Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content

Skill Builders

Home > Skill Builders


Eugene Peterson Discusses His Book "Tell It Slant"

On the importance of paying attention to language
Eugene Peterson Discusses His Book "Tell It Slant"

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.

Preachers need to learn the language of their congregation.

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.

You mentioned that preachers may have trouble listening and carrying on a conversation. Are there other reasons why preachers may struggle with truths in your book?

Well, it's risky to say things like this, but I think pastors love being in control, and there's a control issue in language. You cannot control a conversation; if you do, it ceases being a conversation. Somehow the authority of religious leadership mitigates against the kind of language I'm talking about. I'm not sure I use the word in Tell It Slant, and I don't know if I coined the word, but I use the term paracletic speech, the language of the Holy Spirit, language that comes along where people are, and the language turns into conversation. There's an intimacy to this kind of language that pulpit speech lacks. Not to diminish the pulpit—I don't want to do that a bit.

When I was a teenager, I had a pastor who when he came to our home always said, "Eugene, how's your soul today?" He always used soul in capital letters. That just silenced things. All I wanted to do was play basketball and date girls, and he wanted to talk about my soul. Well, we never had a conversation.

Your book says, "There's nothing more common than for people who want to talk about God to lose interest in the people they are talking to." That certainly relates to the soul of the preacher.

What I am describing there comes out of something good. We have a message, we have a gospel we want to tell people, we want to announce the good news, and so the motivation behind this is good. We do have something important to say, but having something important to say doesn't mean you should raise your voice or not give the other person a chance to assimilate it and say something. Dialogue is speech at its truest. Unless there's conversation, unless there's back and forth to this, unless there's listening and talking in some kind of rhythm, we don't use language at its best.

There has been a fair amount of talk in recent years about dialogical preaching, giving people a chance to talk in a sermon. What are your thoughts on that? How can pulpit talk include more feedback and conversation?

I'm not sure how. I'm never quite sure how I feel about it. There's a place for the pulpit to be proclamatory, to be truly kerygmatic, to announce something, to say the word that changes the way people perceive things. I'd much rather use the word conversation because dialogue in that sense seems contrived. You really can't have a dialogue with one person standing up in front of a congregation or standing in the aisle of a congregation and answering questions or making comments. It diminishes the power of the pulpit. There's almost something condescending about it. Conversation is truly conversation when it's between two people or in a small group of people. I don't think we can use the pulpit as a primary way of doing conversation. So I'm not enthusiastic about dialogical preaching, at least as I've heard people talk about it.

In addition to listening to people in daily life, literature has been a profound way that you've learned to listen to people. I saw an interview in which you talked about a breakthrough you had when you read James Joyce's Ulysses.

Yes, some of the best evangelists—I'm not sure that's the right word—we have right now are novelists. Marilynne Robinson wrote the novel Gilead, which was read by millions and was on the bestselling list in New York Times for quite a while. It has a lot to do with conversation, listening, paying attention to language. Here's somebody who is one of our friends. She uses language in a gospel way, she understands theology, she understands the spiritual life. She's helping us do our work.

I have others I'd put in that category. Now, James Joyce, I would probably not think of him as a fellow evangelical, but he's sure made an impact on the way people use language and understand the culture and their souls. So I welcome those kind of people. Wallace Stegner is a master at doing this. He was not a Christian—at least he was not a confessed Christian—but he uses language in a way that makes us respect people in their souls, in their inner life, in their relational life. I wish we had more people like that. Ron Hansen does it, Philip Yancey does it, but I'm thinking now in terms of fiction. Fiction is one of our lead ways in which we learn how to use language in a way that opens up spirituality. I think Anne Tyler ought to be required reading in every seminary class on pastoral work.

Eugene Peterson is professor emeritus of spiritual theology at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia. Among his many other books are Eat This Book and The Message.

Related articles

The Kiss

What one show of affection taught me about preaching

Riveting Sermons

How to Get and Keep Listeners' Attention

Opening Closed Minds (pt. 1)

When you address controversial issues today, you can irritate or influence, but not both.