Book Review: Eugene Peterson’s Tell It Slant

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Slant post

It’s about language, Eugene Peterson says, in his book Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers. It’s the fourth in a series Peterson has written on “conversations in spiritual theology.” This book focuses on the stories and prayers of Jesus in the book of Luke. The title borrows a line from a poem by Emily Dickinson:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—/Success in Circuit lies/ Too bright for our infirm Delight/ The Truth’s superb surprise/ As Lightning to the Children eased/ With Explanation kind/ The Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind—

And so, as Dickinson implores, Peterson takes us on the road to Jerusalem, through Samaria, to see how Jesus dazzled—maybe not so gradually—through the language of the truth.

The author tells us from the very beginning that he has an agenda.

I want to tear down the fences that we have erected between language that deals with God and language that deals with the people around us…

All language is holy, he asserts. We use the same words to talk to God and about God as we do when we interact in the office, at the gym, on the sidelines of the soccer field, around the dinner table. This being so, Peterson says, shouldn’t we aspire to be better stewards of these words? Shouldn’t we study and learn to use language in the same way that Jesus does? When we use and experience words differently between Sundays, the author says, we are disincarnating our language.

Peterson, whose conversational style sometimes belies the depth of his telling, begins with an extensive theological exploration of eleven stories that Jesus tells in the book of Luke. Ten of these stories are unique to Luke’s gospel. Because these stories are framed as being on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem, they are often termed the Travel Narrative. Peterson points out that only one of these stories takes place in a church environment (the story of the praying Pharisee and tax man in Luke 18:9-14). The rest of the stories are set in nonreligious circumstances and use the common vocabulary of every day.

In addition to this very telling observation, Peterson notes that the stories Jesus tells on the road keep the language local and personal, immediate to the circumstances, present to the conditions…just as it is in his prayers to the Father.

…His language is just as local and present and personal with the Father who is in heaven as it is with his companions over meals at the table and while walking on the road.

I want to insist that the language of Jesus in his prayers is neither less nor more himself, soul and body, than in his stories. Prayer is anemic if the language dissipates into mist, into a pious fog of sentimentalities, thinned out to pious clichés. When we keep company with Jesus in his prayers, that doesn’t happen.

The second part of Tell it Slant explores six prayers of Jesus in the book of Luke, including an extensive discourse on the Lord’s Prayer that opens the eyes to all sorts of Kingdom insights in the lines of those oft-recited words. To walk with Jesus means to pray in intimate and personal language.

This manuscript points us to the wonder of the opportunity we have every day to use our voices in ways that honor the God who speaks. God does not draw a curtain between the spiritual and the secular. Peterson concludes:

…All language is available for giving witness to the holy, to name the holy, wherever and whenever, just as Jesus used and uses language

Just a little something to think about as we gather around the water cooler of life.

What do you think? Link up below with a post at your blog on your favorite parable of Jesus. Or simply leave us a thought in the comment section.

Image by LeRamz's. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Laura J. Boggess.