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Belligerent Arguments concerning Metaphor

23 Aug

My college roommate and lifelong friend Justin McCain just moved to Charlotte to lead worship at Center City. We still fight like 9 year old children. At some point in each argument, we both belligerent and start tossing the equivalent of “my dad can beat up your dad” type jabs at each other. Our latest bout was on the topic of language and metaphor (with my level-headed wife moderating and acting as the voice of reason and sensibility). My argument was that metaphor is the backbone of language. A word only makes sense in relation to other words. You can’t define a word without using other words. We run into the limitations of language all the time. We try to verbalize feelings of love or suffering and our words fail us. Sure, we can use scientific precision with our words. We can attempt to take out all fluff–bare bones communication. It won’t work for long. Soon you’ll realize your need for metaphor. I dare you to stand at the base of a giant mountain and attempt to explain it without the help of metaphor. Try explaining falling in love without it. Attempt describing the birth of your first child without eliciting some other image or comparison.

If our words fail us with what we naturally experience on earth as humans, how much more so in relation to the Divine–the God who spoke the universe into being with his words. The God who is wholly ‘other’ yet intimately present. The God who is beyond time and space. Even that preposition (beyond) lacks the punch needed. In, over, above, through, within. All these were used by the Biblical writers. We hear statements regularly about God that are not literally true but are used to make an analogy to his nature. This is nothing new. When Biblical writers found themselves at the base of the mountain called God they created beautiful imagery to explain what they saw, felt, heard, and experienced. Take, for instance, a phrase we’ve talked about at Center City during our prayer series, “God bends down to listen.” This statement is called an anthropomorphism in Theology. The term is used for when we attribute human characteristics to a fully ‘other’ God. God doesn’t literally bend down to listen–that would assume he had a spinal column and couldn’t hear well. This gives us a picture of the Divine Father bending over to hear his children speak. It is a beautiful image. The use of this metaphor isn’t wrong, it is simply incomplete.

Any metaphor is by nature limited. You can only hang on to a metaphor for so long before you realize its limitations and move to another. The understanding of God will not fit into one metaphor. In fact, it won’t fit into a million. Our only chance at nearing closer to understanding is to elicit the use of many metaphors. A great example of this can be found in the Psalms. In Psalm 23 David uses the imagery of the Lord as shepherd. David also refers to God as a rock and a fortress. Isaiah calls God a potter. Metaphors aid us in explaining the Inexplicable.

So, is God father, lover, friend, bridegroom, rock, fortress, potter, king, cornerstone, lion, or shepherd? Yes.

Devour scripture this week and find a new metaphor for God that you’ve never pondered. Get a fresh image of God and worship Him for it.

In the end, Justin decided that he was merely arguing about the definition of metaphor (which I believe proves my point even more because I was arguing the limitation of language).

I win.

Language Rut

27 Jul

Coffee shops are weird places. The clientele is predictable. A graphic designer works on his latest piece. An old man reads a well worn book. Two moms chat about the development of their children and whose kid is getting better grades and achieving more. Almost always though there is the unmistakable pastor. He is deep in conversation with a parishioner. I must confess, I am an avid eavesdropper. It’s not that I am incredibly nosy, it’s that I have ADD tendencies and I can’t focus while there is a conversation going on. I have heard some interesting conversations recently. April is breaking up with her boyfriend soon because she’s just not feeling it anymore. Mom #1 is really concerned about her kid going through puberty. I digress.

The thing that I have noticed in all my coffee shop listening is that in the christian community our conversations are incredibly predictable. The language tends to be stale and detached from the concerns and questions of the “lost.” Pastors and Christians are in a language rut–this pastor included. We say the same Christian catch-phrases over and over ad nauseum. It borderlines absurdity. There is no life in our language. This is a travesty. Any Christian, especially a pastor, should be a teeming brook of awe-inspiring language that captures attention–not because of our pretension or expertise but because of our intimate relationship with the God that chose to reveal himself in words. To reduce the glorious message of Jesus and his Kingdom into predictable Christian slogans that resemble a car dealership’s model year-end blowout sale is a grievous sin. Language that would relegate the infinitely beautiful God-story into a stale set of bullet points breaks the heart of God and severely thwarts the mission of the church.

“The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). Words have power. You cannot have a conscious thought without words. Sure you see things in pictures at times, but those images are associated with words. Your thought life is in direct relationship with your language. Here’s a scary thought: God can’t speak to you with language you don’t have. At the risk of being heretical, his communication to you is limited by the words you know and use.

We need a language revival. There are several authors I read that use language in a way that burrows into the soul. Eugene Peterson and Brennan Manning don’t write mere books, the write symphonies. Reading their work is like being caught up and carried by wave. Time passes but you don’t feel it. Their use of language is breathtaking. I want that to be said of my work one day–that my words literally had life in them.

The solution is not go learn 10 new words a day and start figuring out how to use them. Language doesn’t work that way. You can’t list out all the words you know. Your vocabulary is a product of your context. A language revival starts with putting yourself in a new environment. Immerse yourself in the biblical narrative. Start reading great books. Listen to deeply meaningful sermons. Stop watching Jersey Shore. When you catch yourself using catch-phrases, stop and communicate what you’re trying to say in a new way. Don’t be guilty of using dead language for a God who’s alive.

Check out Brennan Manning’s book “The Furious Longing of God” free on kindle. I’d love to hear what you think of it.

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