Reviews Editor for Encounters.

Eugene Peterson is best known for his contemporary rendering of the Bible, The Message.  Although this will probably always be the case Peterson’s work on Christian spirituality and leadership is no less important.  Indeed, for anyone engaged in ‘ministry’, in their own culture or another’s, his four books on pastoral work are worth their weight in gold (Under the Unpredictable Plant, Working the Angles, The Contemplative Pastor, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work).

Since retiring Peterson has been working on a five-volume work on Spiritual Theology, three volumes of which are now available (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology; Eat This Book: The Art of Spiritual Reading; The Jesus Way: A Conversation in Following Jesus).

In the delightfully titled Eat This Book Peterson suggests that we read different writing in different ways.  In contrast to reading for facts, reading to know how to do something, or reading purely for entertainment, spiritual reading is an approach to reading that seeks to be changed by a text.  Perhaps this is the tension all Bible College students face: trying to get to grips with the Bible yet allowing the Bible to get to grips with us!

Part one shares the title, Eat This Book.  Here Peterson sets out his stall:

“I want to pull the Christian Scriptures back from the margins of the contemporary imagination where they have been so rudely elbowed by their glamorous competitors, and reestablish them at the center as the text for living the Christian life deeply and well.” (p.17)

But what do we do with the Bible once we are paying attention to it?

“Christians feed on Scripture. Holy Scripture nurtures the holy community as food nurtures the human body. Christians don’t simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’ name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in company with the Son.” (p.18)

Eat This Book lingers over the nature of Scripture and our response to it in rich and engaging ways.  Above all, Peterson contends, Scripture is the revelation of a personal God.

Part two is a reflection on the practice of Lectio Divina, a fourfold method of reading Scripture classically set out by the 12th Century monk, Guigo the Second.  Peterson sees it as a guard against using Scripture merely as a means to our ends.  Rather, the process of reading the text, meditating on the text, praying the text and living the text draws us into the world of the Bible, allowing God’s Word to set the agenda.

Part three focuses on the issue of translating Scripture.  This is a particular highlight of the book as it draws on Peterson’s extensive scholarly and practical experience of the task.  Peterson is very much a champion of the Bible as a book for all people, and so believes that translations must capture the earthy nature of the original languages.

I enjoyed reading Eat This Book a great deal, not least because anyone who saw me doing so was fascinated by the title!  I always feel refreshed and nourished by Peterson’s work and this was no exception.  While struggling on the mission field a mentor once impressed upon me the importance of immersing myself in (to use Barth’s phrase) ‘the strange world of the Scriptures’.  I wish Eat This Book had been available then to flesh out what this wise piece of advice was getting at.

My one main criticism of the book, and of the Spiritual Theology series as a whole, is that many people may be put off this excellent work because it appears vague and inaccessible.  This would be a crying shame because these books deserve to be read and re-read for many years to come.

Back to Issue 18

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