Monday, October 12, 2015

The One Poem I Understand, and the Nature of the Bible

I am very much your stereotypical engineering brain--I am not a particularly artsy person and generally struggle in fully appreciating them. I can appreciate the mechanics of it (the brushstrokes of a painter, how colors were chosen to represent emotions, etc.), but I generally fail to feel what I am supposed to feel when viewing/hearing/experiencing art. Poetry is the worst of those, because by its nature it avoids mechanical form and instead uses the form to attempt to draw out emotions.

So generally speaking--I'm not a poetry guy.

There is one poem, however, that I find very intriguing. I would go so far as to say it is my favorite poem (not that there is a long list of competition). But I saw it today at another blog that I read, being compared to the Bible's composition. I think the comparison is an apt one, but it wasn't fully explored at the other site and I would like to do that here.

The poem is Emily Dickinson's 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 blind--

Here Dickinson is talking about the nature of truth and how to approach it.

She says that you should tell all the truth...but you have to come at it from an angle ("tell it slant"). Truth is too powerful ("The Truth's superb surprise") to be directly approached ("Too bright for our infirm Delight"). As a result, you should come at it roundabout, circling the truth in metaphor and song and allusion ("Success in Circuit lies"). We do this already with our kids, teaching them about scary and powerful things like lightning in kinder, gentler ways ("As Lightning to the Children eased with explanation kind"). In the same way, truth is so powerful and so bright that it must be gradually shown ("The Truth must dazzle gradually") in order to be accepted ("Or every man be blind").

What I find so interesting about the Bible is that it often tells Truth slant, but we miss this--and thereby act differently. If you go to virtually any Christian ministry you can click on a Statement of Faith page and see a long list of core beliefs. They share the Truth, doctrine, in bullet-point format.  I don't think anything's wrong with that (after all, I do the same here on this blog). You see it in apologetics as well--we think that if we can simply prove the truth to people step by step then logically they will accept Jesus as Lord.

But I do find it interesting that you won't find that approached used much in the Bible.

The Bible is instead sharing the Ultimate Truth that ever existed, and "tells it slant." The Bible doesn't have a Statement of Faith chapter, either in the Jewish or Christian scriptures.

Instead what you get are a mixture of different types of literature.

  • Genesis is ten sections of family stories. 
  • Exodus and Numbers are history texts. 
  • Leviticus is a priest's how-to manual. 
  • Deuteronomy is a Suzerain Covenant scroll. 
  • Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Chronicles, Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, Ester and Ruth are historical memoirs of parts of Israel's development.
  • Psalms is a collection of poetry.
  • Song of Solomon is a (very erotic) song about a wedding night.
  • Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes are weighty reflections on human nature and wisdom.
  • The writings of the prophets are commentaries on the Law and how God will react if they don't clean up their act.

And that is just the Old Testament.

The same continues in the New Testament.

Atheists often argue that Jesus doesn't just say "I am the Messiah and Son of God, Second Member of the Trinity, and I Will Save Your Sins."

He does say it--but He always "tells it slant." He tells parables in which He is the son of God (Matt 20:1-16), He does miracles that only God can do (Mark 4:35-41), He asks leading questions (Matt 16:13-20), He says things that only God should be able to say (John 14:6; Luke 7:48); He uses the names of God for Himself (John 8:58).

When Jesus taught on any subject, in fact, it seems that teaching it slant was His default--He taught through parable and action rather than through a list of logical presuppositions.

And it isn't just Jesus, either. This is the entire New Testament.

  • The Gospels each tell the story about Jesus from their own viewpoint
  • The book of Acts is not a list of beliefs that the apostles implemented when forming churches, but a story of how the Spirit worked in ordinary believers. 
  • The letters of Peter, John, James and Jude are pastoral in nature, advising particular Christian groups how to act in their circumstances
  • Revelation tells it slant in a major way, with people rarely understanding anything it is trying to say at all

Paul is the exception, as he (being educated in Greek philosophy) tends to build logical arguments from beginning to end and engage in traditional apologetics. I think that is why so many modern Bible readers are more comfortable with Paul than with Jesus.

Paul writes like we think--he tells the truth straight, with a bit of a "get on board or go to hell" mentality. Paul's letters also often blind us: we argue unimportant side issues (like Calvinism/Arminianism), and even other Biblical authors found it hard to properly interpret at times (2Pet 3:16).

Paul tells the truth straight, as our culture prefers; but the rest of the Bible tells the truth slant. And we need to understand that both have value.

Evangelism and Telling it Slant

I think that is one of the major failures of modern evangelism. We think that telling it straight is always the answer. And occasionally it does work--there are some people out there who simply need intellectual challenges answered and their heart will follow. (You're reading the blog of one of those now.)

But I would argue that most people find the truth when they experience it circuitously. They learn the stories of Scripture and reflect on them. They experience community with believers and see the hope that they have in their lives. They hear sermons on particular topics or sing songs on particular topics and that reveals to them, bit by bit, the truth.

The full truth of who God is would be blinding. Indeed, read Matt 17:1-13, where Jesus revealed in His glory is described as a bright blinding light which makes the disciples fall to the ground terrified! Paul had a similar experience.

As we evangelize those around us, it is important that we do not simply blast a 25-point statement of faith at them or think that if we just make an argument in a better way that they will be converted.

No, to make disciples we must break bread together. We must tell stories to each other--yes, the stories of the Bible are the main ones. But we must explore those worlds together so that we circle ever closer to the Ultimate Truth. None of us will ever fully see it here anyway: we look as through a dark mirror, but one day will see clearly (1 Cor 13:12).

So when you trying to convert unbelievers (and you should be), remember that "telling it slant" is critical. Art, poetry, metaphor, song, in-context Bible study, public prayer, hanging out, experience life together--these are all parts of telling it slant, and are far more effective than just trying to blast truth through handing out tracts door to door.


  1. Romans is also very interesting. In a letter to a nation of conquerors, the language is very war like.

  2. Being a musician with some understanding of poetry (Emily Dickinson follows her own advice very well here), I find that Jesus' stories resonate with me more than Paul's exposition--although Paul can also get very poetic at times. (Remember, Paul was also well-trained in Jewish traditions, by the same Rabbi Gamaliel who once advised the Sanhedrin to leave Jesus' Apostles alone lest they find themselves fighting against God.) Exposition appeals to the intellect; stories echo in our spirits, our emotions, our "right brains." Intellectual arguments fascinate me; stories move me.

    But there is a lot more similarity between engineering and music than many folks understand or are willing to admit. Musicians spend lots of time in the practice room analyzing and testing what we play; it's called "practice" or "rehearsal." And architects, engineers and experimental scientists are also subject (are they not?) to leaps of understanding, moments of synthesis, before they start to build or experiment. I can guess that you, Pastor Michael, had a moment of nearly blinding insight about this lovely poem, a right-brain synthesis that understood it before you were able to put your understanding into words (as you have done beautifully). So you and I are not so different after all. :)

  3. Very insightful commentary juxtaposing Emily Dickinson's "Tell All the Truth, But Tell It Slant" with the Bible (especially the New Testament). When I first read this poem (also one of my all-time favorites), I also immediately related her poem to the Bible and specifically how Jesus relayed most of his message in parables.

    Although many dispute Dickinson's religious beliefs (particularly towards the adult stages of her life), I still feel that she had the Bible in her mind when she wrote this poem. Even if she didn't, I believe God works in mysterious ways and inspires us and sends us messages even if the conduit of that message is not Christian.

    Another reason why I have always resented the conservative, fundamental belief that Christians should shield themselves from most things secular. The "Truth" can be told in ways we might not anticipate or expect.