light slant

Tell All The Truth But Tell It Slant

The Canvas Conference, a joint effort between Humble Beast and Western Seminary, took place August 12-13, 2016, in Portland, Oregon, and was hosted by Imago Dei Community. This event, which sought to address the intersection of Christianity and creativity through a robust gospel-oriented and gospel-driven lens, included talks given by a number of Western Seminary faculty members. In today’s post, we are featuring Demetrius Rogers’ conference talk.

By Demetrius Rogers

 

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 —

These are the words of the famed American Poet, Emily Dickinson.

In this poem, she likens truth unto light. And, as we know, light can have different effects. There’s blaring light and blinding light, or there’s soothing light and dazzling light. Depending upon how you use it, light can either be inviting, or menacing. It can drive people away, or gather a crowd.

 

It’s all in how you use it.

 

And in this poem, Emily Dickinson uses light as a metaphor for truth. Because with truth, we can draw people close, or scatter people away. It’s ALL in how you use it! So this poem is a call to the winsome and clever use of truth. Dickinson suggests, “Tell ALL the Truth, but tell it slant.” Yes, tell it SLANT. Come it at from an Angle.

But we’ve been taught, “Tell the Truth, and tell it straight.” Be direct. Don’t mince your words. And there’s times where being direct is certainly appropriate. But being direct is not the nature of Art. No. Art thrives on being indirect. Being direct can cause people to put up their defenses. But being indirect comes with no threat at all. It can stimulate curiosity, promote reflection, or invite dialogue, because it operates by suggestion. It’s a softer form of influence.

 

And being indirect also gives you deniability.
“But we are ambassadors of truth! We are not to be denied!”

 

Then you have ventured away from art. Because, by nature, art does not overpower. Art does not overwhelm. And Truth (like light) can be overwhelming! And that’s why we need to be wise, and turn it up by degrees.

Art is content with being ignored today to gain influence tomorrow. It trades short-term impact for long-term success. It keeps the door open, and the conversation flowing. And with time, telling it slant can become telling it straight. Hearing it slant can become hearing it straight. And artists keep the conversation going because they’re masters of “telling it slant.”

 

Tell the ALL truth… but tell it SLANT. That takes creativity.

 

And the more creative you are, likely, the less direct you’re going to be. It’s not enough to ask, “What’s the truth I wanna get across?” But also, “What’s my angle? What’s my slant?”

 

Come at it from an angle!

 

Think about Nathan, the prophet. He hears of David’s egregious sin and knows it’s his responsibility to speak truth. “David, you’re an adulterer…you’re a murderer.” Tell the truth, and tell it straight, right? No, rather Nathan, crafted a story. See, had he approached it directly, he would’ve turned David off. But, by creativity, and coming at it from an angle, he secured an audience with the king. He presented truth in a compelling manner!

 

So the question for us is— How do we present truth without just saying it point-blank? The answer is indirect presentation of truth. The answer is creativity.

 

C.S. Lewis was a master of creativity.  He wants to write a book on Demonology, in an age where that was just being written off. So he figured, “I’ll tell the truth and I’ll tell it straight!” No, rather, he writes The Screwtape Letters (a highly creative work!), securing a wide readership for the last 75 years! He’s keeping the conversation going.

And Lewis wants to write another supernatural book – this time on heaven and hell. And the result is another creative work, called The Great Divorce. He didn’t ignore truth, but he didn’t just tell straight-truth. He told it with a slant. These are indirect presentation of truth. Truth-telling with a slant… coming at it from an angle. And not just one angle, but many angles.

In the second line of Dickinson’s Poem, she indicates— “Success lies in Circuit.” Have you ever take a circuitous, or roundabout, path? Well, taking a circuitous path to truth can be very effective. Circling, round and round, the truth. A bit evasive, a bit indirect. But returning, again and again, to the same theme. Coming at a subject from many different angles.

Think about Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. He took a circuitous path to truth! He wanted to teach the truth about “The Kingdom of Heaven.”So he stands up and says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…The kingdom of heaven is like leaven…The kingdom of heaven is like treasure…The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant…”

 

Circling the truth . . . round and round he goes.
The kingdom of heaven is like a net…The kingdom of heaven is like a house…It’s like is like a king…It’s like 10 virgins…

 

Circuitous, indirect.  But rich in metaphor and image and simile. Never just straight forward, but repetitive, imaginative, and patient.

 

And when we finally get it (BAM!) the LIGHTS COME ON! Or have they just been coming on by degrees, and we never even noticed it? Because it was slow, subtle, non-threatening, and extremely artful! See, we (the church) are the light of the world. We are the salt of the earth. But, light and salt are offending agents to eye and mouth if used too much, too soon, too direct. But, with the right angles and given the right portions— they can be extremely compelling.

Light is not an offensive thing, if used in a winsome way. And since we’ve been entrusted with the Light (the Truth of the Gospel), the opportunity is ours to present truth in artful and creative forms of communication.

 

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 —

 

2 thoughts on “Tell All The Truth But Tell It Slant

  1. What an entertaining, enlightening, and engaging way of unpacking Emily Dickinson’s poem. This reminds us how to use creative ways to have our words well received. This takes self discipline! We can’t just spill our guts. We have to think before we talk considering the audience’s ability to receive what we say. And, as with children, we might have to circle that mountain again and again! 🙂

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