Form and Feeling

In arguments about worship, both sides often cast the issues in terms of “formal styles” vs. “emotional styles.” That has always seemed a false dichotomy. To me, our formal, liturgical Lutheran services are very emotionally moving. Besides, the opposite of “formal” is “informal,” and the opposite of “emotional” is “unemotional.” And “informal” worship styles happen to leave me cold; that is, it leaves me “unemotional.” I realize that other people react differently.

The point is, form and feeling can actually support each other. That is practically a literary principle. A sonnet is among the most emotional of poems, and yet its form is among the strictest. This is even evident in the Bible.
Justin Taylor pointed me to these observations about the Book of Lamentations from John Piper:

First, Lamentations is a deeply emotional book. Jeremiah writes about what means most to him, and he writes in agony. He feels all the upheaval of Jerusalem in ruins. There is weeping (1:2), desolation (1:4), mockery (1:7), groaning (1:8), hunger (1:11), grief (2:11), and the horrid loss of compassion as mothers boil their own children to eat them (2:20; 4:10). If there ever was intensity and fervor in the expression of passion from the heart, this is it.

The second observation, then, comes as a surprise: This seems to be the most formally crafted book in the Old Testament. Of the five chapters, chapters 1, 2, and 4 are each divided into twenty-two stanzas (the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet), and each stanza begins with a different letter of the alphabet. They are three acrostics.

Chapter 3 is even more tightly structured. Again there are twenty-two stanzas, but now each stanza has exactly three lines. The three lines in each stanza begin with the same letter, and each of the twenty-two stanzas begins with a different letter in alphabetical order.

This is the only chapter that is not an acrostic. But it still has twenty-two lines in conformity with the acrostic pattern of chapters 1-4. Now what do these two observations imply? First, they imply that genuine, heartfelt expression of our deepest emotions does not require spontaneity. Just think of all the mental work involved in finding all the right words to construct four alphabetical acrostics!

What constraint, what limitation, what submission to form! Yet what passion and power and heart! There is no necessary contradiction between form and fire.

via Let the River Run Deep, Desiring God by John Piper – Desiring God, John Piper.