Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Metaphorically Speaking

There's a reason Psalm 23 and John are some of the most vividly captivating words in Scripture, in a word: metaphor.  "Yea, but Psalm 23 is so over-used."  Perhaps.  All the more reason to appreciate the intricate beauty of metaphor.  Metaphor, not in relation to the minutia in parts of speech (such as simile and synechdoce), but rather metaphor as it is broadly defined: pictorial language, illustrative words and so forth.  I am no philologist or epistemologist but I do love words and their meanings.  And without metaphor it seems that both are impossible.  For if words are to have meanings (and they must, or else this is a waste of time) we must use metaphorical language.  Lewis' insights into this in Miracles are most helpful as they will help us see past all those "horrid red things."

"Very often when we are talking about something which is not perceptible by the five senses we use words which, in one of their meanings, refer to things or actions that are.  When a man says that he grasps an argument he is using a verb (grasp) which literally means to take something in the hands, but he is certainly not thinking that his mind has hands or that an argument can be seized like a gun.  To avoid the word grasp he may change the form of expression and say, 'I see your point,' but he does not mean that a pointed object has appeared in his visual field.  He may have a third shot and say, 'I follow you,' but he does not mean that he is walking behind you along a road.  Everyone is familiar with this linguistic phenomenon and the grammarians call it metaphor.  But it is a serious mistake to think that metaphor is nan optional thing which poets and orators may put into their work as a decoration and plain speakers can do without.  The truth is that if we are going to talk at all about things which are not perceived by the senses, we are forced to use language metaphorically.  Books on psychology or economics or politics are as continuously metaphorical as books of poetry or devotion.  There is no other way of talking, every philologist is aware." - Miracles, p. 114-115.

Pictorial language or metaphor does not hinder objective truth and meaning in words, quite the opposite in fact.  The idea is to understand that metaphor is not abstract but concrete (you see what I mean?).  It allows us to say more not less; to open our minds not close them; to communicate more clearly instead of nebulously; to communicate the less known by the more familiar.  This is why Tolkien, Lewis and the Inklings were not only pioneers but producers - in fact, sub-creators - of some of the most picturesque, fantastical (in a Tolkien sense) language in literature and its natural overlap in Christian apologetics (whether they realized it or not).  And this should not surprise us.

After all, we have the Grand Metaphor, not a fairy story or myth, but a perfect example of the less known being made known by the familiar.  In fact in Christ God has become quite familiar with the creation He already so intimately knew: The eternal Word became  flesh and dwelt among us (John 1).  God comes to us in words; He gives us words.  He communicates to us and then He goes one step further - the God who created us to know and learn by shared experiences, i.e. language - now comes to share the ultimate experience with His own fallen humanity.  He is the incarnate God of language and the senses (not to mention history and the fullness of time), thereby hallowing and elevating both.  In that Babe of Bethlehem God takes on our very human nature not only exalting our humanity but also identifying Himself with us so completely that even after His resurrection, He retains the flesh, even the scars.  He shares fully in the human experience.  And in this way He completely identifies with man: do you suffer?  So did He.  Do you agonize?  So did He, in drops of bloody sweat even.  Do you have pain and sorrow?  So did He.  The remarkable thing is He knows your humanity better than you know yourself and it is that humanity He redeemed.  In Christ God was reconciling the world unto Himself, not counting our trespasses against us.  You see, Jesus really is the Good Shepherd, the Door, the Vine, the Branch of David, the Root of Jesse, the Rose of Sharon and on and on we could go.

Cut an page of Holy Writ and you'll find the blood of Christ flowing, but you're also most likely to find God's gift of metaphorical, descriptive, pictorial language.  And here is the blessing and the danger.  The danger is that we ignore the metaphor or over time lose its meaning.  Just think of the many facets of pictorial language in Luke 15 alone.  Learning the history of the Biblical words and their original audience helps just as earning about sheep and shepherds helps us understand Psalm 23.  In reference to Luke 15, try reading Kenneth Bailey.  But there is another way - a complimentary way.  Biblical imagery and language can become more vivid when we see other metaphor outside of Scripture that reflect Scripture.  Narnia doesn't seem so crazy after all!  It appears to be at odds with the aforementioned methods of interpretation, but the idea is the same: lift the story (context, verbs, tenses and all) out of Scripture for a short time and then come back to it.  And this, I suggest, is why the Inklings' writings are so marvelously Biblical and apologetic.  Language is harnessed and it all rests upon the Word made flesh.

"In the Author's mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. For me it invariably begins with mental pictures. This ferment leads to nothing unless it is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not. When these two things click you have the Author's impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring into that Form as the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar. This nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and his sleep and his meals. It's like being in love.

...On that side (as Author) I wrote fairy tales because the Fairy Tale seemed the ideal Form for the stuff I had to say...

Then of course the Man in me began to have his turn. I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?
~C.S. Lewis, "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's To Be Said" (1st pub. Nov 1956), Of Other Worlds (1966).

That's all I've got to say about that...for now.

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