Crisis has a way of making things plain. It tends to take us in the direction we’ve already been traveling, only faster. It also tends to reveal what sort of resources we fall back on when things do not go as we wish. Obsessively reading the news, trying to predict outcomes, reacting in fear and anger: these responses are ways we seek to regain a sense of control amid confusion.
People of faith often bring out another tool during times of crisis: cliché. The ones I’ve heard most frequently over the past few weeks are “God is in control” and “God’s got this.” The latter slogan features prominently on several yard signs throughout my neighborhood at the moment. Perhaps it is a campaign from a local church, a way to show solidarity and even evangelize during a time when people are searching for answers.
But what makes a cliché a cliché? Is it the sheer fact of overuse, like a pop hit that has been overplayed? Or is it the brevity, boiling down complexity to fit on a bumper sticker? Or is it the sugary comfort that dissolves like cotton candy?
It strikes me that whether I experience a phrase as a cliché – at least in real time – is context. It depends on *who* is saying it, *how* they are saying it, *to whom* they are speaking, and *what* it means for them to say it. A polished preacher on television and a loved one awaiting lifesaving surgery both might say the same words: “God is in control.” But one makes me roll our eyes; the other makes me weep. The difference in reaction has everything to do with the richness of relationship and shared history, a larger story that makes those four words float on an ocean of meaning.
Cliché happens when truth gets flattened, extracted from the thick narrative in which it becomes meaningful. Clichés still carry an echo of truth. But they are only its shadow, and disconnected from a longer, textured tale, truth appears as trivial. Truth is rendered merely cute, instead of beautiful. It feels comforting and benign. It does not say (with Rilke), “you must change your life.”
Make no mistake: what the gospel offers the world is hope. But it is never a cheap hope. It demands that we become vulnerable to disappointment, despair, and death. It is a costly hope, one that insists on taking the long way around, one that stays to hear the whole story rather than rushing to the end, one that allows itself to be assailed by questions. Costly hope puts the inconceivable story of resurrection in the concrete context of a crucifixion. For as this Easter season reminds us, it is only after all hopes have been dashed that Jesus rises.
I’ve been in the pulpit enough to know that I have sometimes been that polished preacher spouting clichés. The desire *not* to be that preacher keeps me praying, and almost keeps me from preaching. And yet I keep preaching because I really do believe that there is hope, a hope whose roots are deep, a hope that is costly, a hope that in its beauty calls us to give up our imagined place at the center.
Over the next few weeks, I will be exploring some of the contours of this hope.
What do you think? What makes a cliché a cliché? What is it about cliché that is so comforting to us? What is it about cliché that dangerous?
“I’ve been in the pulpit enough to know that I have sometimes been that polished preacher spouting clichés. The desire *not* to be that preacher keeps me praying, and almost keeps me from preaching.”
I feel the same way! Though not from preaching but from saying or writing anything. I fear clichés for being clichés more than how they can tarnish or cheapen truth.
But are clichés comforting? I feel like the moment one realizes or categorizes some truth or saying as a cliché, the truth loses its sharpness and warmth. Like you said (and I agree), clichés are more determined by context than by the words themselves. There’s a lady who’s been ending her text messages with “Let go, let God.” I chuckled when I first saw it and thought, “Wow, I haven’t heard that in ages. Who says that anymore?” But then her next reply, a much shorter “Will do,” also ended with “Let go, let God.” Her signature or ending is longer than the actual message! To me it’s a cliché, and therefore more funny than comforting; to her it’s not a cliché but a reminder of something more urgent than Covid-19—the urgency to trust God.
Perhaps, then, clichés are more dangerous for the hearer than for the speaker, or more for the hard-hearted than for the simple-faith. But I agree with you that we should still be on guard of clichés–if they ever sneak over truths we held dear but lost touch with. Clichés just cannot bear the full weight of truth.
Last week Jamie Smith posted on twitter something about the scandal of the evangelical mind being its love of cliché. I said Amen, but then his next tweet said, “if Lewis, Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, and T.S. Eliot are never trotted out again, it will be too soon.” That also made me want to stop writing/speaking/thinking. What hope do we have when Tolkien becomes cliché?
I think in response to your question, there are different sorts of comfort. I think there is probably an analogy that we could write like this: cliché:truth::kitsch:beauty. And yet, some comfort is better than none, perhaps?