This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 40, number 06 (2017). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
As Christian apologists, our work is centered on the Word: the written word of the Bible and the Incarnate Word, our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, who is the full and complete self-revelation of the Father. It was through words, spoken and written, that we became counted among those who do not see with their own eyes, and yet believe;1 thus we have the tremendous duty and privilege, as apologists, to use our words to help others come to faith.
Yet sometimes we may feel that words fail us. Most apologists can recall fruitless and frustrating conversations with skeptics in which words generated heat but little light. We may think of times when we bring up a relevant passage from Scripture, only to find it misunderstood or rejected out of hand. How can we use our God-given gift of words more effectively?
There are a variety of ways to draw on the richness of language in apologetics, which I discuss at length elsewhere;2 here, I will consider one particular way: the use of metaphor. For apologists, understanding metaphor will help in two major areas: to address objections to Scripture, and to help people grasp the meaning of Christian ideas.
WHAT IS A METAPHOR?
Before we get into the details, we should be clear on what a metaphor is. Metaphor, along with things such as repetition, chiasmic structure, parallelism, allegory, hyperbole, personification, dialogue, imagery, and allusions to other literary works, is a literary device. A literary device is a means by which an author conveys his or her idea.3 Metaphor is particularly valuable because it helps to bridge the gap between what is known and what is unknown.
A metaphor makes an implied comparison of two outwardly dissimilar things in order to reveal an inward similarity.4 For instance, consider our titular metaphor, “Your word is a lamp to my feet.”5 The Word of God is compared to a physical object, a comparison that prompts us to consider what makes these two quite different things similar at heart. Just as a lantern on a dark night shows us the safe path and helps prevent us from stumbling and falling, Scripture helps us avoid sin and act rightly. In a single phrase, the reader is given insight that would take paragraphs fully to explain; in fact, another rich metaphor is implicit in this: the believer’s life is like a path or journey. Thus, the image is both memorable and profitable for reflection.
Metaphor is not limited to what we might call creative writing; we use it constantly and naturally in ordinary language. Consider the way a review might describe a book as brilliant or dull. Both words refer to the way that light reflects from a surface. If we describe a diamond as brilliant and a brown pebble as dull, we are using descriptive, not metaphorical, language. When we apply these words to the way a book illuminates (another metaphor) our understanding of the material, then we are using metaphor.
HELPING OTHERS UNDERSTAND SCRIPTURE
Understanding the way that metaphor works helps us address claims that the Bible is incoherent, contradictory, or nonsensical. Atheists often challenge Christians by treating a metaphor from Scripture as if it were a literal statement, and then mocking our supposed stupidity.
In our response, we must first recognize that every normal person has an intuitive grasp of literary devices, at least at a basic level. A children’s book about the first day of school may represent the characters as bears or other animals, but any sane reader knows that the author is not suggesting that bears go to school. Rather, the author is using the device of cute animal characters to help a human child get ready for a new experience. It is not special pleading to say that we must apply to Scripture the same basic reading comprehension skills that we would use for any other book.
The element of comparison-with-dissimilarity is the heart of metaphor. Both parts are needed. If an atheist mocks a supposedly anthropomorphic understanding of God, because Scripture mentions His “right hand” and “mighty arm,”6 we have merely to note the comparison between two very different things (God as spirit; the human body). The truth conveyed here is not “God has human arms” (which would be trivial) but “God is powerful.”
We can use the same understanding of this literary device to correct falsely metaphorical interpretations of Scriptural passages. Unless the elements of both comparison and dissimilarity are present, we are not dealing with metaphor but with a propositional statement, even if it is expressed in poetic or dramatic language. For instance, the creation account in Genesis is not metaphorical. The word day may mean either a twenty-four-hour period or an extended period of time, but, either way, the word indicates a period of time. Neither comparison nor dissimilarity is involved. Genesis is about God’s creation of the cosmos; it is not being used to present an idea about something else.
We should bear in mind that a metaphor, if it is accurate and true, points to an inner meaning that is greater than the outer image. If describing something as a metaphor results in a meaning that is less convicting or powerful than a literal reading of the text, then we can be fairly sure that it’s not a metaphor. A skeptic may dismiss the Resurrection account as metaphorical. But then, a metaphor for what? A feeling of peace in the hearts of the disciples? In that interpretation, the truth is less profound (and less coherent) than the image used to convey it, which isn’t how a real metaphor works. Apart from the solid rational arguments for the historicity of the Resurrection, this claim fails on purely literary grounds.
In our examples of creation and Resurrection, a metaphorical reading weakens the impact of the text, which helps us recognize that the text is not metaphorical. In contrast, when the author of Hebrews exhorts us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us,”7 we have a genuine metaphor. A literal interpretation would trivialize the meaning (every Christian should train for a marathon?), whereas recognizing it as a metaphor for the Christian life provides a powerful meaning: we must persevere through difficulties and trials.
It is also worth noting that because God is the author of history as well as the divine author of Scripture, historical events also can have an additional level of meaning. We see this, for instance, when Paul interprets the two sons of Abraham, one by a free woman and one by a slave woman, as an allegory for two covenants.8 The original Old Testament passage is not itself metaphorical, but it is fruitful of subsequent allegorical or metaphorical application.
Faced with the challenge of interpreting metaphor correctly, we should remember that propositional language requires interpretation, too; if not, Romans would be easier to understand than the Psalms! Even factual or historical statements need to be interpreted according to their context.9
BRIDGING THE “MEANING GAP”
If we understand how metaphor works, then, we will be more confident in our response to challenges to Scripture. Furthermore, if we learn how to use metaphor, we can increase the effectiveness of our apologetics communication.
In my work as an apologist and a teacher of apologists, and drawing on my own experiences as an adult convert to Christianity,10 I have come to the conclusion that one of the most fundamental challenges faced by apologists today is that of meaning. Words that are meaningful to us are often confusing or empty to our listeners. What, after all, does the word sin mean to the average unchurched person? For many, it means “fun things that those hateful Christians don’t want us to do.” Think of the way that shops selling sex-toys and pornography go by names such as Sin-sational. Someone who has become accustomed to this use of the word will have grave difficulty in understanding orthodox Christian doctrine about sin. Metaphor can help us bridge this meaning gap.
Let’s start once again with a Scriptural example. In John 10:1–18, we see Jesus using a variety of metaphors related to sheep. We are to understand that, just as the shepherd guards the sheep from danger, leads them to good pasture, and is personally present with his flock, so too Jesus will protect, guide, and be present with His people. The image of the shepherd provides a richness of meaning to the otherwise abstract idea of protection: it is personal, as the shepherd knows each one of his sheep; it involves self-sacrifice, as the shepherd stays with his flock even in the rain and cold; it is humble, as the shepherd was not a figure of prestige. Then, as now, people need help in making connections between the familiar and the new, and Our Lord gives them (and us) a resonant image that yields further meaning as we reflect on it more.
Most people in the modern West, however, are far removed from the agricultural context that provides meaning for images like these. Even if someone has read a story or seen a television program featuring shepherds, it won’t have the same visceral impact as for someone who grew up on a sheep farm, and is aware of their propensity for straying and their vulnerability to weather and predators. Thus, if we are to convey the same truth today with equal effectiveness, we must use the resources of language and literature to create meaning for people in their specific contexts, creating new metaphors and revitalizing old ones.
Our meaning-making endeavor starts with paying close attention to the people we are trying to reach. Most people don’t have firsthand experience of farming, or even much exposure to it in the media — but they do have exposure to natural disasters. As I write this, south Texas is reeling from the effects of Hurricane Harvey’s flooding. In other areas of the United States, memories of Katrina, Sandy, and Irma — not to mention wildfires in California or tornadoes in the Midwest — are still vivid. These scenarios provide the material for fresh, gripping metaphors. Consider the image of Christ as the Emergency Responder, descending into the muddy, alligator-infested, E. coli–tainted water of the floods to find and rescue stranded, helpless people.
Metaphors also can be created to diagnose and address false ideas. Many people misunderstand the nature of prayer and consider (seemingly) unanswered prayer as an indication that God does not exist. A quick, effective response to this objection is to say, “God is not a vending machine or an ATM.” Casting the false idea into metaphor helps give it a clear shape so that the person can recognize the error and begin to understand that a relationship with God is not mechanical but personal.
When we step into the realm of creating new metaphors, some readers may be wary. If metaphor is as powerful as I’ve argued, then it can be used to make falsehoods seem appealing — as with The Shack, which presents a faulty view of the Trinity. Isn’t that a reason to avoid it?
Here, we have to recognize that a literary device is a tool like any other: its potential for misuse does not preclude its value for proper use. An atheist might use bullet points to present a false claim in a clear and memorable way; we would not, in consequence, suggest that Christians ought to avoid using bullet points! Just as we should respond to clearly argued false philosophical ideas with clearly argued true philosophical ideas, so too with imaginative strategies. If we find that people are using metaphor to convey false ideas, then we need to use better metaphors to convey true ideas.
Indeed, the truth has the advantage! When we use metaphor and other imaginative strategies to convey the truth, then form and content are in harmony and will be all the more effective. Consider the tremendous positive impact of the imaginative work of C. S. Lewis, through books such as the Narnia Chronicles and Mere Christianity (which, though a work of rational apologetics, contains a multitude of powerful metaphors).
Reason and imagination work hand in hand: propositional and metaphorical expressions of the truth mutually clarify and develop our understanding of that truth. No metaphor (and no propositional statement) is complete in itself. Rather, each metaphor, each imaginative example, and, indeed, each historical fact and reasoned argument contributes to the whole, like pieces of a mosaic. Our apologetic efforts will be all the more effective if we consciously harness the power of language to create, and communicate, meaning.
Holly Ordway is professor of English and a faculty member in the MA in apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017)
- John 20:29. Author’s paraphrase.
- See Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Emmaus Road, 2017).
- All the devices that I’ve mentioned in the list above appear in Scripture.
- If we use a word such as like or as to create the metaphor, the result is technically called a simile.
- Psalm 119:105 (ESV).
- Isaiah 62:8.
- Hebrews 12:1 (ESV).
- Galatians 4:21–31.
- If I read “The Texas Rangers have arrived,” it is necessary to draw on the larger context to interpret whether this refers to a baseball team or members of law enforcement.
- See my memoir Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014).