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Christian Literary Agency, The Message | Alive Literary

The Message

By Eugene Peterson

Eugene Peterson

Eugene Peterson

I first came across Eugene Peterson’s work in a January 1991 article he’d written for Christianity Today, entitled “Listen, Yahweh.” It included some sidebar translations he’d done on a couple of Psalms, and the words rattled around inside my head for hours after. Finally, I picked up the phone and cold-called him.

I wanted to encourage him as a writer and suggest that he try his hand at the full Bible. I had no idea who he was, he had never heard my name, and so the conversation seemed to go nowhere quickly. He wasn’t real forthcoming in that first contact, but asked politely who I was and what I did. I provided background on myself and the launch of Alive Communication in 1989, but he didn’t sound much interested in pursuing things. He asked whom else I worked with, and I mentioned a few names.

“I know them,” he said quietly.

I thought about calling the authors and asking that they contact Eugene with a thumbs-up report. But in the end, I left matters where they were. There was just too much silence at his end, and all I’d really called for in the first place was to encourage him. But three days later the phone rang. It was Eugene, calling to say he’d contacted the authors, and that they’d said some nice things about me. And then at that point he pulled the curtain back, telling me about his plans to leave his small church in Maryland to pursue, full-time, the translation of the Bible into contemporary English.

And then he said 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 some time. 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 over time, and eventually got the publishing team on board.

One thing led to another, and I was asked to handle project negotiations as Eugene’s agent. In assuming that role, early in the history of this agency, I wasn’t initially confident about NavPress and its ability to handle a Bible project, but I had no doubts about Jon Stine and how God had stirred this idea in him years before anybody else was thinking of it–an idea that became The Message. Nonetheless, I needed to test the waters and so I shopped it to several other houses, including Zondervan, Tyndale, Thomas Nelson, and Doubleday.

The entire Zondervan publishing team met with me at a convention in a big circle in their suite. The first question: “Rick, who do you see as being the market for this Bible?” I explained that I thought it would catch on first with pastors and church leaders, and then expand beyond there to men and women, young and old. I said I thought it would work with Christians and help them to hear God’s Word, as if for the first time-as well as with non-Christians, who don’t understand the stilted language of most texts.

“You mean, everybody?” an editor said.

“Well, yes. I don’t think this Bible will leave anybody out.”

After the meeting, the publisher pulled me aside. “The part about the market being everybody, that probably wasn’t the best answer,” he said. “You have to think smaller.”

Nonetheless, Zondervan undertook a marketing survey of key Christian retailers– Should they publish it or not? Most were lukewarm, though some took off their gloves. One of them bluntly responded that they thought their store would be burned down if Zondervan published such a Bible as this. In the end, Zondervan passed, as did Tyndale and Nelson. Each of the latter had their own translations they were focusing on. Doubleday wanted the project, but would only initially commit to the Gospel of John. If it sold well, they’d release the four Gospels together, and then institute a rollout of the entire New Testament. In essence, they wanted to test the water and I wanted them to dive into the deep end with a commitment to launch with entire New Testament.

Clearly, there was a “God factor” with NavPress that couldn’t be dismissed. And they were willing to take on the entire Bible, beginning with the New Testament in its entirety. It was on this basis that the project landed where it did, with Jon as the editor until his retirement. To date, The Message has sold more than ten million copies.

Sales like that tend not to be forgettable. Each year, Zondervan executives and those at several of the houses draw me aside to say, “That’s one we sure wish we’d not let get away.” –RC