Avoiding Christian Clichés
Towards a Vocabulary of Life
I'm not sure if it is a blessing or a curse that the great truths of Scripture can fit onto a T-shirt, badge or car sticker. Or more commonly, on a notice-board outside a church. Sometimes when I'm frustrated or busy with the practicalities of life, I appreciate being reminded of the transcendent and comforting truths like Jesus Saves or God is Love.
But also it disturbs me that the Gospel is surrounded by other slogans: adverts, corporate messages and images of a particular brand of cigarette or make of car. Worse still, we tend to allow both to become so familiar, they are almost invisible. What once caught our attention simply becomes part of the landscape.
Although it may be uncomfortable for some Christians to admit, the language of Christianity is rife with clichés.
The problem with clichés is that they tend to cheapen the things we want to say. Clichés often presume to be clever, and they claim to communicate, but they usually have no substance. They're like the white-washed tombs Jesus spoke about: they look beautiful on the outside, but inside there's nothing of value.
In the journalism field, clichés are an excuse for lack of thought. Even the most liberal newspaper editors can tell you that clichés are frowned upon.
In the Christian's life, clichés are far more dangerous because they hinder the spread of the Gospel. They can trivialise the most important issues of life. They can numb the zeal of believers, who may cynically conclude the ideas are no bigger than the off-the-cuff slogans that contain them.
The Gift of Language
Language is a miracle and a gift of God. Jesus Himself is called the Word, so it is no surprise that words are what join us to God and to our neighbours. Words are so bound up with what we call "thought" that it is sometimes hard to distinguish the two. French philosopher René Descartes ("I think, therefore I am") needed more than just the thought to prove he existed; he also needed the words.
The gift of language is a treasure that God expects His children to use thoughtfully.
Not far down the list of the Ten Commandments, God warns us against the worst kind of cliché -- using the Lord's Name carelessly or irreverently.
That commandment is more relevant today than ever, when the Name of God is just one more word in a string of expletives that punctuate the scripts and screenplays of popular entertainment. For most people, misusing God's Name is so common that they no longer hear what is being said. Words used like this are cheapened and emptied of meaning.
In the New Testament, Jesus warns us of a somewhat different kind of cliché. When Jesus Christ taught His disciples about prayer (Matt.6:5-15), he said our language should not be marked by "vain repetitions" (NKJV) or, as the New International Version (NIV) puts it: "Do not keep babbling."
To the outsider, Christianity may appear to have its own mantras .. chief among them the Name Jesus. For some, it seems that the name of our Lord is used as a sort of magic wand that cures everything from toothaches to terminal cancer.
(for the record, I do not doubt that God can and does perform miracles small and great. I just don't believe God lent us His Name to be used as a cosmic cure-all).
Word That Build Walls
Is the solution to build a new vocabulary? Should we avoid the popular nomenclature of Christendom? Not necessarily, especially if our new vocabulary robs us of the rich tapestry of expression found in God's Word, the Bible.
It is ironic that some Christians who sincerely try to avoid the trite language of devalued religion end up creating their own catalogue of clichés. It is a tendency of many groups (or professions) to adopt their own jargon, which emphasises how they are different from everyone else.
In Christian circles, that jargon often emphasises doctrinal differences.
Say you want to avoid the sentimental baggage associated with "sweet Jesus" imagery. I think this is fair. After all, there's alot more to Jesus than a cuddly babe in a manger; He's also the conquering King and a mighty Saviour.
For this reason, some people avoid the more personal name Jesus in favour of the seemingly less maudlin title of Christ. But this can't be a permanent solution, because it robs us of one part of the picture.
Yes, Christ is the conquering King -- but the fact that Jesus was also the babe in the manger is no less important. No aspect of the Christian experience is immune.
Perfectly appropriate and biblical phrases (such as born again) can become devalued if they're used to the exclusion of other perfectly appropriate expressions (such as adopted, converted or saved). When we use only one term to describe a sacred ceremony (such as Lord's Supper), we risk alienating ourselves from others who use different vocabulary to describe essentially the same thing (such as New Testament Passover, Communion, or Eucharist).
One church leader asked me why people in my church had avoided using the phrase "I'm saved" over the years. He asked if we did not believe we become new people when we receive the Holy Spirit.
After a long discussion on forgiveness, our eternal future and the glorification of human bodies at the resurrention, we decided that we agreed on almost everything. It was only our vocabulary that divided us.
Christians are told to come out of the world and sometimes that translates into a whole new vocabulary, impenetrable to outsiders.
These days, a large segment of the population is biblically illiterate. They've heard the words grace and salvation, but they have little idea about the deep meaning behind them.
To share the Gospel, Christians must translate the language of religion into the common currency. Sometimes it is a challenge.
"Power to translate is the test of having really understood one's own meaning," C.S.Lewis wrote. "Our failure to translate may sometimes be due to our ignorance of the vernacular; much more often it exposes the fact that we do not exactly know what we mean."
In his essay, Christian Apologetics, Lewis provided a list of words he believed had little or no meaning to the unchurched -- words like atonement, sacrifice, even church and morality. Of the cross and crucifixion, he wrote: "Centuries of hymnody and religious cant have so exhausted these words that they now very faintly -- if at all -- convey the idea of execution by torture."
Getting Down to Brass Tacks
The way to fight Christian clichés is simple: Every so often we should re-examine the words we use. In the process, we may discover a richness of meaning we didn't realise existed. Or we may find we're simply mimicking catch-phrases we don't really comprehend. That is why we in the New Covenant go to great lengths to explain the meaning of the words we use.
One writer put it this way: "Easy writing makes difficult reading." New Covenant writing may appear heavy and even clumsy sometimes but people do at least agree that more often than not we get our message across clearly.
Religious language that comes too easily may not suffice when it's needed the most. When we toss slogans like "God loves you" at people who are drowning, it is no wonder they aren't saved.
The problem is, words and phrases become habits. We can get so comfortable with words that we eventually lose track of what they mean -- if we ever knew in the first place.
Let's get down to brass tacks for a moment. Unless you have studied nautical history, you may not know that the phrase "getting down to brass tacks" once referred to cleaning a wooden ship's deck to expose the heads of brass nails in the wood. In the same way, phrases like "Jesus saves" or "God is love" have been used so much over the centuries that it is possible to overlook the depth of the meaning they contain.
If you're interested in refreshing your religious vocabulary, you might ask yourself a few questions:
Do I frequently find myself frequently using "catch phrases"? Is my religious understanding and vocabulary stagnant or growing? Do I strive for better communication with believers and unbelievers alike? Do I frequently use "in-speak" or the unique vocabulary of my group? Am I able to use the vocabulary of other church denominations in order to communicate with them?
It's as simple as thinking before we speak. It's as difficult as living the life we talk about. At times, the phrase "God is love" can seem like a cliché -- but a person filled with God's love and demonstrating that loves towards others never grows stale.
This page was created on 15 April 1998
Last updated on 15 April 1998
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