I will confess at the outset that I consider myself something of a language lover. I love words, and, as my wife, Greta can attest, I use many of them. I will often choose a more obtuse word when a simpler word would do, simply because I can. The screen saver on my computer teaches me new—often obscure—vocabulary words (and hinders my productivity as I study my screen saver instead of attending to the work beneath it). I love language, and consider its proper use of high importance. So, it comes as little surprise that I have recently noticed a pattern in our vocabulary that has me a bit unsettled.
In the past few years I have witnessed an increasingly disquieting trend, primarily among the young people with whom I have worked and continue to work. In speaking to them, it would seem that most things in life are, in a word, “amazing.” This word has morphed into some sort of a catch-all term that serves to describe pretty much anything that they find even slightly pleasing. From seat-back in-flight movies to guitar riffs, shoes to toenail polish, everything in life seems adequately summed up as “amazing,” despite compelling evidence that such things do not, in fact, inspire any amazement whatsoever.
In perhaps the most extreme example, while at Forest Home this summer, one of the staff members encouraged us to thank the kitchen staff for the “amazing sandwiches that we just ate.” Granted, social conventions likely prevented him from more honestly labeling the sandwiches as “moderately edible.” But how about “tasty,” “satisfying,” or even “yummy”? My crankiness stems not from the fact that the sandwiches were displeasing to the taste buds, but rather from the fact that, at other times in the week, we would gather and sing, in all earnestness, about God’s “Amazing Grace.” Amazing like lunch?
In his Letters to Children, C.S . Lewis provides counsel on the task of writing to a young girl named Joan. One piece of advice he offers: “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” As I listen to the young people around me speak, Lewis’ caution resonates with me. I will concede that our students possess enough linguistic savvy to distinguish between a hoagie and the grace that frees us from our bondage to sin, but I wonder why we feel the need to ascribe such greatness to our sandwich in the first place.
I think it is because, at base, we have lost a sense of what truly deserves our admiration and wonder. This is partly so because we live in a marketing-saturated world in which every new product is “incredible,” “fantastic,” or, yes, “amazing.” We have all heard, over the course of our lives, thousands of sales pitches in which whatever product flickered before our eyes was described with any number of superlatives available to the copywriter. The sum effect of such a barrage is that, on some level, we really want to believe that we have purchased no less than “amazing” shampoo.
This impulse, I believe, speaks to the fact that each of us, created in the image of God, has an innate ache for the transcendent, the truly amazing. And, like no other time in history, the truly amazing seems so far away. When we can explain anything with science and technology, we have little need to sit in wonder. Instead, science and technology themselves become the objects of our awe (just watch the clamorous response to Apple’s next product launch). And, in the created things, we find something that finally—albeit briefly—satisfies our craving for wonder, and we respond by elevating such things far beyond what they deserve.
This tendency comes with spiritual consequences. We read in Romans of the wicked who, “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (1:23) and “worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (1:25), and we shake our collective heads in scorn. We marvel that humanity as a whole could have traded in the majestic Sovereign of the universe for a lifeless, wooden carving. All the while we ignore the nagging feeling that Romans 1 describes not some far off and distant people, but us. As we go through our lives giving honor to the creation as interchangeably and effortlessly as we give “honor” to God, our lives serve as a 21st-century illustration of the truth of Romans 1. In so doing, we practice a more subtle form of idolatry, one in which we don’t try to replace God with the banal things of our everyday lives; instead we uncritically reduce Him until He is on par with the banal things. And it begins with our words.
It should not surprise us that the God whose presence inspired Moses to fall face down, Isaiah to lament his sinfulness, and Paul to stagger blindly through the streets of Damascus, evades our linguistic capacity to sum him up. Yet, when we give up trying, resorting instead to cheapened and empty clichés, we have ceased to truly appreciate the One who has saved us. We sit comfortably with the idea that God deserves our best time and service, but doesn’t He also warrant our best thoughts and words?
Certain things naturally elicit—almost demand—a response of awe and wonder. A brilliant sunset splashed across the sky above the Channel Islands. The star-littered night sky as witnessed from an enclave protected from light pollution. Even the latest technological wonder that does things unimaginable just years before. But as Psalm 19 reminds us, all of these things speak not of their own glory, but “declare the glory of God.” And it is for this glorious God that we ought to reserve our highest praise.
Let us be a people who resist the hyperbole of the day, seeing the dangers latent within it. Let us fight against the dulling of our sense of wonder at the person of God. Let us remain committed to celebrating the Almighty as best we can while we continue to look through the glass darkly. Until the day when faith becomes sight and even the most obscure words my screensaver could offer will fail in comparison to the glory and majesty of the Creator. On that day, as no other before it, we will truly know what it is to be amazed, whether or not they serve sandwiches for lunch.
Benji Bruneel (ThM, 2007) is a youth pastor in Santa Barbara, California.