“The care of words is urgent Christian work.”
—Eugene H. Peterson
It was through the writings of Madeleine L’Engle and her best friend, Luci Shaw, that I discovered another one of their contemporaries Eugene H. Peterson. Best known for authoring The Message Bible, Peterson boasts a knack for taking age-old language and thought, and translating them into contemporary terms. His book Tell It Slant follows suit.
Poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell the truth but tell it slant,” which means to employ creativity and subtlety and ambiguity and “unhurried intimacies” to deepen our understanding of the many facets of life. Such is the inspiration behind Peterson’s book as he delves into the parables and prayers of Jesus Christ, and focuses on the various nuances of His teachings and conversations.
At the same time, through Tell It Slant, Peterson aims to “cultivate a sense of continuity between the prayers we offer to God and the conversations we have with the people we speak to and who speak to us. I want to nurture an awareness of the sanctity of words, the holy gift of language, regardless of whether it is directed vertically or horizontally. Just as Jesus did.”
As a writer by both trade and passion, I admire Peterson’s goal. And in reading Tell It Slant, I now count him among my “artistic ancestors,” those whose work will forever impact my own. I enjoyed every one of Tell It Slant‘s chapters, but I knew Peterson would leave a lasting impression on me in reading the introduction to a portion based on Luke 18:9-14:
It takes a storyteller to give us access to all that is going on—the swirling maelstrom of sound and silence, visible and invisible, in even the dowdiest of women, the dullest of men…
Storytellers activate our imaginations to see and hear beneath the surface of life and involve us in the many dimensions of what is going on behind our backs or just around the corner. It takes a storyteller to reveal the beauty that dazzles like “shining from shook foil” (Gerard Manley Hopkins).
Every time Jesus tells a story, the world of those who listen enlarges, understanding deepens, imaginations are energized. Without stories we end up with stereotypes—a flat earth with flat cardboard figures that have no texture or depth, no interior.
Though my artistic explorations of late have focused on the visual, my ventures in writing and storytelling are the most constant way by which I exercise my creative muscle. And in Peterson’s words I find a new calling—even a personal prayer—related to those endeavors. May I continue to grow into a storyteller who values and demonstrates the sacred art of language, the beauty revealed through original insight and twist of phrase, and revulsion of the “flat.” May I dream to create that which “dazzles”!