I am old enough to remember Ready Reckoners. They came about during decimalisation. The idea was to be able to see what the old measures and weights now added up to. I have begun to wonder if we might need some similar help with Chistianese.
Now I've always loved words and subcultures also fascinate me. So you put the two together and it's fascinating to see how subcultures invent a language of their own. One of the defining moments of my life was in my first real job. I was an editor at the national Consumer Council – fresh out of an English postgraduate degree. To say my writing was pretentious would be an understatement. Early on I was given a book to read – Sir Ernest Gower's The Complete Plain Words. It was, and still is a masterpiece. Later I was told I had to attend a training course on plain English. I was probably quite sniffy about it – whispering about not wanting to get rid of the beauty of the language. But it was a revelation and changed the way I thought about writing forever.
I was, and still, am a convert to writing clearly and plainly. After all knowledge has always been power. In the end I got to help judging the Plain English Awards. I so recommend checking out the website for the marvellous Golden Bull Awards.
Which brings me to the subject of Christianese.
I take no credit for this article. The examples are the result of an impromptu plea on Facebook for good examples of Christian phrases. And oh the riches that turned up. And I must say it is written in affection. Most of these are just sweet. But wearing my old plain English hat I do hope that we can strive tpo be clear and some of these phrases are a bit baffling.
I wonder if you have a particular favourite. Just after I became a Christian I went to the front of my church for prayer for the healing of an ailment. The prayer minister took a good look at me, laid hands on my shoulder and prayed that I be healed 'by the stripes of the lamb'. My word, was I confused. The last time I checked lambs didn't have stripes.
The problem, of course, is overworking the language – putting too much weight on a tiny lamb. Unless you are familiar with a certain Lamb of God then a stripy lamb is simply La la Land. Or La La Lamb.
My survey revealed a range of lamb-language goodies. Given a certain countries main export, it didn't surprise me that my New Zealand correspondent suggested 'Wash your robes white in the blood of the lamb.' And 'are you washed in the blood of the lamb?' A difficult question and a not very nice image. It reminds one more of an autopsy than anything else.
Moving on from lambs and the blood thereof, there is a whole range of rather wonderful pious phrases that either mean nothing or mean something rather different from what they appear to say.
I always used to like Radio 4's quest for the most meaningless aphorism. One year the following won: 'He who deepest digs, digs deepest'. In the same class might be 'to build a hedge of protection'. I am reliably informed that in evangelical circles the protective hedge is making a comeback. The problem of course is that it is not just a piece of doctrine, it also produces an image. The two sit uncomfortably together.
Nearly as difficult seems to be 'asking Jesus into your heart'. What does it mean? And in olden days the heart wasn't even seen as the centre of our emotional life.
How about 'We're pressing in...?' Pressing into what? It sounds like the scrum to get the last available spot on a tube train. And there's the habit of 'leaning into the Word'. How does leaning help? But leaning is more polite than pressing, so perhaps it's a bit more English than American.
Elsewhere we find that 'God has his hand in it'. Does God have hands? Allied to this is the 'mighty hand of God' and, of course the 'mighty name' of Jesus. And then we are encouraged to 'seek God's face'. Just his face? What about his outstretched arm? What about those hands? How do you seek someone's face?
Then there's the desperate cry of the lost preacher...'Can I get an Amen?' Which is almost as annoying as the modern fad for asking if you can get a coffee. (Answer, no you can't get it because that's the barista's job.) When people are sick we 'lift them to the Lord.' And what better way to get rid of someone than to say a cheerful 'Bless you!'
What about some translations? Sometimes what we say isn't exactly what we mean. Try these:
I feel the Lord is saying = I think that.
We are all very excited about = here's another mission I have to plug.
I feel led to = I want to.
I have a heart for = I want to.
The Lord has laid on my heart = I want to.
I feel the Lord calling me to lay this ministry down = I'm fed up with doing the coffee rota; it has to be someone else's turn.
Be gone sickness! = I wish this person would hurry up and get better.
I say this in love = I am about to tell you off for no good reason.
One of my respondents nominated 'God is good!' But pointed out that this works when something good happens but there tends to be a complete silence when something bad happens. Hmm.
We didn't invent this kind of thing. There's classic old-school Christianese and perhaps something that needs resurrecting; perhaps we could all do with the following ancient exhortation. From now I covenant to 'refresh my bowels in the Lord'.
How do you fancy joining me?
Here's a suggestion...how about an annual Plain English Award for Christian writing and a tongue-in-cheek Golden Bull as well? What do you think?
Steve Morris is the parish priest of St Cuthbert's North Wembley. Before being a priest he was a writer and ran a brand agency. In the 1980s he tried to become a pop star. Follow him on Twitter @SteveMorris214