Tell It Slant – June 17, 2018
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
take our moments and our days,
let them flow in ceaseless praise.
“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 blind —“
Emily Dickinson’s brief but classic poem advocates a measured and indirect approach to the truth. The truth, she suggests, is a wonderful and powerful and important thing, but it is so wonderful and powerful and important that people cannot bear it all at once. Truth-tellers must exercise patience and care if they want to communicate the truth both effectively and honorably without overwhelming the truth-hearers. For Dickinson, a certain kind of obliqueness with the truth is not harmful or misleading; it is helpful and considerate. Being diplomatic about the truth—being sensitive to how people will hear it—ensures that the truth will be accurately and fully understood and not rejected angrily or dismissed prematurely as irrelevant.
In many of the stories we read in church, God acts boldly and directly. God says, “Let there be light,” and there is light. The heavens open and a voice comes from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” The Red Sea is parted. Jesus is raised from the dead. In many of the stories we tell about ourselves, God is similarly dramatic and obvious. I didn’t know which college to attend and God showed me the one to choose. I lacked the words and God spoke through me. She almost got into a car accident but God saved her. I reached rock-bottom and God told me not to drink again. As Christians, we believe that God has acted decisively in human history, and it should be no surprise that we experience God at work in our everyday lives.
But God is not always obvious. Rarely does lightning flash or a voice come down from heaven to reveal definitively the will and purpose of God. More often than not, God operates with a little more subtlety. A prophet or messenger speaks on God’s behalf. The word of God comes in a dream. We sense God’s presence gently and silently enfolding us, but lack the ability to see or prove anything. God tells the truth, but quietly, gradually, indirectly. God tells the truth, but God tells it slant.
Jesus, for the most part, did not dictate to his followers what the truth was. He did not outline fixed concepts in neat philosophical treatises. Instead, he told stories, using images and narrative to invite his listeners to intuit for themselves what God intended to communicate to them. “With many such parables he spoke the word to them,” Mark writes. “He did not speak to them except in parables.” Jesus intentionally used a form of communication that was ambiguous, confusing, and indirect. Jesus told it slant.
“The truth about who we are,” Frederick Buechner claims, “and who God is if there is a God, the truth about life, the truth about death, the truth about truth itself…the truth we are all of us after is a truth that can never be put into words because no words can contain it. It is a truth that can never be caught in any doctrine or creed including our own because it will never stay still long enough but is always moving and shifting like air. It is a truth that is always beckoning us in different ways and coming at us from different directions…that is precisely why whenever Jesus tries to put that ultimate and inexpressible truth into words…the form of words he uses is a form that itself moves and shifts and beckons in different ways and comes at us from different directions. That is to say he tells stories.”
According to Buechner, stories do not obscure truth; they liberate truth—at least the sort of truth Jesus is trying to teach. To define truth logically, to set it down in rational, systematic form, is to attempt to limit something that resists all kinds of confinement, that is far too giant and active for us to capture. To explore truth authentically we need a vehicle—like a story—that is flexible and amenable to change. When we are sure that we have figured out truth, that we have nailed it down, we can be confident that we have lost truth altogether.
The truth that comes from God emerges slowly and mysteriously, even while we sleep—first the stalk appears, then the head, then the full grain in the head; the mustard seed starts as the smallest of the seeds on the earth and becomes the greatest of all shrubs—a massive canopy enveloping all. We should remember that even the most sudden of moments within the Bible are encapsulated within a story—a story that is holy, a story that we take seriously, but a story that, like any other story, is necessarily distant from us and takes time and effort to digest and incorporate into our experience.
Different people perceive truth at different speeds, according to their abilities and their circumstances. Hence the same truth may not occur to each individual at the same time. Jesus “spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it.” He explained more—in private—to his disciples. Some truths we take for granted for now would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago and are still unthinkable in many parts of the world, and yet there are many truths we have yet to be surprised and changed by. The process of discovering truth is a journey with an eventual destination we cannot now be sure of. In the words of James Russell Lowell:
“New occasions teach new duties;
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must onward go and upwards,
who would keep abreast of Truth.”
We have to put one foot in front of the other and take it step by step. As a former teacher of mine used to say, “you can only learn something you almost already know.”
In the meantime, we can tell stories—the same old stories, listening for what we hear differently or for the first time in a new context, and new stories, knowing that God continues to be at work, revealing truth, in our everyday lives, in the present day. But if we want to recognize truth when we come across it, we have to pay attention, to read between the lines, to see the truth hidden beneath the surface—because God is never too obvious; God is pretty subtle; God tells it slant.