The Thought-Terminating Cliche that “Born Again” Has Become: Devouring Addie Zierman’s ‘When We Were On Fire.’

I’ve been reading devouring Addie Zierman’s just-released memoir, When We Were On Fire.

There’s so much to say about this book–anyone who was raised evangelical (like me) will find themselves alternately cringing and laughing at Addie’s vivid evocations of 90s evangelical Christian [ahem, consumer] culture and all the heady highs–let’s pray for revival!–and crushing blows–Jesus is telling me not to date you anymore–that it dealt.

But though there was much in this book that had me alternately groaning, snorting, and weeping, I have to say that I particularly loved the close attention Addie gives to language–her book was originally titled, like her blog, How to Talk Evangelical. Being a fan of George Orwell’s wonderful essay “Politics and the English Language” and a writer who dreads lapsing into cliche (though I do it all the time and try to edit it out later, I love Addie’s gentle –never pedantic–way of narrating the process by which life drains out of cliches, which begin as powerful metaphors.

And because I’m currently fairly obsessed with birth metaphors–especially as they’re used in the Bible as well as in Christianese, I was particularly moved and inspired by Addie’s reflections on the phrase “born again” in relation to the birth of her first child:

You can imagine that this new metaphor was staggering in those first few moments after it was spoken. The marriage of the most natural and messy of human processes with the spiritual. With God. This idea that everything before This Moment was dark and muffled, and now you have emerged into brightness. Clarity. Joy and understanding and light.

Addie then explains how this metaphor turned into a cliche, and

began to characterize a certain kind of person with a certain political identity and a certain taste in music and a certain way of moving through the world.

“Born again,” Addie argues, has become what psychologist Robert Lifton called a “thought-terminating cliche,” the kind in which

“the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed.”

And for Addie–and for many evangelicals–”thought-terminating cliches” are the substance of faith and belief. They are the things upon which we base major life-decisions. They are things we say when we simply want to maintain the illusion that we have everything together, thank you very much.

The book of Ecclesiastes remarks, rather dourly, that “the day of death is better than the day of birth.” (Somehow, that’s not a concept that has ever been reduced to a Christian cliche.) But I thought of it nonetheless on the day I left the hospital with my first son. I had gone through great pain. He had gone through the most astonishing transition of his life. Who could not see a powerful metaphor in all of that?

And yet, though I was overjoyed, I wept. I thought of how innocent and content he was, and how brief that time of innocent and contentment would be before the first tears from vaccinations and from falling down or being startled would disturb his blissful infant contentment. Addie is so right that the “born again” metaphor is not quite right. For in a sense, even if and when we are “born again” in the evangelical-speak sense, we are always also either  groaning in labor pains or taking a much-needed break between contractions. We are all still in a process of being born, waiting for God to deliver us something completely new.

Which is why it is worth considering Addie’s challenge, which is a linguistic one as much as a spiritual one:

faith has nothing to do with saying the right words. It has to do with redefining them, chipping away at the calcified outer crust until you find the simple truth at the heart of it all. Jesus.

Addie’s is thoughtful, gentle invitation to watch our language, and to open our lives to the grace and the light and, yes, even the pains that begin–rather than end–on the day we’re born, or born again.

It’s not a light switch that you can flick on. It’s slow, hard work.


The sun filters through the trees, and every time you look, the pattern of light and leaf is a little bit different. A little bit new.

It’s something better than fire. It gives warmth and clarity without burning. It is is grace. It is, as Addie says, love.

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3 thoughts on “The Thought-Terminating Cliche that “Born Again” Has Become: Devouring Addie Zierman’s ‘When We Were On Fire.’

  1. The idea that the birth process continues makes me think of Romans 8 where Paul talks about all creation groaning for Christ’s return. Jesus himself said that at his return there would be those groaning as a woman in labor. We are born again and made new creations in Christ, yet we are also in that process of awaiting his return as a mother waits through pregnancy.

    Thanks for provoking thought in me today, Rachel.


  2. Rachel. I finally had a chance to read this beautiful post and THANK YOU for these kind words and these insightful thoughts on the subject of language and cliche. I especially loved this line: “We are all still in a process of being born, waiting for God to deliver us something completely new.” Yes. Thank you again.

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