Last night I attended a lecture by Dr. Jeff Astley on Christian Cliches and Ordinary Theology at St. John’s College, Durham University. He explains his work better that I can. Visit his site here.
It got me thinking about cliches. Having spent the majority of my life in the Southeastern United States, and in rural areas, I have been surrounded with colloquialisms. I love the turn of a phrase to express an idea. Perhaps some of your favorites come to mind.
Dr. Astley says that these are used because they are familiar and they are ways that ideas can be expressed so that they are easily remembered or understood. When I taught English to young people, I enjoyed our unit on cliches and colloquialisms. The students researched the phrases given to them and look for their meaning and history. This led to some rich conversations about the words that we use and why we use them.
Then, what of Christian Cliches? Can common phrases in the Church provide a deeper meaning to our understanding of theology?
Maybe we should take a pause and discuss theology. Any thinking Christian is a theologian. Theology does not just belong in far off the universities and seminaries. Nor does theology only belong to the members of the clergy. (Are you hearing me, fellow clergy?) Theology is practiced by every thinking Christian. That does not mean that they all practice GOOD theology. There is much BAD theology out there. One of the roles of the clergy and those who lead in the Universities and Seminaries is to help our people develop GOOD theology for everyday life and practice.
One of the ways that theology is practiced by the “masses”–what Astley calls Ordinary Theology–is through the use of cliches. In a negative sense, Astley says, sometimes cliches are like smooth-faced coins. They were valuable at one time, but their overuse has worn them out. However, what about the cliches that do hold meaning and value still? What about the ones that still resonate deeper truths than their superficial appearance? Should we cast these off because they weren’t the carefully crafted words of a theologian in an ivory tower?
Again, to borrow from Astley: If I were to buy a suit tomorrow, I would not have the means, resources, or the time to visit an expensive tailor in a cosmopolitan city. This is beyond my means or inclination. Instead, I would visit a store nearby and familiar to me. I would choose a suit off the rack that fit me right, for the purposes I intended it. Is that wrong? By no means. I did what is appropriate for me at this time and place and for this intent.
So it is with theology. We can use the familiar phrases “off the rack” to express the deep truths of God. We should do so in the ways in which God intends for us and for the purposes He intends it. In doing so, we practice GOOD theology in a way that honors God and His people.
What are the ways in which others have used “cliches” to try to explain God–using both GOOD and BAD theology?