Behind the Scenes: The Message

By Rick Christian, Founder and CEO of Alive Literary Agency

I first encountered Eugene Peterson’s work in a January 1991 article he’d written for Christianity Today, entitled “Listen, Yahweh.” ItEugene-Peterson included some sidebar translations he’d done on a couple of Psalms, and his words rattled around my head for hours. His paragraph bio at the foot of the piece said he pastored Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Maryland, so I tracked down the number and cold-called.

I wanted to encourage him as a writer and suggested he try his hand at the full Bible. “If you did for all of Scripture what you did for those Psalms in the magazine, it would be a gift for the church beyond your lifetime,” I said. But the words immediately sounded audacious and silly. Who was I to suggest such a thing to a perfect stranger? It was awfully quiet on his end.

I had no idea who he was and he’d never heard my name, but I explained I was a literary agent who launched Alive in 1989 and talked a bit about the service I provided. It was silent enough on his end to feel squirmy on mine, though he politely asked which authors I worked with.

“I’m not sure who you read,” I ventured, “but one of our authors is a novelist by the name of Walter Wangerin, Jr. He won the National Book Award for his novel, Book of the Dun Cow.”

“I know Wally,” he replied quietly.

Wally? I only knew him only as Walter. But if he knew him, might he also know Virginia Stem Owens, another of our novelists?

“Ginger and I are friends,” he said.

Ginger, imagine! But if Wally and Ginger, how about Philip Yancey, my first boss in Christian work at Campus Life Magazine a seeming lifetime ago, and who’d been helpful with referrals?

“We’re quite close with Phil and Janet,” he offered. And then it got silent again.

I thought about calling these three and asking them to contact Eugene with a thumbs-up report. But in the end, I left matters where they were. It felt too awkward and it was a wild-hair idea and all I’d really called for in the first place was to encourage him. I quit thinking about it and began prospecting elsewhere.

Three days later the phone rang. It was Eugene, calling to report he’d contacted the three authors, and they’d said kind and generous things about me. I didn’t know what to say. How was this possible? He then pulled the curtain back, revealing his plans to leave his 29-year pastorate in Bel Air to pursue full-time his translation of the Bible into contemporary English. I was stunned silent and just listened. Could that initial inkling in my heart to call him have been the still small voice of God? Where was this leading?

He continued, explaining there was another individual I should know about: Jon Stine, an editor at NavPress, who had been encouraging him down the same track for quite awhile. He mentioned how Jon had photocopied pages of his work on Galatians from Traveling Light, and had pitched the Bible project to NavPress at a time when nobody would listen. But Jon didn’t give up; he kept pushing for the project and eventually his team warmed to the idea.

“So that’s where it stands,” he said. “I’m going to undertake this work and a publisher seems interested, but I don’t know the business side of publishing. I’m just a contemplative pastor and writer and don’t have a marketing bone in my body, so maybe you could be my agent and handle that part of things. The negotiations and all the details and things I don’t know.”

I hung up the phone and dropped to my knees. We were real estate poor with barely two nickels to rub together. My wife and I had taken all the equity out of our house to start the agency, and had exactly a year to live. We had three young children and a sizeable monthly nut and at the end of 12 months were scraping the bottom of the barrel again. I’d just sold my car to get us through the 13th month and was prepping for a massive book sale to get us by the 14th month. Our house was on the market and we were readying for a move to Colorado where expenses would be less. Though pinched financially, everything felt wonderfully right. If Eugene was asking me to be his literary agent, I would approach it as a holy calling and God would have to provide.

In assuming that role for Eugene early in the history of Alive Literary Agency, I wasn’t initially confident about NavPress’ ability to handle a Bible project, but had no doubts about Jon and how God had stirred this idea in him years before anybody else was thinking of it–an idea that became The Message. My first step was to study up on Eugene, who I embarrassingly discovered was quite well known for his pastoral books, such as Run with the Horses and A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. He was a sort of pastor to pastors. My next step was to prepare a formal proposal with samples of his translation work for several Gospels and Galatians. I then prayed over the envelopes and shipped them off to several other houses, including Zondervan, Tyndale and Thomas Nelson. I also sent the pitch to Doubleday in New York.

The entire Zondervan publishing team met with me that summer at the annual book industry convention. It was a lot of them and one of me in a big circle in their suite. The publisher fired the first question. “Rick, who do you perceive is the market for this Bible?” It was a question I didn’t anticipate. I nodded and stalled. “You’re asking about the audience . . . the ideal reader . . . the person or kind of person I’d consider to be the center of the bull’s eye . . . the red hot target. . . . Right?” I collected my thoughts as my mouth moved and then tried to explain I thought it would catch on first with pastors and church leaders, and then expand beyond there to the congregations, to men and women, young and old. I said I thought it would help Christians hear God’s Word as if for the first time, and also appeal to non-Christians, who don’t understand the stilted language of most texts. So the ripples of sales would eventually extend to everybody.

Everybody?” a marketing guy asked. Glances were exchanged around the circle, and my skin flushed hot. I was holding a pencil and couldn’t understand why it felt sweaty.

“Well, yes. I don’t think this Bible will leave anybody out.” And then I rambled a bit about how Eugene began the translation for his own congregation—the people who pumped gas and bagged groceries and delivered mail and who didn’t connect with the ponderous phraseology and Christianese in existing translations. What did atonement or redemption or sanctification really mean to any of them, I asked, and then spun off into a story about how Eugene thought of Joe the trucker as he poured over the translation. Joe was an African-American who’d recently helped them move, and he wanted it to resonate with old Joe.

I thought I’d done reasonably well. But after the meeting, the publisher pulled me aside. “That part about the market being everybody,” he said. “That wasn’t the best answer because you can’t approach Bible sales and marketing that way. You have to think smaller.”

I’d never sold a Bible before and maybe I was recklessly naïve. What I didn’t know, I’d learn. But I believed in Eugene’s work because it was fresh and radically different and I believed it could and would reach all ages without respect to gender, income, race or church background. I liked it because it sounded the way my friends talked. It was the idiom of the street, the vernacular of now.

Zondervan eventually undertook a marketing survey of key Christian retailers–Should they publish it or not? One store owner bluntly responded that his store would be burned down if he stocked a Bible like this that didn’t even sound like a Bible. In the end, Zondervan passed, as did Tyndale and Nelson. Each had their own translations they were focused on. Doubleday wanted the project, but would only commit to publishing the Gospel of John. If it sold well, they’d release the four Gospels together, and if that were successful they’d institute a rollout of the entire New Testament. No mention of the Old Testament. In essence, they wanted to test the water and I wanted them to deep dive and commit to the entire New Testament.

Clearly, there was a “God factor” with NavPress that couldn’t be dismissed. And they were willing to undertake the entire Bible, beginning with the full New Testament. It was on this basis and Jon’s faithful stubbornness the project landed where it did.

The-MessageJon served as the editor until his retirement, and to date The Message has sold more than 20 million copies and been endorsed by the brightest lights in Christendom—a diverse band of pastors, authors, conference speakers, along with musicians, artists and even fringe voices. All genders, races and ages.

In 2005, Eugene received a video in a plain brown wrapper. He put it in the machine and pushed the play button. On the TV screen was a man wearing sunglasses in the cabin of a boat with shoreline passing behind in the window.

“Eugene, you may not know who I am,” the talking head said, “but my name is Bono and I am the lead singer of a rock band named U2.” He then extended congratulations to him on the 10th anniversary of the release of The Message and said how much he appreciated reading it daily.

That didn’t much phase Eugene because he wasn’t up on contemporary culture, but his grandchildren explained that he was probably famous if somebody like Bono was sending him stuff. His estimation in their eyes soared.

In the 2001 “People of the Year” edition of Rolling Stone, Bono was asked what his favorite reading material currently was. “There’s a translation of Scriptures–the New Testament and the Books of Wisdom–that this guy Eugene Peterson has undertaken,” he replied. “It has been a great strength to me. He’s a poet and a scholar, and he’s brought the text back to the tone in which the books were written. A lot of the Gospels were written in a common kind of marketspeak. They were not at all highfalutin like the King James Version of the Bible, from which all Goths get their inspiration. I love the sort of archery of that, but it’s not representative of the original writings.”

Years later, Bono invited Eugene and me and a mutual friend, Peb Jackson, together with our wives, to the October 12, 2009, U2 concert at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX. It was part of their 360º Tour which set industry records with over 7.2 million tickets sold. Eugene had never attended a rock concert, so a thoughtful staffer gave him earplugs in the green room before escorting us to our seats. During the concert, Bono gave a shout-out to Eugene and read one of his Psalms from the stage. Afterwards, Eugene and his wife joined Bono and the band on their private plane to the next concert in Houston. The next day, they spent a private three hours together over lunch.

I called Eugene afterwards and asked how it went. I was hoping for a special story, some color. But not really, because by then I’d come to know Eugene well.

“It was precious,” he said. And then the phone went quiet. Eugene was clearly touched by the depth and breadth of his new friend.

The unlikely friendship of a quiet theologian and an Irish rock star has continued to grow over the years.

In 2015, Bono wrote the foreword for a special daily reading editioB-EP-are-1n of the Bible, The Message 100.

And in 2016, he paid a special visit to Eugene’s home on the side of Flathead Lake in Montana. Their conversation on the Psalms, guided by David Taylor of Fuller Theological Institute, was recorded and went viral, as if signaling that the Everyman audience I’d initially envisioned for The Message had been reached. From the beginning it wasn’t a matter of thinking smaller, as the one publisher had admonished me, but of embracing God-sized dreams.