Language is a gift from God through which we sing and pray and, using the very same syntax and parts of speech, can also order a burger at the drive through or tell a story to a two-year-old.

The Gift of Language and the God Who Speaks

The recent biographical movie featuring the life of J.R.R. Tolkien captures him saying, “After all, what’s language for? It’s not just the naming of things, is it? It’s the life blood of a culture, a people.”

Language and the way we use it reveals our thinking and our character. The structure of a language reveals what’s important to the people who speak it. In Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers, pastor and author Eugene Peterson argues that language is a gift from God through which we sing and pray and, using the very same syntax and parts of speech, can also order a burger at the drive through or tell a story to a two-year-old. Peterson describes the language Jesus used in his three embodied years by capturing a line from an Emily Dickinson poem:

“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.”

Particularly in Jesus’s parables, it’s clear how the truth “comes up on the listener obliquely, ‘on the slant'” (20) and then overtakes one with its clarity. His use of language wars against our natural tendency to compartmentalize speech into secular and sacred spaces. Jesus used the language of the people and the metaphors of his space and time to tell stories and to pray.

Jesus in His Stories

The four gospel writers differed in their focus, but collaborated in presenting the ways in which Jesus used language to preach, teach, and converse his way through first-century Palestine. Peterson zooms in on the ten parables unique to Luke’s gospel to illustrate Jesus’s “story telling way with words” (31) that give us deeper insight into God and His ways:

Life is Personal by Definition

“When we deal with God, we are not dealing with a spiritual principle, a religious idea, an ethical cause, or a mystical feeling.” (44)

Avoid Chattering Godtalk

“A lot of our talk about ‘the things of God’ is a way of avoiding the personal presence of God in the hurt and hungry people we meet.” (56)

The World is Prodigious in Wealth

“God does not barely save us, doling out just enough grace to get us across the threshold of heaven. He is lavish.”

Jesus in His Prayers

The language of prayer is “local and present and personal.” (160) Words that bubble up from the heart are the same when addressed to God or to a close friend. The six New Testament transcripts of Jesus’s prayers mentor readers in the language of prayer–and also in the absolute necessity of it in a following life.

Peterson advises readers to leave room for silence in prayer, a form of punctuation in which monologue is transformed into conversation. Then, he cautions about the ease with which we can lapse into pretending to pray, to use, “the words of prayer, practice the forms of prayer, assume postures of prayer, acquire a reputation for prayer, and never pray.” (161)

Jesus’s prayers sing his life of unity with God and shimmer with intimacy that invites us to advance beyond the “I’ll pray for you” narrative and jump into something more relational, substantial, and whole in our conversations with God.

Involved and Participatory Language

Peterson’s writing is almost unbearably relevant and always leaves me flipping pages to check for chapter endings because I’ve become saturated with more truth mid-chapter than I can absorb or assimilate. His insights crackle and spark, leading me into a new way of reading a familiar parable that intensifies its intended message and anchors it in the narrative arc of Jesus’s purpose as The Storyteller.

Tell It Slant sets up a framework for exploring large and sweeping concepts (parables and prayer) using pictures and particulars harvested from Peterson’s experiences and deep understanding of Scripture. He advocates for a use of language that is both “involved and participatory” (68), a use of words that rejects complacency and guards our hearts against depersonalizing God. To that end, he offers the stories and the prayers of Jesus as a model for how language can witness to the holy while still anchoring us to this very real and startling world.

Many thanks to William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

Grace and peace to you,

michele signature[1]


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45 thoughts on “The Gift of Language and the God Who Speaks”

  1. Language, the words and the semantics have been a lifelong interest of mine. Because I adore analogy, I have always loved Christ’s use of parables – for those with eyes to see, you know. I hit your link and just ordered this one – adding it to the stack of gotta reads this summer! Thank you very much.

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  2. This book absolutely sounds like a must-read! I love Peterson’s thoughts on Godtalk, using silence in prayer, and language. Thank you for another captivating review, Michele. Reading your insights always makes me wonder how you do it all – read, write, blog, teach, speak to groups. You must use every minute of every day! 🙂

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    1. Right now, it’s all about mowing and gardening! My reading and writing always slow WAAAY down in the summer, but summer is a short season here in Maine, and I love being outside.

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  3. This book seems amazing with a fresh message. I’ve never considered this before,

    Avoid Chattering Godtalk

    “A lot of our talk about ‘the things of God’ is a way of avoiding the personal presence of God in the hurt and hungry people we meet.”

    That makes more sense than most of us care to admit. May talk about God in the most intimate and personal way.

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  4. You make me want to dig this book out and get it in my To Be Read pile! Thank you, Michele. Happy gardening! It’s been a long winter. We’ve had snow ten months of this year, our last having been just last week. So I comprehend what you mean by a short summer 🙃

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    1. Well, in my case, I finished the book, wrote the review, and then pretty quickly retrieved it from the shelf as a companion to my read through the Gospels this summer.
      Peterson never fails to provide insights to Scripture that slow me down and force me to think about what is really going on.

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      1. Good stuff! I know I own that book by I now suspect it’s with the left behind in storage boxes that didn’t make it to this downsized home… I’m just finishing going through the Gospels and am going to start again with a Harmony of the Gospels whilst reading other genres too, which is my absolute favorite way to read the Bible!

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  5. The quote about God being lavish with grace reminded me of one in Joni Erickson Tada’s book A Spectacle of Glory. She wrote “Jesus is not a minimalist Savior.” She wasn’t talking about lifestyle – He lived very humbly on earth. But she was referring to His giving. That phrase so arrested me, I jotted it on my running list of blog post ideas. I’ve not done anything with it yet – but it still makes me stop and think whenever I come across it.

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    1. Oh, that IS a good quote and a good topic for a future blog post. I think the reason we’re drawn to this concept is that it’s so easy to talk ourselves into the opposite falsehood.

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  6. I developed an interest in language and how each culture changes and adapts their language since I was in college and watched an amazing documentary (that I have sadly long since forgotten the name of!). Thanks so much for sharing with us at Encouraging Hearts and Home. Pinned.

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  7. As a lover of words and a fan of Eugene Peterson, I’m putting this book on my purchase list.
    To pray as Jesus did, in unity with God and shimmering with intimacy, sounds glorious! Thank you, Michele!

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  8. This sounds like an amazing book, your reviews always have a way of drawing me in. I especially love the point made with this quote, “A lot of our talk about ‘the things of God’ is a way of avoiding the personal presence of God in the hurt and hungry people we meet.” I think a lot of us do this more because that is what we were told or how we were taught it. Yet God is very personal, and He wants a very real and personal relationship with each of us. If is not our job to make God comfortable for us or for others, it is to learn and experience Him through His love, grace and so much more. And to share these experiences with others. Many Thanks 8)

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    1. So correct, and, ironically, we use the words of Christ (sometimes) as a barrier to relationship, as punctuation at the end of a sentence we’re not willing to finish.
      So sad. I think Eugene Peterson’s ministry and writing helps us to avoid this pitfall.

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  9. Michele,
    “Language that is involved and participatory,” that’s what the Bible is. It’s the readers that lose the spin and make the wording bland and dogmatic. I love the use of verbs in scripture. God doesn’t just give us grace, He “lavishes” it upon us. Sounds like a very insightful book!
    Blessings,
    Bev xx

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  10. Thanks Michele! I love the idea of silence in prayer being a form of punctuation! That’s a unique thought. I believe in the silence is where God speaks. Thank you for this reminder and thanks for linking up at InstaEncouragements!

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  11. This had me sitting and thinking here for a bit >> “Peterson advises readers to leave room for silence in prayer, a form of punctuation in which monologue is transformed into conversation.” Yes! I need to leave more room for silence in prayer.

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  12. What a simple and powerful concept! Yes, Jesus did tell His stories slant. He didn’t come right in with the point. He gives us the opportunity to think and consider and have our idea develop in Him.

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  13. Language is so powerful and we need to use it wisely. We can interpret words in many ways so authors may create different effects in different audiences. Thanks for linking up with #globalblogging

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