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Form and Meaning

This entry is part 28 of 32 in the series

"Toward Conservative Christian Churches"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Christians’ affections are greatly shaped by the moral imagination. The moral imagination is largely shaped by the meaning of the various media it encounters. This meaning is largely contained in the form of such things. If a pastor is serious about meaning, then he must be serious about form.

Form, in its simplest sense, is shape. Everything in life, from a horse to a cake, from an essay to a minuet, from a sonnet to a computer program, has shape. The shape of a thing is essential to your understanding of a thing. When it comes particularly to those areas which affect the moral imagination, and therefore shape the affections, form is central to our understanding of meaning. To despise or neglect form is to be dismissive of meaning altogether.

Whether it be architecture, poetry, music, belletristic literature, the plastic arts or theater, these all communicate ideas. The form of these things is the way that the idea is communicated, restated, developed, contrasted and explained. When we are largely unaware of the forms that the composer, poet, author or architect is using, we miss much of the meaning of what is being communicated.

This returns us to our earlier exhortation for pastors to invest time in understanding the meaning of music, poetry, literature, architecture or the plastic arts. The best place to go is to those authors who spend time explaining the forms and their functions. Once aware of the forms used in those areas which shape the moral imagination, the pastor can do several things.

 First, he can seek to use those forms that convey the truths of Christianity without trivializing, sentimentalizing or otherwise falsifying them. He can seek forms which are consonant with Christian worship and affections by understanding those forms. For the sake of space, let’s restrict our examples to form within poetry. A pastor may know what a hymn set to iambic tetrameter will achieve as opposed to one set to anapestic meter. As he grows in his own understanding of form, he will seek to use forms which do not demean or trivialize the truth of God. He will also try to avoid the error of those who do not understand form: mixing forms which clash. To sing one hymn set to the serious iambic pentameter of a sonnet, followed by a hymn set to the comical amphibrachic meter of a limerick is to create cognitive dissonance in one’s people, and collapse distinctions that ought to be clear. Instead of sharpening the moral imagination, this ends up putting opposing ideas into one blender, and feeds people the pulpy mush as ‘balanced worship’. When leaders unwittingly mix forms, discernment becomes nigh impossible for the average church attender.

 Second, given his role of something of an intermediary between experts and laypeople, a pastor should seek to use forms which do not demean the truth, and yet are not indecipherable. Given the bankrupt state of our culture, this is a difficult task. If the pastor defaults to forms which are immediately accessible or popular to his people, he is probably enlisting forms which mislead and rob by their banality and ephemeral nature. On the other hand, that musically simple form – the metrical hymn – is regarded by many today as ‘high’ and ‘too deep’! Woe to us!

Here the pastor has to walk a difficult line of exposure, explanation and repetition. There is little point in feeding the appetite for banal or sentimental forms. Such appetites only grow with each concession. Rather, people must be exposed to forms that are excellent (Phil 1:9-11). Such forms may need to be explained, and then the whole process repeated. In doing so, the pastor will have to balance accessibility and elevation. All Christians need exposure to forms which better capture the truth, and yet all Christians need a point of entry.

It may be helpful to run the occasional class on form, particularly for those cultural phenomena that affect worship: music and poetry. A study of a helpful book, or perhaps a lecture series from one of the companies mentioned in a previous post might be helpful. Realistically, a pastor can only do so much. Teaching forms, and their meanings, is what a culture is supposed to do. However, when your culture is apostate, some catch-ups will be necessary.

 Christians are commanded to ‘test all things, and hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thes 5:21) The church that wants to conserve Christianity is committed to understanding the meaning of the world, so as to rightly understand worship, the affections, and the correct application of biblical principles.

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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.