Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers
TELL IT SLANT. Huh? The phrase is a not-quite-grammatical derivative of the clichéd “tell it straight.” It isn’t original to author Peterson; it’s from a line of poetry by Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” Peterson sees the idiom as descriptive of Jesus’ mode of communication, especially as portrayed in 10 parables that are unique to the Gospel of Luke --- found between Luke 9 and 19, sometimes known as Luke’s “Travel Narrative.”
Peterson notes that Luke doesn’t emphasize Jesus the teacher or the preacher; rather, “Luke has a particular interest in immersing us in the conversational aspects of Jesus’ language.” He’s engaging the imagination and telling stories. These parables are told when Jesus is “on the road”; he has left his home territory in Galilee and is traveling with disciples, through Samaria, toward Jerusalem and his final days. “A kind of intimacy develops naturally when men and women walk and talk together, with no immediate agenda or assigned task except eventually getting to their destination.” Here’s where Jesus tells the story called the “prodigal son” and a story about an unfruitful fig tree that is given fertilizer and another year to prove itself.
The second part of the book moves from Luke’s parables to six prayers of Jesus, as recorded primarily in Matthew and John. We’ve seen how Jesus talks with his friends and followers. How does he talk with God, whom he calls Father?
Peterson’s “language” schema is most evident in the book’s opening and closing chapters. In the scriptural discussion, it’s easy to get delightfully lost in the textual insights --- which must be chewed and savored. As he acknowledges up front, the content was developed in college “courses on language, Scripture, and prayer” at Regent College, in Vancouver. This shouldn’t scare off armchair readers with a modest interest in Christian spirituality. At the beginning of most chapters he deftly summarizes content previously covered, hooking it to the passage at hand, providing clear guideposts for readers.
Ultimately Peterson challenges us to emulate Jesus in his use of language, engaging people where they are and talking with God personally, not in stuffily pious phrases.
I particularly liked Peterson’s take on Jesus’ “Seven Last Words,” which he categorizes as one prayer. He discusses the phrases in the order they are presented in the Gospels, so “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” is in the middle of the lineup. After three pages of reflection, Peterson draws a personal application: “This is not a prayer we hold in reserve for our deathbed… We pray it when we get out of bed each morning, alive yet another day, ready to go to work…: ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’”
You see, TELL IT SLANT is about more than Jesus’ use of language. It’s also about our relationships and how we communicate in them --- whether with neighbors, co-workers or God.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on October 1, 2008