Metaphorical Problems

December 09, 2006

It seems that Christians often use inappropriate metaphors or use metaphors poorly. A couple of recent pieces demonstrate this problem. The first one is by Agnieszka Tennant in Christianity Today. The column is called “Dating Jesus” and critiques a movement of women going on dates at restaurants or elsewhere alone but saying they are going on a date with Jesus. Here are a couple of highlights:

I don’t question the devotion of anyone who says she loves Christ intensely, whatever language she uses to express it.

But I have little patience for taking biblical metaphors too far and giving one’s relationship with God an air of irreverent chumminess. Somehow, the scenario in which “his princess” shaves her legs for a date with Jesus seems to leave little room for fear of God.

... The Bible is replete with breathtaking metaphors that hint at God’s love for us. Thank God, we don’t always take them to illogical ends: I’ve never heard a preacher take the Good Shepherd image to mean that God raises his children to ultimately kill and eat them.
Amen! The author makes an excellent point about the problem of taking a metaphor and trying to use it literally.

Another problem that Christians sometimes seem to have with metaphors is using inappropriate ones. Consider a letter written by former Baylor president and chancellor Herbert Reynolds. He wrote it to discourage the publishing of a book about the recent controversy at Baylor (the book has since been cancelled). In the letter he referred to his fellow Christians as “adversaries.” He also threatened to expose some damaging information if the book went ahead as planned. He wrote:

My tertiary specialty in the Air Force was psychological warfare and I was no mean student thereof. It is imperative to know everything conceivably possible about your adversaries and their soft underbelly--and have the patience to await the most strategic moment to strike.
Such rhetoric is over-the-top and inappropriate. Our fellow Christians are not our “adversaries.” Satan is our adversary. And to use a violent military metaphor to describe how you are going to treat your brothers and sisters in Christ is un-Christ-like and wrong. Reynolds should apologize.

The metaphors we use are important because they offer insights into how we are thinking. When we use metaphors wrongly (such as in the dating Jesus example) or when we use inappropriate metaphors (such as in the military attack example) it shows that there are some significant problems with our thinking. Christians should learn to avoid such metaphors. Hopefully, by doing so we will end up with more a more Christ-like thought process.