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Unformed Expression

Richard Weaver’s book Ideas Have Consequences is one of the more demanding reads you’ll encounter. I’ll confess it took me more than one reading to begin to grasp his arguments. At times, I have felt that the book feels something like Proverbs, without the standalone nature of each proverb. Throughout the book, Weaver keeps dropping these gems of insight, which one often picks up on a re-read. One of them is this:

“Unformed expression is ever tending toward ignorance”.

To put it another way, when people express themselves, whether through speech, writing, poetry, music, or other art forms, their expression needs the guidance of form. Speeches need introductions, propositional statements, main points, supporting arguments, conclusions and the like. Poetry needs a particular meter, rhyme scheme, line length, metaphor and other devices. Music needs a melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, and so forth. Whatever the device used for human expression, it has a form that such expression must be poured into, like water into a flexible mold. The mold can be changed and flexed, but apart from the mold, water will simply splatter randomly on the floor.

Weaver is suggesting that human expression is just like that. Remove the constraints of form, and human expression tends towards ignorance. If the thoughts and emotions of people are not channeled and disciplined by the accepted forms of speech or poetry or music or the like, they become disorganized, disparate, disjointed and, in a word, chaotic. And chaos does not enlighten or educate anyone, least of all the speaker. It increases ignorance.

Consider some cringeworthy examples from within the walls of the church: A preacher whose desire to be extemporaneous exceeds his supply of helpful things to say; testimony time, where the one testifying cannot make his point without saying it twenty different ways over fifteen minutes; prayer meetings where the prayers are more an exercise in repeating stock clichés five to eight minutes at a time than anything else; songs written by the song leader earlier that week (or day); “prophetic singing”, where the song leader plays chords and makes up words as he goes along; ‘what this verse means to me’ Bible studies.

In these situations, we grow exasperated. We wish the preacher would simply stick to his notes. We wish the one praying would shorten his prayer to the things needful to ask for. We wish the one giving a testimony would focus succinctly on what will give God glory. We wish the spontaneous poets…well, we wish they would just memorize and repeat someone else’s poems. After enduring such experiences, we of the free church tradition, where worship is not controlled by set liturgies, can often understand why other churches had such liturgies, with their written prayers and responses: because unformed expression tends towards ignorance.

Why do we all at once sigh under the burden of unformed expression in the church, and yet regard it as a duty to allow unformed expression to prosper? Perhaps it is a kind of spin-off from believing in the priesthood of the believer. Since we believe every believer has direct access to God through Christ, we tend to think that this ought to work itself out into a kind of verbal democracy, where everyone must have the chance to speak up and out. We think it some kind of popery if we limit the outlet of personal expression. We think that the good intentions of hearts must be given a good berth in the church.

Similarly, we have an odd view of the Spirit’s work. Somewhere, we have ingested the idea that what is pre-meditated and carefully written is somewhat unspiritual, whereas the Spirit’s work is spontaneous, eruptive, and a kind of seizure of the mind from above. The truth is, I really don’t find anything in Scripture to polarize the Spirit’s work from a careful respect for form. The man who hammers out his sermon in respect for how the human mind grasps knowledge is not working antithetically to the Spirit. He is working with what the Spirit made. The one who slowly crafts a hymn text over months is not ‘in the flesh’; he is honoring the form of poetry which God gave, and pouring his love for God into it, carefully and painstakingly. The one who comes to the prayer meeting with part of a written prayer, a Scripture text and some particular requests is not ‘quenching the Spirit’; he is honoring the means of grace that the Spirit uses. The church that wants to use well-formed expressions in the forms of well-written hymns, some well-written prayers, well-written sermons and other well-prepared aspects of corporate worship is not necessarily guilty of formalism. It may simply be that they have a high respect for form.

In fact, formed expression is what our hearts cry out for. We want our preachers to articulate the truth with a kind of clarity that enables us to grasp and retain it. We want our psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to capture and express affections we have had but have not known how to express. We want corporate prayers to be elevated, careful, thoughtful and Scriptural. We want the music to have structural integrity, a tonal center, and a normal and recognizable sense of progression. When people who are trained in the forms of rhetoric, poetry, or music give us a structure, it actually sets us free to express ourselves properly, and in most cases, teaches us expressions we did not yet possess. The water of our affections flows in a strong, directed manner, instead of splattering chaotically.

Only egotists hate form, because it limits their ‘creativity’. The kind of people who persistently hate the well-formed expressions found in good hymns, good music, orderly sermons, or careful prayers are the kind of people who are in love with their own voices, and would like to receive worship, not offer it. Any form that submerges their own expression will be distasteful to them. They would exalt their feelings and motives above the actual effect their expressions will have. From such turn away.

Where form is respected and steadily explained, it not only channels our expression, it further shapes it. Long-term exposure to well-formed expression has a maturing effect on our own. Our minds start to think in those forms. We find ourselves praying better prayers. Our spontaneous testimonies are more succinct, and more edifying. Our extemporaneous teaching has substance.

Beware the people who insist you choose between form and freedom. Good form is freedom. Good form enables freedom. Good form frees us to express ordinate affection.

This post originally appeared at Towards Conservative Christianity.

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.