RPM, Volume 12, Number 31, August 1 to August 7 2010

Discerning Form

By Scott Schuleit

Several weeks ago, while we were in a group context, a friend of mine, quoting a church leader, and this is a paraphrase, said that we should never criticize the style of a preacher. The reasoning behind this statement was, of course, to warn against an improper type of critical attitude and to correct the legitimate problem of ignoring an edifying message due to a dislike concerning the way it is expressed. Initially, without thinking much about it, I responded to this quote with an affirmation. It wasn't too long afterwards before I began to consider whether or not this notion actually corresponded to a biblical perspective. I began to think about it further, and for weeks I kept having this mock debate or reply in my mind and so eventually I felt that I had to do something about it, lest I go insane, hence this little essay.

There was something about his statement that struck me wrong and it bothered me. On the surface the statement seemed valid and innocent enough, but under closer scrutiny the idea in question rather than hardening in the fiery crucible of critical thought, began to darken, crack and fall to pieces. Also, like any other issue under a more intensive evaluation, the implications and trail towards understanding began to multiply, branching out into other related areas requiring further thought. Certainly the motivation behind the idea quoted by my friend was out of a sincere desire to help inculcate a mindset more conducive towards sanctification, but I believe that the adoption of the element he was espousing would be far more likely, in the long term, to hinder a Christian's growth.

The notion that we should suddenly suspend our critical faculties concerning the style of a sermon or the style of any other art form for that matter is, I believe, actually unbiblical and possibly symptomatic of a deeper problem within the system of analysis held by that particular person.

First of all, the Bible makes fine critical distinctions within many realms of inquiry, including aesthetics, of which, in general, is a branch in philosophy dealing with questions concerning the arts, including the topic of beauty. To use a general example, let us consider the question of human beauty, a somewhat sensitive subject. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder as the old cliché goes and though this idea does, in one sense, on a horizontal, earthly level, hold some measure of truth since we all have differences with regards to certain matters of taste, in an ultimate sense, and the statement is often used in this ultimate sense, the idea is utterly fallacious, for there are many diverse and perfect, objective, universal standards concerning it. For example, under the category of human beings, there is, of course, one specific perfect standard for males and another for females. With regards to other aspects of creation, the perfect standard for fish differs from that of zebras and the standard for trees differs from that of apples. Perhaps it's even more finely shaded than this, where the standards even differ depending on not only the kind of something but the type of it as well. For example, under the general category of apples, the standard for a Red Delicious may differ from that of a Golden Delicious. With regards to this particular idea, please remember that I prefaced it with the word perhaps. Also, I do believe that there is an overarching sense of beauty, under which all the categories can be ranked. Within this hierarchy, perhaps diversity contained within unity (like the perfect and holy triune God) is among the main variables determining their place. Complexity could be another variable.

For all of these various standards to be objective, perfect, universal standards, they had to have been fashioned by a perfect, righteous, (and perfectly beautiful) transcendent Source. This Source is, of course, God—the fountainhead of all wisdom. The perfect understanding of what is beautiful with all its various categories and sub-categories can only exist in the mind of God, from out of Whom, beauty naturally flows. Whatever He Has created, expresses, in varying degrees and ways, this particular aspect (along with other aspects) of His nature, and the more complex the created form, mankind being the most complex, followed by the angels, the greater potential it holds to convey (or obscure) to others the beauty of its Creator.

Mankind, made in the image of the triune God, has been seeded with a basic understanding concerning these standards, and consequently, holds a general, basic awareness concerning what is beautiful, an awareness of which, can be clarified or distorted depending on our actions. I'm speaking of physical beauty, but this basic philosophical framework undergirds all of our thinking concerning what is objectively beautiful. Why is it we generally recognize the physically beautiful who walk among us? Where did we acquire the idea of a perfect standard by which to discern the beautiful? Why is it common for us to be aware of aspects and degrees of beauty and levels of unattractiveness? It was implanted within us. This ability to understand general aesthetics resides within all of us, and though we all have a general capacity to engage in artistic discernment, God, in His perfect wisdom, saw fit to give some a greater ability in this area. Aesthetic discernment is not the same in every man, but the capacity for growth in this area (though not everybody learns at the same rate) is given to every man.

With regards to objective, declarative statements concerning physical beauty, the Bible contains many examples. Take Rachel and Leah for example. The God-breathed Word of God clearly expresses in Gen. 29:16-17 that "Rachel was beautiful of form and face." and suggests by way of contrast that Leah was not beautiful. So much for the subjective beauty is in the eye of the beholder theory, though as I stated earlier, there is a strong element of truth to that statement. In Gen. 39:6, Joseph is expressed as being "handsome in form and appearance." In 1 Samuel 16:12 David is described as being "ruddy, with beautiful eyes and a handsome appearance." In 2 Samuel 14:25-26, Absalom is mentioned as being the most handsome man "in all Israel" and the particular aspect of his hair is especially noted. This is an important point, for it reveals that the Bible is even concerned with making various distinctions within the context of the form of their beauty. Many more verses could be cited to underscore my point here. The Bible makes irrefutable distinctions that some people consider should not be made at all. Of course, we should be judicious concerning if, when, and in what manner we should express our views concerning this sensitive issue!

In relation to this, beauty is a gift from God, and like any other gift, must be used to draw others to Christ, not oneself. In light of this, consider how Esther used the gift of beauty she had been given…. Now, consider how Lucifer—who, before his fall, was probably the most beautiful being among the created order—decided to use his beauty. Esther used her gift for a redemptive purpose, and Lucifer used his gift for a destructive purpose. God used Esther to protect an entire race of people, the Jewish people, from out of whom would arise the Messiah—Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God! Lucifer used his gifts to sway one-third of the angels to follow him in his rebellion against God.

With regards to a more specific example concerning the question at hand, Scripture makes a general note of the ability and style of at least two of its most prominent communicators. In Acts 18:24, Scripture makes note that Apollos was an eloquent man. And in 2 Cor. 11:6, Paul declares, "But even if I am unskilled in speech, yet I am not so in knowledge; in fact, in every way we have made this evident to you in all things." (Please note that it is quite possible that Paul was actually highly skilled in speaking, but chose to speak very plainly to help insure that he wasn't trusting in his own abilities to persuade, but instead, was trusting in the Lord to speak through him.) These statements in Scripture, partly serve to sanction the freedom to honestly state what we regard to be positives or negatives concerning aspects of someone's speaking abilities and style.

As Christians we are called to make distinctions, to discern various particulars and generalities, placing them within their proper context. The ideal is to fashion a comprehensive Christian framework. This is something we should continually strive to develop, for it's a fundamental process towards the renewing of our minds to the glory of God. In retrospect, without this God given ability to make distinctions and to allocate them within the context of generalities and abstract forms, we wouldn't even be able to think, or know much, if anything, at all, therefore, if we suspend our critical faculties, even in the seemingly minor area of discerning the beauty of ones preaching, we do so to our own shame, not to mention engendering possible, broader problems in our thinking, which can lead to, by natural consequence, unbiblical actions. Depending on the situation and subject matter, personal tastes are not something we should simply repress or deny, for this can lead to hypocrisy. There's nothing wrong with concluding in our minds, or sometimes even openly mentioning, that we really didn't care for the way a message was presented. Our personal tastes are part of who we are and help to shape our personality.

What is the balance concerning aesthetic analysis of verbal communication? The balance lies in never allowing our opinions concerning a communicator's style to distract us from the actual message. It's interesting to note that the Corinthian church erred in this way. The Apostle Paul's plain speaking, was one of several reasons why the Corinthian church failed to listen to him. Their error was not in expressing that his speech was plain, but in failing to listen to his speech. Consider this in light of chapters 10, 11, 12, and 13 in the book of 2 Corinthians. In keeping with the Greek mindset back then, they were prone to evaluating whether or not something was true based on how eloquent and forcibly it was spoken. It can be difficult to listen when one considers a communicators message to be rendered in a feeble fashion, therefore we must, despite the circumstances, rigorously train our spiritual ears towards truth. To briefly digress, it is true that to a greater or lesser degree the message is inextricably woven within the medium, but that's another topic concerning questions of the relationship between the medium and the message and what a Christian form actually is, or to what extent does the form strive to engender, distort or eradicate the substance of the message, and thus, the reality of Who God is. These questions lie at the heart of the in-house debate concerning worship and church culture.

Sometimes we need to discipline ourselves to hear from a source or in a style that we don't care for that it might open us up to hear God speaking through unlikely sources and in different styles. By doing this, we train ourselves to hear His voice, and when we do this, we become more aware of His presence, guidance and work in our lives. On a quick, cautionary note, training ourselves to hear the Lord must be coupled with diligent study in the Word of God, by which we test all things to determine whether they correspond to truth or not, or in part. This will protect us from the cacophony of voices vying for our affections. We can see the importance of training ourselves to listen to God in light of the fact that—and I know this might be revelatory—the world and its inhabitants fail to conform in perfect harmony to our personal tastes! We can't control reality (only certain aspects of it on occasion in a limited way) with all its diverse and varied forms that bless us and assault us, but we can strive to respond to these forms in an appropriate manner, which, depending on the situation, can mean listening, ignoring, or even fleeing from the form.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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