Sunday, December 20, 2009

On Meaning and Metaphor (for Mark)

Do you remember back in high school English, when your teacher taught you that a simile was a comparison using “like” or “as,” and a metaphor was a comparison that skipped the “like” or “as”? So, for example, under the heading “Simile,” she might have written on the blackboard (back in the olden days, when we still had blackboards) the phrase “cool as a cucumber,” and also the sentence, “The storm raged like a bull.” On the other hand, she might have written in the “Metaphor” column, “Ted Kennedy was the lion of the Senate,” though that’s probably not one Laura Baker, my high school English teacher, would have written, because she was a staunch Republican. She might have thought, rather, that Ted Kennedy was a jackass, though she probably would have refrained from writing it on the board. But if she had thought it (and she probably did), she would have been using a metaphor. Because Ted Kennedy was, in reality, neither a lion nor a jackass, but rather a human being who had certain qualities of lions … or jackasses, as the case may be. Get it?

So another way of explaining the difference between a simile and a metaphor is that a simile tells the truth, and a metaphor tells a lie. Right? I mean, you could say that, right? To say that someone is “cool as a cucumber” might literally be true, I suppose, and to say that “The storm raged like a bull”? Well, I suppose.

Metaphor, on the other hand, is never literally true, or, to put it another way, factual. On the contrary, it is a fact that Ted Kennedy was neither a lion nor a jackass, no matter what you thought of his politics or his political skill. So you could say that a metaphor does not tell the truth, because it is not factual. And if you care about the truth in that way, you could try to rid your language of metaphor, though you’d have a really hard time. Because most language is highly metaphorical, in ways we often don’t even register.

For example, when a political race is described as being “neck and neck,” it is being compared to a horse race; and if you’ve ever said you could “see the light at the end of the tunnel,” you’re comparing your situation to a train ride. But a political race is not really a horse race, and no matter how relieved you are about the end of a difficult situation, it usually doesn’t actually involve a ride through a tunnel. For that matter, most of the time our kids don’t literally “bounce off the walls”; and even when they do, it doesn’t actually make us “go out of our minds”; and when we’re bored, the minutes don’t literally “creep by”; and when we speak of “the root of the problem,” we’re usually not talking about potato blight. If you’ve ever used the expression “home run,” or “slam dunk” or “knocked it out of the park” outside the context of an actual ball game, then you have used a metaphor, and I suppose you could be accused of being less than truthful. And I suppose you could be accused of telling a lie if you have ever called someone a “straight shooter” who is not, in fact, a hunter; or if you’ve ever thought someone other than a carpenter “hit the nail right on the head”; or if you’ve ever thought that a grown person was a “babe” or that someone who is not, in fact, running a fever is “hot.”

But I would never accuse you of telling a lie in any of those situations, because I think that metaphor, rather than telling a lie, can actually tell a deeper, more evocative truth. When we place two images or situations next to each other that are not, in fact, the same, we can get at a truth that no amount of factual description will ever uncover. Often putting the two images or situations together creates a meaning that can touch us in a more profound way than straightforward reporting can. And in that way, I would argue, through metaphor we often get at the most important truths … even if it is by way of a little white lie (which is not, in fact, white … see? Metaphor is everywhere.)

I offer this scintillating discussion on metaphor as prelude to my answer to Mark’s daily Advent blogging question: “How can the Bible be true if it’s not factual?”

I do not believe every word in the Bible reports in a straightforward and factual way things that actually happened. It seems likely to me that some things written in the Bible are “factual” in the sense that they really did happen pretty much the way the Bible says they did, and that some things are not “factual” in that way; indeed, there’s a group of scholars called The Jesus Seminar who get together to consider the evidence for which among the Gospel stories can actually be attributed to the historical Jesus, and which cannot. That seems sort of interesting to me in the way a logic puzzle can be interesting, but it feels pretty irrelevant when it comes to my faith, because whether something really did or really didn’t happen, its power for me is in the story as metaphor for how I might live my own life. The metaphor is the powerful part for me; whether it’s also factual is sort of beside the point.

So, for example, maybe Jesus really did feed 5000 people with a few loaves and fishes, and maybe he didn’t. But let’s just say for a minute that he really did; let’s just say that story is straight-up, factual reporting of something that happened around 2000 years ago, and that as fact, and not metaphor, it tells us some truth. What is that truth, and what does it mean today? I guess the truth it tells us is that Jesus had supernatural powers. Maybe it tells us that he liked to feed people. It might tell us that 2000 years ago, some fisherman were convinced that he was the Messiah because he had these supernatural powers and used them to feed a lot of people. But what does that do for me, in Philadelphia, in 2009, even if I believe that Jesus had supernatural powers, and that he liked to feed people? Maybe, like those fisherman, his supernatural powers convince me that he is the Messiah, but it seems just as likely to me that I might come to a different conclusion, even if I accept his powers. I mean maybe I believe lots of people have supernatural powers; why should that convince me that Jesus is the Messiah? Or maybe it tells me that I ought to feed people too. But I don’t need Jesus to convince me of that, because I already love to feed people. Or maybe it’s telling me that with enough faith, I too might some day be able to feed a multitude of hungry folks with literally a few loaves and fishes …. but you know what? I’m not so much holding my breath, you know? So I’m just not sure where this story gets me if I treat it as straight-up factual reporting.

On the other hand, if I treat this story as a metaphor for life – if I put this story next to my life, and ask myself what meaning I can glean from the relationship between the two – then suddenly this story is speaking to me (but not literally; that’s a metaphor!) Because this story seems to be about faith and abundance, you know? It seems to suggest that out of our faith in God, we can live abundantly; that we can share what we have, no matter how small, and still have enough; that we can care extravagantly for others, even folks who are strangers to us, without fear that the good things in life will run out. Does this mean that if I literally give away all the food in my house, I can with good faith still expect to feed my kids tomorrow? No. And I would be foolish and irresponsible to do that. But it does mean that I can orient my life toward faith and abundance, rather than toward fear and scarcity, and in doing so I can know that my life will be pleasing to God. To me, that is a far greater truth than the “fact” (if indeed it is a “fact”) that Jesus multiplied a few loaves and fishes half way around the world, several millennia ago.

I know a lot of folks disagree with me about my reading of the Bible. I know a lot of folks, especially fundamentalist Christians, are really committed to the notion that the Bible is “true” in the most literal, factual sense. I think such a reading is not only dangerous, but also probably not what Jesus himself intended. If Jesus had wanted us to have “just the facts, nothing but the fact,” I kind of doubt he would have spent all his time telling stories and talking in metaphors. Right?

I could be wrong. But I’m willing to take my chances. (Which is, of course … yup, a metaphor!)


Ellen Skilton-Sylvester said...

Love it. Love it. Love it. I think it is about a billion more times satisfying to read your blog than to do grading, although my students' projects do have flashes of brilliance that I appreciate. There are so many flashes of brilliance here that I may need to start wearing sunglasses to read your blog.

Marta said...

aw el, you're too kind. glad i could provide a distraction from the grading... after grading that set of paper for julie, i'm really feeling your pain, lol!