// how to resist cliche

I do some work with a local school as part of my job, and this week I’ve been helping the year 6 class that I’m involved with by sitting in as a reader for their mock SATs. It’s endearing, albeit sometimes rather tragic, to see the looks of concentration on the faces of these children when faced with a particularly difficult problem, or the panic that comes in a mental maths exam as they realise that their time is running out and they have no idea of the answer.

What’s odd, though, was that watching it I realised that I’d seen that look before – plenty of times, in fact. Where I’ve seen it is on the faces of friends and fellow-Christians who are asked a question about faith to which they can’t give an answer. They go pale, visibly trying to construct something coherent to offer in response, all the time looking to an onlooker as though their time is running out.

Why is that, do you think? Often I reckon it’s because we feel like we’re being put to the test by those conversations, that if we answer correctly people will become Christians and if we don’t, we fail. Which is strange, really, because I thought that part of why Christ came and died was to do away with that kind of way of looking at things – to remind us that we are saved by grace. But I understand it, I do – there is a pressure to come up with proof that your faith is coherent, and that you’re not some kind of mystic who still believes in fairies. I just wonder if we’ve taken that passage where Paul tells Christians to “in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you the reason for the hope that is in you” wrongly, and have become combative rather than thoughtful in our attempts to give a concise answer to those who ask us. In truth, though, our faith and how we came to it end up being a lot more mystical than we’d maybe like them to be, and rather more resistant to being explained, too.

Earlier today, the author Donald Miller posted a thought-provoking piece on his blog, reflecting on how much of the prevailing culture of mainstream US Christianity has turned evangelical leaders into “informercial style leaders, selling their understanding of the truth to [a] large demographic”. People don’t ask questions anymore, he writes, at least not for the most part. These days, they trust you if you seem trustworthy.

I understand why he feels that way, and I think that’s part of the reason why a decent number of people turn to religion – they want to be told what to think, so that they are free from the pressure of having to work it out. That’s why so many evangelicals can end up being so defensive, not to mention panicked, when they don’t know the answer – because they need this stuff, and without it all the cultural assumptions we’ve built upon start crumbling and life becomes a whole lot more complex.

Of course, lots of us have been through the mill by now, and we know that life is complex and that things rarely work out the way that we expected them to. That’s why our answers become more softly-spoken, more vulnerable – because they are born out of our pain, or our wrestling with God, and they express something about this life that we have found ourselves living. Rather than combative rhetoric, our words possess the quiet force of authority instead – we know that they no longer need to be shouted, because they are words of grace and truth.

The worry is, however, that there will one day be no space for them in the debate any more. Because at the end of the day, they just make this whole thing altogether less easy to sell – less polished, less simple, less easily explicable – and some people would argue that Christianity needs good salesmen.

A friend of mine told me last night that he seeks to resist cliché in his Christian life – because cliché is what comes out when something has not been thought through. It is just recycled words – banal, bland and trite – and nothing in this faith is any of those things at its heart. It’s a shame that the same can’t be said of some of our explanations to faith, though. I think they do us something of a disservice, really, and see Christianity as being something that it’s not – something that falls apart when we don’t have the words to explain it.

But, then, maybe you disagree with me on this. So what are your thoughts? Is there a danger in simple answers, a point at which you stop? Or is the greater danger in over-analysis, abstraction, and losing any sense of wonder?

What would you give as the reason for the hope that is in you?

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  1. Strange – I just wrote this, and even now I’m not sure I agree with it all. I don’t mean to criticise evangelical culture, as we NEED to be speaking up, and we need truth, too, otherwise our faith just becomes wishy-washy niceness.

    And you can’t present the gospel in the depth that we look at it in Bible studies as it will confuse and alienate, even if it has enough depth that you could spend years in it. I think my fear is that we stop exploring and investigating – however, that doesn’t mean that we stop speaking, just that if we keep going deeper in faith then our words will be even more powerful, rather than simply recited arguments. That makes sense, right?

  2. Surely communication should be tailored to engage the audience whoever that may be?

    Depth and style should be whatever they can grasp (on the assumption that knowing about God in a deeper way is better).

    Cliche is just reciting a non-tailored, unengaging, old statement, idea or argument. It fails to engage the person before you and neglects their personality and identity. In so doing, the communication fails.

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