Is The Message as bad as they all say?

Recently, I had a conversation with someone regarding salvation and the afterlife. A death in her family had prompted her to ask questions about life beyond the grave, so we talked about faith in Jesus, and she showed a great deal of interest.

“Where can I read more about what Jesus said?” she asked.

Of course, the correct answer is to say, “Read the Bible,” which I did.

And she took me up on it! A few days later she told me she had taken my advice and downloaded a Bible app on her phone and had tried reading it.

“But it makes no sense,” she said, exasperated. “I don’t understand it.”

I enquired what translation she was reading, and she looked at me as if I was stupid. “English, of course!” she snapped.

When I looked at her phone it was clear the app she had downloaded used the KJV as its default translation. I went into the settings and changed it to an NIV and asked her to read a section. It was better, she said, but still somewhat esoteric. So I changed it again, this time to The Message.

“Oh, that’s much better!” she exclaimed. “I can understand this one.”

There are many criticisms of The Message, some of them justified. It’s not a reliable translation if that’s what you need. It’s a rendering of the text, an attempt to make the Bible accessible in the common vernacular. But as a doorway into serious Bible reading, it has been a gift to the church. At least that’s how my friend has found it.

In his book on Bible reading, Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson writes about his motivations in writing The Message. He goes so far as to say it’s a form of sacrilege to speak of God in language that is “inflated into balloons of abstraction or diffused into the insubstantiality of lacey gossamer.”

And that is the reason he agreed to provide people with a paraphrase of the Bible that makes sense in contemporary language. He sees it as part of the mission of God’s people. He explains:

“For those of us who take the Scriptures seriously as the word of God and the authoritative text by which we choose to live, translation is one of the primary defenses that we have against . . . letting language inflate into pomposities or artifices that are no longer current with the way we express our ordinary lives.”

Knowing this helps me appreciate The Message for what it is. It’s a protest against arcane and impenetrable religious language. It’s an invitation for ordinary people to enter the Scriptures once again.

 

But writing an accessible paraphrase didn’t arise only from his pastoral vocation, it goes even deeper for Peterson. In his 1997 book on spirituality, Leap Over a Wall, he opens by telling us how his mother used to recount Bible stories to him when he was a child. In quite a moving passage, he writes:

“My mother was good with words; she was also good with tones. In her storytelling I not only saw whole worlds come into being, I felt them within me through the timbre of her voice.”

Sure, he admits, she took some liberties with the stories, adding extracanonical detail, but “she never violated or distorted the story itself.”

Here we have our primary clue to reading The Message: it’s like sitting on Uncle Eugene Peterson’s knee and listening to him tell the Bible story, which is exactly what the woman I was talking to needed—the story!

Peterson takes the opening verses of Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters,” and renders them like this:

“First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was like a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.”

God’s Spirit hovering like a bird; a soupy nothingness; an inky blackness. The universe came from this? What reader wouldn’t be intrigued?

At other times the text has a surprising, fresh beauty: “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.” (Matthew 5:14)

God-colors? What a startling way to put it.

Then there’s this:

“God’s love is meteoric, his loyalty astronomic, His purpose titanic, his verdicts oceanic. Yet in his largeness nothing gets lost; Not a man, not a mouse, slips through the cracks” (Psalm 36:5-6).

And this:

“So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective.” (Colossians 3:1-2)

Sure, there are some slightly jarring colloquialisms: “God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son” (Romans 8:3). And some grating anachronisms: “The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it” (Romans 8:4). Or: “If you’re so hungry that you can’t wait to be served, go home and get a sandwich” (1 Corinthians 11:33).

And occasionally, a deeply moving verse like, “Because of this, we have been comforted” (2 Corinthians 7:13) sounds a bit lame by comparison: “That’s what happened—and we felt just great.” Well, golly gee.

Others have been far more scathing in their criticism of The Message: it’s inaccurate; it’s misleading; it overstates the legalism of the Pharisees; it flattens out the beauty of the Authorized version, etc., etc. I’ve heard them all.

But it’s not a translation, folks. It’s Eugene Peterson’s retelling of the old, old story that was told to him on his mother’s knee, the rich tone of her voice reverberating through his body, and now through ours.

 

Twenty-five years later, it is still a story worth listening to.

 

 

[This article first appeared as part of NavPress’ 25th celebration of the publication of The Message].

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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34 thoughts on “Is The Message as bad as they all say?

  1. I really appreciate this perspective. This very topic has arisen in our church recently and, as an elder, I’ve found myself at times defending both sides of the argument. You have given me peace about this and provided some fresh words for my conversations with others. Bless you for this.

    1. Thank you for that encouragement, brother.

  2. Thank you

  3. Yes, nearly every time I hear someone mention they are reading from ‘The Message’ I hear someone else pipe in. They usually say “You know it’s not a translation, right?” as if to give some sort of rebuke. Next time I will pipe in saying, “Sure, they just wanted to have the story retold from their grandma’s knee again”.

    1. Maybe that makes sense if it’s a young child, but why would responsible, literate adults value that over actual accuracy of the words?

      1. It helps me clearly visualize what’s going on. I’ll take it!

  4. Well, as a German I have a more general view, because I don´t know “The Message” – there are corresponding editions (“Volxbibel”, derived from “Volksbibel” – “Peoples Bible”) available here, too. Mike should know better than me, but all of the essential translations – take Martin Luther for example – weren´t they signs of their times? The invention of printing gave birth to multiple intentions of translation. Given that every translator aims for a better understanding – do we discuss differences between translations as often as ocurring transfers? Don´t we hide our disability to translate Greek or Aramaic into our mother languages behind our rock-solid view on the ranking of our favourite transalations we stick to? Do we walk blind-folded through our lives not realizing that languages change as well as people´s capabilities due to whatever reason? IMHO we are just witnesses of these changes which lead to the necessity of inspiring and inspired transfers. And wasn´t it Jesus himself taking parables as vehicles for deeper meanings?
    Cheers, Volker

  5. […] the passing of Eugene Peterson this week, Michael Frost has written what I feel to be the best overall summary of The Message Bible. He quickly shows us both why it is needed, and what may have given Peterson the idea to creat it. […]

  6. When the negative reactions to the Message began to spread across America and beyond back in 2003-2006 it was stunning to me that Eugene was essentially acted as an unofficial translator for Wycliffe Bible Translators for English speakers. The KJV’ers might remember there are 6000 languages on this Flattop Ball. Russians, Italians and tribes of the Andes Mountains cant do anything with a KJV. I never give my Arabic speaking friends a KJV.

    Eugene did a courageous thing in letting his work of translating go beyond his congregation. He knew there would be plenty of backlash for him. All he had to do was look at the icy receptions that legalistic KJV’ers gave to NIV and NASB and so on. But he saw the results in his own congregation and it was exciting and promising so he figured the price was worth it. Amazing!

    I’ve been buying his lectureships on CD at the Regent University in Vancouver, BC every time I’m in Canada since 1997.

  7. Mike I do appreciate you and your work for the Kingdom. My criticism of the headline (FB post) was because I thought it – the headline – was all about you and I wanted all of it to be about Eugene. He was a brilliant man, inspired to produce a great work. I’m glad I read this. You taught me something. Scott T

  8. Thank you – insightful.

  9. Any book that says the phrase God d**m you is not a book anyone should be reading. God’s name is holy and never to be used as a slander in any circumstances

    1. What is God’s name?

    2. Where is this?

  10. I’m an ordinary person. This does not make me too thick to understand accurate translations of the bible it’s no longer only available in Latin.!!! If Peterson hadn’t changed Gods word in several places though I wouldn’t have a problem … it would just be another available paraphrase… but he has changed it and it shouldn’t be put forward as ok …unless of course you belong to a church that only believes in the kindly God that never gets cross like the church I go to…

    1. Very well said

  11. I get what you’re saying, BUT there is a lot of verses that don’t sit well with me as a grateful Christ follower of almost 6 years. This is one example:
    John 3:16 New King James Version
    16 (A)For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten (B)Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
    John 3:16 The Message
    16-18 “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.
    Notice the difference here, we are given EVERLASTING life, meaning it life doesn’t stop for us, it is eternal. The Message changes this to a whole and lasting life, which implies life to last over a period of time, implying life has a limit. There are other scriptures that just don’t agree with biblical scripture and don’t give reverence to GOD and his holy word. There are plenty of articles on the web to help clear this up. We have to know The Word and respect its original text because it is our weapon against the enemy. Thank you for your time.

    1. This is what bothered me. I am on the youversion bible app and it’s never concerned me until today when the verse of the day (Jeremiah29:11) is in the MSG version and it was so different than any other version, I was confused. There was so much added to it! How is this clearer? Everyone has a preference, mine is usually NIV but for the MSG to completely change content is scary.

  12. So basically your original qualification on why the Message Bible is a good translation is because someone who had no theological training, wasn’t a Christian, and probably never read the Bible before thought it was a good translation and sounded good? Maybe they would have liked to go to Vegas to enjoy the hookers and coke, would that be a good justification that hookers and coke are good?

    The Message Bible significantly changes the meanings of many verses. This is not a matter of preference. For the most part, all Bible versions such as the NASB, ESV, KJV, NKJV, YLT, RSV, NRSV, Luther’s German Bible, Latin, the original Greek, primarily say the same thing. There are variations, but they mostly say the same thing. The Message Bible brings a new Message. Either the original authors of the Bible got it wrong, or the Message Bible is wrong.

    1. You know, Fred, when you’re comparing me giving the Message to an unbeliever to going to Vegas and enjoying hookers and coke, you’ve really lost all perspective.

      1. I agree with Mike that you lose perspective when comparing something that God has placed in someone’s heart to do with hookers and drugs. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe Mike clearly stated that he doesn’t see it as a translation, but as a story of the Bible told by Peterson. Saying it’s wrong to advise someone to read the Message is like saying you can’t give someone perspective about the Bible, because your words aren’t accurate. We don’t have hours and hours explaining everything to every new believer and that is where the Message is helpful.

        1. I dont disagree that this comparison should be thrown out. Sometimes radical comparisons need to be made to see the point. The Bible is the infallible word of God (not man). The message being treated as a Bible version is taking man’s perceptive paraphrase of the Bible and now taking that as our guiding force, when it isn’t God’s word. God’s word is so beautiful in the way it speaks to us in so many ways and has so many hidden meanings and things we will never understand in this life. To make it as simple as “The Message” portays it to where a reader can say, yeah I understand this completely, truly takes God’ out of it all. As a comparison, sex can be a beautiful experience when experienced in the way God designed. It can be simple and enjoyable with one night stands or trips to Vegas with hookers, however, so much of the love, connection, and experience God designed within is lost in any of these scenarios. Similar to reading “The Message” as if it were the infallible word of God.

    2. As someone who grew up and currently resides in Las Vegas, I can attest that you are unlikely to find more hookers and coke here than you would any place else. It’s as illegal here as it is wherever you’re from, possibly more so.

      Vegas isn’t a modern Sodom or Gomorra. We have more churches by the square mile than I’ve seen in any city in California or Arizona.

      No one who lives in Vegas lives on The Strip. We have hobbies that don’t include gambling or strip clubs, work normal jobs outside of casinos, and go to church one or more times a week. We also tend not to judge, as we have a melting pot of differing viewpoints and people from all over the world.

      To not make this entirely off point, I’ve been a Christian for 23 years, studying only the KJV and NIV versions of the Bible (with some NASB at times). I’ve learned from pastors like Thieme, and from pastors who weren’t so harsh and dogmatic. It wasn’t until I picked up The Message a few weeks ago that I began to understand some of the verses that were always a mystery to me. It isn’t my new Bible or anything, but it helped me grasp some concepts that I can take with me back to the NIV, put through a test to ensure that it’s clear, and then continue on with my studies.

      It’s a useful tool, particularly for those who think more colloquially and might need a love hand to reveal the concept, before we go back to the deeper mysteries of it all.

  13. Please listen, it is important. Have nothing to do with THE MESSAGE. I came across a copy while helping clean a house where a friend of my wife had died. I took it home and read it for a little while and got up and threw it in the trash can. It’s one thing to read the Bible, but it is sinful to read what someone interprets as the Bible.

    Teachers like me have heard too many other versions of God’s word.

    1. So I assume you’ve mastered Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek? It would be a sin to use others interpretations no?

      Are we being a touch dramatic?

      1. Not dramatic at all. There are TRANSLATIONS, where translators, preferably in teams, work hard to find the accurate way to bring the Greek and Hebrew into English. And then there is “The Message” where Peterson doesn’t bother with accuracy and creates a book that oftentimes makes the verse LESS accurate and understandable, and sometimes even erroneous. A translation faithfully rendered is a good thing. The Message is heresy and does not belong in the life of anyone who honors God’s Word as holy.

  14. Thank you, Dr. Frost, for your explication of The Message as a personal interpretation and not a translation of Scripture. I have heard others say that The Message is a translation, though I have thought it a paraphrase. After reading a text in the The Message this morning, I wanted to read about its being a translation or not; thus, I came upon your discourse.

    I text I read today in The Message stopped me and made me think, “Well, that seems ironic. This does exactly what this text says not to do.”

    Matthew 7:6 (The Message): “Don’t be flip with the sacred. Banter and silliness give no honor to God. Don’t reduce holy mysteries to slogans. In trying to be relevant, you’re only being cute and inviting sacrilege.”

    Matthew 7:6 (King James): “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”

    While writing this commentary, I chuckle because verses 1-5 speak of not judging (KJ). In juxtaposition to this text, my comment may seem judgmental; however, I am not criticizing, finding fault, trying to wash someone else’s face when mine needs attention (MSG). I am sharing my observation that emanated from my personal study.

    Thank you for your time.

  15. Thank you for this analysis.
    Yes, the Message Bible is as bad as they say. It changes the word of God around, gives it a new meaning. There are multiple websites available that show the distortions in the Message Bible. It needs to be avoided. The author of the Message Bible, Eugene Peterson, said it should not be used in the pulpit. But it is. Revelations 22:18-19 NIV says: I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. 19And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.

  16. If it weren’t for The Message I never would have met God. No arguing and no judgment of anyone or anything on here, just a fact. I am so thankful that this wonderful book was made a part of my life. Correct and perfect doctrine aside, it helped me learn about the heart of God. For those that feel the need to respond to this posting by telling me I’m not a true believer or I’m being misled. God is my only judge and I will not be back on this site again. May the love of God be the most important thing to all, not arguing about what is right and wrong. How that must hurt the heart of God. Take care out there. Be a light and shine!!

    1. “Correct and perfect doctrine aside…” Then how do you know you learned about the heart of God? What you learned was Eugene Peterson’s thoughts about the heart of God – which thoughts are, quite often, incorrect and quite humanistic. Get rid of The Message. If you don’t want to wade through King James language, at least get an ESV. But The Message is poison and will NOT enhance your walk with God.

  17. No disrespect intended, as I think MSG is a good thing when seen and used in the proper context. But imo it should be considered within the same spectrum that, for example, a child’s picture book of Noah’s Ark resides. Supplementary material that should only be used to help understand actual translations of Scripture. Though, MSG is at the very top of that spectrum and closest to actual Scripture, while a picture book is at the bottom of that spectrum. Regardless, my point is that they are of the same category. Supplementary. MSG should never be someone’s main version of Scripture, unless they truly lack the ability to understand something like NIV. It should be used to help them understand NIV and other actual translations better. Nothing wrong with MSG as long as we all see it as a storybook-version meant for illustrative purposes, like a TV show or movie based on a book. Great for understanding and visualizing, but it’ll get certain things wrong, both unimportant and important, so if you want the whole story, dive deeper into the original.

    1. Given how much ERROR is in The Message, how exactly would it HELP someone understand Scripture? It doesn’t. It muddies the waters. Most of it is humanistic garbage, and what parts of it are not are nevertheless murky nonsense that does nothing to improve upon the reading of the Scriptures.

      1. Just now considering this purchase. In teaching biblical context, I use at least three translations, concordances, commentaries, lexicon, biblical encyclopedias, and my brain to question them all. I think The Message may bring a poetic story telling to my study table. So it’s a thumbs up from this artist/poet.

  18. For me the issue isn’t whether The Message is a translation or a paraphrase. I think it’s a good choice for people to read on their own as a way of better understanding the Bible. What I don’t care for is reading it aloud in church. To me the overly folksy language just doesn’t sound appropriate in a place of worship.

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