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Metaphorically Speaking

By September 30, 2014 No Comments

This year I was privileged to be invited to join an interdisciplinary group of scholars.  Together we will study the intersections of economics and metaphor and how using certain metaphors may help not only ordinary folks better to understand the function of the economy but might help also economists themselves to frame their work in more accurate ways.  The group has barely gotten off the ground yet, but I can tell already that the discussions will be fascinating. 

One book we are looking at is a kind of mini-classic from just over 30 years ago: the Lakoff-Johnson volume Metaphors We Live By.  Most of the first chapters of this book bombard the reader with a nearly dizzying array of everyday speech that is substantially–and at times completely–structured by metaphors.  These metaphorical ways of describing reality are, in fact, so entrenched in our language that most of the time we are wholly unaware of the fact that we are engaging in metaphorical talk.  True, when we use more obvious metaphorical expressions like, “He’s two sheets to the wind” or “She’s a tough old bird,” we are more conscious of the presence of metaphors.

But what about when we describe a conversation in which we note, “His criticisms were right on target.”   As it turns out, for most of us our entire conception of arguments or of argumentative conversations is premised on the meta-metaphor that “Argument is war.”   That’s why criticisms can be “on target” even as certain other ideas can be “blown out of the sky” or “demolished” or “attacked.”  

Or what about the ways in which spatial orientation becomes associated with positive or negative things?   Generally speaking good and positive things are “up” for us: “He’s on cloud nine,” “Hearing from her always gives me a lift,” “He is at the peak of health.”  Then again, the negative or less-than-desirable are things that are “down” for us: “He fell into depression,” “My heart just sank,” “He got laid out with a horrible cold.”

Lists of examples like this go on and on: we refer to our minds as sometimes machines (“The wheels are turning in my head now”) and sometimes as brittle objects (“His mind just went to pieces”).   Time is often a commodity (“Don’t waste my time”), love is a physical force (“They gravitated toward each other and there was real electricity between them when they got close”).   We personify impersonal facts or feelings (“I could just see the fear in his eyes.”) and let the part stand for the whole (“The Tigers need a better glove in center field”).

So far the most remarkable thing I have noted in reading all this is the way by which speech that is by definition metaphorically structured morphs into speech we regard as, in fact, literal.   Maybe we are structured in such a way that the metaphorical is what gives us access to literal reality.  

It got me to thinking about the Bible, too, and the parables of Jesus in particular.   Most of Jesus’ parables probably count more as simile (“The kingdom of God is like . . .”) than metaphor.  But what is curious is how even Jesus’ similes–not to mention his parables and statements that were more extended metaphors to begin with–have for Christians now also passed into what we regard as literal ways to expose how life and salvation work.   Jesus may have made a simile of the kingdom of God being like a mustard seed, but now the very mention of “mustard seed” in Christian circles raises up a whole cloud of meaning.  If we refer to some ordinary person in a congregation as being a real “mustard seed person,” we all know that something of the kingdom’s surprising ways is being seen in the life of one small person through whom God is growing huge kingdom results.  We can note the same phenomenon over and over as the teachings of Jesus now pass into how we talk about the church and discipleship: Good Samaritan, Prodigal Son, Lost Sheep, Talents, Good Shepherd, Bread of Life, Light of the World.

Most of Jesus’ parabolic similes (now turned metaphors) and his outright metaphors (“I am the gate”) are so common to us we don’t even blink at the fact that originally, some of them may have sounded odd.  What would we make of a person today, for instance, who consistently spouted lines like, “I am the antibody that protects my family from the virus of secularism” or “I am the oil in my company’s crankcase”?   

Years ago the singer Paul Simon was being interviewed on the TV news show 60 Minutes and he told Mike Wallace of the funny reaction he got from former baseball legend Joe DiMaggio following the now-famous line from the song “Mrs. Robinson” in which Simon & Garfunkel sang, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”   DiMaggio wrote Paul Simon to ask, “What do you mean ‘where have you gone’?  I am still here and I am selling Mr. Coffee machines on TV.”

“Obviously” Paul Simon then dryly noted, “Mr. DiMaggio is not used to thinking of himself as a metaphor.”

We forget, then, how odd some of Jesus’ own self-referential metaphors must have sounded the first time people heard them (and long before they got turned into stained glass windows).   But maybe just maybe Jesus knew (and knows) that human thought really is formed and structured by metaphorical speech–non-literal expressions that help us to get a handle on the literal world. 

It would make sense if Jesus knew that.   After all, he was the “Word of God” (metaphor) who was made flesh (literally) and so as he tried to teach us about the profound mysteries of God, salvation, and the kingdom, he knew that we’d understand all that best on a literal level if he helped us to access it through that powerfully mysterious linguistic force that just is metaphor.  If so, it would be yet another reason to fall back in wonder at the majesty and power of Jesus as teacher.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life” Jesus once said.  A triplet of metaphors!    And the truest, most literal thing anybody has ever said, too.


Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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