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.
— Emily Dickinson, quoted in Peterson
I was fortunate. I read Eugene Peterson’s Tell It Slant—a book concerned with “out-of-the-way, unstudied, and everyday conversations” (3)—in the company of friends who relish out-of-the-way, unstudied, everyday conversations. From these friends I have gained a very valuable lesson in run-of-the-mill holiness, that is, the sanctity of that which seems commonplace, even irrelevant, in our day-to-day lives: a phone call, small talk with a stranger, kitchen conversations. Friends such as these live out Peterson’s argument that language does not cease to be set apart the moment we step away from the preacher’s pulpit, or the teacher’s soapbox, or the small group discussion. What we say matters, “[e]very time we open our mouths, whether in conversation with one another or in prayer to our Lord” (3). Peterson writes: “[H]igh on the agenda of the Christian community in every generation is that we diligently develop a voice that speaks in consonance with the God who speaks, that we speak in such a way that truth is told and community is formed” (3, emphasis added).
This business of speaking “in consonance with the God who speaks” begins with the schooling not of our lips but of our ears, as we sit and pay attention to the language of the Living Word. Peterson sets out to do exactly this by examining the Travel Narrative of Jesus in the book of Luke. As Jesus (and Peterson) moves slowly through Samaria and the in-betweens on his way to Jerusalem, we hear Jesus speak—not only in his preaching and teaching, essential as these forms are, but also in spontaneous conversation on the road, at the dinner table, outside the temple. The kind of language I hear reminds me that God (inter)acts here on earth, in between Sundays, through ordinary, personal conversation with my neighbour and friend. In the paragraphs that follow, I intend to draw out these two characteristics of Jesus’ conversational language (ordinary, personal). God comes into the everyday, indeed, into my everyday, to speak truth and form community with me. Likewise, even as God’s people pray, “Thy kingdom come,” we too must enter the realities of those around us, pursuing the truth and nourishing the community without which our faith is barren.
In using the word ordinary, I may lead readers to falsely assume that nothing extraordinary is going on in the conversational language of Jesus. In fact, Jesus’s language is extraordinary in its very simplicity. When someone asks him about prayer, he talks about impudent friends. On the subject of greed, he brings up barn-building. Jesus tells stories about fig trees, shepherds, rebellious children. Each story revolves around an image that Jesus’ audience would have recognized and understood. During my college days in Montreal, I spent a great deal of time engaging the student body with questions about faith and worldview. I discovered that a common source of contention in our discussions had to do with the idea of sin. When asked what I meant by that word, I might say something like, “Rebellion against a holy God.” But what is the nature of this rebellion? And what do I mean by holy? These questions force me not only to test my own understanding of words I hear in church each Sunday, but also to practice clear, simple communication. Jesus is our teacher in this school. When some Pharisees and teachers of the law begin to mutter, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” Jesus responds with the famous parable of a reckless, runaway child—a lost child, and a longing father, and a party at the end of the day. What can we learn from this story about a “sinner”? Jesus’ parable slows his listeners down, demands attention, cuts through dense doctrinal terms with a vibrant story that we can live through and better understand.
This is not to say, of course, that we must in any sense “water down” divine truth. Jesus’ stories, simple as they are, can be quite difficult to understand. We ought not to confuse simplicity for shallowness, but to remember that all truths deserve careful, unhurried conversation, even the truth in a simple, little story about a runaway child. It is a grace and a mystery that the Lord of heaven—he whose thoughts utterly transcend our own—wills to reveal himself to his creation. Our job as God’s people is not to preclude understanding with “church talk” or jargon, but to imitate the language of a God who desires to make himself known.
This language, which makes use of the ordinary and everyday, also invites openness and intimacy—not language about, but language with. Conversational language teaches us to see one another, to really look our fellow man in the eye and enter their reality. Certainly, preachers and teachers ought to nourish their personal relationships “on the ground,” and guard against preaching and teaching that, in one way or another, fails to engage the people in their care. Still, there is something distinctly personal that can exist in our informal, unstructured conversations with one another. As we learn to listen and open up, we find that lives are being changed—ours, and those we engage in conversation. Jesus is, once again, our teacher in this school, gently turning us away from topics and toward our fellow man. Drawing from parables from the Travel Narrative, Peterson asks:
Why does Jesus answer questions about heaven and requests for teaching about prayer—classic spiritual concerns—with stories about a wounded stranger and a hungry drop-in guest? Maybe because Jesus notices that a lot of our talk about “the things of God” is a way of avoiding the personal presence of God in the hurt and hungry people we meet on the road to Jerusalem? (56)
Jesus takes a topic and returns it in the form of a person. Divine truths—goodness, wrath, grace, forgiveness—almost always involve relationships: God three in one and his creatures. If we are to speak truth and form community in our everyday conversations, we must learn to “speak with,” bravely dropping our own defenses and pursuing compassionate, vulnerable, unhurried intimacy with the people God has brought our way.
One more thing. By contrasting “people” with “topics,” I may appear to be discouraging discussion of a more “impersonal” nature, e.g., a deep dive into atonement theories, or debates about Reformed theology. Put another way, my argument for conversational Christianity may seem to favour application over knowledge—Jesus telling us to go do, or become, rather than know. I am not saying this (and I probably would not be friends with Morning Walk folk if I was!) I think it goes without saying that knowing and doing work best together. Application in the absence of knowledge can come dangerously close to producing an infantile Christianity, and knowledge without application quickly becomes the breeding ground for hypocrisy. Peterson writes that life “in the company of Jesus is not a discussion group but an act of becoming” (65). I believe that truth, when pursued in humble, honest conversation, transforms us. How can it be otherwise, when the call to behold Christ—our way, truth, and life—brings with it the promise of change “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18)?
The good news is that the Giver of life is overwhelmingly personal. He does not only define, like deity at a distance. He transforms. He does not only instruct. He invites. The Spirit of Jesus dwells among us, speaking through us, speaking to us, and changing our lives. As we move slowly, and sometimes hurriedly, from one Monday to the next, we become aware of a weight we did not notice before—something “revelatory” in our everyday conversations, a “realization of grace, a perception of beauty, a sense of presence in which we develop an awareness that ‘God was in this place and I did not know it’” (24). May our unhurried, unplanned, mere conversations be filled with the grace, beauty, and life-changing presence of our King Jesus.