In Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers (available for the first time in paperback in just a few weeks), Eugene Peterson explores how Jesus used language and beautifully points to Jesus’ engaging, relational way of speaking as a model for us today.
In this excerpt from the book’s introduction, Peterson reminds us that we use the same language to talk to each other and to talk to God — and that our everyday speech can be just as spiritually significant as the words and prayers we hear and speak in church.
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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 very 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.
There is a lot more to speaking than getting the right words and pronouncing them correctly. Who we are and the way we speak make all the difference. We can sure think of enough creative ways to use words badly: we can blaspheme and curse, we can lie and deceive, we can bully and abuse, we can gossip and debunk. Or not. 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.
Preachers and teachers hold prominent positions in the Christian community in the use of language. Pulpit and lectern provide places of authority and influence in sanctuaries and classrooms that require careful, prayerful Christ-honoring speech in every sermon and lecture. But I am particularly interested here in the more or less out-of-the-way, unstudied, and everyday conversations that take place in kitchens and family rooms, having coffee with a friend, making small talk in a parking lot, or engaging in an intense, private discussion that could make or break a relationship. I want to attend to the words we listen to and speak as we go about the ordinary affairs of work and family, friends and neighbors, and provide them with an equivalent dignity alongside the language that we commonly associate with the so-called “things of God.”
For the most part this is not high-profile language, not the language we use when we want to get something done or master a complex subject. It is language used when we are not dealing with one another in our social roles or our assigned functions. It savors subtleties. It relishes ambiguities. It consists in large part, using T. S. Eliot’s phrase, in “hints followed by guesses.” Emily Dickinson gives me my text:
I want to tear down the fences that we have erected between language that deals with God and language that deals with the people around us. It is, after all, the same language. The same God we address in prayer and proclaim in sermons is also deeply, eternally involved in the men and women we engage in conversation, whether casually or intentionally. But not always obviously. God’s words are not always prefaced by “Thus says the Lord.” It takes time and attentiveness to make connections between the said and the unsaid, the direct and the indirect, the straightforward and the oblique. There are many occasions when the imperious or blunt approach honors neither our God nor our neighbor. Unlike raw facts, truth, especially personal truth, requires the cultivation of unhurried intimacies. Dickinson’s “slant” and “gradually” are ways of getting past preconceptions, prejudices, defenses, stereotypes, and fact-dominated literalism, all of which prevent relational receptivity to the language of the other: the Other.
God does not compartmentalize our lives into religious and secular. Why do we? I want to insist on a continuity of language between the words we use in Bible studies and the words we use when we’re out fishing for rainbow trout. I want 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.
Click here to order the paperback edition of Eugene H. Peterson’s Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers (coming soon), the hardcover edition (available now), or the companion study guide for the book.