Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Deconstructing Christian Clichés

If you will indulge me, I'm re-introducing a piece I wrote last Advent. Let me know what you think of the piece, and if you want to revisit the original discussion, click here. If you don't know me, let me introduce myself.

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."

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 have offered my thoughts on four common Christian platitudes, with suggestions 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
N.B.: 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 if you do want to share, that's what the comments are for.

And don't forget to read the conclusion of the series, "And the Glory of the Lord Shall Be Revealed," in which I bring the discussion back to the Advent context - making space for our coming King.


Benn said...

Hi Kyle. We kinda don't know each other but we both know several people like Zach Bailes, Patrick Messer, Josh Hearne, and Jesse Pack.

It seems that this year I've have been really hit with some stronger Christian issues and cliches is one of them. In writings for Dr. Klopfer she challenges us not to use "churchy phrases" because many times we don't even understand them ourselves. You add a reason that is important as well: I don't take your problems seriously.

Hopefully I'll get some time to read your Antitheses' and learn more because I do want go deeper and ask the hard questions.

Take care.

Josh Williams said...

Out of curiosity, will you be deconstructing any more cliches? Because that would be fun. ;)

Anonymous said...

You know, I just realized I never commented your post originally. I'm sure you know what I think of this issue... so, there's really no point in saying much about it.

Good post. I liked it. I fully agree.

Yay for Kyle and his orneriness!

byron smith said...

Thanks for re-posting. Great point - the avoidance of emotional and theological depth through platitudes.

Kyle said...

Hey Benn, thanks for reading. I hope you enjoy the series.

Any suggestions, Josh?

Thanks, Mike and Byron.

Anonymous said...


I very much enjoyed reading this post and the original articles. As always you are right. I wonder if perhaps some of your issues are more to do with semantics than doctrine? I agree with your points, and yet it was a song "Into my heart x2 Come into my heart Lord Jesus, come in today, come in to stay, Come into my heart Lord Jesus" that first brought me inot faith. OK I was nly 6 years old, but it was sufficent to introduce me to the life with God. Greater understanding of repentance and faith came later. The heart is in Hebrew understanding the centre of the human will. To have Jesus coming into your heart is a legitimate picture (taken from the principles of scripture if not from a particular text) of submitting your will to God in repentance and faith.

Again, I am 100% with that Jesus is not a personal commodity. This language has come into the faith to counter notions of a remote transcendant God and of salvation on a purely collective basis not requiring an individual response.

In summary, yes you are right, but that is only one way of looking at it and I don't think that invalidates the use of this language. Perhaps the middle ground is n using the language more cautiously.

On the other points, I am 100% with you. Thank God my eternal destiny is not to sit on a cloud with a harp!

Anonymous said...

Also, "Personal Jesus" combats the notion of the divine as a force, devoid of personality. 'Personal' is not used in the possesive sense, but as an adjective explaining that Jesus is a person who must be related to on a person to person level.

Kyle said...

"Greater understanding of repentance and faith came later."

That's a big assumption you're making there, Simon, and why it isn't a question of semantics. This is the language that replaces Christian doctrine. I've not known a great number of Christians who aquire a deeper (or correct) understanding of repentance and faith to replace it.

For the reasons I've outlined, I maintain that the notion of Jesus "coming into one's heart" is at least non-scriptural and my case is that it's misleading. Christian faith is a particular lifestyle, not just a "relationship" with Jesus that fits into what I've already got going on, even if I am 6 years old. But hear my problem: it's not children that I've heard say these things, but ADULTS.

As I've said, "any picture that presents us as asking Jesus to join the life that we've got going on, rather than him asking us to join his life is going to be inappropriate."

Who says its legitimate to whittle down the entire apostolic faith to that one little notion, even if it were in some way accurate? Whenever slogans replace catechesis, the church will fail in faithfulness.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Kyle; always like your posts on this subject.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kyle,

I always enjoy your blog and especially your sense of humor!

As you know, I'm a convert to Catholicism, but as a former Evangelical am very familiar with your complaint. It's very pervasive. One of the things I love about the Catholic world is having access to the long, rich tradition of spiritual wisdom of the Church, through the writings of the many saints, Doctors, and generally wise men and women from all the ages of the faith.

They go far beyond mere platitudes, and provide maps of life of unending richness, texture, and detail. I think of St. John of the Cross, J.P. de Caussaude, St. Francis de Sales, and so many countless others.

I'm assuming you're probably familiar with them? If not, you should be! You could mine their depths forever. And yet, all of them are so thoroughly, thoroughly biblical. Beautiful flowering trees from the fertile seed that scripture is.

Bless you!

Anonymous said...

Kyle i agree with you in that the view of Christ by most in the american church is actually very egotistical and self oriented. But I do think that Christ is seeking the relationship with us, not the other way around. Christ is the one going out of his way (heaven) to save us. But all this is for his purpose and his glory, so that Christ is not about us, but about himself. And saint simon has a point about the hebrew perspective on the heart. It's the center, and i don't have a problem having Jesus as the center of my life. After he is in the center, I no longer have a life going on outside of him.