Eugene Peterson wants you to write better songs

Posted by Craig Borlase on 1 April 2013

If I ever wrote a song it would probably be rubbish. In fact, I did write a few songs when I was younger, and they all were. Very. The best was called ‘Why Did You Leave Me Here Last Night’ and the only redeeming feature was the 3 minute drum solo that Adam Czekalowski blessed us with when we first performed at the Russell Primary School leavers talent show in 1984.

Every time I tried to write lyrics all that seemed to come as a result was cliché. Lonely street corners, empty bars, girls with a single tear rolling down their cheek; whatever I wrote had already been written a thousand times before. I didn’t so much write lyrics as recycle them.

I wasn’t much better at worship songs, either. My metaphors and rhymes all had an unwelcome familiarity about them. As I looked down at the sheets covered with lines about lifting God high or my bowing down low I always – eventually – reached the conclusion that I had most definitely been there before.

And here’s the point to all this: according to Eugene Peterson – author of The Message – what I wrote wasn’t just lazy, uninspired or dull. My words were deeply offensive to God.

‘A cliché is as bad as a blasphemy,’ he is quoted as saying while being interviewed for the Church Times some while back.

As bad as blasphemy, huh? Blasphemy’s a serious business, serious enough for Leviticus 24 to point out repeatedly that anyone caught doing it must be stoned to death. Numbers 15 downgrades the punishment slightly to merely being exiled, but don’t forget that the charge was enough to get Jesus – and Stephen – killed.

Yup, blasphemy’s a serious business all right, but could Dr Peterson be at all right when he claims that our use of cliché is just as bad?

He highlights tired old phrases like ‘Jesus saves’, ‘born-again’, ‘God is love’ and ‘All things work together...’ as ‘pious conventions’ which, once they’ve lost their freshness, lead to us taking the name of God in vain.

‘Passionate words of men and women spoken in ecstasy can end up flattened on the page and dissected with an impersonal eye,’ he warns. ‘Wild words wrung out of excruciating suffering can be skinned and stuffed, mounted and labeled as museum specimens.’

(You’ll probably want to read those last two paragraphs a couple more times before moving on. I did.)

The truth is that we are all guilty – whether we write songs or not – of getting lazy with our words.

But life wasn’t always like this. Back in Shakespeare’s time there was an explosion of language, making the idea of cliché truly bizarre. New words and phrases were being created at a dizzying rate. Shakespeare’s vocabulary was big - 17,677 big to be precise (this being the total number of different words found in his complete works) – and of those almost 2,000 were brand new ones that he created himself (ranging from ‘majestic’ and ‘aerial’ to ‘accommodation’, ‘obscene’ and ‘critic’). As for most of us we’ll have an average of about 5,000 words up our sleeves. No wonder we find the bard hard.

We might not be living in those Elizabethan golden days, but it’s not as if we’re short on creativity right now. Given a smartphone and a laptop and any one of us can become a filmmaker, novelist, photographer, artist, publicist, guerrilla journalist, musician or whatever else comes to mind. We don’t need Simon Cowell to tell us we’ve got talent.

So why the cliché? Why the creative rut? Some guy called Louis Marder said of Shakespeare that he was “so facile in employing words that he was able to use over 7,000 of them — more than occur in the whole King James version of the Bible — only once and never again."

Does that idea of using a word only once appeal? Or does it freak us out? Has our guilt about overconsumption burst its banks and flooded over to our choice of words? Are we concerned about our linguistic footprint?

We should be. Not just because Eugene Peterson says so (although, let’s face it, his is one voice that’s worth listening to and acting on in an instant), but because of a thousand other reasons; from the idea of a Creator making people in his own image to the currency of Jesus’ parables, from the legacy of the great writers of the past to the desperate need for the church’s message to be heard above the chaos of a million competing choruses.

Or, to put it another way, because you’re worth it. So just do it, right?


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