Pious Cliché

Flannery O’Connor says that the separation of grace and nature does a disservice to both (Mystery and Manners).  Emptied of the spiritual, nature becomes either sentimental or obscene (see the previous post).  And emptied of nature, the spiritual becomes nothing more than pious cliché.

It didn’t take long to think of a great example for this one.  What “spiritual” thing has been emptied of almost everything physical?

The Cross. The central symbol of the Christian faith.

I’m thinking of cross earrings and cross necklaces so many of the faithful sport.  Have we gotten to the point that they only suggest devotion, and are overused that it is almost meaningless?

I saw a young man in full “gangsta” attire sporting a bejeweled rosary.  I suppose it’s possible he was a Catholic, but it’s just as likely that he wore adorned dog tags the next day.  If so, I also would have doubted he was a veteran.

When purchasing a cross to wear as a pedant, charm or earring, do people actually care about the particular origin of the design, or do they just buy the one that strikes their fancy?  There are many varieties of crosses: Cathedral, Orthodox, Celtic, Greek, Russian, Byzantine, Latin, Maltese, Jerusalem, Huguenot and many more.  I have an ancestor that was a Huguenot so I could wear that one with some legitimacy.  Or is it good enough to be a Christian to legitimately wear any cross?  My concern is that, for many, the first association of the cross around their neck is not that it is actually a Roman torture and execution device.

Emptied of the spiritual, nature becomes either sentimental or obscene. And emptied of nature, the spiritual becomes nothing more than pious cliché.

How do we rectify this?  If O’Connor is right, the spiritual must, once again, be filled with the physical.  We need to be reintroduced to the physical dimensions of the crucifixion.  A lot of people have written on this and many Good Friday sermons have been preached on it.  If you have not ever heard of the tortures of crucifixion read one of these articles.

The Cross, emptied of its physicality becomes a pious cliché.  I suppose it’s fine to put a cross around your neck, but it ought to be scandalous. Isn’t it scandalous for the son of the most high to be shamed, tortured and executed on this device?  The heart of the Gospel is in the answer to the question, “Why would those who love him wear a symbol of this obscenity?”

Read “Pious Cliche – Revisited”


  1. The great problem with all symbols is that they don’t defend themselves. Anybody can brandish them, for any reason. Hence the constant warfare over them. “It’s mine!” “No, it’s mine!” Problem is, it’s everybody’s. That’s why I like to avoid them. I think a Christian is not a person who wears (already a weird concept) a cross; it’s a person who strives to live a Christic life.

    I would extend that fundamentalism to other symbols as well: a Christian is not a person who belongs to a church; a Christian is not a person who carries a Bible; a Christian is not a person who glues a fish and cartoon family members to his car. And so on. These are things you do _instead_ of Christianity. Because they’re so much easier, of course.

    Fortunately, Zen is new enough in the West that we mostly don’t have this problem. But you can feel it coming. I’ve decided to beat the Christmas rush and start rejecting it now.

    I also believe, as perhaps you hinted, that Christ’s life and teaching are approximately 1,982.32 times more important than his death. (If I over-read, I apologise.) Seems to me that all the “cross-ing” out there is an attempt to redefine the Christian path as something easy to see and easy to walk. It ain’t. As George Fox said, “A single man, living in the true spirit of Christ, would shake the country for ten miles around.” Which is probably why so few attempt it.

    Another excellent article, Trent!


    Rusty Ring: Reflections of an Old-Timey Hermit

  2. Thanks Robin, I am in complete agreement with extending this pious cliché to the fish on the bumper, etc. And I also agree that part of the appeal to these things is that they are “so much easier” than Discipleship. Bonheoffer said something like that.

    I don’t, however, want to hint that Jesus’ life and teaching are more important than his death (and resurrection). For one thing, I don’t think they can be separated (another line I may attempt to blur in the future), but mostly, because, these things are the heart of the Gospel and therefore, the core of my faith.

    As always (for 30 years now), I appreciate your thoughts…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

© 2018 crossing the line

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑