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.

Making Beauty Out of Next To Nothing–a post at Convergent Books

Not long ago, I spent several weeks learning to make pottery in a simple studio on the shore of Lake Malawi. Initially I’d been most interested in “throwing” pots on the electric wheel, which is mesmerizing and almost magical in its speed. The spinning surface facilitates the transformation of lumps of clay into vessels of varying shapes with only the slightest coaxing of the hands.

But I soon found the pace of the wheel overwhelming. I drifted away from the machinery and toward two old village women, Gloria and Fatima, whom the studio employs as “traditional” potters.

They spoke almost no English, and I almost no Chichewa, so they taught me as one might teach the very young or very old, with hands guiding mine, with nods and smiles of approval and the gentlest of corrections. A finger would nudge mine into the correct position for forming a curve; a hand placed over my hand would help shape the rim as it should be shaped.

As we made pots, they taught me to speak the names and uses of each pot: this one, an mpica for cooking ndiwo; that one, an msugo for carrying madzi from the well.

Their work, with its deliberate movement and delicate repetition, with its earthiness and its practicality, was remarkable. It was no less mesmerizing or near-magical than the wheel, and, indeed, much like the wheel, but so much slower. It was calming just to watch the women make pots, and it filled me with something like hope. Here were artisans who knew how to take mud from termite mounds and, using nothing but their hands, a scrap or two of bamboo, and perhaps a shell or a bit of broken pottery, would coax it into something useful. And not just useful. Whether they were forming a vessel for common or ceremonial use, they made it beautiful.

Not to mention—once tried by fire—durable.

Gloria’s smile, broad and beautiful, was, like hard laughter, close to its opposite: nearly a grimace. It spoke of joy as well as pain—of making beauty out of next to nothing, since that is what life had given her. Of earthen vessels bearing the weight of glory within them. I thought of the trials that forged but did not crack them, that, I imagine, gave them something of their patience and burnished grace, and etched maps of sorrow and joy around the eyes and mouths of their beautiful faces.

{Continue reading at Convergent. Convergent Books is a new religion imprint from the Crown Publishing group dedicated to an open, inclusive & culturally engaged exploration of issues related to faith.}