The Colloquial, the Casual, and the Crafted

Those who call for ‘authenticity’, ‘realness’, and ‘sincerity’, are not always sure what they mean, if you press them for a definition. Some mean honesty, some others mean integrity, both of which are virtues the Bible commends and commands. But some of those calling for authenticity are really calling for a removal of formality from worship, communication, and life in general. Things formal are considered posed and vain, and therefore less than real. (Of course, objecting to what is supposedly posed and vain is a tad rich when coming from the take-a-selfie-and-edit-the-photo generation, but let’s leave that aside, for the moment.) People like this believe that any move towards informality is a move towards honesty and openness. Casualness in dress, colloquialism in speech, and the absence of structure means everyone is being more spontaneous and ‘authentic’. Notice how many church websites advertise their meetings by promising a ‘relaxed atmosphere’, as if other churches are deliberately seeking a tense atmosphere. What these churches are really doing is agreeing that whatever feels formal (and therefore unspontaneous and perhaps unfamiliar) has no place in ‘authentic’ worship, and that the more familiar and casual it seems, the more it is ‘connecting’, and ‘real’.

A few years ago, a book came out that, in my opinion, made some remarkable observations.
Doing Our Own Thing (with the sub-title The Degradation of Music and Language and Why We Should, Like, Care) is written by John McWhorter, who, to my knowledge, makes no claim to be a Christian. McWhorter uses examples of letters, speeches, and debates to point to a major shift in our culture. He shows that until recently, most cultures have spoken in two voices. One voice is the everyday, conversational street language, with its slang, colloquialisms, repetition, and impreciseness. Everyday conversation includes a lot of hedging (“like”, “sort of”, “kind of like”, “y’know”), grammatical mistakes, and colloquial expressions. McWhorter has no complaint about this (nor do I), and documents historical examples of how the language on the street or in the kitchen has always been one voice that the culture uses.

The other voice is the voice used for speeches, written prose, sermons, and even letters. This form is eloquent, refined, precise, and polished. It is a tone of carefully-crafted words, adopted for specific occasions. It is quite remarkable to read the letters written by Civil War soldiers to their loved ones at home. The same men who would be speaking in perhaps a coarse and ragged manner on the battlefield would write home in tones of surprising eloquence and literary polish. Clearly, nineteenth-century men did not think that it was hypocrisy to use two different tones for different purposes and different audiences.

McWhorter shows, using examples of speeches and letters, that the tone of formal oratory and prose has been tending towards the conversational and colloquial since the 1960s. Speeches by senators in the 40s and in the early 2000s are markedly different. The formal tone is disappearing almost completely from our society. McWhorter suggests that the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s enshrined informality, and turned the wider culture against any form of artifice. Language that is carefully written, artfully constructed, and poetic in quality has come to be viewed as inauthentic, staged, and one more attempt by some intellectuals to lord it over the common man. Sincerity, authenticity, keeping it real, is represented by an off-the-cuff, everyday style in speaking and writing. Once again, McWhorter is not raging against the conversational language we all use. He is asking why those domains where language used to put on its Sunday best now prefer that it be in beach-clothes.

This has major implications for Christians, and for Christian leaders. When we consider the prayers of the psalms, are these colloquial, conversational prayers, or are they eloquently written? Undoubtedly, David spoke to his soldiers in everyday language, but when he addressed God in poetry, and particularly when representing the nation in prayer, he adopted an elevated tone. Or consider, are the sermons of Scripture, such as the book of Hebrews, informal ‘chats’, or are they carefully written examples of rhetoric? Remove the tone of eloquent address from a culture, and you have hamstrung it from reverent worship.

To turn again to Richard Weaver, we find a gem of insight in this statement: “Unformed expression is ever tending toward ignorance”. To put it another way, when people wish to express themselves in the tone of carefulness and reverence (as worship certainly requires), their expression needs the guidance of form. Speeches need introductions, propositional statements, main points, illustrations, supporting arguments, conclusions and an elevated vocabulary. Poetry needs a particular metre, rhyme scheme, line length, metaphor and other devices. Whatever the device used for human expression, it has a form that such expression must be poured into, like water into a mould. Apart from the mould, water will simply splatter randomly on the floor.

Weaver is suggesting that human expression is just like that. Remove the artifices of form (which the formal tone of address requires), and human expression tends towards ignorance, which is exactly why the casual and colloquial tone is not where we find the clearest thought or the deepest insight. If the thoughts and sentiments of people are never channelled by the discipline of formal speech or poetry, they tend to become disorganised, disparate, and, in a word, chaotic. And chaos does not enlighten or educate anyone, nor it is more real, authentic, or sincere. Think: the unprepared extemporaneous preacher, the painful testimony time monopolised by one long-winded and imprecise person, the rambling and circuitous public prayer, and ‘what this verse means to me’ Bible studies. Ironically, when churches tolerate or foster this kind of thing in the name of sincerity and authenticity, the fog of ignorance and vacuousness of thought that grows is doing the very opposite of getting to the heart of things, or increasing ‘transparency’, ‘realness’, and authenticity.

In my own life, I have experienced the difference it has made to recognise and practice these two tones. During the day, I cannot pray as succinctly or concisely as I might like, so my prayer is made up of momentary phrases, short observations, even unarticulated sentiments – a lot more conversational and colloquial, without, I hope, being irreverent. But in times of private devotion, I have found that a short, carefully worded, ‘prayer of address’ is far more helpful to thoughtful worship, than a lot of rambling conversational prayer and consequent wandering of mind. Like a letter, such a prayer cannot be long, for most of us cannot sustain that kind of precision for very long. But the clarity, reverence, and, ironically, sincerity it brings has been very helpful to me. This also explains why Christians have often written down some of their prayers, because they are artfully-composed addresses to God. No one writes down his conversational impromptu prayers, nor have the sermons of ramblers been recorded for posterity.

Similarly in corporate worship, well-written hymns, well-thought-out prayers, well-crafted sermons and other well-prepared aspects of corporate worship are not acts of hypocrisy, posturing, or quenching the Spirit. They respect form, and use it for beauty, reverence, and precise expression. Where form is respected and steadily explained, it not only shapes our expression, it further refines 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. But when we adopt only the colloquial tone for our corporate worship, we will end up losing not only the thoughtfulness and beauty of the elevated tone, but coherence and substance in the conversational tone also.

Christians would do well to oppose the counter-culture’s emphasis on informality as authenticity. Our own Bible is a formal document, obeying literary forms, and giving us examples of worship that followed such forms. It is time to realise that the use of artifice does not mean we are artificial, that when we adorn our speech, we are not necessarily disguising our meaning, and that when we prepare our expressions, we have not evacuated them of heartfelt sentiment. In fact, like the Psalms, our best expressions of worship, and therefore our most authentic responses to Him, will be those we carefully craft.

  3 comments for “The Colloquial, the Casual, and the Crafted

  1. Jay Sax
    August 15, 2017 at 3:41 pm

    Thank you for this! It puts a sharper point on my thoughts on the topic. You remind me of an earlier comparison, perhaps by Bonhoeffer, between lightning and electricity. Both partake of the same essence, as it were, and both are to be respected. Yet only one is truly powerful by virtue of the limits under which it operates – the structures, the forms, etc. So with many forms of expression.

  2. Carey Jones
    May 8, 2019 at 7:29 pm

    I’m a pastor’s son and reading this article I see a lot of what you are speaking about within my thinking, and it has definitely cause me to evaluate myself to see if I am thinking in this way. However I would like to express that a lot of the reason that I tend to think this way are due to the fact that I personally have experienced the use of formality in a very showboat prideful way. I think at the root of the issue it needs to be determined whether the formal aspect at hand is something biblical or if it is a generation bread preference. For example if a church will only allow hymns from a hymn book preapproved by them and does not allow clapping in their services that is a formal practice designed to obtain order and and a sense of maturity which is a very good thing but it is not a requirement biblically. One thing that I feel very strongly about is that when I call for honesty and openness like Titus it’s not that I am trying to dismiss formal practices and structure, it is merely a problem that I see with Christians not showing their faults and scars enough. Casting Crowns puts it pretty plainly in their song Stained Glass masquerade when lost people see someone who is trying really hard to put on a straight face and show there godliness by trying to convince everybody that they have everything together and they don’t make mistakes then all it does is make the lost feel judged, inadequate, and makes Jesus and salvation seem unattainable. Also whenever it comes to light somehow somewhere that this person living this stained glass masquerade is not perfect and they in fact do make mistakes it portrays God and Jesus and the church falsely in a hypocritical fashion.

  3. David
    May 9, 2019 at 3:33 pm

    Carey,

    Thanks for your comment. I do understand that often the calls for authenticity and sincerity are responses to hypocrisy, lazy traditionalism and authorities that arbitrarily keep certain traditions and reject others. In that sense, I also agree with them, and make them myself.

    What I am arguing here is what a younger generation often fails to see: hypocrisy and phoniness in religion is as old as the hills. Tearing away at established forms is, in fact, the worst way to combat hypocrisy. All it does is substitute an older form (which often has a lot of meaning) with a newer, innovated one (which may have comparatively little meaning). This doesn’t create more authenticity; it often merely creates a glib sense of self-satisfaction that we “are not as other men are: traditionalists, formalists, hypocrites or dead-religionists”. But we may merely have exchanged one form of pride for another: hypocrisy and man-pleasing for conceitedness and spiritual smugness. The end-result is worse than our beginning: we now have less meaning and beauty, and a more entrenched sense of self-righteousness. Spiritual pride is the very last sin we notice.

    The correct approach is to pursue meaning in all we do. We should evaluate the older forms and ask what they communicate: by association, or convention or intrinsically. We should do that with newer, less familiar forms. Everything – old and new – should be judged for meaning. We should honour what we have inherited by giving it extra thought and time – for it is the fault of the young to reject what is old without careful evaluation, and to race to adopt what is newer. We should be willing to embrace newer forms if they communicate truth and beauty.

    In the end, brother, being deadly honest about our sins is understanding the Gospel properly. Forms, old and new, are the means we employ to communicate that truths that enable us to walk in the light. Fleeing from the light is also as old as the hills (John 3:19-20), and no choice of song, hymn or worship form can do for the heart what it must do itself, in co-operation with the Spirit.

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