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December 5, 2007

What Does "Trite But True" Mean?

It appears many visitors come to this site in search of information about the phrase “trite but true." While not an expert on semantics, I thought I might take time to explain what the expression means to me and why the website bears that name.

According to The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, the word “trite” derives from the Latin tritus, which is a past participle of the verb terere, “to rub.” Originally, trite meant “worn out by rubbing.” A trite garment was frayed. A trite road indicated a well-beaten path. This sense of “worn out by use” soon took on the expanded meaning of “worn out by constant repetition.” People applied it to speech or thought that was hackneyed, commonplace, stale, and devoid of any novelty or originality.

The expression “trite but true” is paradoxical in that it implicitly contrasts two human values: novelty and truth. The adversative “but” suggests that novelty and originality are not always supreme virtues. Even if something has been repeated a thousand times, it may still be as true as ever. And truth is a good that trumps the human lust for novelty, what Samuel Johnson called “the hunger of imagination.” Just because a notion is new does not mean it is true. Just because an idea is old does not mean it should be discarded as worthless.

I believe that much of what is good for human life and happiness is often dismissed as trite. “Spend less than you earn.” “You have to be a friend to have a friend.” “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” A person can build a life on such bromides.

By this token, I like to say that Christianity is trite but true. By Christianity I mean the way of Jesus as it is revealed in the New Testament--and not at all every distortion or perversion that has cloaked itself in the name of Christianity over the course of history. Certainly, Christianity has endured through the ages in large part because many generations have found the message of Jesus eternally fresh. But familiarity also breeds contempt with the result that nations once called Christian are less so or no longer so.

The purpose of this site is to explore how things considered “trite” may also be profoundly “true.” Consequently, as time passes, I am seeking wisdom not only in the Bible but also in other writings that no longer have the blush of youth. Whether “tried and true” or “trite but true,” the moral genius of the past can surely guide the future.

December 11, 2007

Bozo and Jesus Debate the Issues

It is difficult to appreciate the revolutionary nature of Jesus' teaching without comparing it to conventional wisdom. Modern Christians have become so adept at spinning what Jesus said or deftly ignoring it that they have basically grown deaf or become anesthetized to what he was actually saying.

To illustrate, here is a "debate" between Jesus and conventional wisdom (which I have, perhaps ungenerously, personified as “Bozo”).

Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Bozo: I like you Jesus. I really do. But sometimes you say things I don’t completely agree with. This is a good example. I think it is a lot more fun to receive than to give. After all, you get to keep what you receive or regift it or sell it on eBay. If that’s not “blessed,” what is? If you give it away, it’s gone, period. What are you thinking, Jesus?

Jesus: “Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32).

Bozo: Jesus, bless your cotton-picking heart, you've never been married. I think Dr. Laura understands the valid grounds for divorce a lot better than you. Even Dr. Laura says there are four A’s that justify divorce, not just one: adultery, addiction, abuse, and abandonment.

You just don't seem to understand how couples can just grow apart and no longer want to stay together. If men and women can’t divorce one another, human happiness is definitely in peril. Divorce is part of what I call “natural religion,” because it is only natural.

Jesus: “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39).

Bozo: There you go again, Jesus. You obviously do not fully understand the rationale for preemptive war. Really, we need to kill evil people first before they have a chance to hurt us. Some people just need killing. That’s the plain truth. If no one resisted evil people, evil nations would take us over. You must have led a pretty sheltered existence, Jesus. I don’t think you realize how bad evil can be.

Jesus: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42).

Bozo: Look, Jesus. These days, panhandlers are as familiar with your Sermon on the Mount as good Christians like me are. They use it as a tool to make us good Christians feel guilty and extort money from us. Like, when you tell them to go away, they say, “God bless you.”

Now that we have welfare and Social Security to provide a safety net, along with big banks to give sub-prime loans, I don’t really believe this applies the way it might have in your day.

People should be working, not begging. Just look at how low the unemployment rate is! Just look at how many immigrants we have working all around the country. If somebody is willing to work, he can. Better that than begging.

Jesus: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:24).

Bozo: Very funny, Jesus. You’re joking, of course. I mean, how can capitalism work if Christians don’t get rich, reinvest their money in businesses, and create jobs? Where’s the incentive to build our economy? Watch out or people will starting thinking you’re some kind of pinko socialist.

You're a nice guy, Jesus, but you don’t always think things through. Take for example the time you turned that water to wine at Cana (John 2:1-11). There was another case of setting a bad example. In my humble opinion, people might even say it was giving a drunk a drink. All I can say is that I would have respected you a whole lot more if you hadn’t done it.

Jesus: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).

Bozo: Whoa, now, bro! You know very well that’s not humanly possible, unless maybe some guy is gay. Even Jimmy Carter said he lusted in his heart. Did that make him commit adultery and be unfaithful to Rosalynn? No way! It just doesn’t make sense. You are setting the bar impossibly high, aren’t you? You‘re just messing with us, aren’t you?

Jesus: “Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21).

Bozo: Now wait just a dad-gum minute, Jesus. If I sell all I have and give it to the poor, I’ll make my own family homeless and put them on welfare. What then? Who’s going to bail us out?

Furthermore, once I give all I have to the poor and they spend it. What then? They can’t come back to me a year later. My money machine has done give out. Can’t you see how short-sighted your advice is?

Jesus: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28, 30).

Bozo: With all you have been saying, it doesn’t seem very light to me. I think you’re being a little disingenuous there, Jesus. Let’s be honest and admit you lay a pretty heavy burden on people. Luckily, we know how to ignore it and let it slide.

We do it for your own good, of course. What would people think of you if your followers did exactly as you said? It would be chaos, you have to admit, and it would all be your fault. You ought to be grateful.

About December 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Trite but True in December 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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