Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Moratorium on "Awesome"

I’m afraid I have to call for a moratorium on the use of the word “awesome” by Christians. Let me explain.

It’s not that I don’t think the word a good one. I do. It’s just that sometimes good words can take up bad company and start hanging out with all sorts of other words that cheapen them and give them a bad reputation.

Take “awesome” for example. It means “full of awe.” The problem is: Christians no longer understand what the biblical meaning of “awe” is. It means fear, pure and simple – “fear,” as in “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7). Get it?

But in contemporary Christian usage, I fear, “awesome” is far more influenced by praise choruses than Scripture, and, alas, far too many praise choruses are influenced more by popular culture than biblical faith. The current preoccupation with “awesome ad nauseam,” to the point of mantra almost, seems to have derived from a 1980’s praise chorus by the late Rich Mullins, “Our God is an Awesome God.” Mullins said the chorus was inspired by Nehemiah 1:5 (which he apparently read in the NIV), “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands….” I wish he had read it in the original Hebrew, or at least consulted someone who had. If so, he would have known that the word the NIV renders “awesome” is actually “fear” (ha nora’). Nehemiah, who knew something of Israel’s God, said of Him: “O YHWH, God of the Heavens, God great and fearful….” Anybody who claims to have been in the presence of this God and chatters away about Him with a glib little “awesome” is not talking about Nehemiah's God. Nehemiah's God will cause your knees to buckle, your mouth to dry, and your palms to sweat; He sends you reaching for the Maalox.

And so, if what we mean when we say “God is awesome” is little more than “God is cool,” then we’re not talking about the Bible’s God. The first thing the Bible’s God does to you is scare the…well, you know.

That’s what the writer of Hebrews was getting at in his fifth and final warning to Christians (one largely unheeded by contemporary Christians). In Hebrews 12:14ff., the burden of his argument is: “If you think Moses’ God scared you to death, wait ‘til you see this one!”

For you have not approached the touchable, (you’ve come to) a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a storm…indeed, so terrifying was the very sight of it that Moses said, “I am full of fear and I quiver and quake. …Therefore let us be grateful for receiving an unshakable kingdom through which we offer pleasing worship to God with reverence and fear; for our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:18-21; 29, writer’s translation).

So let’s be clear: When the Bible says that God is “awesome,” this is what it means. Pass the Maalox.


Idell said...

Hey now--yes, "awesome" is misused, but please don't blame that on Rich Mullins, one of my favorite songwriters! While "Awesome God" is not one of my favorites songs, the verses let one know the writer didn't think awesome meant cool. The first verse contains the phrase "There's thunder in His footsteps and lightning in His fists." I think Mullins had a clue that this was a God to be feared!
A much better Rich Mullins song that illustrates the non-cool awesomeness of God is "The love of God." Here's the last verse:
Joy and sorrow are this ocean
And in their every ebb and flow
Now the Lord a door has opened
That all Hell could never close
Here I'm tested and made worthy
Tossed about but lifted up
In the reckless raging fury
That they call the love of God"

Okay, enough of that. I think it's time to put in an old Rich Mullins CD while I feed my baby.


R. Wayne Stacy said...

Thanks for setting me straight on Rich Mullins. Perhaps he would be as appalled at how his song is being used to support a shallow theology as I am. rws