On Reading TELL IT SLANT

TellItSlant

“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”!

 

Process in Progress

In one of my more recent blog posts “Art vs. Crafts,” I mentioned how the process, not the result, is the priority in making art. I have to say that the process has indeed become a great joy for me, even an obsession (as evidenced in burning two meals in exchange for the artistic process over the past week). Though I remain a rookie at all this, this is how the process seems to work for me personally, for now anyway:

Background

The beginning: The background using tiny pieces of yarn

Begin with recklessness – I started with those yarn scraps. I took to them with my scissors, cutting each piece into thumbnail lengths. I slathered my canvas with glue and waited to see what would happen. Beginning with experimentation versus an extensive plan of action set the stage for further inspiration and freedom in the steps to come.

Study and ponder – For a day or more, I didn’t change what I’d already done or add anything more to the piece. Instead, I just hovered over it, thinking about what it reminded me of and considering what it could represent.

Embrace the revelation – I saw hints of a landscape and could have proceeded just with that observation, but as soon as the scene seemed to pulse with one of my favorite Bible passages (Psalm 104), I was ready and super excited to dig into my work again. I knew I had discovered the piece’s deeper purpose, and there was no turning back from embracing and following the theme.

Go with your first instinct – For some unknown reason, I was certain the next layer should involve ripped up grocery bags with text. But my piece got way too busy in following this first instinct and I was never satisfied with the effects of my handwriting. What I learned? It’s okay to start over again to introduce new or different materials. It’s not time lost—it’s process gained. For me, it revealed how I often default to words when it comes to artistic expression. It revealed how I could play with some new tools and techniques beyond my usual words.

Process in progress

Evidence of the process in progress

Return to recklessness and studying and pondering – I raided my daughter’s toy basket for the pebbles and glass stones she uses to play kitchen (don’t worry, after I was done, she still has plenty). I twirled and twisted and shredded my remaining yarn scraps into shapes and curly-cues. With these additional materials in hand, I’d lay out a picture, then wipe it clean, then adjust my approach and create again. I reinvented my portrait of Psalm 104 several times until the Spirit seemed to say, “Stop, that’s it!” What a thrill!

Bring what you learned into the next project – My first inclination was to evaluate the end result. Is this really any good? What will other people think? It’s difficult yet necessary to turn off the insidious critic of self. I learned a lot in the process despite the end result… and there’s no better way to apply those lessons than to start another project! More on that later!

p.s. Okay, okay, sure, I’ll let you see “Psalm 104” eventually. After it dries and I test out some framing, I promise to take courage and to show my work.