Whether it be the results of a recent election, a national tragedy, or personal epiphany, Christian clichés can often be found on the lips of the faithful (and more specifically on my twitter/facebook feed). Why do Christians often turn to these clichés in times of trial and triumph? What does this say about our culture? What does this say about our faith?
I recently had the opportunity for a quick exchange with Zack Hunt, blogger at The American Jesus, concerning the abundance of clichés in Christian culture. Zack is a faithful presence on the web offering biting satire on American Christian culture as well as insight into how Christians should think theologically in such a culture.
TL: We see, particularly during times of tragedy, a huge influx in Christian clichés and one-liners on social media, in the news, and from the pulpit. What is at the heart of this phenomena? Why does it so often manifest in times of tragedy?
ZH: I think the heart of this phenomena is our basic human desire to make sense out of the world we live in, especially when what happens in our world seems senseless. Right along with that I think we naturally seek comfort in these sorts of tragic moments. We’re incredibly vulnerable and often desperate for any sort of comfort so we latch on to whatever sign of hope we can find in the darkness. When we’re kids that might be a teddy bear or a night light. As adults, we grow out of those sorts of things, and I think, replace them with clichés and one-liners that essentially function in the same way, but seem more age appropriate, if not more sophisticated and therefore in a sense more trustworthy than a teddy bear, even if upon critical examination the statement is problematic or simply not true. Likewise, I think when we look around and see others saying and affirming these clichés and one-liners we gravitate to them all the more because that connection to others gives us sense of belonging that assures us we’re not alone and comforts us by way of our unspoken assumption that surely everyone can’t be wrong, therefore what they’re saying must be true, therefore everything is going to be ok. All that to say, as cheesy as they are and as terrible as the theology behind them can be, I think Christian clichés and one-liners manifest themselves in times of tragedy for the simple and understandable reason that we need comfort and hope in the midst of tragedy and they seem to offer those things.
TL: Is “cliché-ing” Christianity helpful or harmful? Is it more beneficial to make simple, albeit incomplete, statements about the faith or complex, albeit impenetrable, statements about the faith?
ZH: This is a tough question. On the one hand, there’s nothing simple about affirming an incarnate God, a Trinitarian God, or a good and loving God in the face of all the evil that pervades our world. On the other hand, if we look to the gospels, Jesus seems to rely heavily and effectively on simple statements about a complex faith. His parables, beatitudes, and sayings are the foundation of our faith, yet they’re not the systematic theology I think should be done in the face of difficult and complex issues. What do we take from that? I think probably several things. On a most basic level, simple, albeit incomplete statements or even clichés about the faith can help us easily remember the basic foundations of our faith from which we can then grow from. Take the so-called “golden rule” for example. It’s about as cliche as you can get in Christianity, yet it’s also a statement that beautifully captures the heart of the faith. But of course, how that “doing unto others” stuff plays out can become very complicated. So, for me, even though it pains me to say so as someone who loves systematic theology, as a church I think it’s ok, if not important (since Jesus did it), for us to embrace and utilize simple, yet incomplete statements about the faith, so long as we are clear about that incompleteness and intentional about further discipleship.
TL: What does the “cliche-ing” of Christianity indicate about our contemporary culture? about the church? How (or should) the church, particularly youth ministers, seek to address this?
ZH: I think the cliché-ing of Christianity is indicative of the on-demand society we live in. We want everything –food, clothing, entertainment, love, salvation – instantaneously. We’ve been conditioned to not have to wait on anything in life and that has naturally carried over to the faith, reducing it to not much more than a bumper sticker or Facebook status. Which is, of course, incredibly problematic as Christianity is a call to discipleship, not a moment of intellectual ascent and instantaneous transformation. I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer perfectly captured this problem in his description of cheap vs. costly grace. When salvation is had in an instant, at no cost to us other than a momentary decision, and when discipleship is reduced to passive church attendance and the spouting off or agreeing to a few clichés then what we are left with is a cheap form of grace that is ultimately utterly worthless for answering the sort of world-changing call that Jesus places on his followers. What we need is costly grace, grace that costs us our lives, that demands we invest everything we have and everything we are into the lives of those around us. If the faith is simply reduced to a bunch of clichés we agree with and share on Facebook, then we will be left with a cheap form of Christianity that isn’t worthy to invoke the name of Christ. As Bonhoeffer said, “[grace is] costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
For youth ministers, this challenge is particularly difficult to convey to teenagers who have known nothing other than an on-demand world that asks little to nothing of them. As youth ministers I think we have to face this challenge head on. We have to reject the temptation to sanitize our ministry, making it comfortable and entertaining in order to have the biggest youth group possible. We have to stop worrying more about impressing teenagers than we do equipping them to be the men and women of God they are called to be. As leaders entrusted with the discipleship of the church, we have to put our time, energy, and budgets into providing opportunities for our students to participate in real moments of discipleship, spiritual growth, and service to our communities. It certainly won’t be easy as these sorts of things run counter to the on-demand, constantly entertaining lifestyle so many of our students are accustomed to (if not demand). But even if our budgets are small, there’s one thing all youth ministries are (or should be) busting at the seams with – creativity. I think the path to combating the cliché-driven, shallow, on-demand, and always entertaining culture that consumes our students will be found when we offer creative ways to connect discipleship and service to the things our students are already passionate about. I really believe that our students want more than clichés and entertainment, but they won’t stop settling for them until we begin offering them more than cheap grace.
Zack Hunt is a writer and speaker living in Bristol, Connecticut. He blogs at The American Jesus and is currently a graduate student at Yale Divinity. His first book, The Scandal of Holiness: Dirty Hands, Unclean Lips, and the Power of Redemptive Embrace, will be released September 2013 through CLC Publications