Monday, March 25, 2013

Decoding Christian Cliches

What's up with this photo?
This post appears in the Christian Home Magazine. Check it out!

     I've been working on editing my manuscript for "The Beloved Daughter," my debut inspirational novel set in contemporary North Korea. One of the hardest parts about the editing process was taking out all the American figures of speech that worked their way into my manuscript. The narrator of "The Beloved Daughter" is North Korean. She doesn't say things like, "it nearly made me jump out of my skin," or "she really hit the nail on the head," or any of the other phrases that no one in Korea uses but all my American readers would understand.

     Taking that red pen and crossing out all my instances of Americanizations got me thinking about cliches in general. Have you ever stopped to think about all the favorite expressions we use in the English-speaking church today? What would happen if one of the Korean nationals from my novel stopped in a women's Bible study at your place of worship? Even with impeccable English skills, she's probably need a translator just to help her sift through all the figures of speech we Christians throw around like they're going out of style.

     For example...

  1. "I'll be praying for you." Please note: One-tenth of the time, this phrase means, "I'll be praying for you." The other nine-tenths of the time, this phrase means, "I have no idea what else to say about your problem, so I'm going to end this awkward conversation with a promise to pray about your situation." Of the nine-tenths of the people who use this particular phrase in this particular way, about three-tenths will actually follow through and pray for you. If you're lucky.
  2. "I have Jesus in my heart." Fact: Jesus is in heaven. (Remember that whole promise He gave us about preparing a place for us? Yup, that's going on right now.) Fact: The Holy Spirit ... not Jesus ... indwells believers at the moment of conversion. (One more interesting fact to throw out: There are nine verses in the NIV that have both the word Jesus and the word heart in them. None of these nine verses talk about Jesus actually living in someone's heart.)
  3. "I'm going to throw out a fleece." Unlike number 2 above, this cliche actually has a biblical basis. When Gideon wanted to be sure God was really going to help him defeat the Midianites, he literally threw out a fleece and left it outside overnight. In the morning, the fleece was covered with dew but the ground around it was dry. Thus Gideon "threw out a fleece" to help him determine God's will. Today, however, if a Christian says, "I'm going to throw out a fleece," what she usually mean is: I really want God to do [prayer request XYZ]. And so I'm going to pray something like, "If the next person to call me on my phone is Jill from Illinois, then I'll know that God is promising to do [prayer request XYZ] like I asked Him." Now, if Jill really does call, our fleece-thrower can look forward to [prayer request XYZ] with great joy and gusto. But if the next person to call is actually Ralph from Montana, then the lucky fleece-thrower can say something like, "O well, we're not supposed to put God to the test so that probably wasn't an accurate fleece anyway." (She'd probably have similar results with a  fortune-telling 8-ball, but those tend to be frowned upon in Christian circles for some reason or other.)
  4. "Meet-Market Issue." Here's one more cliche based on a particular passage of Scripture. In Bible times, the church in Corinth had a major dilemma. There were some serious carnivores in their congregations, but a large portion of the meat sold in the marketplaces was at one point sacrificed to idols. Paul encourages the Corinthians to basically follow their own consciences: "Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). Today, Christians use the term "meat-market issue" to describe any of those controversial activities that some Christians say are big no-nos, and other Christians say are kosher. If you declare something to be a "meat-market issue," you are saying that you're going to follow your own conscience, and you'll take difference with any and every believer who tries to tell you you're wrong. Sometimes I wonder, however, if the issues that we're selling at our contemporary meat markets are really just sinful behaviors we justify via the Meat-Market Clause so we don't have to give them up.
  5. "...if it's Your will." I hear this one a lot at prayer meetings. Dear God, please heal Aunt Betsy. Help her eyebrows to grow back, and her nose to straighten out, and her chipped tooth to mend, and her bunion to soften up. IF it's Your will. Now, I'm all for praying in submission to God's will. (Think Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.) Unfortunately, most people use the "if it's Your will" line because they have no expectation for God to answer their prayers in the first place. What they're really telling God is: Lord, we both know You're probably not loving and/or powerful enough to take care of all these problems right now, so I'm just going to throw "if it's Your will" to the end of this prayer. That way we'll know not to expect all that much from You.
     I'm sure I'm just as guilty as the next Christian for using (and sometimes abusing) these and other Christian cliches. That probably doesn't make us bad people.

     But we better plan to take along a translator if we ever head out to North Korea.

What about you? What are some Christian cliches you hear all the time that I forgot to mention? (Feel free to leave your comment below.)

1 comment:

  1. I think the "I have Jesus in my heart" started with Revelation 3:20, most likely KJV. It's possible that if you trace that particular cliche far enough back, you'll find that the people who started it meant something like "my life is centered on Jesus." (In King James' time, the liver was thought to be the seat of emotion, not the heart.)

    There's the joy vs. happiness thing. Technically, the English words mean the same thing, but in chruchianity we like to differentiate between them.