Intentional Ambiguity: Telling it Slant

In the recent inaugural episode of Barak Wright’s arts and culture podcast, The Sandbox Monthly, Ken Myers talked about the dearth of genuine speech on the radio.

Real conversation is full of starts and stops, hesitations, and the kind of awkwardness not found in the canned speech of radio personalities, talk show hosts, and sitcom characters. Myers cited an interview he hosted with Eugene Peterson on Mars Hill Audio Journal, wherein Peterson talked about the sort of reading he calls “spiritual.” ‘Spiritual reading’ enters into conversation with the author; Peterson opposed it to reading merely to extract information. He made the point that Jesus spoke in parables, often appearing to purposefully befuddle his followers. If anyone is opposed to communication solely for the sake of transferring factual knowledge, it is Jesus.

This is hard for Christians in general, and Evangelicals in particular, to grasp. As people who are concerned with the spread of the gospel and the kingdom, we worry about our alienating “Christian-ese.” We feel the pull of cultural relevance and simplicity of speech. Although we are disenchanted with the evangelism of Chick tracts and the like, simplicity and clarity are still prized above all in our writing and speaking.

How could this be a bad thing? We certainly want our message to be clear.  An unclear gospel breeds unwitting heresy or false belief. With this in mind, Jesus’ parables become hard to account for. We must conclude, as Peterson affirms, that Christ is interested in engaging his listeners more than in conveying sufficient information. He is interested in involving their souls, not securing their listening comprehension.

Not only is ambiguity integral to great art (as I’ve written before), it is frequently a result of the artist’s intentions. Artists who cannot “say what they mean” are the worse for it; but artists very rarely say precisely what they mean. They aren’t interested in doing so. This might be frustrating (and often is) if we think of literature or music or painting the way we might think of an instruction manual.

Intentional ambiguity isn’t only integral to good art. It is also important in good conversation. Jesus’ parables are not only premier examples of the genre, they are also the cause of real connections between real people. He is not concerned with uncovering all the mysteries of the Kingdom; his language often veils rather than reveals. This is not because he couldn’t communicate better, but because he chose to speak ambiguously. If we understand the kind of conversation Christ modeled, it could decidedly inform our own.

The title of Eugene Peterson’s book, highlighted in the interview with Myers, is “Tell It Slant,” echoing an Emily Dickinson poem which begins “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Dickinson, like Peterson and Myers, understands what Jesus modeled: we ought to speak the truth to one another, but it is not always most effective to speak the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This is Dickenson’s point, as she concludes her poem with “The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind—” Often, we insulate ourselves from truths we dislike. Likewise, we presume we understand a truth stated too baldly, even if we hardly know it at all. In these cases, using ambiguity purposefully is one way of disallowing this faulty presumption. Those who demand immediate gratification will be held off from understanding.

Statements, verbal or artistic, that do not immediately disclose themselves to the audience demand closer listening, lengthier thought, and a more disciplined attention than we busy people would otherwise yield. Those who persist in conversational, open listening to intentional ambiguity may indeed be ‘dazzled gradually’ – in the case of Christ’s parables, perhaps by the saving gospel. Even if attention to the ambiguous does not yield comprehensive understanding, it teaches us to be patient and thoughtful in ways little else does.

Published by

Amy Cannon

Amy graduated Summa Cum Laude from Biola University May of 2009 with a major in Philosophy and a minor in Anthropology and was awarded the Philosophy Student of the Year award by Biola’s philosophy department. Amy is also a graduate of Biola’s Torrey Honors Insitute where she was awarded Torrey’s highest award, the St. Anne’s on the Hill Award. Amy is interested in conversations between theology and literature, a sacramental view of the natural world, and poetry. She is also interested in living well a life characterized by peace and grace, if possible in a beautiful place.

  • Tim

    Wow. Now there’s something to think about.

    Could you try to say it more clearly? :)

  • Eric MacLeod

    These articles on integral ambiguity fit well with the hip crowd that wear socially awkward tees—and there is much truth in what you’re saying here. The most compelling art never fully unravels itself to its audience, leaving a sense of wonder and mystery. I’m afraid, however, that some of my Baptist friends are still going to regard art with ambiguity integrated into it as “self-indulgent nonsense”.

    It seems as though your view on ambiguity is that it is some kind of added element. It’s as if a painter is looking at her canvas saying, “hmmm, this painting is nice, but I think I’ll add a little ambiguity to make it better.” It would be illogical to advise an artist to add ambiguity too art, that seems to me like it would involve some kind of random process.

    If art reflects life honestly, than ambiguity will happen inevitably. It is only when we’re overly concerned with glossing-over that art becomes less ambiguous. The responsibility of preventing this from happening is perhaps more on audiences welcoming art that is ambiguous, lest artists feel the need to smooth over the nuances of all of their work. If we are to open the floodgates of ambiguity then art will be plagued by confusion. This distinction: glossed-over prevention versus welcomed randomness gives more room for Paul’s appeal for a fitting and orderly congregation in I Cor 14, and is more welcoming to those outside of the esoteric art bubble.

  • David Nilsen

    My concern is that “WWJD?” is usually not the right question. Jesus said and did a lot of things we aren’t called to do. What I’m more interested in is how the Apostles communicated. Do Paul’s or Peter’s epistles, for example, reflect this parable-like quality? Christ was not an evangelist, nor was he sent to spread the Good News. He was the good news. His Apostles were commissioned to do the work of communicating Him to the world and filling His church. I’m not saying that Peterson’s thesis is all wrong (I agree that we shouldn’t try to be so relevant to the culture that we give up our distinctive vocabulary), but I would feel much more comfortable about his conclusions if he was using the right example.

  • Peter

    John might be a good example of an apostle who writes with remarkable ambiguity. All those “is” statements!

  • Aslan

    “…Jesus spoke in parables, often appearing to purposefully befuddle his followers. If anyone is opposed to communication solely for the sake of transferring factual knowledge, it is Jesus.

    “This is hard for Christians in general, and Evangelicals in particular, to grasp.”

    Interesting article Ms Cannon. I’d like to pick up on the above comments and run with them if I may, as they touch on matters of concern to me.

    The movement in some Evangelical circles in the US toward hardline, ideological positions on abortion and other issues (along with the literal approach to exigesis) has led to a pragmatic, uncompromising use of language that is undermining grace and the work of the spirit in some quarters.

    The hard-boiled certainties of fundamentalism are at odds with the veiled allusions, parables and metaphors favored by Jesus who was less about nailing down well-baked concepts, than imparting a species of knowledge best received by those with the insight to “hear” what was being imparted. Of course he could also be quite direct when referring to his mission – but in teaching mode he was for the most part given to symbolic representations when conveying meaning that couldn’t – and shouldn’t be – boxed.

    The rabid activism and political engagement of those Evangelicals who in some bizarre fashion manage to work Sarah Palin into their ‘true family value’ tapestry of a US at-one-with-God, is so delusional in real Christian terms it verges on the pathological. These are people who claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus of Nazareth, when the channels his spirit uses to transform and edify so clearly aren’t the channels that a certain brand of US Evangelical is working day in and day out. There is a massive disconnect.

    Jesus’ mission and his call to discipleship had nothing to do with political activism and the shrill demagoguery of the political soap-box. “Render onto Caesar…” meant render when need be, not become part of the show. He had plenty of opportunity to throw his lot behind the zealots and oppose the pagan gods and overlords of Rome – but this was never to the slightest degree a part of his call – or his call to others. He, and his call, was all about the spiritual kingdom – not about wading into institutions of temporal power waving a cross.

    Take the issue of abortion. We know from historical research that abortion was practiced in his time, but he never once in extant records raised it as a matter for discussion – least of all concern. In the Jewish tradition the fetus is not regarded as “a baby”…. “a life”… or other emotionally loaded terms favored by anti-abortion activists. It has been referred to in the Hebrew as ‘a part of the mother’s thigh’ – in other words grafted to the body of the mother – not an independent entity with life and “rights”.

    As with this and other issues language and ideology hijacks reality. There should never be a blanket negative on the issue of abortion. Back in the 1970’s one of the most Christ-centered men I have ever had the privilege to know, a Presbyterian minister who worked in Belfast, N Ireland, when faced with a young women who had become pregnant had no hesitation in organizing an abortion for her in England, and moreover paying for it out of his own pocket. She was in a dire personal situation and he acted with speed and conviction. It was crystal clear to me that this was the work of the spirit, an act of Christian love and charity. To place one’s ideology and hard-and-fast opinions ahead of the spirit is incredibly arrogant, yet this is what some anti-abortion activists are doing – allegedly in the name of their Christian beliefs.

    It all comes back to the issue of hijacking the Word, hijacking the work of the spirit in the name of a social agenda driven by ideology. Those Evangelicals who apparently “know best” risk working in the dark anteroom of their own power play even as they claim to be acting on behalf of gospel truth.

  • Dustin R. Steeve


    In what way does your screed have anything to do with the topic at hand? Be honest, you took some key quotes and abused them to soapbox on pet issues.

    Your thoughts on abortion are nonsense, you should be ashamed of yourself for being so ignorant and obnoxious simultaneously in public. You’ve defiled good thoughts and a great article with your stupidity and you had the indecency to do it under a pseudonym that is deeply meaningful for many of us. I don’t normally come down on our site’s guests, but you have defiled this place with your stupidity. Shut up and reflect, or leave.