Hold the Superlatives, Please


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.

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Approaching the King: A Parable

Once upon a time there reigned a powerful, brave, and noble king. As an intrepid warrior he had freed the subjects of his realm from the tyrannical rule of an invading monarch. Reigning now with integrity and compassion, the good king secured peace for his subjects and with tireless self-sacrifice provided everything necessary for their prosperity. The domain flourished under his faithful rule. Needless to say, his subjects highly esteemed their king.

One day several village children naively decided to journey to the king’s palace in order to pay him a visit. With childish enthusiasm they began to plan their grand expedition. When the discussion turned to how they should present themselves to their liege, they realized they knew nothing of the protocol for approaching a king at court. Everyone had a different idea, and they began to argue among themselves as to whose approach was the right one.

An older girl from the village happened upon the chaotic scene. She scolded each of the children for claiming his or her opinion was the truth. They needed to respect one another’s viewpoint, she explained. “Each of you is free to form your own opinions on how to approach the king, but you simply cannot insist that everyone else must accept your approach as the only way. If you approach the king with respect and sincerity,” she assured the children, “he will gladly welcome each of you on your terms.”

Heeding the girl’s sage advice, the children embarked on their journey. They were all content to hold their subjective opinions and were pleased to extend to each of the other children in the group the freedom to devise his or her unique approach to the king. Ironically, the children never thought to investigate what the king himself thought about the matter.

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Book Review - Worship and the Reality of God

Image of Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence
by John Jefferson Davis
IVP Academic 2010
Paperback 231

“When Satan was cast out of Heaven, he fell into the choir loft.”

This oft-repeated piece of apocryphal angelology is used to bemoan the devastating effect of the “worship wars” on American churches. And while a certain Pastoral Theology professor contended that the Evil One and his minions alighted instead in the sound booth, the net result is the same—God’s people embroiled in conflict over how best to worship Him.

John Jefferson Davis, professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has made a substantial effort to cut through the noise and touch the heart of the worship issue in his book Worship and the Reality of God, an Evangelical Theology of Real Presence (231 pages, IVP Academic). In the opinion of this reviewer, he has done an outstanding job of pinpointing the problem. His solutions, however, while well thought-out and passionately delivered, seem to fall short of the mark.

Pinpointing the problem

In the lengthy introduction (actually the first chapter), Davis relates his visits to churches of varying worship traditions. While styles differ, he identifies a common problem with all of them: the lack of awareness of the very real presence of God. He then goes into a discussion of the three “competing ontologies” he sees in today’s culture: scientific materialism, digital virtualism, and trinitarian supernaturalism. This leads to a discussion of contemporary Evangelicalism and where it is headed. Here he solidly identifies himself as “evangelical” in the Ockenga/Graham tradition, and gives a brief overview of what he considers to be the six major groupings of contemporary Protestantism. These groupings are “the evangelical left, charismatics and Pentecostals, popular apocalypticism, Willow Creekers, emergents and Reformed orthodoxy.” Dispensational fundamentalists are placed—not surprisingly—squarely in the “popular apocalypticism” camp.

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