I used to think snappy “one liners” cheapened the truth, that the very act of printing a truism onto a bumper sticker somehow neutralized its usefulness.
Now it’s true, there are a whole lot of half-true, all-shallow platitudes bouncing around the net these days. Scroll down a few minutes through the Pinterest universe and you’ll see what I mean. When I found the Christmas graphic I used in this post I thought, “Oh, brutal.” If you don’t understand why, keep reading.
Don’t get me wrong; truth has the power to set us free (John 8:32), and if it isn’t expressed memorably, it becomes momentary and fleeting. For truth to take root or get traction, it has to capture our imagination, to resonate. It must be concrete enough to grab hold of, simple enough to understand, memorable enough to recall and mull over the next morning. And the one after that.
In fact, the entire book of Proverbs is a collection of bumper sticker wisdom. Chapter 1:2 says:
2 for gaining wisdom and instruction;
for understanding words of insight;
3 for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
doing what is right and just and fair;
4 for giving prudence to those who are simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young—
5 let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance—
6 for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise.
So there you have it. But what makes an axiom wise and effective? Why are some one-liners cheap, cheesy, or even offensive, while others hold the power to change lives? Beyond the most obvious (it has to be biblical) I have a few ideas, and I’d like to hear your thoughts, too.
The bottom line is, cheesy platitudes are sloppy.
It’s obvious when someone hasn’t really done the mental workout necessary to capture a truth accurately. The “author” is on to something but finalized the concept too soon—like a grade two student handing in a dismal first draft and expecting an A. It can be exhilarating to discover a truth, but we be should be careful not to jump to the bumper-sticker stage before the wording is pretty much perfect, before alternative nuances are explored, before the idea is vetted through wise people who can round it out for you. I often run novel sermon maxims by my co-workers, my wife, and my friends before I preach them. It’s rare that my ideas emerge unchanged from the first few test runs.
This past weekend I preached about dealing with conflict. I probably put five or six hours of prayer and elbow-grease into the last fifteen sentences of my message. Why? They contained several revolutionary maxims that held the power to change lives, and I wasn’t satisfied with my delivery until I’d polished them to as near-perfect as I could manage. I can’t even count how many times I’d adjust something, read it aloud, and think, “Nope. I’m still not there.” Back to the drawing board. But by the time I shared them yesterday, I think I heard a pin drop (my sermon podcasts).
Even so, I’m not going to share those axioms here. Why? Because they only hold true in context. If one of my parishioners tweeted one of my one-liners on its own, it might not even make sense to you. They might be stoked about it, convinced I’d finally put into words what they’ve been thinking and feeling for years. They might feel so empowered by the axiom that they’ve already typed it up and posted it on the fridge. I try to deliver a few “fridge-worthy” gems each Sunday, knowing people are going to latch onto different things.
It’s also easy to forget that an axiom out of context loses it’s power. It’s usually far too specific to apply everywhere to everything.
Lastly, it really bugs me when people don’t think through the implications of the truths they trumpet. Lots of things seem true until we’ve had to live them. The best axioms are written in blood while we’re holed up in the trenches. The trite ones tend to be the fruit of clever wordplay lobbed like pious grenades from the sidelines.
But all these are thoughts in process. Two questions for our conversation:
1. Are there any maxims that have helped you through life? Care to share it here?
2. What do you think makes a maxim cheap? Powerful?