Truth on the slant

In the most recent issue of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, Ken Myers spoke with Eugene Peterson on the place of reading in the spiritual lives of Christians. They reference a brilliant poem by Emily Dickinson from which Peterson takes the title of his upcoming book, Tell it Slant. Here’s the poem:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Cirrcuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never before come across this gem, but I’m glad I did, as it expertly highlights an oft-overlooked aspect of truth-telling: sometimes the best way to tell the truth is indirectly.

The principle is not foreign to the Bible. Moses, for example, asks to see the full glory of Yahweh, but is told by God, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (see Exodus 33:17-23) Moses is instead offered a glimpse of God’s backside — an encounter that was still so powerful that he had to veil his face because it glowed so brightly.

Peterson noted that Jesus’ parables were constructed explicitly to bring truth in an indirect manner. Having people get the point immediately didn’t seem to be goal of such cryptic storytelling. Truth apprehended immediately doesn’t always have the same staying power as truth revealed eventually.

Such indirection is not to be mistaken for deception. Deception, with its substitution of false reality, is too intertwined with untruth to be a proper tool for truth telling.

It must also be noted that indirection isn’t the only manner in which truth must be presented. It was necessary for the Apostle Paul to be blinded (by the Truth, no less) on the road to Damascus. Only such an abrupt encounter with truth could prepare him to later write these words: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Indeed, sometimes the truth hurts. But it can also hint, or — better said — dazzle gradually.