Hold the Superlatives, Please

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Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”: make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me.” (C.S. Lewis)

Lewis helps us to recognize a lot of modern Christian songwriting for what it is: laziness. No doubt, many of these songs are vast improvements on the Bliss and Crosby cliché-mill. Certainly, it’s a breath of fresh air to be singing about the faith without a constant nautical theme: waves, anchors, lighthouses and ships ahoy. And any serious Christian will be thankful for an injection of sound theological ideas into the gelatinous world of evangelical conviction.

With all that said, I find Lewis’ sentiment played out before me in not a few modern songs. These songs seem to try to gather as many superlative adjectives as possible that will fit the metre of the song. These are then piled on top of one another, and the result is a rapid-fire of high-concentrate adjectives. The resulting lyrics are something like: “Indescribable majesty, incomparable glory, unbounded mercy, immeasurable beauty…You’re the highest, greatest, most wonderful, most awesome”—you get the idea.

Yet for all this, the effect is palpably flat. Instead of soaring into the heights of praising God as the ultimate Being, one sings these super-hero adjectives with a sense of dull oughtness: yes, I should feel God’s surpassing value, but I don’t. Perhaps if I keep singing these superlatives with sincerity, I will.

Some worshippers succeed, others don’t. Some do better at creating placebo emotions to connect to an incomplete thought, until like Pavlov’s dog, the melody of the song manages to bring those feelings back every time. Others content themselves with the thought that ascribing superlative adjectives to God is surely the right way to go, even if little moral excitement is raised in response to them.

Lewis helps us to see the difference between mere ascription and description. Ascription is fine in its place—and yes, the psalmists certainly use ascriptions of praise. They rarely, if ever, do this apart from some metaphorical description of God. Ascription by itself does little to fire the imagination of the reader, or in our case, the worshipper. The job of a writer of works of imagination (as poetry is) is to do more than report matters, but to transport the reader through the imagination. Likewise, a songwriter wants to do more than simply inform disinterested listeners as to the objective worth of God. A songwriter wishes to draw Christians to encounter the beauty of God through poetic descriptions. As a work of imagination, poetry has its power through descriptive analogies. We feel God’s satisfying glory not when we sing, “You are incomparably satisfying,” but when we sing, “We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread, and long to feast upon Thee still.” We feel God’s power not when we sing, “You are unimaginably powerful,” but when we sing, “Thy chariots of wrath the deep thunder clouds form.” We feel God’s love not when we sing, “Your love is unbelievable,” but when we sing, “The King of Love my Shepherd is, Whose goodness faileth never, I nothing lack if I am His, And He is mine forever.” Description evokes affection; ascription, by itself, simply invites agreement or disagreement.

Merely stringing adjectives together that rhyme or fit the melody is ultimately a kind of laziness on the part of the writer. By saying nothing more than God is indescribable (which is surely the laziest of all adjectives), incomparable, or unbelievable, the songwriter fobs off the responsibility of imagining God rightly to the worshipper. The result is a frustrating emptiness as we sing. The writer has cheated us, and abandoned us before his work is done. He has found a pleasing melody and invited us to feel something toward God. Just as we begin to use our minds to consider God, he leaves us with a true ascription of praise about God with nothing to help our affections to rise to the occasion. He expects us to do imaginative pole-vaulting with the twigs of his superlative synonyms. We are to do his work for him, and he skips town unmolested because he dumped a bunch of fancy-sounding adjectives upon us to the melody of a pretty ballad.

God’s people need better. Songwriters can do better. It is not as if we don’t have an inspired songbook to show us how it’s done.

A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah.
O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is;
To see thy power and thy glory, so as I have seen thee in the sanctuary.
Because thy lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise thee.
Thus will I bless thee while I live: I will lift up my hands in thy name.
My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips:
When I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night watches.
Psalm 63:1-5

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There are 42 Comments

Steve Davis's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
Steve wrote:
In the end, why does anyone care so much what music other churches use? Let each man be fully persuaded in his own mind. Few people are paying attention to the music police except those already convinced.

Having a hard time following the reasoning here. If something is wrong, even if we know it to be a matter of liberty and conscience, it isn't even loving to keep silent. There is a difference between coercion and persuasion and you seem to be conflating them. Nobody is imposing anything on anyone by teaching that "A is inferior to B and here's why think so." But "why does anyone care"? Really? We're talking about the worship of our God. How can anyone not care?

There has been nothing presented that was a question of right or wrong. Except for the Psalm tacked on at the end there was nothing about Scripture and lots of opinion. And there was little to persuade anyone of anything that matters scripturally. It was mostly insult and demeaning as Charlie stated. So again, when it comes to musical choices of other churches why bother when it's a question of tradition, preferences, opinions, or C.S. Lewis? When it becomes a matter of obedience to Scripture then we should all care. I didn't see anything in the article that raises the issue to that level.

Steve

DavidO's picture

Brother Davis,

Is expository preaching a matter of obedience to Scripture? Is that something you care about?

Charlie's picture

Aaron, I think what you're describing is more akin to stagnation than conservatism. Imagine for a moment if your advice were applied to other things, say theological writing. Just put a moratorium on new theological works: no new exegetical studies, no new biblical theologies, no new systematic inquiries; nothing written after 1900. We would soon find ourselves absolutely unable to deal with the realities of a globalizing, multicultural society. (Oh wait, must fundamentalists already can't.)

I think that part of being the church includes every generation doing its best to appropriate the whole of the Christian tradition in a new way. This requires a creative engagement with the past. To decline to produce new theological, devotional, or liturgical material is to fob off the responsibility and the opportunity that such creative work inevitably requires.

Even that ever-so-traditionalist of bodies, the RCC, from time to time revises the liturgy. Such a revision came out just last year. Such revisions, though, seek to do justice to the 2000 years of liturgy that preceded them.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

DavidO's picture

Charlie wrote:
. . . being the church . . . requires a creative engagement with the past. To decline to produce new theological, devotional, or liturgical material is to fob off the responsibility and the opportunity that such creative work inevitably requires. . .Such revisions, though, seek to do justice to the 2000 years of liturgy that preceded them.

Which excellent point(s) coincide with, even reinforce, the OP.

Greg Long's picture

This article did nothing for me. I have no idea what songs he's talking about with this statement:

Quote:
By saying nothing more than God is indescribable (which is surely the laziest of all adjectives), incomparable, or unbelievable, the songwriter fobs off the responsibility of imagining God rightly to the worshipper.
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that one of the songs to which he's referring is Chris Tomlin's "Indescribable." I'm not arguing that the song is in the same league as "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" or "In Christ Alone," but lest anyone think all the song does is say "Indescribable, incomparable, unbelievable" the entire song, let me reprint the lyrics:

Quote:
From the highest of heights to the depths of the sea
Creation's revealing Your majesty
From the colors of fall to the fragrance of spring
Every creature unique in the song that it sings
All exclaiming

Indescribable, uncontainable,
You placed the stars in the sky and You know them by name.
You are amazing God
All powerful, untameable,
Awestruck we fall to our knees as we humbly proclaim
You are amazing God

Who has told every lightning bolt where it should go
Or seen heavenly storehouses laden with snow
Who imagined the sun and gives source to its light
Yet conceals it to bring us the coolness of night
None can fathom

Indescribable, uncontainable,
You placed the stars in the sky and You know them by name
You are amazing God
All powerful, untameable,
Awestruck we fall to our knees as we humbly proclaim
You are amazing God
You are amazing God

Indescribable, uncontainable,
You placed the stars in the sky and You know them by name.
You are amazing God
All powerful, untameable,
Awestruck we fall to our knees as we humbly proclaim
You are amazing God
Indescribable, uncontainable,
You placed the stars in the sky and You know them by name.
You are amazing God
Incomparable, unchangeable
You see the depths of my heart and You love me the same
You are amazing God
You are amazing God

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Steve Davis's picture

DavidO wrote:
Brother Davis,

Is expository preaching a matter of obedience to Scripture? Is that something you care about?

David:

I'm not sure what this question has to do with the price of tea in China. I care greatly about preaching, particularly expository preaching. However the scriptural command is to preach not preach expositorily. This command is to preach and may at times be done topically, thematically, narratively, etc. that some might not consider strictly expository preaching. My care about that does not generally extend to monitoring (I was going to say police) others or telling others how to preach (or worship) unless asked. Primarily I am to take care of myself and the flock entrusted to me (Acts 20:28). Let's not raise issues to the level of obedience that are more an outworking of our understandings or divide over issues that do not require separation. There are weightier issues confronting the church.

Steve

p.s. Not that you'd be interested but you can see/hear my interest in expository preaching. https://www.gracechurchphilly.org/resources/sermon-audio

Alex Guggenheim's picture

God, through Peter (1Peter 2:12), tells us we ought to live excellently, reflecting our uncommon spiritual nature and its enlightenment. This is not to the neglect or arrogant eschewing of what is common, rather it is in reaching for the highest order of things which reflects great consideration for others, including most pertinently, the God who saved us. In this light I understand the author of the article to be speaking. He affirms ascriptive language but like surgar on food he recognizes it is too often too present where more exercise of thought and precision in description belong. It is a call to the best of things.

DavidO's picture

Steve Davis wrote:
Let's not raise issues to the level of obedience that are more an outworking of our understandings or divide over issues that do not require separation.

Thanks for the answer. In principle, I agree with the above. I guess I might apply it differently than you, and I don't think it precludes blogging about non-command issues.

And as Tozer points out, the way in which one imagines God may be the most important thing they do.

Steve Davis's picture

Greg Long wrote:
This article did nothing for me. I have no idea what songs he's talking about with this statement:
Quote:
By saying nothing more than God is indescribable (which is surely the laziest of all adjectives), incomparable, or unbelievable, the songwriter fobs off the responsibility of imagining God rightly to the worshipper.
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that one of the songs to which he's referring is Chris Tomlin's "Indescribable." I'm not arguing that the song is in the same league as "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" or "In Christ Alone," but lest anyone think all the song does is say "Indescribable, incomparable, unbelievable" the entire song, let me reprint the lyrics:

Greg:

I don't always agree with you since I think you said that about one of my articles on SI but here I see you have a flash of clarity Smile Really, great God-honoring music and I am not waiting 100 years to sing it!

Steve

SamH's picture

Is it not mildly humorously ironic that some here are concerned about the author's "tone?" Take a look at comments here, and at other posts (where the issue is related to worship, or where someone expresses concern about the fittingness, propriety, etc of something)--as to tone Mr. Pot meet Mr. Kettle. A thread of dismissiveness is evident.

By the by: My own tone is neutral, or atonal, and I dismiss those who would impugn my tone.

SamH

Greg Long's picture

Steve Davis wrote:
Greg Long wrote:
This article did nothing for me. I have no idea what songs he's talking about with this statement:
Quote:
By saying nothing more than God is indescribable (which is surely the laziest of all adjectives), incomparable, or unbelievable, the songwriter fobs off the responsibility of imagining God rightly to the worshipper.
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that one of the songs to which he's referring is Chris Tomlin's "Indescribable." I'm not arguing that the song is in the same league as "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" or "In Christ Alone," but lest anyone think all the song does is say "Indescribable, incomparable, unbelievable" the entire song, let me reprint the lyrics:

Greg:

I don't always agree with you since I think you said that about one of my articles on SI but here I see you have a flash of clarity Smile Really, great God-honoring music and I am not waiting 100 years to sing it!

Steve

Thanks Steve. What you have posted on this tread has done quite a bit for me...probably because I agree with it. Smile And reading your approval of my post? Its effects on me are, well...indescribable, incomparable, and unbelievable! Smile

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Doug Flynn's picture

@Greg Long - Did you wet yourself with delight?, spasms of joy?, like a puppy?
Thanks.

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