Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Casting Down Strongholds: On Christian Platitudes

Ornery (adj.) : having an irritable disposition : CANTANKEROUS
- or·neri·ness noun

see also
Potter, Kyle: "We simply must kill any gods who are incapable of raising the dead."

see also Creech, Alan.




Now that we're on the same page, let's have a chat. I have been given the grace for the last eight years of my life to be apprenticed to Jesus in the fellowship of his Church. I love the way God sees us, and what he has made us. I am always learning to love us as we are, "warts and all." Note that I will not talk about Christ's Church as if it were somehow an institution or group of people who live separately either from me or from him. I have been baptized into him, together with everybody else who's been dipped or sprinkled or splashed in the name of the Trinitarian God. We're all bloody well stuck with each other. So understand this, if nothing else: any criticism I'm offering, I do so in the context of committment.*

I want to make a suggestion about Christian clichés, some of the unfortunate phrases we use when trying to offer spiritual counsel to one another. Many of our Christian communities fail to provide a safe place to be real and vulnerable because of the unhelpful language that fills the air. When folks are threatened by the doubts and struggles of others, they will sometimes say things like
"Just give it over to the Lord"
"Just trust God"
"Have faith"
"Surrender more of your life to Jesus"
"Let go and let God" [Josh W.]
For many of you who have been raised in faith communities, it can be hard to realize how vacuous, how literally empty of meaning that these phrases are. Eugene Peterson suggests stronger language still in a discussion about "fear-of-the-Lord":
... There is ... something about the sacred that makes us uneasy. We don't like being in the dark, not knowing what to do. And so we attempt to domesticate the mystery, explain it, probe it, name and use it. "Blasphemy" is the term we use for these verbal transgressions of the sacred, these violations of the holy: taking God's name in vain, dishonoring sacred time and place, reducing God to gossip and chatter. Uncomfortable with the mystery, we try to banish it with clichés.
- Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, 42.
It may not be immediately obvious, but when people offer these phases, these stock answers, it sends a clear and demoralizing message: "I don't take your struggles seriously, and I'm not prepared to muster the theological depth to share them with you."

This might be a harsh assessment, but this is a great problem, and worthy of such consideration. If you use these Christian platitudes, these unholy clichés in your care for your brothers and sisters, I urge you to carefully consider dropping them. If you find your friends using them on you, forgive them, then challenge them. Muster some courage and tell them you find those words to be theologically empty and pastorally cold. It's the only way we're going to grow and learn to struggle together.

Let's respect each other enough to never be satisfied with platitudes.

Instead, let's struggle together, ask God the hard questions, and learn the peace that comes with honesty. Truly, for Christ's sake and for the care of his Church, let's be honest.

For my part, I will over the next little while share my thoughts on four common Christian platitudes, and offer ideas as to how we might replace them with more honest and clear attempts to tell the story of who we are in Christ Jesus.

Captain Sacrament's Antitheses
[16 December 2006, N.B.: I am pleased to clarify at this point that these articles are not meant to be exhaustive treatments of the topics at hand, to say nothing of chapters in a systematic theology. They're talking points. Theology is a work of the people of God together. I can tell you about how I choose to talk about these things, but not in any definitive way how you should. That's for you to discern and share if you see fit.]

And don't forget to read the conclustion of the series, "And the Glory of the Lord Shall Be Revealed," in which I seek to clarify just what this has to do with Advent, and making space for our coming King.


*Which, incidentally, is why my complaint about ECUSA is quite out-of-bounds at this point in my life. I'm committed to those folks in theory because of their baptism, but there is no longer an "on the ground" outworking of that nice platonic ideal.

14 comments:

Josh W. said...

Yeah, phrases like that always confused me. Whenever someone would tell me to just "give it over to the Lord," I never had any idea what that actually meant, so I was always confused. I think you forgot to put the worst one of all, though: "Let go and let God."

Kyle said...

Ooh, I'll add it to the list!

A said...

I will look forward to this series of posts. I'm sure you will have some provocative, well defended, and very sensible (despite the sometimes sarcasm that you are famous for--and which we love you for too!) things to offer us on the topic of replacements of tired, old, unhelpful platitudes.
Peace

rich said...

Kyle. This was a very timely piece for me. I have always struggled with 'Christianese' and know the dangers. It is very damaging to relationships in the body and really cheapens what God has done for us and can do through us. Looking forward to the series.

Peter said...

Some other problematic chruch language, just off the top of my head:

"going to church"
"have a quiet time"
the use of "worship" as an adjective
and I think the word "personal" should be stripped from the Christian vocabulary entirely.

I believe that language is vitally important to our formation as Christians. Theology requires not just action, but articulation.

If we are sloppy with the way we use words to communicate our very relationship with The Word and His people, then we have real problems.

I look forward to some good discussion here.

Young and Aspiring said...

Kyle,

Thanks for this post. These type of cliches bother me, and to be honest have probably hindered much of my focus. I notice them being stuck into prayer all the time. In fact, when I hear certain people pray, I count the number of times they say "just" by the end of the prayer. Jacob Gieskce (sp?) pointed this out once during his talk at a PHA devotion, and it really pissed me off that he would point out something so pointless and miniscule! Ironically enough, this is one of the main problems (not simply "just"...but all cliches) facing the contemporary church.

Though we can all be guilty of it, I think it shows a lack of focus and lack of reverence for the Lord when we employ such language. Can't wait to see what else you've got. JUST make sure that you JUST give it all to God before you write :)

Caren said...

Kyle,

While you're chewing on these phrases (which I, amongst the many, have not-so-secretly fumed against for a while) see what you can make of the use of the word "Christian" in a context that immediatly assumes "safe, wholesome and p.c." That's my new soap box, won't you join me?

-Caren

naak said...

I have for a long time hated the phrases used by preachers and laymen when approaching things such ans personal struggle and salvation. I look forward to your upcoming post where Scripture is used instead of some man formed wording.

Kyle said...

As you might suppose, I agree with all of you.

A., I think you typically do well in reminding us to come up with something constructive out of the things we need to burn down.

Thanks for reading, Rich. It is indeed unseemly to "cheapen" a reality that is so very rich and so very healing.

Peter, I agree completely. Stay tuned for my opinions on that "personal" bit...

Thanks for reading, Jeremy. While lots of the "just" pray-ers really do mean well, it does worry me when prayer isn't important enough to try to be articulate. Otherwise, perhaps we should be quiet and let the Holy Spirit pray! It's also worth noting that anytime someone can advice that folks should "just do x," they clearly don't understand the situation.

That's a good point, Caren. Feel free to elaborate; does it sound anything like, "Aslan is not a tame lion"?

Thanks for reading and commenting, Naak. Please be encouraged to engage with and critique my upcoming posts.

Kimberly Moore said...

wow you almost look kinda amish in that picture. You look good in it.

St. Valdez said...

Uummmmm....looking forward to this series. Many of these phrases have caused me frustrations and I have tried to stay away from them.

This is somewhat along the same thread as "The Word of God" thing that I've posted about (I think there will probably be one or two more posts about that).

Can't wait! Peace.

Kyle said...

Aw. blush

Valdez, I think you're right on. And it's helpful to remember that the work of deconstruction doesn't have to be rude and in-your-face, but can occur along the lines of, "Okay, why do we say these things? And what do we hope to mean by them, exactly?"

Tina said...

You hit the nail on the head! I've wanted to write a book called something like "The Empty Platitudes Christian Dump on One Another"....sigh.

People need help, how-to, NOT 'let go and let God' - for crying out loud.

Thank you!

Aaron said...

great thought here.

Hey check out my thoughts on "christianese" on my blog at:

aaronhavens.com