Intentional Ambiguity: Telling it SlantArt & Literature, Logic & Rhetoric, The Gospel — By Amy Cannon on December 7, 2009 at 10:23 am
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.