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Hopeful’s contemplations about the overuse and misuse of cliches among Christians sparks this second debate. What place do original analogies and word pictures have in the church and its relation to the culture? Christian, Faithful, and Hopeful delve into this topic to try to better understand it and bring the issues to light.

Hopeful: Many times I have wondered why Christian viewpoints aren’t taken very seriously in the mainstream world. What is it that gives so many people the ability to write off the majority of Christian thought as fluff from the “Radical Right”? My observation tells me that much of Christianity is little more than a cliche. We have a Christian way of saying things (King James english, actual cliches, etc) and entertainment that caters to Christian pet themes (Apocalypse, Mr. Sinner Gets Saved). The unbelieving world can quickly identify these things as “Christian,” but that very fact nullifies much of the effectiveness Christians in turn have on today’s culture. I am not saying that Christians should be of the world (a la 1 John 2:15). I am saying that, when you are working within the mainstream world, you must play by its rules (As Paul seems to advocate in 1 Cor 9:22).

Faithful: Too often we are our own worst enemies.  The usage of cliches and common metaphors is so heavy that they often lose the whole significance of the comparison and become a “definable” term unto themselves.  We have shown time and time again that we, the Church, are far more interested in being as accurate and precise as possible over trying to creatively find new ways of expressing the same metaphors.  This very attitude is what has caused us to fall behind the curve of popular thinking and culture and connects us to the past, rather than the present or the future.  Since, presumably, we wish to get back on the curve and reach out to people who are living today rather than 50 years ago, then we as a Church will have to be willing to support people as they try to reach out to today’s culture… even when they fail.  And they will fail.  Creativity is an outgrowth of experience far more than revelation.

Hopeful: A lack of creativity is definitely in part to blame, but I think there is another force that actually is doing a more effective job of keeping us in a cliched culture.  A deep feeling exists in much of the Christian world that to do things in any way different than the way they are and have been done is somehow wrong.  This feeling can be influenced by a misinterpretation of 1 Thess 5:22, that to do things other than the “Christian” way is an appearance of evil.  It can also be just a result of the feeling that, “this is the way we have always done it, why change?”  Regardless as to the cause, the consequence is hard to miss — our mainstream culture views us and our opinions as irrelevant.

Christian: Both of you have brought up points that I agree with. However, I’d like to approach another way of looking at it. For me, one major difference between Christianity and most other religions people are buying into today is the reality claims behind it. Christianity relies heavily upon being historically correct: Jesus really did live, He really did die, He really did rise from the dead. However, through our metaphors, cliches, etc., we tend to make something real into something “spiritual.” By spiritual, I mean that it loses some of its reality. Here’s a good example of what I’m referring to. In my branch of Christianity, our songs have historically tended to focus on the blood of Jesus. “Are You Washed in the Blood,” etc. These songs bring in cliches and metaphors that almost make Jesus’ blood into some “metaphorical fountain.” While this may have it’s place, we neglect to promote the reality of Jesus bleeding like you or I bleed. Do we apply some spiritual symbol to our lives, or do we acknowledge the flesh and blood reality of it? Ironically, we cheapen it to a degree as we try to bring rightful deeper meaning to it. Most movies about Jesus depict someone who doesn’t seem “real.” He is some “spiritual woohoo” with no human personality. Our Christian movies about life always have trite, happy, quickly-resolved endings with not much reality base to them. Sure the world puts out things like that as well (sit-coms, etc.) but these aren’t used to persuade audiences as Christians attempt to do, and these producers make it obvious to the audience that their goal isn’t to present a real-life story.

If Christianity wants to compete today, we’re going to have to become a little more real. Cliches, however real they may be to us, won’t cut it. With all this said, the Christian must be careful not to swing to the other side of the pendulum either. Certain metaphors that we believe to have been given to us from God (i.e. those found in the Bible) should hold serious and long-lasting meaning to Christianity. But let’s not get so hung on them that we make no attempt to bring Christianity into terms people can relate to today. I’m convinced that a real Christianity will appeal to more people than we could ever realize.  After all, if pure Christianity is indeed the truth, it will bear witness to those sincerely seeking it.

Hopeful: Actually, you hit on the reason I ever even came to the conclusion that cliches can be dangerous in Christianity.  I have heard the phrases “God is love” and “God loves you” more times in my life than I could ever count.  Since I have heard these strong but simplified statements so often, they rarely mean anything when I hear a person use them.  I rarely stop to contemplate the sacrifice of God’s love, and I rarely feel the awe I should that I even matter to the God who, I believe, created everything.  I am just so numb to the statements that I have to force myself to realize to grandeur of what they really say.  If I don’t stop to think about what has been said, all it is to me is meaningless filler.  If this is how I react, I wonder how someone who doesn’t have reason for a sense of awe would react.

Christian: Don’t you just love those “fillers” from the pulpit? The one I hear the most (and probably most upsetting) is, “The presence of the Lord is in this place” or whatever variation on the theme. Either they’re stating the obvious (God’s presence is everywhere) or they’re claiming that there is a special presence they can “feel.” It’s not so strong that “the priests can’t stand to minister.” Instead, it’s some kind of presence that allows us to go into the announcements in our next breath–a presence we can turn on and turn off. In fact, it seems to be some kind of presence that occurs right after we have pumped up the worship. So do we attribute to God these feelings we are invoking ourselves? Even non-Christians are smart enough to point this out to us. They’re laughing inside at us: “If that’s God’s presence…” If there’s one thing I’ve come to learn from attending church, you can count on an offering and announcements every Sunday morning, but you can’t count on allowing room to truly wait on God and truly allow Him to work. It’s just easier using the cliche. After all, we’re not lying, per se. We’re just trying to create a “condusive climate” for God to move. After all, “God is present wherever two or three are gathered,” right? and “He blesses both the gift and the giver,” and  “We’re seeking His face, not His hand,” and “He’s here to meet your need.” So…  “We praise you,” and “We worship you,” and “We adore you,” and “We need you,”  and “We this you,” and “We that you,” and “all God’s people said…AMEN!”

Works great as long as no one is deeply hurting or confused or struggling or burdened in the sanctuary that Sunday morning. (That’s hardly ever the case, right?) Then we’d have to be real with them, honestly understand them, and spend time seeking the Lord for them in our services. And even hang out with them the next day. These are the people who obviously haven’t “laid it all down at the altar.” No matter what their problem, we know the simple and trite solution: “Jesus is the answer.” I wonder, is our sensitivity to God and His ways about as deep as a knee-jerk reaction?

Faithful: Perhaps it’s really not our sensitivity to God (though it would have to be included since we expect Him to be communicating to us about the world around us), but rather the sensitivity we offer toward our culture.  We are so worried about doctrinal accuracy and precision (gotta get every detail right) that we forget that the big picture, the view, if you will, is what Jesus was all about.   Jesus’ concern was for people (ex. the man with the shriveled hand), and he broke the rules of man (do absolutely zero nada zippo nothing on the Sabbath) in order to heal him.  We too easily get mired down in our own rules and boxes that we forget that God is way above and beyond our petty rules and boxes.  God is just looking for a heart seeking after Him.  It must be because of that heart seeking for Him that we do what we can to connect with the people in this world.  It’s time to be more like Jesus with our heart and not our… relevant to the culture of the day and more concerned for people than any rules, ideas, and traditions of men.

Hopeful: In conclusion, I do not want anyone to get the impression that using a cliche should always be taboo.  It is more something of which we should be alert in our everyday discourse, and be careful not to use as the meat of our discussion.  In some cases a cliche may be the best method to illustrate a point.  These cases are likely to be rare, though.  Christianity is not something that should be stale or irrelevant to the world.  Rather, it should be full of life, creativity, and intellect.  It is you who decides which methods emulate the positive of these traits.  Make the decision wisely.

For our first discussion, we wanted to start with a fundamental and foundational topic. Doctrine has been a source of contention and division throughout church history, and because of this, Faithful wonders how important doctrine should be to the modern Christian. He and Christian take the issue head on and discuss a few possibilities for selecting and grasping onto different doctrines.

 

Faithful: Recently I have questioned myself on the necessity of doctrine in the Church.  Sure, we have to believe something… but what and how tightly?  How much freedom is there for alternate viewpoints to still be considered Christian… and why?  Recently, I came across a discussion regarding Creation vs. Evolution where most of those posting all but discounted a Christian’s ability to reason.  Do we hold so fiercely to what we believe that we refuse to recognize and believe truth?  Obviously, God gave us our ability to reason and think.  In fact, the word ‘logic’ itself comes from the Greek Logos, which is the word John used in his gospel to refer to Jesus.  If Jesus is the Logos, or fulfillment/embodiment of logic, then as we aspire to be like Christ, we must ourselves attempt to be more logical as much as possible.
How does this relate to doctrine, you ask?    Doctrine is, by definition, a belief that is accepted as authoritative by some group.  So what should be authoritative?   Certainly, as we are followers of Christ, then we must put Jesus’ teachings on that pedestal.  Other things, however, seem far less clear.   For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity is more of a philosophical argument than anything else (clutching to ONE God while still trying to account for the roles of Jesus and the Holy Spirit)–should it be considered authoritative as it is only man’s attempt to put meaning into what the Bible says?  We must also decide what to do with “cultural” commands, such as clothing, food, and other commands that some or all don’t feel need to be practiced today.  So why do we have official doctrine?   What purpose does it serve other than simply as a rallying point for people that agree?  Is it worth the hassle?

Christian: Doctrine is unavoidable. Authoritative doctrine is dangerous, though. Who are we to say what is authoritative and what is not? Doesn’t each of us see the truth differently? I’m not advocating that the truth is relative, only that our perception of it is. And we can never get away from our perception of it. Even if everything contained in the Bible is true, we must still interpret it, and that gives room for error. So the logical conclusion would be to remain as ambiguous and open-ended as the Bible itself is, right? Why not focus on living Christlike rather than filling all the pieces in? Do we really need resolution to all of the questions the Bible brings up? Does something convince you that it’s true? Accept it. But you may be wrongfully convinced. Does something convince you that it’s false? Reject it. But you may be misunderstanding it. Does something do neither? Investigate it. In my opinion, any doctrine beyond the Gospel is negotiable and has room for improvement.

Faithful: The problem lies in the fact that if we are open-ended and ambiguous, then those in the world do not know what we believe or wonder if we believe anything at all… and they might be right.  Perhaps the key isn’t in being ambiguous, but rather simply hitting the highlights, and leaving the details to God.   However, by doing this, we tend to alienate the philosophical among us since they wish to try to put all the pieces together.  (off topic:  This is what concerns me most about the discussion linked above… not the statements made, but that this is true, and that’s why so many people had rejected Christianity–we already “knew” everything.)

Christian: What I mean by ambiguous is this: you can believe whatever you’d like to believe, but allow for others to believe differently than you. If you hold to the Trinity, allow for someone not to. I question what you mean by “hitting the highlights and leaving the details to God.” What you consider the highlights/details may be different than someone else. For example, do you, Faithful, consider the Trinity to be a highlight or a detail? Perhaps we’re saying the same thing…if you believe in the Trinity, don’t appeal to the Bible in such a way as to say that if the Bible says it, it has to be the truth…no room for discussion.

Faithful: A “highlight” would be something that would be completely spelled out in Scripture and defined by it as a requirement to our faith.   Examples would include:  Jesus died for our sins (and the death did cover them), God is love (yet still just), and, as Christians, we are called to be like Christ as much as we possibly can.  However, I am not satisfied with your response to the concern that outsiders to the faith might well see our lack of a detailed foundation as no foundation at all.

Christian: In other words, you’re saying that the Gospel is the “highlights” and (to quote from a statement I made earlier) “any doctrine beyond the Gospel is negotiable and has room for improvement.” The idea that there is only one God would probably be an exception to my man-made standard, I suppose. To answer your concern of outsiders noticing our lack of detailed foundation, I don’t think they could care less what Christians believe, other than moral beliefs. It’s not until they’re interested in becoming a Christian that these doctrinal beliefs become important to them. As for a lack of a detailed foundation, Paul said that our foundation is Jesus and Him crucified. The rest of these things aren’t foundational…they’re details. So I would argue that your “detailed foundation” would better be understood as “details” and “foundation.” And you have yet to answer me if the Trinity is “highlight” or “detail.”  🙂

Faithful: The Trinity must certainly be a detail.  Its conception is due to the inability to compromise that there must only be one God, but still account for the fact that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit all seem to be at the same level in Scripture (such passages as “I and the Father are one.” “Before Abraham was, I am.” and “I must go… and then I will send the Helper to you.” seem to imply that the three have a sort of unique connection to God the Father).  Thus, it is more for philosophical, not Scriptural, reasons that the doctrine was created.  Perhaps this very example is useful to demonstrate good and worthy approaches to understanding Scripture and how we can possibly get so caught up in our own personal understandings that we try to subject God (and everyone else) to what we can come up with.  Even though whether or not the Trinity should be a promoted doctrine is irrelevant to this discussion,   I would tend to think that the belief is as close as we have been able to come so far to understanding the nature of God… but certainly, I would have hope that we could come to understand Him in greater accuracy and detail.  I concede that perhaps we do indeed agree on the practicality of being flexible with doctrines and beliefs that are defensible in Scripture (and maybe even try to determine what beliefs don’t really matter anyway and allowing for an even greater flexibility with those), however, I do think it is important to realize why the doctrines we have were created and realize that there are still people trying to resolve the nature of earth, man, God, and the universe to more fully understand who we are and why we’re here.

Christian: Your affirmation of Trinity as a detail will surely raise eyebrows within the Church. Many will disagree with you. This is why I brought this specific doctrine up. It’s nice to say that for the “highlights” we should be rigid, while loosening our grip on the “details.” But in order to do this, we’d have to agree on what is “highlights” and what is “details.” And for those in which we disagreed, we’d just start up different denominations and find ourselves in the same predicament today (although I should say we’d have far less denominations). You said, “I would have hope that we could come to understand [God] in greater accuracy and detail [than the present Trinity model espouses].” Is this a call for progressive revelation?    – [Faithful:   Ah, but the doctrine of the Trinity is a philosophical deduction, not revelation. ]

I would like to conclude my side of the discussion with the following two statements. First, you are right to say that we need to be flexible with doctrines and beliefs that are merely defensible in Scripture. This is because MANY beliefs are defensible in Scripture, but aren’t necessarily true. Just because you can defend your belief using the Bible doesn’t mean the Bible intends what you say. Even if it does intend what you say, there may be other passages of Scripture that intend otherwise. (We’ll save that discussion for another time.) As Christians, I believe it’s a waste of time to say, “The Bible says it, so there’s no need for discussion or questioning.” We’ll run more people away from Christianity for reasons other than rejecting God’s gift at the Cross. Second, and finally, it would be difficult to come up with an agreed list of those doctrines which are “highlights” and those which are “details.” Yet, should we really strive for this? Wouldn’t it be good enough if we would permit dialogue and disagreement in these matters without exercising “holy judgment,” and instead maintaining close fellowship with each other? This brings up many questions on how to do that practically, but maybe we should start focusing on those in order to see it become a reality–not just preaching from our pulpit that Christians must have unity. What are we (or our pastors) doing to promote this unity between denominations?