Unformed Expression

Unformed Expression

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. 

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.

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