We’ve all heard the contemporary praise song that says “I will” more than a few times. Phrases like “I will celebrate,” “I will sing to God,” “I will praise God,” are sung and repeated many times in the same song. Here are James Montgomery Boice’s comments on such a song:
The chorus seems to be praising God – it claims to be praising him – but that is the one thing it does not actually do. As [Marva] Dawn points out, ‘The verbs say ‘I will,’ but in this song I don’t, because although God is mentioned as the recipient of my praise and signing, the song never says a single thing about or to God.
What is the song about then? If we look at it carefully, the answer is clear. With all the repeats, ‘I’ is the subject twenty-eight times. Not God, but ‘I’ myself, And not even myself along with other members of the covenant community, just ‘I’. ‘With that kind of focus,’ says Dawn, ‘we might suppose that all the “hallelujahs” are praising how good I am…at celebrating and singing.’ What is this but narcissism, an absorption with ourselves which is only a pitiful, sad characteristic of our culture? If we are self-absorbed in our worship services, as we seem to be, it can only mean that we are worldly in our worship, and not spiritual as we ignorantly suppose.
The praise songs of the Psalter do not fall into this trap, which is one reason why they are such good models for our worship and why they should be used in worship more often than they are. Think of just the last five psalms, as an example. They are a kind of praise climax to the Psalter, showing us what it means to praise God….
J. M. Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace, p. 181.
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
I picked this up for well under $10 (used) a few weeks back: Talking the Walk: Letting Christian Language Live Again by Marva Dawn. It is a neat book, something like a devotional glossary of Christian terms. Dawn briefly discusses words like Messiah, Good Shepherd, confession, guilt, mystery, substitution, and redemption – around 70 total in 200 pages. Here is part of the reason why she wrote this book.
“I want with love… to reclaim some words significant in the heritage of the Christian faith and to insist that they be properly preserved and embraced.”
“I am solemnly concerned about the corruption of words in contemporary Christian faith. When we speak bad theology, we live badly theologically. When our theologians and pastors and communities reject or abuse significant words in the heritage of faith, our Christianity is reduced or decimated.”
She also asks probing questions concerning Christian speech:
“When we use other words not from the tradition to deny the meanings of that legacy, is it still Christian faith? When we corrupt words or use corrupted ones, do we lose our ability to verbalize the faith well?”
I agree with Dawn’s emphasis on wanting to keep these key Christian words robustly alive. Positive, encouraging Christian radio has reduced the Christian faith to an a-theological good feeling about Jesus. Mormons have borrowed Christian terms to make their sheep’s clothing look more convincing. And the American culture generally speaking does not have time for words and terms that are not instantly gratifying.
If we want to keep these orthodox Christian terms living, we have our work cut out for us! Dawn’s book is a good primer for this purpose of letting the Christian language live.