Jon Acuff has recently written a piece for Relevant Magazine entitled “20 Christianese Phrases We Really Need to Stop Saying.” Among those he singles out for shame include: being “transparent” or “authentic,” “blessed with the gift of singleness,” “doing life together,” and, if I remember correctly, “God really messed me up.”
All of these cute little sayings–and more–have often become shorthand in contemporary Christian (often evangelical) circles. Banal, trite, and often repetitive, things like these can have a danger to them as well. In addition to being metaphorical in nature and therefore open to understandable misinterpretation, they also run the risk of misrepresenting the actual teaching of the Scripture. In another Relevant article, for instance, the common Christian aphorism “God won’t give you more than you can handle” is taken to task, for instance, as being somewhat off the mark.
But then, of course, not all of our sometimes annoyingly common Christian catchphrases might be heretical. Yet they can pose a problem, I think, that is much deeper: they limit our field of vision. Rather than making use of our own words to talk about faith, they provide the easier path of taking someone else’s. Using such terms to express our spirituality or respond to the action of God in our lives and/or world feels “Christian” because of the ubiquity of such usage. But in the end they rather shortchange our potential for real reflection on God, the Word, and our calling. Can a little phrase ever really contain the depth of these things anyway?
Consider “God really messed me up,” common in youth sermons and the like. No doubt the saying is meant to refer to a deep and powerful spiritual moment or season that was as traumatic and transformative as it was unique. OK. But to slangily say that “God messed me up” (a somewhat violent metaphor in the first place) does not even come close to expressing that. What it does is keep us from really expressing deep things and pretty profound experiences with God, in the process fitting everything into an all-too-common mold.
In the same way, “doing life together” (borrowed, no doubt, from the inestimable Bonhoeffer) is often used as shorthand to talk about the community of faith. That’s great. But Bonhoeffer, a trained academic theologian and pastor, wrote a whole book with the title. Most of us haven’t even read it. Rather, I fear some might just take his catchy title and redefine the term to mean whatever we understand fellowship to be. Is this really “life together” as it is intended?
At the end of the day, I don’t want to be the hipster that rejects common Christian phrases just because they are too trendy. That would be pride. But: I do want us to keep in mind the way that certain aspects of “Christianese” limit the bounds of our spiritual imagination, vision, and ability to express our faith. In that sense we need to be careful to avoid the danger they pose.