I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book, in preparation for WBCL’s Digging Deeper on MidMorning this coming Thursday, September 10th, at 9:05 am. This is one of the more challenging small books I’ve read recently. For instance, what to make of this statement?
It is the very nature of language to form rather than inform. When language is personal, which it is at its best, it reveals: and revelation is always formative–we don’t know more, we become more. Our best users of language, poets and lovers and children and saints, use words to make–make intimacies, make character, make beauty, make goodness, make truth. (page 24)
I’ve certainly experienced enough of the worst of language…the dryness of a text book, reciting facts in a way no one could ever read for pleasure or interest; the convoluted prose of an instruction manual for assembling a bookshelf which only frustrates and confuses. But what does it mean that language at its best is “personal”? The dictionary definitions helps a bit. Personal can mean “pertaining to or coming from a (particular) person, a self-conscious being.” Good communication has an element of the personal–or perhaps conversational?– about it.
So far, so good. But how does language make beauty or goodness or truth? Making is different from revealing, isn’t it? When something is revealed to me, I recognize its truth or beauty, perhaps for the first time. Do the words make it true or beautiful, or only reveal something inherent? I believe God is the source of beauty and truth, and I think Peterson does, too. My biggest problem with the early chapters of this book is that he makes statements which are deep with implications, and then he does nothing to unpack them with illustration.
The rich metaphors of a good poem cause us to see in a new way. For instance,
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
–Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book vii
This snippet of verse is a powerful picture of our God-saturated world, and the necessity of looking at creation with awareness of God’s presence. The idea of being so oblivious we’d sit and pluck berries when we should be worshiping carries a sense of shame. So few words, so much depth. But does the poet create the beauty or the truth? Or does she reveal it by her fresh metaphor and strong verbs (crammed, afire, pluck)? The comparison of Moses at the burning bush to simpletons feeding their faces with fruit carries conviction which cuts to the heart. It reveals not only a truth of nature, but a truth about our own perceptions (or lack).
If this revelation creates a desire in us for change, if we are formed (or perhaps re-formed is more apt…formed anew) by it, then I suppose we can say that the poet “made” more goodness, character, beauty.
Of course Peterson’s contention is that the Bible is the all-important text for our spiritual formation. We are not to “use” Scripture for our own goals, plans, information or agenda. Rather, we are to ingest it so that it permeates us, becomes part of us, nurturing us as the best food does.
“Eating a book,” he writes, “takes it all in, assimilating it into the tissues of our lives Readers become what they read.” I do believe that “it is the very nature of” Scripture to form rather than inform. I’m just not convinced that the same is true of language in general.