Eugene Peterson Discusses His Book “Tell It Slant”On the importance of paying attention to language. An interview from PreachingToday.com
PreachingToday.com: What does Tell It Slant say to preachers about their lives outside of the pulpit—about their soul and their relationships—and how that complements their preaching?
Eugene Peterson: The book tells preachers they’ve got to learn the language of their congregation. They’ve got to be as comfortable talking to people in the parking lot or in a diner with a cup of coffee as they are from the pulpit. This is a big overgeneralization, but pastors tend to want to talk about what they want to talk about. We’re not good listeners. If somebody asks us a question about theology, we can do that. If they ask us a question about Scripture, we can do that. But many of us are always trying to get a foothold so we can make a witness, make a point, make a conversion. Jesus didn’t do that, and I don’t think we should. We are trying to enter into the life of a congregation, listen to them, pay attention to them. Pastors by and large aren’t good at being silent.
The book looks at the nature of language as it comes through in Jesus’ stories and prayers. It pays attention to something that’s basic and large in Jesus’ life but isn’t given much credence in ours. We pastors are not conversational people. We know too much, and we’re too impatient to get that knowledge to others.
How does Tell it Slant speak to preachers about their lives in the pulpit, when they actually are doing the talking?
It encourages us to use imaginative language. There’s an overload of explanatory speech, doctrinal speech, apologetic speech in the pulpit. Much of our Christian language is dominated by proclamation and explanation, information and definition. When we read the Scriptures, it’s astonishing how little of that kind of talk there is. The writers are poets, they’re singers, they’re pray-ers. They use metaphor extravagantly. They use stories, these parabolic or off-the-target stories. I always had a few people in my congregation who wanted me to tell them in the sermons what they should do, and I would sometimes say to them, “Well, I just did. Didn’t you get it? I want you to participate in the story, in the metaphor.” But they want explanations, they want directions. Jesus did very little of that.
Should preaching resemble everyday conversation more?
I think so, yes, although I don’t want to dismiss the importance of the kerygma and the didache. Those have prominent places in our tradition, but I do think things should be much more conversational. Part of this has to do with the culture in which we live, this so-called postmodern culture. Conversation is for people who are disaffected from formal, institutional religion. They are also disaffected from kerygmatic and didactic speech—but not from conversation. They love talking, and they love having somebody listen to them. And so there’s a cultural appropriateness to this now.