Justly Praising the Great & the Mediocre
The restaurant trade has done its share of damage,” reports a new book on the English language. “Fish are no longer fried or grilled, they are crisped, seared, glazed, truffled and lacquered. Freshness in supermarkets is no longer good enough. Vegetables must be dew-fresh, market-fresh or seasonal.”
The writer of Fanboys and Overdogs: The Language Report, Susie Dent, suggests a reason for what she calls “linguistic supersizing”: “the influence of advertising-speak and corporate jargon on language, in which everything needs to be hyped to get noticed. It means that some of our greatest words are losing their power. To be called a hero used to be the highest honour. Now you have to be a superhero to make an impact.”
This is the sort of thing that makes academic conferences so trying. One professor inevitably begins his response to another’s paper by praising “this fascinating analysis” and “great contribution to the field” and by telling everyone how intrigued they all were, even when the professor has left half the room asleep with an incomprehensible mixture of platitudes, non sequiturs, name-dropping, and irrelevant quotations.
Christians do it as much as anyone. You can see why they would speak this way, beyond the influence of the culture. Any Christian wants to encourage people and make them happy, and can do so just by exaggerating a little bit. The subject’s pleasure in the compliment makes you feel better yourself. So the next time you exaggerate a little bit more, which makes him happy, which makes you happy, which leads you to offer yet greater praise, and the cycle keeps going.
A certain degree of inflation is simple kindness and understood by everyone to be a formality not to be taken as a serious judgment. You praise your hostess’s steak, but not by the standards you’d apply to the steakhouse. But there is a sharp limit to this, and linguistic supersizing actually deceives. This may seem like a minor problem, but it is a sin against justice, in refusing to give things their due, and against charity, in refusing to tell people the truth they need to hear. In other words, it hurts people.
For one thing, you have a very hard time making a sincere compliment that sounds sincere. You cannot securely offer the encouragement people need. You can use the words you once would have used, but when people are so used to an inflated language, a genuine compliment may well sound like damning with faint praise. When everyone else says to the fellow you’re trying to compliment, “That was wonderful, marvelous, just brilliant,” your “Nicely done” sounds pretty much like “Nice try, loser.”
This is a practical problem for the artist and craftsman—the musician, painter, writer, preacher, singer, church organist, etc.—because he loses the real and honest responses that will help him improve his craft. The good craftsman doesn’t want praise he doesn’t deserve, though being as vain as anyone else (or more so), he tends to lap it up when he gets it. He wants to know when his work is good and when it’s bad. A chorus of people saying “Just brilliant” does not help him.
For another thing, the inflation destroys the recognition of excellence and achievement that encourages people to try to do excellent work. You can only praise someone so highly before you run out of words with which to praise him, and if nearly everyone’s work is praised in the same terms, you lose the ability to point to real excellence. The loss of excellence, in painting or medicine or anything else, harms many.
I do not think I have been to a concert or play in years that did not end with a standing ovation. Some of them were very good, but what can one now do to recognize a truly superlative performance? I suppose you could start a new way to recognize great work by standing on your chair as you cheer or taking off your shirt and whirling it in the air above your head, but two weeks later everyone will be standing on their chairs or taking off their shirts and whirling them in the air.
Christians can do something about this inflated language, just by telling the truth, which in this case means using the older, more subtly graded language of praise and not pouring on praise for something that does not deserve it. Doing so takes some courage, because you will stand out among people who are laying it on thick. You will look heartless, or rude, or snobbish, or insensitive, no matter how kindly you refuse to give an A+ when a B or C– is due.
But you will be telling the truth, and the truth will set men free—not least those addicted to praise and those addicted to giving it.
A Greater Sin
Recognizing that exaggerated praise is unjust and uncharitable is only part of the Christian’s calling to speak truly. Something else should be said as well: We must also take care to recognize and praise the value of good work that is not great—the sort of work the average craftsman does, and the average person doesn’t notice.
The laborer is worthy of his hire, which for many laborers means not money so much as appreciation. I think many of us fail to do this, and a failure in gratitude is probably as great a sin as the sin of lying by praising too highly. It may be worse, since the one praising too highly thinks of someone else, but the one who does not praise the craftsman is not thinking of another as he should. He is taking him for granted, as someone who exists simply to supply services.
I have an example to offer. At the beginning of a month that ends with holidays, we might think of one man important in our lives, for whom the holidays will be holy days but not holidays. I mean our pastors.
Some star pastors are among those praised to the skies all the time, which is (or ought to be) a burden in itself, but many are often as taken for granted as a telephone operator or a clerk in the checkout line at the grocery story. He’s the guy who does the religious stuff, and he jolly well better do it well, given what we give to the church.
Think only of his preaching: Your pastor’s competent sermon that isn’t as eloquent or learned as the radio preacher’s still deserves praise. Even when, as one sometimes thinks, you could have done better. It deserves praise for the work he put into it and the love of the people it expressed. It deserves praise for the faithfulness to his calling the preacher had to accept (and perhaps not easily) in order to give it, the faithfulness required to stand in the pulpit before people prone to be critical, knowing that he cannot possibly compete at the level they had come to expect from television.
You do not have to tell him that he is another St. John Chrysostom or John Henry Newman or Charles Haddon Spurgeon when he isn’t. You do not have to tell him that last Sunday’s sermon changed your life when it didn’t. But you can thank him for being a man who works at bringing the Word of God to his people, as you would thank a man who walked several miles on a hot summer’s day to bring you water when you were thirsty, even if the water was a little stale and a little warm.
He does not, after all, have to do it. And the water he brings, if warm and stale, still gives life.
David Mills, for the editors
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Unadulterated Words” first appeared in the December 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95. This issue, as well as other issues, can be purchased at our online store. Read issues in digital format at the Touchstone digital archives! You can also subscribe to Touchstone at amazon.com to read on your Kindle.