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An Awful, Awesome God

Marva J. Dawn writes in “Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down”:

I remember an animated discussion with my high school freshman English teacher over the word awful. I insisted on using awe-full to describe something so exalted as to arouse reverence. She preferred that I stick with the word's common spelling and its usage to designate something dreadful.

We should have looked in the dictionary. My old Webster's lists as its first definition "inspiring awe; highly impressive." Not until its fourth entry does it supply the definition usually assumed in idiomatic English: "very bad, ugly, unpleasant."

But the teacher had the final word that day in class. Even at age 14 I felt that a vital perception was being lost—the sense that something, someone, was higher than we. I longed to verbalize awe-full-ness; my teacher made class awful.

Today teenagers apply the related word awesome to clothes, food, music, and cinematic effects. The word is so overused that when people sing Rich Mullins's "Awesome God," they seem to trivialize the Awe-full One and put the Trinity on the same level as toothpaste and togs.

As our culture has worked hard to establish equality among persons, we've somehow put God into that parity and gradually reduced our sense that this is a breathtakingly transcendent GOD we're talking about.

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