Translating Christian Cliches: What People Say v. What They (Might) Mean

Don’t read me wrong: I’m not saying that if you have said some of the things that appear in the right-hand column, you clearly meant what is made explicit in the left-hand column. Not at all. But as my friend Karen Swallow Prior wrote a few years ago:

“The trouble with prefabricated words is that they don’t require or encourage much thinking. Yes, clichés contain truth; that’s why they are used so much. But familiarity can turn even truthful words into vain repetitions.”

That, and sometimes it’s just really tempting to use spiritual-sounding language to either:

a. Avoid taking responsibility for what you actually think and feel by passing that off to God


b. Discourage the other person from disagreeing with you by tacitly implying that God is on your side.

My dad came up with this first one, which may be the worst one:

#1: “I love you (or them) in the Lord.

Meaning1My friend Marlena wrote about Christian dating myths, and quick polling of young men indicates that #2 is used frequently enough (probably in accordance with a. above: avoiding responsibility for your own feelings):

Meaning2Oh, and #3. Number three is probably used just as frequently in secular or other religious contexts outside Christendom, falling into the category of “in my day, they never cancelled school” and “our kids never whined” boasting. But it is worse, because it can imply some sort of spiritual superiority, or hurtfully insinuate that the reason the person is hurting is that he/she lacks sufficient faith. (See also: “How Not to Help Someone Who Is Hurting.”)

This is not to say that you should not share your own stories of difficult times and your experience of God helping you through those times. Those can be very helpful stories. But be aware of your motivations in telling them–and be sure that you have first listened to your friend.


Finally, #4: the God cop-out. It’s like “I’ll think about it…” but with a spiritual twist, and often pops out of our mouths when we’re afraid to JUST SAY NO:

Meaning4Because then, if we decide we don’t want to do it, we can just blame God.

What are some other cliches–and their translations–that grate upon your senses?

{You may also like “How Not to Help Someone Who Is Hurting”; “Click ‘Like’ and Share if You Love Jesus & Other Abominations,” and “Seven Deadly Social Media Sins.”}

On Faking It, Pharmaceuticals, and Whistleblowing

I’ve been feeling crappy for a while.

Can I blame my awful, terrible allergies on my parents? Because I have always had awful, terrible allergies, and, yes, I have tried everything you’re going to suggest, from allergy shots to Allegra to local honey to non-dairy to acupressure to neti pots, to no avail. (Maybe it’s unfixable, and I just have to cope.) And cope I do, which is why I often have trouble distinguishing between the sort of crappy feeling that one dismisses as “allergies” and continues to slog through and the kind of crappy feeling that justifies, nay, necessitates lying in bed.

Add to that the fact that I generally assume I’m being a hysterical, hypochondriac faker, and you can see how it is that even as I held my newborn Graeme in my hands I had this sort of “no waaaay!” look on my face, like, “WOW! I wasn’t faking with all that shouting and grunting; I really was experiencing labor!”

I’m not even going to ask if I can blame this on my parents, because my mother already knows that I blame her ENTIRELY, and yet, do not love her any less for it. If anything, I love her more. If you can’t love the person who, at the age of 10, so convincingly faked an attack of appendicitis such that she persuaded a team of New York City surgeons to remove her perfectly good appendix, thus making it seem that nearly anything could be faked, and quite persuasively, too, really, who can you love?

So, anyway, a few days ago, it became clear that the unbearable pressure in my head and constant nausea was in fact a sinus infection, and that it had gone on long enough. I will allow as how I am one of those people who does, in fact, try things like swallowing whole cloves of garlic before running to the doctor, but when things get to the point of CANNOT LIFT HEAD OFF PILLOW WITHOUT WANTING TO PUKE, I’m like, hand me the ciprofloxacin, STAT.

{An aside, but please read it or the end of the post won’t make sense: as someone who does support the notion that women and families should have the choices to birth as ‘normally’ as possible, if that is their wish, I do NOT check all the boxes that homebirthy women often check off–anti-vaccine, anti-antibiotics–for the simple reason that I read a lot of history, often about disease. Sulfa, penicillin and vaccines are on our side in the Big Picture. It does not follow that every woman giving birth should have an enema, a shave, a disinfecting wash, and a constant drip of antibiotics into her veins, but it doesn’t mean that everything that modern medicine has wrought is bent on destroying your Birth Goddess moment. In fact, if you’re in a developed country, chances are you have the luxurious possibility of luxuriating in your ‘birth experience’ BECAUSE of the lovely, effective medications that would LOVE the chance to save your life should some Streptococcus or Mycoplasma have the audacity to invade your newly delivered nether bits, and because of the scientific progress that helped people understand why they oughtta wash their hands after dissecting cadavers before dealing wish those bits in a hospital context.}

I’m feeling much, much better now (thanks to above-mentioned ciprofloxacin) and ready to arise from my bed without barfing. Clearly, I need therapy that’s not pharmaceutical to figure out why I always just assume I’m faking it, but whatever.

As I was in the midst of this, one of my writing colleagues alerted me to this post (Peggy Orenstein on the sexualization of Candy Land on The Atlantic) in a way that suggested either excitement or distress. On reading it, at first I was like, “oh, how nice, some of my ideas and images made it onto The Atlantic!” And then I noticed that my name wasn’t there, nor any link to my blog (this has since been addressed.) And then, because I’m me, I wondered if I was FAKING, making it all up; if, in fact, this was an incredible coincidence and I had somehow been inspired by Peggy Orenstein without having ever read a word of hers or heard her speak and so on.

So I made a chart. I talked to this friend and this wise colleague and some other friends, and, of course, my resident scholar. 

Am I just being crazy? I asked everyone.

I will leave the curious to explore Jana’s post and Ellen’s post as they choose, and I have but little else to say on the matter except that in the course of discussing this with others, I’ve discovered that (sometimes unintentional) borrowing and bold-faced plagiarism happens WAY more often than many of us suspect.

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I’ve also discovered that it is a thankless job to point out such things (which is why I am profoundly thankful to Ellen and Jana) and, while one or more of us involved have been accused of trying to “self-promote,” the MORE LIKELY SCENARIO is that when people “blow the whistle,” so to speak, others will view them as–well, as ethical hypochondriacs–as people who are attempting to con surgeons into removing perfectly good organs; people who want to turn hay-fever into influenza; to take antibiotics for their allergies.

Look, I’m under no illusions that Jana and Ellen are Woodward and Bernstein, or that this little incident matters much at all in the HUGE scheme of things, except that it does, and here’s why: because if telling the whole truth matters in Big Things, it matters in little things. If it matters on the front pages of the New York Times it matters on little tiny blogs like this one. Women dying by the thousands and millions from puerperal fever wasn’t God’s punishment for immorality, as people suspected. It wasn’t from a Big Thing. It was from the tiny streptococcal spooks that people didn’t even know they should care about. And yes, the discovery of antibiotics helped, but just WASHING HANDS did, too.

And so I’m feeling less and less crappy, thanks not only to the cipro, but to those who risked being called ethical hypochondriacs, risked contaminating their hands enough to raise some questions as to whether the invisible spooks–the bacterium–of untruth had tainted my work, and to insist that those who write keep their hands clean of unintentional borrowing.

It’s not the kind of thing that earns a Nobel or any other kind of prize, but, then, neither was the hospital handwashing station, or the bar of soap.

Addendum: This is as good a place as any to say that both Ellen’s book, No Easy Choice, and Jana’s most recent book, Flunking Sainthood, deserve a place on your Amazon or indie bookstore wishlist, or, at the very least, on your library’s loan request system. I’ve written about both before on this blog (Ellen’s here; Jana’s here) but as usual I have more to say:

  • Ellen’s book is absolutely a must read for people of faith dealing with infertility, the possibility of using techniques like in vitro fertilization (IVF) and genetic screening. It is a meticulous exploration of bioethics that’s written in a way that everyone can understand AND that shares her own story of living with a genetically caused disability and fearing passing on that disability to her children. As a meditation on human limitations and disabilities, it’s great. As a book on the questions facing those with infertility and other issues, it’s great. Essential, really. So, buy Ellen’s book.
  • Jana’s book is laugh-out-loud funny in that vulnerable yet serious way of Anne Lamott, with the observational humor of a David Rakoff or a David Sedaris. But it is also a fantastic, entertaining look at many of the spiritual disciplines that people of faith (particularly Judeo-Christian faith) have followed for millenia, and all the more engaging because Jana actually did these disciplines, a different one each month, with mixed success. And if you should come across the fact that Jana is Mormon as you search for this book online, DO NOT TELL ME OR EVEN THINK that if you are evangelical, Anglo-Catholic, Catholic, or some kinda Reformed or Baptist Christian, that she has nothing to say to you. Her book is BIG TENT in the best sort of way, which is to say, it’s very much about seeing spiritual disciplines as a way to live like Jesus. It’s fabulous. So, buy Jana’s book.

Ten Top Tips for Bloggers

This week I was very much inspired by Jana Riess’ wonderful post, “Ten Best Practices for Bloggers” at her blog, Flunking Sainthood–titled after her funny, wise book (I wrote about it earlier late last year here.)

Here are just the first two of her tips. If you’re a blogger, or are considering becoming one, I think you’ll find Jana’s list well worth reading in full.

1) Think of yourself as a curator of ideas. At a museum, a curator is a person who chooses exhibits, researches them, carefully marks them, and presents them to the world. A museum curator knows her niche audience. As a blogger, you will come to know yours too, though this takes time. One of the best things you can do as a curator is to try different “exhibits” and see what people respond to most.  Whether you are pointing readers to new books, other people’s posts, or what was on Colbert last night, you are custodially managing information and ideas for your readers.

2) Remember that your blog is a community, not a soapbox. A blog is definitely a place for you to express opinions (in fact, you’ll probably find that the stronger the opinion, the greater the traffic—a depressing reality in these polarized times).  But there is a difference between a blog that relates opinions and curates information and a soapbox that only exists for one reason, whether it’s to hawk a book or an ideology. Discuss other people’s blog posts, and whether you agree or disagree. Showcase a news article or op ed. And when you have generated a large enough audience that you can pose questions of your readers and actually get answers (which takes a while), ask a question aloud and solicit your readers’ ideas.”

Do yourself a favor and read all of Jana’s post here!

happy weekending!