Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
When I first began blogging, I frequently caved to the temptation of using hype to attract readers. In fact, I still struggle with this form of manipulation. Not everyone is interested in the banalities of daily life and discipleship, but descriptors like “worst,” “best,” “most dangerous” and “most successful” are terrific hooks. If I can frame a point as THE most important issue in the church today, or THE most spiritually deadly habit of American Christians, readers are more likely to pay attention.
Over time, I have learned that these overstatements are not only sloppy but ultimately self-defeating. If I describe EVERYTHING as possessing the UTMOST importance, then one of four things is likely to happen:
One, I contribute to a culture of fear and paranoia in which the stakes are incredibly high all the time, and there is no spectrum between major issues and minor issues.
Two, in a complete reversal of the first point, everything I say simply becomes white noise.
Three, echoing what Lewis stated in the opening point, I will have no language for setting apart the truly important issues, which is an unfortunate disservice to them.
And four, I will add to the Gospel.
This last point needs a little bit of explanation. In Christian circles, a common form of the “overstatement problem” is the linking of tertiary issues to the heart of Christian belief. I alluded to this briefly in my most recent article for Her.emeneutics, but I want to elaborate on it more here.
There are, to be sure, some Christian doctrines that constitute the core of the gospel of Christ. For example, the two-fold nature of Christ (ie. both human and divine), the Trinity, the Virgin birth, Christ’s atonement for our sins on the cross, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the infallible authority of Scripture are all central to Christian orthodoxy. However, beyond those pillars we need to proceed with caution when labeling a belief as a “gospel” issue.
For instance, speaking in tongues is not a gospel issue. The ordination of women is not a gospel issue. Calvinism v. Arminianism is not a gospel issue. Some Christians would probably disagree with me on those various statements, but to them I would offer a gentle check. When we add doctrinal stipulations to the gospel we detract from both the power of the message and the radicalness of God’s grace. We make Christ’s yoke much heavier than he intended it to be.
As I said, there are certainly times when extreme language is called for. There are times to take a stand, name the lies, and give voice to the truth. But when throwing around powerful words like “gospel” or “heresy,” I don’t want to use these terms in a way that eventually robs them of their meaning.