Why all the Superlatives?
June 8, 2015
When I think of the immoderate use of superlatives, I think of Martyn Lloyd-Jones describing each text he was preaching on as the "most important" or "most extraordinary" text in all of God's Word. Maybe he's to blame for the problem I want to describe below.
In the church, once-useful superlatives like "amazing" or "masterly" are losing their desired effect because of persistent indiscriminate use by people who feel the need to make a point. It is like reading an essay, dissertation, or blog post, whereby people have to italicize (or, worse, capitalize) each word they want to emphasize. Some of the best advice given to me by Michael Haykin when I was writing my PhD dissertation was to learn to write well enough so that I did not need to use italics. Amazing advice by the best Baptist supervisor I've ever had.
Recently, Tim Keller wrote a review of books by Matthew Vines and Ken Wilson. His review was called "definitive", "masterful", and all sorts of other things on blogs and twitter. I read the review, and thought it was a fair-minded, balanced review. Keller made his point and left me convinced, except in one place where I was a little confused. But, it was a good review. There was some name-dropping, and a little bit of analysis, but nothing earth-shattering about it. I was surprised to see such fanfare.
My understanding of "definitive" and "masterful" differs perhaps from those who ascribed such adjectives to the review by Pastor Keller.
In another instance, I recently read a "blurb" by Ray Ortlund where he says of Tony Reinke's new book on Newton at the end of his commendation: "...For some readers, this book may just become the most important book, outside the Bible, they will ever read."
Now, I have heard very good things about Tony's book. And I have every reason to trust the good sense of Jared Oliphint who gave a positive review of the book. But, Ortlund's blurb is, well, perhaps a little exaggerated. When I think of truly important books there are a handful that come to mind: Augustine (Confessions); Calvin (Institutes); Bunyan (Pilgrim's Progress).
I'm reminded of those types of people who are always praising. Everything is "the best"; they give five stars to books that, truth be told, are probably in the two to three star range. Their compliments become meaningless. And I'm afraid much of what I read on the back of books today is, to me, quite meaningless. In fact, sometimes the blurbs are downright offensive to the English language. There is, today, I'm afraid, an immoderate use of superlatives.
(North) Americans seem to exaggerate a lot. But we now have to exaggerate to make a point because we don't know how to write and speak well. A friend has to be described as a "really close" friend. An acquaintance is a friend, and so on. There are probably a lot of reasons for why superlatives are ruining ordinary discourse. But I hope if anyone can learn to tone down the hyperbole it is Christians.
We should be the most realistic people in the world. And Calvinists should appreciate the vast gulf between man and God, and all of the implications that arise out of that Creator-creature distinction. Even at our best, we're pretty average. And I'm quite content with average. I think I can learn to celebrate average a lot more than "scintillating" or "magnificent" because average is the world I live in - unless I'm describing the talents of my children, but I digress.
I wonder if there is a reason that some "pastors" have resorted to expletives because superlatives no longer work? As an unconverted teenager I often threw in a swear-word when I wanted to try and make my point. But as Malcolm X's jail-mate once said (in the movie), "people swear because they don't have the words to express themselves." Indeed. But it seems people are being lazy today when they use superlatives to describe writing that is no better than average.
And if we're a little more careful about our use of the superlative, then perhaps when we are confronted with something or someone truly amazing or awesome (i.e., Christ), we'll not feel as though we've understated the matter when we use the word "awesome".