HELENA (AP) - The Rev. Eugene H. Peterson isn't much of a banjo player. But that's about as harsh as the criticism gets for the Montana minister and Bible scholar.
Some who have translated the Good Book - there are more than 70 versions - have been savaged for meddling with revered language.
But this Presbyterian minister's common-language version that hit bookstores this month has drawn almost universal acclaim so far, and only occasional, mostly mild criticism from Bible scholars and lay critics alike.
"J.B. Phillips was the first to do this, back in the '40s, and they treated him very badly," Peterson said from his home in Lakeside, on the west shore of Flathead Lake. "Then Kenneth Taylor did it in the '50s, and he was badly treated, too, but eventually both of these paraphrase translators became well accepted.
"And now I come along 40 or 50 years later, and I think they took all the flak."
"The Message," published by NavPress of Colorado Springs, Colo., combines Peterson's hugely popular series of translations of parts of the Bible over the past 20 years. "The Message" is the complete Old Testament and New Testament, 66 books comprising 2,265 pages of a single volume.
At $39.99, NavPress sold 320,000 copies in advance and ordered an initial print run of 500,000, the largest the printing company had ever had for a Bible, said NavPress spokeswoman Kathleen Campbell.
Peterson's New Testament, published in 1993, sold 2.5 million copies, and his other "Message products" - more than 20 in all - have sold 4.5 million.
It's hard to be humble in the face of such success, but that's how everyone describes Peterson.
"He's a real humble guy," said Brad Rauch, general manager of Christian radio station KALS in Kalispell. "He's real quiet, not somebody who toots his own horn at all."
Peterson translated the Bible directly from the Greek and Hebrew and avoided earlier English translations. His purpose was to capture the earthy, vigorous tone - the spirit - of the originals.
"My intent was to provide something for people who had never read the Bible before, or didn't think they could read it," he said. "I wanted to do in a fresh way what Phillips did - he was a good preacher."
In "The Message," Paul the Apostle is that "jailbird preacher." In the 23rd Psalm, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," becomes, under Peterson's translation, "God, my shepherd! I don't need a thing."
"The Lord's Prayer" begins this way: "Our father in heaven, reveal who you are. Set the world right; Do what's best - as above, so below."
Nobody "begets" anybody in "The Message." They have babies. And in Matthew 9, before Jesus raised a young woman from the dead, caring neighbors brought her family casseroles.
The language of Peterson's New Testament hit home with Rauch, hard.
"I've been reading the Bible since I was a little kid, but I found myself, when I first cracked it open - I was on an airplane - and I found myself laughing out loud or crying," Rauch recalled. "I became an instant fan of Eugene Peterson."
He invited Peterson to talk to Flathead Valley ministers a couple of years ago.
"It was a very simple, straightforward talk," Rauch recalled. "He doesn't do anything very complicated."
Don't be misled by the simple language, said another friend, John Briggs, CEO of Mission Builders International in Lakeside.
"The books themselves are very challenging intellectually," Briggs said. "They're ones you don't just do a quick read of."
Bono, lead singer for the Irish rock band U2, is such a Peterson fan that he quoted him at the Super Bowl halftime show. He cited "this guy Eugene Peterson" in a Rolling Stone interview last December.
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"He's a poet and a scholar, and he's brought the text back to the tone in which the books were written," Bono told Rolling Stone. "A lot of the Gospels were written in common kind of marketspeak. They were not at all highfalutin like the King James version of the Bible."
Peterson got clippings of that interview from all over the world.
"Since then I've started listening to his music," Peterson said.
Peterson started as an academic, an ivory-tower scholar of Greek and Hebrew at New York Theological Seminary and associate pastor at a Presbyterian church in White Plains, N.Y. In 1962 he went to Bel Air, Md., to organize a new Presbyterian church and stayed 29 years. He still regards himself primarily as a pastor.
It was Peterson's insistence that made the church's name distinctive: Christ OUR King, not Christ THE King. Members of that first congregation still speak of Peterson with great affection and near-reverence (except for his banjo-playing).
"He's wonderful, that's all I can say," said Aileen Matthews, the church's first organist.
"The Message" began because Peterson's adult Sunday school class didn't understand the excitement of the book of Galatians. He decided to translate it for them.
The resulting pamphlet found its way to an editor at NavPress, the publishing arm of The Navigators, a nondenominational, international evangelistic organization. John Stein didn't beat around the burning bush.
"He said, 'I've been carrying this thing around in my pocket for three years and I'm getting sick of Galatians. How about you do the whole New Testament?' "
Peterson rarely preaches anymore and turns down most of the scores of speaking invitations that come from around the world.
"I'm nearly 70 years old, and I just don't have the energy to do that," he said. "And I just can't handle much exposure anymore. I get people projecting something on me that's not true, and I find it's diminishing."
That "something" is adulation.
He is working on a five-book series on spiritual theology, but has no deadline: "When I finished 'The Message' I thought, 'Never sign another contract with a deadline in it.' "
Peterson was born in East Stanwood, Wash., on Nov. 6, 1932, but his family soon moved to Kalispell, where he grew up. His father was a butcher, his mother a storytelling Pentecostal preacher to whom he attributes his own storytelling abilities.
She held services on Sunday nights along a circuit of half a dozen mining and lumber camps and mesmerized the all-male audiences. She took little Eugene along.
"That was a powerful influence on me," Peterson said.
But about that banjo playing. He saw Pete Seeger perform in Baltimore in 1958 while Peterson was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. He's still a fan, and he still gropes for words to describe his experience.
"I was just totally … That was the best song I ever heard," he recalled. "I went down to East Baltimore the next day and found a banjo in a pawn shop and bought some instruction books and records. That's how I started."
Peterson restricted his banjo playing to children's groups and the elderly in nursing homes.
"Those two congregations - children and the elderly - they're pretty uncritical audiences."
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