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 meter of the song. These are then are 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 worshipers 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 points out 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 worshiper. 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 rightly imagining God to the worshiper. 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.