What is it with people and metaphor?
Why can’t people just say what they mean and mean what they say? Why do we even need metaphors and pictures to communicate ideas, to help us navigate this odd and confusing landscape we call life? Believe it or not I’ve been asked these questions. I’ve been asked “but why would I want to live in a glass house?” in response to using the saying involving glass houses and throwing stones. And it’s perfectly okay to have these questions, to not understand metaphors – but I do wonder whether taking the world literally leaves little room for beauty, for imagination, for looking beyond ourselves, for reaching for the stars.
I do sometimes wonder whether I’m out of step with the rest of the world. Whether seeing patterns in everything, seeing pictures in random objects, seeing the picture then seeing beyond it to understand what it is a picture of, whether all that is actually the exception rather than the rule. Yep, I very often think that I’m the odd one out.
But then on the other hand I wonder whether it is in fact our natural state to use one thing to explain or understand another, to use pictures and metaphors to make sense of our own feelings and this world. I wonder whether God meant us to lie on our backs and see Fairy castles and Lion’s heads in the clouds above us. Because, He invariably speaks in pictures.
He uses stories, He uses images, He uses metaphor. God the Father peppers the History of the people of Israel with stories that are both the thing themselves but also a picture or representation of something else – usually Jesus and what His mission was supposed to mean. Examples of this include the story of the Brass Snake held up on a stick to save the people who had been bitten by snakes; the story of Isaac, the son slated for sacrifice; the story of Jonah, dead inside a fish for three days.
And through the prophets, he uses pictures to show his people how he feels about them, to show them the consequences of their actions, to show what their relationship with Him is like and to show what might happen if attitudes and behaviours don’t change. One of my favourite pictures like this is the story of Hosea. God asks Hosea to marry a prostitute called Gomer and Hosea’s faithfulness and attitude to her is a way to show his people His own faithfulness to them and in turn, the unfaithfulness of Gomer represents the people’s behaviour towards God. Sounds crazy doesn’t it – that God would ask someone to do this, to be a living picture of how a whole people’s relationship with Him looks – but that’s how invested God is in using metaphor and story to communicate with us. There are also the visions he shares with Daniel, Isaiah and John who all have to use metaphors and pictures because there simply aren’t the words in any human language to get across what they are seeing. (Some brilliant thoughts on the inadequacy of language and the use of imagery in Revelation on Red Setter Christian’s blog here).
And then there’s Jesus himself, with his parables, his stories, his amusing word pictures. Showing us God’s Kingdom not only through stories, but through his actions towards people. After reading Isaiah’s words about what his mission is, he then promptly demonstrates it and tells stories about it. “The Kingdom of God is like this…” again, because the actual thing is beyond our comprehension or language and so he has to use stories and pictures. But he obviously enjoys sharing through story and word pictures because it’s not just describing God’s Kingdom that he uses them for. He uses them to answer theological questions, to address opposition, to describe what following him looks like and to emphasise a point he’s already made. And by using pictures, metaphors and stories he reveals the truth of this life in a way more memorable and relatable than long theological statements ever could. But there are still some of us who just can’t seem to understand the pictures He paints, or even want to understand. It’s as if we’re so invested in the enlightenment way of thinking, as if our whole world view is built on a foundation of hard facts and data and that literalism (in some spheres) has been raised almost to the level of an idol. But if you’re so focused on the literal interpretation then you often actually miss the truth Jesus is trying to tell you.
Take the wonderful piece of satire he uses to demonstrate how hard it is for the Rich to get into heaven – and how easy something is for God to do. Recently, the insight into the Camel through the eye of the needle has focused on the possibility that there was a gate called the needle and it is in fact this that Jesus was talking about. But the focus on this interpretation reveals not only lack of imagination and the loss of affinity with Metaphor, but also reveals a deeper belief that “reality” is more important and truthful than metaphor – it reveals a desire to not want to see the metaphor – or the point of what Jesus is saying. Because the Metaphor is just brilliant. The thought of a man sitting there starting with the camel’s whiskers and pulling them through the eye of a needle… It’s very funny, it’s ludicrous, it’s laughable – and this is what makes Jesus’ idea dangerous – the idea that a rich man getting into heaven is ludicrous is a threat to the powerful. So if they can make it so that it’s not ludicrous or laughable, they reduce the power of what Jesus says. And it reduces the Impossible power of God himself – for with God all things are possible – even (and especially) the ludicrous, laughable and impossible.
This is why Metaphor matters. Because ignoring or misunderstanding it means you miss a large proportion of Jesus’ Message, of God’s story, of your story. My prayer for you my friends is that your eyes would be open to the pictures life paints, to the fairy castles in the clouds, to the dragons in the stars, to the Camels going through needles. And that you would see God’s story in all its imaginative and metaphorical wonder.