Here is a wonderful poem by Emily Dickinson called “Tell All The Truth But Tell It Slant:”
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With Explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind1 –
I first came across this poem in Eugene Peterson’s book Tell It Slant2 (go figure), which is a wonderful book on Jesus’ parables and prayers. Peterson almost always has intriguing titles for his books, but this particular phrase – tell it slant – has stuck with me through the years. What did Dickinson mean when she wrote that we must “tell all the Truth but tell it slant?”
In a previous post I wrote, using Henri Nouwen’s phrase, that we must not become “neutral enablers.”3 In other words, we must not, in our attempt to be well liked, ignore our call to stand with and for the oppressed. There is a time to tear the silence with the prophetic. This will not be well received by all – especially those in power – but the silence must be broken whatever the cost.
There are other times and occasions, however, that may call for something different. By different I don’t mean less. Dickinson, after all, instructed us to “Tell all the Truth.” But she is reminding us that sometimes, oftentimes perhaps, a different methodology must be employed if the truth is to be heard. There is a time for ‘telling it like it is,’ but that time is not most time. Telling it like it is will generally elicit a reaction instead of a response; a ringing in the ears instead of an openness in the heart. So instead, tell it slant.
Sometimes Jesus said some pretty direct things to his religious opponents: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.”4 Jesus knew how to ‘tell it like it was.’ But that’s not how Jesus always spoke. He was usually much more of a “once upon a time” kind of guy; a brilliant and earthy storyteller. He knew how to draw his listeners into a story and then, once they were involved on some emotional level, how to create a fascinating plot twist, stunning his opponents and leaving them with a “did he just say what I think he said” shocked look on their faces. Take the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15, for example. Jesus was hanging with the disreputable “tax collectors and sinners”5 who were hanging on his every word. Some religious leaders happened to be there too. They weren’t super thrilled about Jesus’ new friends. So Jesus, hearing their murmuring, tells three stories about lost things: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. The point was becoming clear: God actively seeks after lost things (i.e. tax collectors and sinners). But the third story, the one about the lost son, is particularly interesting. Here Jesus makes it pretty clear that the lost son was not, by any stretch, worthy of being sought out. This would surely have put at least a half-smile on the faces of the religious leaders. As was predictable by this point, the Father went out to find the lost son. Fair enough. But this story had a twist involving a second son; a live-by-the-rules son. To cut to the chase, Jesus ends his story by telling everyone that the older brother, the rule keeper, ended up outside of a huge that the party the Father threw. The rebellious younger brother, though, was centerstage. A party, by the way, is often a metaphor for heaven.
Jesus was a master at storytelling jujitsu. He turned the tables on you before you knew what was going on. Here’s the thing: Jesus could have just said ‘see these tax collectors and sinners? They’re in. You religious leaders? Out!’ This is essentially what Jesus was saying, but if he had said it like that it wouldn’t have worked the same. They wouldn’t have listened. Really listened. Instead, he told all the truth, but he told it on a slant. He opened their eyes to what he was saying gradually instead of all at once. They might not have liked what he said, or even responded in the right way, but they heard him.
But alas, my examples is overly negative. When Dickinson spoke of telling all “Truth” she used words like “delight”, and “surprise.” The truth must “dazzle,” she tells us. Perhaps she is after something beautiful. But even beautiful truth told the wrong way will fall on deaf ears. Many things that are beautiful need to be handled delicately. Poets, like Dickinson, know that sometimes our words need to be handled that way too.
I wonder if the beautiful truth we tell dazzles and delights, or simply blinds. If we believe that the news we have received and are called to share is, in fact, good news, then perhaps we need to learn how to tell all the truth but tell it slant. Tell it all but, like the rising of the sun on the horizon, let it dazzle gradually. Shouldn’t the telling of the gospel, after all, be more like watching a sunrise than staring at an eclipse? In both cases one is staring at the sun, but one way leads to blindness and the other to delight. So, tell all the Truth, but tell it slant.
1 Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1955), p. 506.
2 Eugene Peterson, Tell It Slant: a conversation on the language of Jesus in his stories and prayers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008)
3 Henri Nouwen, Love, Henri: Letters On The Spiritual Life. (New York: Convergent, 2016). 23
4 Matthew 23:13
5 Luke 15:1
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