God’s Grandeur and Evangelical Nonchalance

Grand language is a rarity these days, not only among bloggers, but also among the politicians and pastors from whom we used to expect it. Culturally, soaring rhetoric is endangered if not extinct.

John McWhorter, for one, has noted this cultural trend. In an interview with Mars Hill Audio in 2003, he locates the loss of formal public language in the U.S in a post-1960s suspicion that lofty rhetoric is detached and untrustworthy. This is problematic for evangelicals, who must attend to the grandeur of God, but are tempted to distance themselves from the speech appropriate to it.

Talking like your culture is hardly blameworthy in itself.  Evangelicals are committed to the accessibility and availability of the gospel: we know that Jesus is for everyone, no matter how rudimentary their vocabulary. We glory in the perspicuity of the things necessary for our salvation. Furthermore, directness of speech may be seen as an admission of God’s transcendence: if all of our language is unworthy, why not speak as simply as possible? Plain and humble words are certainly better than the distractions of convoluted talk; the Lord’s Prayer is a paragon of plainspokenness before God. The Reformers sought to drive home that, thanks to the mediation of Christ, God could be accessed anywhere by any one, not only by those with the “right” language. If there is indeed a priesthood of all believers, then the acceptability of our worship cannot depend on having the right words.

Even so, there are more ‘right words’ available to us than we care to use. We are provided with grand language concerning God in Scripture; such formality sits strangely in the evangelical ethos, however, even when Biblical. I have real suspicions of paraphrase of the Bible into the vernacular when the passage warrants, or even demands, a grand style with which we find ourselves uncomfortable. Some things just don’t paraphrase well. When a pastor tries to evoke the more nuanced or exalted aspects of God, I see the poverty of the commonly-used casual, conversational style. It is somewhat surprising that Evangelicals, with our stout commitment to the value of Scripture as the living word of God, seem unconcerned with whether we acknowledge the full range of language the Scripture writers employ.

It really is a different thing to say “God cares!” than to say “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”  With the soaring adulation of the Davidic Psalms, the theological nuance and resounding rhetorical height of the Pauline Epistles (the beginning of Ephesians 1 and Philippians 2 are striking examples), in Mary’s Magnificat and God’s transcendent promises to Abraham, the language of the Bible evokes true things about our relationship with God – truths about his overawing excellence, because of which our brothers have taken off their shoes, fallen on their faces, bemoaned their uncleanliness, been consumed by fire, or glowed for days after.

Even in translation, the word of God is often a word of grandeur or magnificence – something foreign to an Evangelical vocabulary. We lose much of what is being said or taking place in Scripture when we unyeildingly collapsed it into conversational prose. I worry that our confident casualness of speech prevents our recognizing the grandness of God by practicing grandness in the language about Him – a grandness modeled for us in Scripture. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur” describes divine glory as “flam[ing] forth like shining from shook foil” in all the world.  It may be that we – with our language as relaxed as our Hawaiian shirts – dim our understanding of God’s grandeur by avoiding grand language about him. ‘

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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.

  • Hayden Butler

    A welcome reminder!

    I wonder, how do you think one begins the project of reinstating “grand language” without running aground of the distrust you mentioned?

  • http://evangelicaloutpost.com/ Amy Cannon

    Hi, Hayden!

    I can think of several ways. Since I’m thinking of particular of Evangelical circles where a premium is set on Scripture, there is that trust in that authority already established. I also think it strikes us as false or posturing primarily in public figures we don’t have any other reason to trust than their grand rhetoric: I wonder if we would have more patience with greater rhetorical scope in people with whom we had already established trust in everyday relationships. Another way that occurs to me is in corporate confession or recitation — when we’re all using lofty language together, it’s hard to find it alienating!

  • http://www.atlantamarketingdesign.com Margaret Butler

    Congratulations Amy Cannon for a great post. Your article brings more clarity into why I prefer the traditional christian hymns and why I love “high church” music (John Rutter, Bach, etc.) I enjoy the grandness of the wording in many traditional hymns and the grandness of high church music – often sung in Latin. So much of it is lost in today’s contemporary services.

    I look forward to reading your future posts.

  • Sage S

    The casual, edgy, socially conscious God we hear so much of in the church throughout America just might be a god fashioned in our own likeness, patterned after our popular cultural icons more than Holy Scripture.

  • chetler

    I think it also forces us to describe the picture, as opposed to using one word such as “lovingkindness.” Imagine a lost sheep, wandering on the rocky cliff. Its hooves aren’t flexible enough to grab into the terrain. It’s sight is limited and it can’t perceive the predators closing in. The sheep’s throat gets parched as it search out for a stream, brook, even a trickle of water. But here comes the shepherd, using the rod to scare off the wolves, picking the sheep up before it falls into the valley, leading to the river to drink. The Lord is our Shepherd! He shows us lovingkindness.
    People today want to see/be a part of something bigger than themselves.