A "REAL-TIME" GOD FOR "REAL-TIME" TROUBLES
With so many calamities and threatening
calamities, believers had better believe that God still speaks to
us. Yet—beyond Scripture—few of us understand the language of God.
The "real-time" voice of God is neither doctrine nor dogma, rhetoric
nor reason, show-business nor sensationalism. Hosea explains, for
example, that God continues to speak to us through damah, or
"prophetic metaphor." (Hosea 12:10)
Here are some of the ways we recognize
When things are rich in ambiguity, enigma, and
paradox, know that damah is nearby. When things are compared—without
common sense—to other things, know that damah lurks about. When the
revelation of the "real" comes from things not real, know that damah
hides in disguise.
When the known and the unknown combine in
impossible ways, know that a certain resonance bounces off things we
can’t see. When strange tensions between opposing forces crack our
credibility, know that these tensions birth hidden Truths. When
simple metaphors pile on top of each other in fathomless complexity,
know that the invisible is becoming visible.
These tensions resemble a violin string that
produces a meaningful melody because it is fastened hard at opposite
ends. Or, it is like the archer’s bow that propels its intentional
arrow because of the tautness between the bow’s opposing poles.
We’ve known these contradictions. We’ve felt, for
example, the secret grief of the happy clown. We’ve sensed Negro
spirituals that sing of joy and sorrow at the same time. We’ve
tasted, simultaneously, sweetness and sacrifice at a daughter’s
wedding. And, we’ve heard about the tragic cross and the triumphant
grave in the same moment.
In such moments, unbearable ugliness is not
without the atonement of overpowering beauty. And worldly tragedy is
not without otherworldly triumph.
But not all metaphors serve Truth. With some
metaphors, truth is not even an issue!
Simple metaphors, everyday conventions, or common
ideas—like a "warm" welcome, a "big" day, or a "close" friend—have
long lost their metaphoric power. And, we seldom find truth in the
metaphors of a passing culture where novelty, fad, style, taste, and
decor are quickly consumed and soon forgotten. Nor will we find
signs of Truth in the metaphors of skilled inventions—the colorful
idioms, rhetorical flourish, and figures of speech of our fleshly
So we must challenge the difference between
surface metaphor and prophetic metaphor—"dead" metaphor and "live"
metaphor—a tool of trade and a talisman of transcendence.
"The Whole Fabric"
We have little choice in the matter.
Our culture harbors the mistaken notion that
metaphor belongs only to poets. But few realize we actually exist in
metaphor! Science has discovered, for example, "that most human
thought is metaphorical."1 It is one of the most powerful
influences in our daily lives. It plays an enormous role in shaping
our understanding of daily events.2
Though good writers also invent their "literal"
metaphors, metaphor—in its everyday form—remains integral to all
language. A handful of basic metaphors, for example, underlies tens
of thousands of words in every language.3 Indeed,
metaphor is indispensable to our understanding of language. And,
most of the time, we even reason metaphorically! "Without metaphor,"
in fact, "abstract thought is virtually impossible."4
After all, metaphor holds "the whole fabric of
mental interconnections" together.5
So it’s no surprise our metaphors also seek
deeper levels of meaning. After all, meaning is the very purpose of
metaphor. "Metaphor is about life—our life!"6 And, in our
search for greater truths, we simply push beyond common images to
more complex inferences—we reach past basic metaphors to prophetic
In the metaphor, "Life is a journey," for
example, we transfer all the rich inferences of journeys to the most
intimate events of life. Without metaphor, in fact, we can’t begin
to understand the more profound implications of subjects like
"life," "death," or "time."
Clearly, that’s the reason metaphor remains basic
to all religious thought. That’s why metaphor is becoming an
irreplaceable sign in postmodern theology. And, this explains, as
well, why metaphor has always been, and always will be, the main
medium for spiritual phenomena.
Indeed, metaphor may be the primary "Presence"
carrier—the principal Epiphany of reality.
It’s been that way since the beginning. Until
modern times, metaphor was seldom considered "unnecessary." In fact,
it was the only way to truly sense ultimate reality. All early
visionaries—who pronounced their earth-changing revelations for
future generations—moved within metaphor. That’s why metaphor served
and continues to serve as the medium of biblical Truth—eternally
forming and informing our belief.
More significant still, metaphor is an
"incarnational" language. It is the "Word made flesh." It molds
spiritual realities into recognizable form. Jesus is the ultimate
metaphor. "He is the exact likeness of the unseen God [the visible
representation of the invisible]."7
In short, if we lose metaphor, we have lost
An Autonomous Source
And, we will lose it if we fail to recognize it.
So we must discern the difference between "dead" metaphors and
"live" metaphors—between simple metaphors and significant
metaphors—between common metaphors and complex metaphors—between
literary metaphors and prophetic metaphors—between metaphors of
expediency and metaphors of epiphany.
We trace the power in a metaphor to either itself
or something other than itself. This is essential, for only a
prophetic metaphor transcends itself. Only a prophetic metaphor
truly passes outside itself, points beyond itself, speaks beyond
itself. Its meaning, in other words, exceeds its medium. We realize
truth through it, but not in it. It represents something "not
It is "virtual." It is "vicarious."
Prophetic metaphor differs from everyday metaphor
because it represents a force independent of the metaphor—an
autonomous Source, full of tension and tendency. Poets don’t create
metaphors. Metaphors create poets.
We know this removed reality by the shock, the
surprise, or the stunned recognition that demands our attention and
requires our response. Often, the same prophetic metaphor creates
these reactions repeatedly. And, in such moments, the familiar
becomes strange and the strange becomes familiar.
Finally, we know the metaphor’s hidden,
autonomous power by the constraints it places on its own message.
Its message does not arrive by chance, it does not spin aimless
fantasies in the blue, it does not subject itself to wild
subjectivity. We may create or interpret many metaphors, but
finally, their messages remain independent of our whimsical
They have their own way of being.
They move with both compelling and opposing
forces. On one hand, metaphoric Truth flows without resistance when
we welcome its persuasive power—when we are inspired, in other
words. On the other hand, metaphor resists arbitrary
interpretations. For example, a story can’t be argued with or
dismissed like an idea. And, it’s difficult for the teller of a
story to twist it totally out of shape.
In other words, metaphor controls its own
interpretation. It permits some, but not just any, variation. It
takes on many forms and lends itself to many interpretations,
but—unless completely destroyed—it never loses its intended purpose.
So we recognize the signs of prophetic metaphor
when we also recognize the force and control of its message.
Once again, we exist in metaphor. Metaphor meets
us where we are. Indeed, God is more real in metaphor than in any
previous theology or doctrine. As we increasingly weave the
metaphoric web in which we are embedded, we will increasingly
witness its signs of Truth.
The future belongs to the language of
metaphor—or, more to the point, to the Presence of the Other within
metaphor. And, as that Presence—that "Word"—becomes "flesh," Christ
returns to His rightful place in our postmodern world.
© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt
1. Lakoff and Johnson, quoted in Fritjof Capra,
The Hidden Connections: Integrating the Biological, Cognitive,
and Social Dimensions of Life into a Science of Sustainability
(New York: Doubleday, 2002) p. 63.
2. George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More than
Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 15, 51.
3. Stephen Pinker, How the Mind Works
(London: The Softback Preview, 1997) p. 355. See also
4. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy
in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought
(New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999) pp. 58, 59.
5. Gregory Bateson, quoted in Fritjof Capra,
Uncommon Wisdom: Conversations with remarkable people (New York:
Bantam, 1988) pp 76,77. See also
6. Lewis Edwin Hahn, Editor, The Philosophy of
Paul Ricoeur (Chicago: Open Court, 1995) p. 271.
7. Colossians 1:15, The Amplified Bible.