Unformed Expression

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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 grasp his arguments. 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 metre, rhyme scheme, line length, metaphor, and other devices. Music needs 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 metal into a mould. The mould can be changed, but apart from the mould, molten metal will simply pour chaotically into a shapeless mess.

Weaver is suggesting that human expression is just like that. Remove the constraints of form, and human expression tends towards ignorance. If thoughts and affections are not channelled and disciplined by the structure of speech or poetry or music or the like, they become disorganised, disparate, disjointed and, in a word, chaotic. Chaos does not enlighten or educate anyone; 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 or her point without saying it twenty different ways over fifteen minutes; prayer meetings where the prayers are meandering rambles of stock clichés and trivial requests; 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.

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 understand why other traditions had set liturgies with 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 promote unformed expression? Perhaps it is 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 that contrasts the Spirit’s work with 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, or 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 carefully thought-out prayers, some carefully crafted sermons and other well-prepared aspects of corporate worship is not necessarily guilty of formalism. It may be that they simply 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. The molten gold of our affections flows into the moulds of beautiful jewelry, instead of splattering chaotically.

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.

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David de Bruyn

Pastor New Covenant Baptist Church, Johannesburg, South Africa

David de Bruyn was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he now pastors New Covenant Baptist Church and resides with his wife and three children. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). David hosts a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa, serves as a frequent conference speaker, and is a lecturer at Shepherds Seminary Africa.