I’ve been slowly working my way through Matthew Lee Anderson’s The End of Our Exploration. I must admit that this is a thoughtful book, though at times, I find myself appreciating but not fully understanding his rhetoric. He’s quite the wordsmith. Yet just this morning I came across some some very helpful sentences on cliches.
Legalism is still in our midst, but the greater the intellectual danger is from a rampant reduction of the faith to banal cliches. “Let go and let God.” “God will work it out.” “It’s a God thing.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “It is what it is….” Cliches stop thought prematurely. They are a retreat from the hazards of thinking; we run from the unknown to the comfortability of platitudes.
I’m sure I use cliches, but that doesn’t mean I can’t stand them. I am especially averse to the “It is what it is,” which my realtor in WV used over and over when each deal would fall through.
I think Anderson really nails it here:
One of my “favorite” cliches is that we “shouldn’t put God in a box.” That may be true on one level. But what if God has put Himself in a Scripture-shaped box? What then? Is the problem the box or the shape?….If we say “God doesn’t judge,” does that put God in a box? If God isn’t in a box, even a Jesus shaped box, can we know Him? Does God know He lacks a box? Is He able to communicate to His creatures the shape of a box he could fit in….?….. I don’t know the answers, but I do know the cliche short-circuits the process of finding them.
Some cliches, like “it is what it is” are distinctly non-Christian and stem from Stoic philosophers. Others are have a bit of Christian truth (remember, often heresies are in essence “half-truths”) and become that much more dangerous because they sound pretty good.
I would love to be able to spit out Anderson’s paragraph any time I hear that cliche, but would be fortunate enough to remember a single sentence. Still, the question I think is worth a thousand words is, “What if God has put Himself in a scripture sized box?” If I say I am a Bucs fan, and you truly believe that, I have just intentionally placed myself inside of a box so that you can know something about me. I haven’t told you that I’m not pleased with there 0-4 start, but if you listen to what I’ve already told you, you know something about how I feel when they lose. But you also would need to know that other things are more important to me than the Bucs. I’ve just put another corner on the “box” so that you know can know more about how I actually feel. You can’t know anyone without some sort of a box.
Cliches don’t just short-circuit learning but they short-circuit counseling and comfort. That’s another reason why we use them. Some expressions can become cliches, but some just never will, because they possess a latent question within them.
Such is “I’m sorry.” Saying “I’m sorry,” has a question embedded within it. It says, “I don’t know exactly why this had to happen, and I don’t know what God will do with this, and with you.” But it escapes the “it is what it is” cliche which tells us to not to question, learn, seek, react, respond, become angry. “I’m sorry,” leaves room for questioning, both from the recipient and the one offering a brief two word counsel. Yet the Christian has a home base from which to question. Such words as “I’m sorry” go beyond the cliche to open the door to a healthy scripture framed questioning. God has given us “sides to the box,” so we can know something. We can and should question, but we don’t question without hope.