I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I think just about everyone needs to read Eugene Peterson, especially if you are in professional ministry. He speaks with a wisdom and levelheadedness that few possess. Especially for those of us wide-eyed, idealistic, naive, young youth ministry types, his perspective is a necessary balance.
Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers is the fourth book in his five-part series on spiritual theology (others being Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, and The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way). If you have not read the others, I would start with at least the first one, as I think it is the best out of the four written so far. But Tell It Slant may just be the second best out of the four. It is Peterson at his best: taking both common and obscure passages of scripture (sadly, there are such things as obscure passages) and putting an imaginative spin on them. His style is not exactly exegetical; he captures the narrative and the emotion inherent in most biblical texts, and this book is no exception.
The title of the book comes from a poem by Emily Dickenson (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places is also titled after a poem), and Peterson takes “telling it slant” to mean a gradual, tangental approach to speech, because “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” (4). In the book, he has one main objective:
I want to tear down the fences that we have erected between language that deals with God and language that deals with people around us. It is, after all, the same language.
He does this in two ways: first by examining Jesus’ parables as he travels through Samaria in Luke 9:51-19:27. Many of these parables are familiar, some less so. But in every case he opens up a unique, fresh, imaginative perspective. The prodigal son, perhaps the most famous parable, is among those Jesus tells in this Samaritan journey, and even it is spoken of creatively, yet faithfully.
Secondly, Peterson examines Jesus’ prayers, prayers like the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, and the prayers from the cross. The second to last chapter is one of the finest, as it takes the last seven recorded sayings of Jesus and presents them as prayer. This is a highly unusual way to see these final words of Jesus, but they drive Peterson’s thesis home:
I want to participate in prayers that don’t sound like prayers. Prayers that in the praying aren’t identified as prayers. Praying without ceasing. I don’t mean to say that all our words and silences are, in themselves, prayer, only that they can be. (268)
I have never read a book by Eugene Peterson that was not worth my time. This one is no exception.