July 2012 By Christian Piatt
We Christians have a remarkable talent for sticking our feet in our mouths. When searching the words most commonly associated with “Christian,” the list ain’t pretty. I think part of this can be attributed to a handful of phrases that, if stricken from our vocabulary, might make us a little more tolerable. Yes, these things may mean something to you, but trust me, non-Christians don’t share your love for these tried-and-true cliches.
So in no particular order, here are phrases Christians should lose with a quickness:
- “Everything happens for a reason.” I’ve heard this said more times than I care to. I’m not sure where it came from either, but it’s definitely not inthe Bible. The closest thing I can come up with is “To everything, there is a season,” but that’s not exactly the same. The fact is that faith, by definition, is not reasonable. If it could be empirically verified with facts or by using the scientific method, it wouldn’t be faith. It would be a theory. Also, consider how such a pithy phrase sounds to someone who was raped. Do you really mean to tell them there’s a reason that happened? Better to be quiet, listen and if appropriate, mourn alongside them. But don’t dismiss grief or tragedy with such a meaningless phrase.
- “If you died today, do you know where you’d spend the rest of eternity?” No, I don’t, and neither do you. So stop asking such a presumptuous question as this that implies you have some insider knowledge that the rest of us don’t. And seriously, if your faith is entirely founded upon the notion of eternal fire insurance, you’re not sharing testimony; you’re peddling propaganda.
- “He/she is in a better place.” This may or may not be true. Again, we have no real way of knowing. We may believe it, but to speak with such authority about something we don’t actually know is arrogant. Plus, focusing on the passing of a loved one minimizes the grief of the people they left behind.
- “Can I share a little bit about my faith with you?” Too often, Christians presume we have something everyone else needs, without even knowingthem first. Ask someone about their story, but maybe not the second you meet them. Christian evangelism often is the equivalent of a randy young teenager trying to get in good with his new girlfriend. When your personal agenda is more important than the humanity of the person you’re talking to, most people can sense the opportunism from a mile a way.
- “You should come to church with me on Sunday.” It’s not that we should never invite people to church, but too much of the time, it’s the first thing we do when we encounter someone new. My wife, Amy, and I started a new church eight years ago, founded on the principle of “earning the right to invite.” Invest in people first. Listen to their stories. Learn their passions, their longings, and share the same about yourself. Then, after you’ve actually invested in each other, try suggesting something not related to church to help you connect on a spiritual level. If the person really gets to know you and wants to know more about why you live your life the way you do, they’ll make a point to find out. Then again, if you come off as just another opinionated, opportunistic Christian, why should they honor your predatory approach with a visit to the church that taught you how to act that way in the first place?
- “Have you asked Jesus into your heart?” As many times as I’ve heard this, I still don’t really know what it means. why my heart? Why not my liver or kidneys? This also makes Christianity sound like a purely emotional experience, rather than a lifelong practice that can never entirely be realized. But yeah, asking someone if they’re engaged in a lifelong discipline to orient their lives toward Christlike compassion, love and mercy doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it.
- “Do you accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior?” Again, this is not in the Bible. Anywhere. And for me, it goes against the wholeChristlike notion of the suffering servant. People tried to elevate Jesus to the status of Lord, but he rejected it. So why do we keep trying? Plus, the whole idea of a lord is so antiquated, it has no real relevance to our lives today. Be more mindful of your words, and really mean what you say.
- “This could be the end of days.” This is one of my favorites. We Christians love to look for signs of the end of the world; we practically have an apocalyptic fetish. It’s like we can’t wait until everything comes to a smoldering halt so we can stand tall with that “I told you so” look on our faces, while the nonbelievers beg for mercy. Yeah, that sounds like an awesome religion you’ve got going there. Sign me up!
- “Jesus died for your sins.” I know, this is an all-time Christian favorite. But even if you buy into the concept of substitutionary atonement (the idea that God set Jesus up as a sacrifice to make good for all the bad stuff we’ve done), this is a abysmal way to introduce your faith to someone. I didn’t ask Jesus to die for me, and if I’m not a Christian, I really have no concept of how that could possibly be a good thing. he whole idea of being washed clean by an innocent man’s blood is enough to give any person nightmares, let alone lead them into a deeper conversation about what Christianity is about.
- “Will all our visitors please stand?” If someone finally is brave enough to walk through the doors of your church, the last thing they want is to be singled out. They probably don’t know the songs you’re singing or the prayers or responsive readings you’re reading. Depending on the translation of the Bible you use, the scripture may not make much sense, and they probably have no idea where the bathroom is. So why add to the discomfort by making them stand so everyone can stare at them? Also, calling someone a visitor already implies they are simply passing through, that they’re not a part of things. Instead of “visitor” or “guest,” try something less loaded like “newcomer.” Better yet, walk up to them, introduce yourself and learn their name.
- Love the sinner, hate the sin. This is a backhanded way to tell someone you love them, at best. It also ignores the command by Jesus not to focuson the splinter in our neighbors’ eyes while a plank remains in our own. Bottom line: we all screw up, and naming others’ sin as noteworthy while remaining silent about your own is arrogant.
- The Bible clearly says…Two points on this one. First, unless you’re a Biblical scholar who knows the historical and cultural contexts of the scriptures and can read them in their original languages, the Bible isn’t “clear” about much. Yes, we can pick and choose verses that say one thing or another, but by whom was it originally said, and to whom? Cherry-picking scripture to make a point is called proof-texting, and it’s a theological no-no. Second, the Bible can be used to make nearly any point we care to (anyone want to justify slavery?), so let’s not use it as a billy club against each other.
- God needed another angel in heaven, so He called him/her home. Another well-meaning but insensitive thing to say. This assumes a lot about what the person you’re speaking to believes, and it also ignores the grief they’re going through. The person who died is, well, dead. Focus on the needs of the living right in front of you.
- Are you saved? I’ve addressed the theological understandings of hell and judgment in other pieces, but regardless of whether you believe in hell, this is a very unattractive thing to say. First, it implies a power/privilege imbalance (ie, “I’m saved, but I’m guessing you’re not based on some assumptions I’m making about you), and it also leaps over the hurdle of personal investment and relationship, straight into the deep waters of personal faith. If you take the time to learn someone’s story, you’ll like learn plenty about what they think and believe in the process. And who knows? You might actually learn something too, rather than just telling others what they should believe.
- The Lord never gives someone more than they can handle. What about people with mental illness? What about people in war-torn countrieswho are tortured to death? What about the millions of Jews murdered in the Holocaust? And this also implies that, if really horrible things are happening to you, God “gave” it to you. Is this a test? Am I being punished? Is God just arbitrarily cruel? Just don’t say it.
- America was founded as a Christian nation. Honestly, I find it hard to believe we are still having this conversation, but here we are. Anyone with a cursory understanding of history understands that we were founded on the principle of religious liberty – not just the liberty to be a Christian – and that many of the founding fathers explicitly were not Christian. Thomas Jefferson, anyone?
- The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it. If ever there was a top-shelf conversation killer this is it. You’re not inviting any opinion, response, thought or the like. You’re simply making a claim and telling others to shut up. Also, I’ve yet to meet someone who takes EVERY WORD of the Bible literally. Everyone qualifies something in it, like the parts about keeping kosher, wearing blended fibers, stoning adulterers, tossing your virgin daughters into the hands of an angry mob…you get the point.
- It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. This is a little “joke” some Christians use to assert the superiority of opposite-sex unions over same-sex ones. But here’s the thing: if you really believe the first and only two people on the planet at one point were Adam and Eve, who did their kids marryand have babies with? This, my friends, is incest (happened again if you believe Noah’s family members were the only survivors of the great flood). This just demonstrates the selective moral blindness many of us Christian have and seriously compromises our credibility about anything else.
- Jesus was a Democrat/Republican. Seems to me that, when pressed, Jesus was happy to keep church and state separate. Remember the whole thing about giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and giving to God what is God’s? And if we choose to, we can pick and choose anecdotes to support Jesus being a liberal (care for the poor, anti death penalty) or a conservative (challenge government authority, practice sexual purity). Jesus was Jesus, and if it was as simple as pegging him to one of two seriously flawed contemporary forms of government, I can promise you I would not be a Christian.
- (Insert sin here) is an abomination in the eyes of God. Almost always, when this phrase is invoked, it has something to do with sex or sexuality. Seldom do folks care to mention that divorce and remarriage is in that list of so-called abominations. Also, there are several words translated in English Bibles as ‘abomination,’ many of which don’t imply the sort of exceptionalism that such a word makes us think of today. And while we’re on the thread of things scripture says God “hates,’ let’s consider this from Proverb
- Christianity is the only way to God/Heaven. You may believe this with your whole heart, and I’m sure you have the scriptures at the ready to support it. But consider the possibility that either those you’re speaking with think differently about this, or if they haven’t put much thought into it, that what you’re saying feels like an ultimatum or a threat. Yes, there are texts to support a theology of exclusive salvation, but there also are some to support a more universalist notion of salvation (John 1:9 – “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”). And think about how such a statement might sound to someone who has lost a loved one who was not a Christian, at least by your standards of what that means. And theologically speaking, it opens up a whole Pandora’s Box in answering for the fate of all those who lived before Christ, who never hear about him, and so on.
- When God closes a door, He opens a window. Like some other cliches, this implies that, when something unexpected (and usually bad)happens to you, God did it to you. I know it’s well-meaning, but it’s not helpful in some cases. What about someone who feels like the door has closed on them, and there is no other hope in sight? That persona may benefit more from a compassionate ear, a loving heart and a simple “what can I do to help”” much more than some phrase that may or may not have any basis in reality.
- God helps those who help themselves. Let me be clear – THIS IS NOT IN SCRIPTURE. People treat it like it is, but it’s not. Benjamin Franklin penned this in the Farmers’ Almanac in 1757. Be very, very careful when quoting something you think is in the Bible. And even if it is, be very careful in how and why you quote it to/at people. People don’t need more reasons to resent or resist scripture; let’s not add things that aren’t even in there.
- Perhaps God is (causing something negative) to get your attention/It is God’s way of telling you it is time for (fill in the blank). To me, this comes off as speaking on behalf of God. It seems to me that the better thing to say, if anything is “Is there any good that can come of this?” or “What wisdom can we find in this experience?” but better than this is – as I’ve said before – being quiet, being present and being compassionately loving. Let God speak for God.
- There, but for the grace of God, go I. This suggests that the person who is the object of whatever misfortune you’re referring to is not the recipient of God’s grace. The thing is (at least as I understand it) grace isn’t grace if it’s selectively handed out like party favors. Relating to someone, and even sharing common experiences, or how you could see yourself in their similar situation is one thing. But making it sound like you’re not suffering because of God’s grace while they are is just unkind
- If you just have enough faith (fill in the blank) will happen for you. Talk about setting God up! Who are we to speak to what God will or willnot do in others’ lives? Sure, if you have a story of personal experience to share, ask for permission to share it. But be aware that someone in the midst of struggle may not be in a place to hear it. But fulfilling promises like this is above our human pay grade. As my dad used to say, don’t write checks your butt can’t cash
- I don’t put God in a box. This actually is a favorite of many progressives. This comes off as pretty arrogant, in my opinion. You’re implying others put God in a box, and that your theological perspective is superior because you don’t. The problem is, anyone who believes in God puts God in a box. Yes, your box may be different than others’ boxes, but unless you share the “mind of God,” your understanding of God is some conscripted, dimly illuminated view of what God actually is, at best.
- (Insert name) is a good, God-fearing Christian. First off, the phrase “God-fearing” is a real turn-off to many Christians and non-Christians alike. Though some understand God as a thing to be feared, a lot of folks simply do not relate to that image of God. And if you happen to be using the word “fear” as a synonym for “respect,” consider the likelihood that your audience probably hears “fear” as “fear.”
- God is in control. This raises a very fundamental problem of Theodicy, which most Christians I’ve met who say this are not necessarily prepared to address. Theodicy is the dilemma between belief in an all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful God with the existence of evil and/or suffering in the world. And the other problem is that, if you believe that human beings have free will (a central tenet of most Christian thought), it needs to be recognized that that, in itself, is a concession of control by God. And like other phrases I’ve mentioned about God’s role in daily life, be careful in tossing this one around. Telling someone who was raped, abused, tortured, neglected, etc. that God was in control during that experience likely is enough to incent that person to turn from the concept of God forever.
10 Emergent Christian Cliches to Avoid
Following the creation of my first five articles in this ongoing series about Christian cliches (links below), I was alerted to the fact that my lists were notably absent of particular cliches often employed by emergent Christians. While the emergent Christians are endeavoring to re-imagine the way we engage faith, one another and the world differently, the movement still is dependent on human beings. As such, we tend to screw it up.
So in the spirit of fairness, I offer you a list of things emergent Christians can and should strike from our daily lexicon…
We Don’t Use Gender-Exclusive Language for God. There has been plenty of pushback against speaking of God only as a “he,” and this has been addressed with new worship music, updated translations of the Bible and from the pulpit. And while it can be affirming to speak of God in broader terms, while also recognizing the baggage some people carry with regard to certain terminology for God, it’s unfair to suggest that any gender-specific descriptions of God are somehow inaccurate or inferior. If some people find comfort in thinking of God as father, mother or even both, it’s not our place to take that away from them. engaging in substantive discussions about why we all use the words and imagery we do to describe God can be a good thing, but not if we’re starting from a position of having some kind of theological high ground.
Is this (fill in the blank) fair trade/organic/locally grown/humanely raised? I think it’s great that part of the ecological and social stewardship at the heart of the emergent Christian movement is to know more about where all of the goods we consume come from, and at what cost. But making a big scene about such values in public serves to draw attention to ourselves more than the cause we value if not done with some discretion. And as the text in Proverbs says, to everything there is a season. There are times to ask where your chicken came from, but probably not when you’re a guest at someone’s dinner table. Trying to make others feel bad because they don’t share your values only serves to buttress the stereotype of Christians as morally superior, arrogant and insensitive.
I’ve kind of moved beyond the whole (fill in the blank) Christian doctrine. I bristle as much as anyone in emergent Christianity when someone tries to pin me down with acertain Christian doctrine like my position on the trinity or my doctrine of salvation. But to reject these traditions outright is both a potential affront to those who still embrace them as well as a rebuff of our religious history. It’s healthy to have a reason for embracing or setting aside doctrines of our faith, but if we talk about getting over them or moving past them, it implies those who don’t agree with us are, well…dumb.
That is a very colonial/imperial attitude. Most people would agree that plenty of harm has been done in the name of the Christian faith, or faith in general, for that matter. And while some call for the dissolution of religion all together, others believe that it is the marriage of faith to the power of a political empire that creates the real abomination of an otherwise peaceful and affirming faith. But while it is a worthwhile endeavor to seek to separate Christianity from its history of Christendom, casting knee-jerk judgments on sentiments or perspectives held by others only deepens the divide between two already deeply-entrenched camps. Yes, Jesus spoke truth, but he did it in love. And if we’re not coming yet from s place of love, it’s probably best not to speak at all.
I love Jesus but not religion/the Church. Though this kind of began as an emergent Christian mantra, it’s actually begun to be embraced even by some evangelicals. But can we really cast such a broad net over the whole of organized religion and the entire history of the church? Has nothing good at all come from our two thousand years of history? Can we take nothing forward with us, despite our resistance to the established norms of institution? The whole “I love this but hate that,” attitude reeks of modernist duality, which seems to work directly against what emergents claim to value. So be bold in critiquing the institutions of power in our midst, religion included, but don’t throw our entire collective history under the proverbial bus because the phrase trends well on Twitter.
We don’t do traditional worship. Emergents tend to define ourselves as much or more by what we’re not than by what we are. And like the cliche above, we have a bad habit (bordering on tradition?) of kicking everything that smacks of traditionalism to the curb. Yes, some traditions become false idols that should be challenged, if not completely toppled. But tradition also is part of how we continue to create and pass on our collective story. Plus, while many emergents reject the very idea of tradition, we’re already in the process of creating some new traditions of our own. I wonder how we’ll react when a future cohort of Christians calls us on our own dusty, rigid ways?
This last one isn’t necessarily limited to emergents at all, but it came to mind as I was wrapping up the list I’ve created so far. Plus, after compiling the list of emergent cliches above, I realized I had thirty-nine, so I squeezed out one more to make for a nice, round number.
I don’t (insert activity here); I’m a Christian. It’s fine that you choose to live differently because of your faith. In fact, one’s faith should inform much about their daily life. But by making public announcements about what you do and don’t do because of your religious beliefs, you’re not only implicitly casting judgment on those who think or act differently than you; you’re also exalting yourself, which I’m pretty sure is something Christians aren’t supposed to do. Yes, I know we can find a Biblical basis for “boasting in Christ,” but if what you’re doing makes you look like a self-righteous tool, you’re probably doing more harm than good.