January 21, 2009
Words, Words, Words!
by Katherine Britton, Crosswalk.com News & Culture Editor
In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."
American English uses hundreds of idioms, both helpful and just plain ridiculous. It’s entirely possible slink through a whole day without expressing a single original phrase, if we try hard enough. It’s not rocket science, I mean. You can blow your top, or go overboard, or feel like you’re an emotional rollercoaster, or wind up between a rock and a hard place, or hit the wall. Maybe it’s a cloud nine day, and you’re walking on air. And no, I’m not pulling your leg. There’s a method to my madness.
You can probably think of a dozen more idioms that I omitted. Nowadays, we use overuse all those phrases and stick them into our conversation as a substitute for original thought. But once upon a time, all those things we call clichés resonated with meaning. Consider just a few:
That’s a load of hogwash – This wholesome little phrase comes straight from the farm, where “hogwash” designates a concrete mess of garbage and refuse that’s only fit for the pigs. The good-for-nothing stuff certainly isn’t a compliment; in fact, it’s downright nasty.
Catch-22 – We use it now for any situation with a lose-lose outcome, but the original phrase actually comes from a 1961 novel by the same name. The plot highlights the result of bureaucratic regulations that take their validity from each other but can’t stand alone. The bewildering, circular logic keeps characters from any good outcomes, thanks to the nonsense to which they’re subject.
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” – Shakespeare would probably roll over in his grave if he could hear us butcher this one so royally. The phrase actually comes from the lips of Queen Gertrude, who rather hastily marries her husband’s brother after her husband dies. Gertrude was actually sneering at the faithful promises – the protestations – of the queen in a play, who promised eternal love and faith to only one man. And so, her inconstant character announces itself to Hamlet and the audience.
Your John Hancock – As president of the Continental Congress, Hancock’s name appeared before all others on the first copy of the Declaration of Independence. By that action, Hancock marked himself among the primary traitors if the War for Independence failed. He risked his life, his fortune, and indeed, his sacred honor. Is that what you think of every time you sign a credit receipt?
We all use language, and it’s a hop, skip, and a jump from a meaningful metaphor for a dull catchphrase. After that, real meaning gets lost in the hubbub of “words, words, words,” as Hamlet would say.
I mention these cultural amusements for a simple purpose.
Do you remember how totally radically it is to be “born again”?
Christians – myself included – so easily wear down the language of grace into simple catchphrases. When Jesus told
Nicodemus that he “must be born again,” he was conveying a radical idea, and Nicodemus knew that much. “How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" (John 3:4) Jesus goes on to explain the obvious changes that come from being born again of the Spirit, so that a person changes completely. “Born again” meant so much more than a hidden identity. As my pastor pointed out Sunday, you might as well ask, “Is that baby new?” as ask, “Are you born again?” The answer should be obvious to all. Is it?
Intersecting Faith & Life: The slip from authentic faith to rote “Christianese” is sometimes nothing more than a wandering mind, and sometimes as much as complete forgery. As you pray and read the Bible this week, take time to meditate on what simple phrases like “mercy,” “born again,” “repent,” genuinely mean. Find names or attributes of God that you don’t usually use and meditate on them. As Jesus said to his disciples (ironically, right before he gave them the Lord’s Prayer, which far too many of us utter by rote), “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matthew 6:7) The fight against complacent muttering finds success when it’s joined by a genuinely appreciative heart, so let’s skip the babbling and get down to praising God for the radical way He has saved us!