Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers

Eugene H. Peterson Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids September 21, 2012
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This book is the fourth in Peterson’s series of conversations about spirituality. His title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem, which encourages the use of common or everyday language to express truth. As Peterson explains, “Language and the way we use it in the Christian community are the focus of this conversation on the spirituality of language. Language, all of it—every vowel, every consonant—is a gift of God. God uses language to create and command us; we use language to confess our sins and sing praises to God. We use this same language getting to know one another, buying and selling, writing letters and reading books. We use the same words in talking to one another that we use when we’re talking to God: same nouns and verbs, same adverbs and adjectives, same conjunctions and interjections, same prepositions and pronouns. There is no ‘Holy Ghost’ language used for matters of God and salvation and then a separate secular language for buying cabbages and cars. ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ and ‘pass the potatoes’ come out of the same language pool” (p. 2). One implication of this perspective, Peterson explains, is that “every time we open our mouths, whether in conversation with one another or in prayer to our Lord, Christian truth and community are on the line. And so, high 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, and that we pray to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and not to some golden calf idol that has been fashioned by one of the numerous descendants of Aaron” (pp. 2–3).

As an aid toward learning how to speak the truth clearly to each other in order to develop Christian community, Peterson eavesdrops on several conversations of Jesus. This pastor uses as his texts the ten parables found only in Luke 9–19. In these parables the master Teacher tells stories about neighbors, friends, lost things, and sinners. Jesus engaged in conversations using “give-and-take language . . . in the comings and goings of our ordinary lives” (p. 14). By using parables Jesus “keeps the message at a distance, slows down comprehension, blocks automatic prejudicial reactions, dismantles stereotypes. A parable comes up on the listener obliquely, on the ‘slant’ ” (p. 20). In these stories Jesus provides examples of how to use words to speak truth to one another in a way that develops personal relationships and enhances community.

As an aid toward learning how to speak the truth honestly to God in order to pray with integrity, Peterson eavesdrops on several prayers of Jesus. In this section the pastor uses six of Jesus’ prayers as his texts. “Jesus is the one to whom we pray. He is also the one who prays with and for us. Prayer is the language of the Trinity, intimately personal language. When we pray, we embrace the language of Jesus as our language. Nothing happens in this Christian life impersonally, according to blueprint, automatically by code. Every word is personal” (p. 165). In an excellent final chapter Peterson discusses the meaning and implications of praying in Jesus’ name.

Peterson’s goal in this book is clearly stated: “I want to eliminate the bilingualism that we either grow up with or acquire along the way of growing up: one language for talking about God and the things of God, salvation, and Jesus, singing hymns and going to church; another language we become proficient in as we attend school, get jobs, play ball, go to dances, and buy potatoes and blue jeans. One language for religion and another for everything else, each with its own vocabulary and tone of voice. I want to break down the walls of partition that separate matters of God and prayer from matters of getting food on the table and making a living” (p. 267). By listening to the conversations and prayers of Jesus, Peterson shows that Jesus did not practice bilingualism, that His use of language consistently told the truth and told it “slant.” Whether talking to His friends or enemies, to humans or to God, Jesus used the same language.

Peterson’s approach is effective. He stands on the fringes of the crowd or among the disciples and listens in on the conversations of Jesus. His readers are able to overhear Jesus and thus to grow more in love with the Savior. This book can be read quickly and the author’s thesis will be understood. But it would be better to read it slowly and meditatively. Thus Jesus’ words will have a transforming effect on the reader. As an aid toward growth in godliness this book is highly recommended.

—Glenn R. Kreider

January 1, 2011
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2011 vol. 168 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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