GUY RAZ, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
When Eugene Peterson started publishing parts of his translation of the Bible called "The Message," he never thought it would become a phenomenon, but it did. To date, it sold 15 million copies worldwide. And it made Eugene Peterson a star in the world of Christian publishing.
You'd hardly know it from speaking with him. Eugene Peterson is a soft-spoken poet, he's a professor, a scholar, but most importantly a pastor. And that last role is the one that's defined his life more than any other.
It's also the title of his new memoir about life in a congregation. And Pastor Peterson joins me now from his home in Montana.
Mr. EUGENE PETERSON (Author, "The Pastor): Thank you.
RAZ: Your book is titled "The Pastor," but there's a subtitle on the front cover, the words "Every Step an Arrival." They're printed right at the bottom. What are those four words about?
Mr. PETERSON: They're words from a poem by Denise Levertov in which she's talking about her vocation, development as a poet. And she has a wonderful line in there about her dog going intently haphazard from fire hydrant to bush to tree. He knows where he's going, but he couldn't articulate to you. But he knows he's got a nose for what he wants to do.
And when I read those lines, I thought: That's what I've been doing all my life. I never knew where I was headed, and then at some point, I realized it was pastor.
RAZ: You actually describe your introduction to congregations as a young, young child, a young apprentice to your father, working in his butcher shop in Montana, not the most obvious place that springs to mind when I think of a congregation, but to you it was a holy place. You actually write that the butcher shop was a holy place.
Mr. PETERSON: Yes. When I was a little kid, my mother would make me an apron just like my dad's apron, a white apron. And I knew the story of Samuel, who was taken to the temple and given a - his mother would make him a robe every year to accommodate his growth. And I always thought of myself as Samuel wearing a priestly robe.
And my dad was a very - he was a priestly kind of person. Everybody who came in that place was greeted by their first name. It was holy work for him.
RAZ: You describe your father as a very humble man. Prostitutes would come into his butcher shop, and he would not judge them. He would treat them just like he did everybody else, with respect.
Mr. PETERSON: That's right.
RAZ: That must have made a real impression on you as a kid.
Mr. PETERSON: Oh, it did. Because, you know, the brothel was just about two streets down from our shop. And there were always - there was always talk on the street about the whores. But when they came into our store, people knew their first name. They treated them with dignity. They were in a safe place. Later on, that translated for me into a congregation. When you come into the sanctuary, it's a safe place.
RAZ: Most people know you, and many people came to know you, because of your book "The Message." Obviously, there are many translations of the Bible. There's the New International Version and the King James Bible and many others. What made you decide to write your own?
Mr. PETERSON: Well, I really didn't decide to do that. I had done things for my own congregation. I translated Galatians for them. And I was very at home in the Biblical languages. I taught them for three years in the seminary, so it was more of a playful thing for me.
I was trying to get this scriptural language into the idiom, the vernacular of the people that I was working with, and I would never have dreamed of translating the Bible.
RAZ: Almost every committed Christian I know, including many young Christians, has a copy of "The Message." It became this enormous event in Christian publishing. Were you surprised by that?
Mr. PETERSON: Totally surprised.
RAZ: What did you expect?
Mr. PETERSON: I expected they'd pay me what they told me they'd pay me, and it would drop out of the world. It just - no it really did surprise me.
RAZ: My guest is Pastor Eugene Peterson, best known for his bestselling book "The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language." He has a new memoir out. It's called "The Pastor."
Pastor Peterson, I believe you're 78 years old right now. Is that right?
Mr. PETERSON: That's right.
RAZ: So I imagine you've read the Bible more than a few times over the course of your life. Do you find that your own view of the Bible has changed as, you know, as you've gotten older?
Mr. PETERSON: Not really. I had a home in a small town, and a church where nobody was very important. But they read the Bible. They knew how to read the Bible and to listen for God. And so I think I was trained quite early in this way of not studying but receiving, letting the words shape you instead of you using the words to do something you want to do.
RAZ: As a young man, you were in your early 30s when you became the pastor of the Presbyterian Church Christ the King near Baltimore. And you stayed there for almost 30 years. Was there ever a time where your confidence, your faith was shaken a little bit?
Mr. PETERSON: Yeah. Those early years after - I call the badlands, when my competitive instincts weren't working anymore. Yeah. There were six years when I just didn't know what I was - nothing seemed to be working.
RAZ: That's a long time.
The Rev. PETERSON: It is a long time.
RAZ: How did you get over it? Did it just pass, or did you have to really work at it?
Mr. PETERSON: Well - see, that was the problem. I was used to working at things. And, now working at things didn't make any difference. So I found some people to talk to. I started running. I was always a runner in school, and I started running. I didn't know adults ran.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PETERSON: And so that became a way to be competitive without being competitive. So I always - it was many of these things. We started keeping Sabbaths, my wife and I. The most important person in teaching us how to do this was Abraham Hezhel(ph), the Jewish rabbi.
So we just kind of lived into that Sabbath world of rest, and we were almost like Orthodox Jews in what we did. We took it seriously. So there were a number of things like that.
It wasn't just - it wasn't a program. It was - well, maybe it goes each step an arrival. Each thing we did led to something else. But after about six years, I can't tell you just what happened, but all of a sudden, it just seemed like here I was. I was whole.
All that stuff had gotten integrated into something which was more like a joyful, obedient life rather than a striving, mastering life.
RAZ: What did you love about being a pastor the most?
Mr. PETERSON: This might be - seem like an odd answer to it, but I think it's the intimacy. You're in a place of pain and joy and boredom and, you know, everything is more or less intensified in the pastoral vocation, the whole range of what it means to be a human being.
When I went from being a pastor to being a professor, that's what I miss the most. I miss the ordinariness of the congregation. But then, entering into those, these lives of just incredibly rich intimacy, sometimes took years to accomplish that or to enter into that, both for them and for me. But I think the intimacy, yes.
RAZ: Pastor Peterson, what an incredible journey you've had.
Mr. PETERSON: It has been. Yes, it has been.
RAZ: And you're back where you were born. You're back in Montana.
Mr. PETERSON: Yes.
RAZ: Sort of completes the circle, in a way, doesn't it?
Mr. PETERSON: It really does. We live in a house that my dad built. This is the country I grew up in. These are the hills that I played cowboy and Indian in and joined Lewis and Clark in their exploration of this country. So yeah, it's very storied.
RAZ: That's Pastor Eugene Peterson. He is professor emeritus of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. His memoir, "The Pastor," is in bookstores now.
Pastor Peterson, thank you so much.
Mr. PETERSON: Thank you. Thank you very much.