Saturday, March 07, 2009
Tell It Slant - Eugene Peterson
Tell It Slant: Thoughts on Communication
Eugene Peterson tells us that “truth…requires the cultivation of unhurried intimacies” (4). Presently, modern society is riddled with hurried and un-intimate forms of communication. We are bombarded with images and messages coercing us into decisions which are more often than not useless and unnecessary. This violent behavior not only takes place on the macro scale for the general public, but on the individual level as well. We hurry through our days avoiding what we have determined to be senseless conversation for the sake of efficiency. For many of us, communication has been stripped of all relational aspects and has been placed in the non-relational realm of cold hard facts. Even churches have been caught up in this fad. No longer do we rely on the stories of scripture to shape our existence, but we boil them down to bullet points and outlines. By doing this we are stating that life is not found in participation with the Triune God, but is instead found in seven easy steps. We are saying that the grand dance of life with God is nothing more than fill in the blanks. We have lost the capacity to paint pictures with words and in turn have lost the art of communication. Yet, in the midst of all of this life draining, anti-relational communicating we must somehow find a way to re-capture healthy, life sustaining ways of communication. Without communication, or words given by The Word, our world would not exist. Indeed, the entire cosmos was shaped through the breath of communication. Communication is the gift God has given us to be used for building both relationships with Him and our fellow neighbor.
In his book, Tell It Slant, Peterson strives to show us a better way, which is the Jesus way, of communication both with God and with our neighbor by telling it slant. This better way has the capacity to spill over into every aspect of our lives. Telling it slant was often how Jesus chose to communicate with individuals both inside and outside of the church. That is, Jesus’ use of parables with his followers (the disciples), the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the crowds was his modus operandi. As Peterson states, “The parable is a form of speech that has a style all its own. It is a way of saying something that requires the imaginative participation of the listener. Inconspicuously, even surreptitiously, a parable involves the hearer” (19).
Jesus’ parables were absent of “God talk”. “God talk” is a term that Peterson uses to describe modern day church-speak. Churches, particular pastors and teachers, are notorious for using this “God talk” whenever we find ourselves in a “churchy” situation. In many ways, we find it much easier to speak about the Trinity than to participate in the life of the Trinity. The church as a subculture has a language all its own, a language many of us are fluent in but in many ways this language has become dead and lifeless. Why is that the case? Could it be that “God talk” has become so depersonalized that it has lost all of its “saltiness” thereby causing us, the speakers, to have lost our “saltiness”? How often are non-believers turned off or walk away from a believer using “God talk” to get their point across? Could it be that when using “God talk” we are talking more about God than with Him or to Him? “God talk”, though technically correct, does not invite us into deeper relationship with the one who created us. Jesus’ parables, along with His prayers, provide us with prime examples for telling it slant.
Telling it slant disarms the hearer from immediately putting up their guard. They are instead drawn into the conversation as an active participant as opposed to a passive, inactive, casual observer. Instead of exclusive gibberish, language is crafted out of a concern for the hearer. Grounded in a willingness to be transparent, this concern revolves around both a deepness of relationship with God and with the hearer who is our neighbor. We strive to become a servant in our conversation with both God and our neighbor. Telling it slant allows us to find ways to communicate vertically with God, through prayer, and horizontally with our neighbor in a relaxed, more authentic and ultimately more meaningful manner. Our relationship with God should permeate all of our existence. This means that non-relational “God talk” has no place in our lives. Every day conversation should be filled with relational language designed to serve those we are speaking to.
Peterson makes a fine example of this when discussing Christ’s fourth parable found in the book of Luke chapter 13 verses six through nine. As Peterson states, the parable is short but Jesus is administering a rather strong warning to those who wish to follow Him (66). Essentially, Jesus is telling us that we will only be given a certain amount of time to produce fruit. If this allotted time has passed and we have not produced fruit, then we are to be chopped down. Imagine if Christ had delivered this message in just this manner. Many may initially be deterred by the harshness of it, but hearing it in parable forms gives us time to contemplate it in a new way. Indirectly discussing trees and fruit is much less threatening than discussing the prospect of losing our life. It makes sense that a tree which does not produce fruit should be gotten rid of. The more we live with and think about the story, the more it may make sense to us. A life which does not bear fruit is a wasted life just as a tree which does not bear fruit is a wasted tree. We begin to contemplate: Is my life bearing fruit? Has it been wasted up to this point? Some of us will come to the realization that it has and make resolutions that the remainder of our life will be different. That is the truth of the matter. Christ came to give us life that produces abundant fruit. This is the effect of telling it slant.
The difference between “God talk” and telling it slant is a matter of intention. If we find that the majority of our prayer and conversation is spoken for our own vain glory and not for the glory of God, then we are using “God talk”. God desires to hear from our heart of hearts, and our neighbors do as well. Neither He nor our neighbors is interested in flowery speech designed to tickle the ears. This is not to say that we are to dumb down our speech, although certain situations may require that approach. Technical language can certainly be pertinent when used and explained correctly. It is to say that all communication should be God honoring. Using technical language to impress or impose is not God honoring and does not serve those we are addressing. Both God and our neighbors wish to have authentic, meaningful discussions of reality and life. If we are genuinely concerned about fostering our relationship with God and our relationship with our neighbor, then we must genuinely care about how we speak. It is here, at the precipice of faith and communication that we can learn to “tell it slant” (3).
Peterson, Eugene. Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.
Are you implying that some of my other papers were not understandable? I'm touched. Just kidding, I guess I need to be more mindful of that in the future.