Master Class: Getting Beyond Cliched Art

We believe that our highest calling is to work for God in any situation, whether it is sorting socks at a homeless shelter, baking a pie for someone who has just experienced a loss, or pastoring a church.

As artists, when we create work, whether dances, paintings, songs, poems, or other things, we should strive for excellence. This is one of the guiding principles that we want to encourage our fellow artists to pursue. There is nothing wrong with a new guitarist who only knows four chords joining the worship team. But if that guitarist plays on the worship team for ten years and still never learns to read music or play all the chords on the charts, where is the commitment to excellence in serving the Creator? While we all have stresses with family, jobs, and other pressures, shouldn't we put as much effort into learning to serve our God better as we put into learning to serve our earthly bosses?

In an effort to promote excellence, Artists' Work B.e.n.c.h. seeks to help artists learn new techniques, and help them find the tools they need to keep improving. The following is a master class on getting beyond the cliché.


Here is a sample conversation that could be heard before service in almost any church in the USA.

George: Hey, Elvis! How have you been?

Elvis: Oh, hey, George. I’m always doing great. You know, greater is He that is in me than He that is in the world.

George: You bet. I’m so glad I have Jesus in my heart. I would not want to be following the wisdom of the world right now.

Elvis: Sometimes I get tempted, but, I always ask myself, “What would Jesus do?”

George: Yep, Jesus is my firm foundation.

Elvis: Hey, I would like to pray for my neighbor. He’s not a Christian. I want to share my testimony with him, but I haven’t had a chance yet.

George: Yes, well, just put it in the Lord’s hands. He will direct your path.

Elvis: I hear what you’re saying. God gave me a special burden for this neighbor.

George: Well, I will be praying for you. You know, one day soon, that neighbor will walk through the doors of this church, fall down on the altar, and become a child of God.

Elvis: Thanks for your prayers, bro.


Does this conversation sound familiar? Do you know why? Christians have a special subculture, and within that subculture we have developed a secret language. But as the language gets overused, idioms and clichés develop. That works fine if you are a Christian who is deeply entrenched in that subculture, but it makes it difficult for any outsiders to feel comfortable, let alone decipher the message we are trying to get across. This is one reason why non-Christians feel so unable to relate to the church community. We simply forget to speak their language sometimes, instead concentrating on our specialized, clichéd vocabulary. Clichés also run the risk of losing their message; if you repeat something out of reflex often enough, you tend to forget the real meaning of what it's supposed to say.

The most obvious place where Christian clichés abound is in Christian music. For example, let's look at a tune recorded by Hillsong, called “All Things Are Possible.” It’s a very catchy, upbeat tune, to be sure, but examine the lyrics and raise your hand if you see any clichés. (OK, maybe the person across the cubicle aisle from you will think you are strange if you raise your hand, but at least take note of the clichés in the lyrics.)

Almighty God, my redeemer
My hiding place, my safe refuge
No other name like Jesus
No power can stand against You.
My feet are planted on this rock
And I will not be shaken
My hope it comes from You alone
My Lord and my salvation
Your praise is always on my lips
Your word is living in my heart
And I will praise You with a new song
My soul will bless You, Lord
You fill my life with greater joy
Yes, I delight myself in You
And I will praise You with a new song
My soul will bless You, Lord
When I am weak, you make me strong
When I'm poor, I know I'm rich
For in the power of Your name
All things are possible
All things are possible
All things are possible
All things are possible

Did you see the clichés, all of the phrases that have already been used to death in dozens, or hundreds, of other Christian songs? I counted 18 cliches in just that one song. Now, look at the lyrics again. What is this song even about? It goes from having feet planted on a rock to praising the Lord, to singing, to being weak and poor (but really strong and rich), to the phrase “All things are possible,” which is repeated several times. All nice ideas, but they really have nothing to do with one another except in the loosest possible context. In songwriting parlance this type of song is called a "laundry list", simply a string of ideas with no real connection.

Personally, I love the song because it has a very catchy, upbeat tune, but I am not sure this is what Jesus meant when he told the woman at the well that true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth. In this case, it seems more like parroting a bunch of catchphrases that we're apparently supposed to spout if we're Christians in worship.

Whether you are a songwriter, a poet, a visual artist, or a dancer, it is easy to accidentally let Christian clichés slip into your work. So, how do you avoid clichés in your art? Here are a few ideas.

Method 1: Triple brainstorm

Say you read a Bible verse in your devotions that really speaks to you. You want to communicate that message to others through your art. Begin by listing everything possible you can draw out of that verse in 5 minutes. It’s a brainstorm, so you can list everything, and I mean everything, even if you don’t think it belongs.

An example is hiding God’s word in your heart, from Psalm 119:11. Here is my sample brainstorm from that verse.

Hide and seek
God’s word
The Bible
Jesus spoke
Use it later
Know it
Meditate on it
Keeps me from sin
Teaches me new things
Advises me in problems/decisions
Takes time, motivation
Daily devotional time
Learn the word

Then, look over your list and choose one aspect that you think is intriguing. Circle that one thing and start a new brainstorm on that one. For my example, I have chosen advises me in problems/decisions. Here is my new brainstorm.

Advises me in problems/decisions
Lets me know the way
Start with what I know is obviously wrong
Should I change jobs?
Choices, choices, choices.
Not all decisions are black and white
God wants us to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with him.
A new bride… did I marry the right man?
How do I deal with a scary diagnosis?
What do I do with money I find?
Make the decision to be Godly before being confronted with the problem.
People get persecuted and need to know an answer.
If I know God’s word, I can remember it even when my Bible isn’t around.
How do you deal with a traffic accident?

Now, I read over the list I made and choose the one item I find most compelling. In this case, I like the idea of a new bride wondering if she is making the correct decision. So, now, I do a brainstorm on this idea as well. (That’s why it’s called a three-way brainstorm. You brainstorm the topic 3 times.)

A new bride… did I marry the right man?
Before the wedding—jitters
Biggest decision of my life
Gets assured from God’s word.
Cannot find assurance from God’s word.
Reading the Bible before the wedding.
In prayer, asking for God’s guidance.

Then, I chose the idea of a new bride getting ready for the wedding, reading the Bible for assurance that she is making the right choice. I think this idea could make a great song or a wonderful painting/sculpture. And, although the original idea is an overused verse in the Bible, it’s not an art idea that's based on cliché.

This brainstorm method is a proven winner, relied upon by many highly successful songwriters, and anyone can apply it. Some time ago my husband found a song that was posted on an online songwriters' board. It was similar in spirit to "All Things Are Possible", just a list of three dozen or so clichés that sounded straight out of Christianity 101 and had no real interrelation with one another. My husband liked the music and told the writer so, then encouraged him to take one or two of those three dozen ideas and develop them further into a more coherent song with a real message to it. The gentleman did so and ended up with a song that he, and many other people on the board, enjoyed far more than the original draft.

Method 2: Begin with non-clichéd sources

There are over 31,000 verses in the Bible, yet it seems like Christians seem to use the same 100 or so over and over again.

How many more pieces of art must be done on Noah’s ark? How many more pieces must be done about the Nativity? Maybe you have a fresh, new approach to these stories that you think is original and innovative. If you do, then go ahead and try. But, if you don’t have any fresh ideas on overdone stories, then stop grasping at straws and find one of the other 31,000 verses you can hang your hat on.

Use the cross-references in the center margin of your Bible, if you have them. If I get inspired by a verse or story that I think is overdone, I like to look up all the references to it and make a wiser choice for a verse or a story. Another idea along that line is to depict the chapter (or passage) just before or just after the famous, overdone story. For instance, the Nativity is overdone and very commercialized, but Mary’s visit with Elizabeth and the birth of John the Baptist are stories that are not.

Method 3: Use Your Tools

If you must use a cliché, use your tools to find a fresh new approach to it. I am not suggesting adding to or taking away from the Word of God itself. But a good thesaurus is an artist’s friend. And with all the information available on the internet, it is easy to find someone who can help you find the original Hebrew meaning of a word in the Psalms, or who can give you a cultural perspective you didn’t think of.

Of course, any advice to use the internet must come with a warning. Not everything on the internet is true, and not everything can be trusted. Even if you see a “fact” on several different websites, that doesn’t make it necessarily true. Once, when writing a research paper about an Olympian who won the silver medal in an equestrian event, I found one website that had her birthdate obviously wrong (it would have made her 4 years old when she participated in her first Olympiad). The more I searched the internet, the more I found websites that included the bogus birthdate, obviously copied from someone’s original gaffe. So be careful with the information available. Make sure it makes sense, and check it out with some trustworthy sources. Even so, I think the internet is a great tool for artists to use to help hone their ideas.

My husband was researching an idea from 1 Kings 18 where Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal. He has them try all day to call down fire, but nothing happens. Finally, old Elijah gets sick and tired of these prophets, douses God’s altar with water (so there can be no mistaking who set the fire), and calls on God to set fire to the altar. I told him that one of the words translated as “busy” in the story was actually about going to the bathroom. My husband knows I am not a Hebrew scholar, so he searched on the internet and found one. This particular scholar confirmed the answer he was looking for (yes indeedy, when Elijah taunts the priests of Baal, he says, “Maybe your god is….ahem….relieving himself.”) It makes me wish that Bible translators weren’t so prudish, because that picture is just so funny, and the word “busy” doesn’t even begin to paint the whole picture.

For another example, take the now-clichéd phrase, “I will not be shaken” from Psalm 62. Looking up the word “shaken” in the thesaurus, you get the following list: surprised, stunned, dazed, upset, traumatized, and taken aback. You could look any one of those words up in the thesaurus and find even more items to choose from. I know, I know: Quoting the Bible is good. A lot of Christian clichés are actually Bible quotes or phrases taken from the Bible. But the definition of a cliché is a phrase that is so overused that it loses its meaning. You want your art to communicate, and it's hard to do that when people don't process the message.

I am suggesting that you find new ways to communicate phrases that have lost their meanings. What about making a line of a song say, “Though bad things happen, I will not be traumatized/ I know I can rely on God because he is so wise”? Does that convey the meaning of Psalm 61, but without relying on Christian-ese? Sure, it might not be the most functional line for a song, but it's a fresh perspective on an old idea, and that is what we encourage artists to pursue.

So, hopefully you can find new inspiration and stop the cliché insanity. Just remember these helpful hints:

1. Triple brainstorm.
2. Begin with non-cliched sources.
3. Use your tools.

(Extra credit: To experience one really creative, deliberate use of Christian clichés, hunt down the album "Dad" by Breakfast With Amy and dial up "Mermelstein and the Disappearing Sink"...)


Anonymous said...

Many of the things you call cliches are actually word-for-word quotes from the Bible. How can that be wrong?

Anonymous said...

Even something that's in the Bible can be overused. A cliche is just a phrase that loses its meaning because it is used too much.

Anonymous said...

wow! i/m going to try the brainstorm thingy and see where i can get with that.

Todd said...

Nothing that comes from the Bible is "wrong", per se. But when we overuse the same things over and over and over again, they become habitual and we stop thinking about what they really mean. We say them because they seem like the thing to say, not because of their depth and appropriateness. Turning Scripture into cliche is an unfortunate thing, but it's done all the time.

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