The modern world has missed the essence of metaphor. So nailing what metaphor is not becomes a necessity for the future church:

Metaphors are not part of the literal world. They have nothing to do with language.

Metaphors are neither logical ideas, objective truths, nor absolute knowledge.

Metaphors are not mere figures of speech, decorative images, or colorful language.

Metaphors are not their message. (The truth in a metaphor is not found in the metaphor itself.)

Metaphors are not space/time objects.

Metaphors are neither of us nor by us. (They do not submit totally to our control.)

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The Pride of the Dictionary?

To begin, metaphor is not "literal." Though metaphor remains the single most important "literary device," it’s still not "literal." For "literal" means "not metaphorical."

Clever linguists would convince us otherwise. In their literal world, they seek to judge metaphors, but metaphors only judge them. They seek to master metaphors, but metaphors cannot be mastered. After all, the literal world requires matter-of-fact meanings, and metaphor has none of these. The literal world seeks literal "truth," and metaphor has only nonliteral truth.

In fact, the dictionary—the ultimate pride of all linguists—contains only "dead" metaphors. Through use and misuse, these metaphors have turned into common "ideas." A "live" metaphor, on the other hand, lies beyond common ideas . . . it ignores the science of the sentence . . . it doesn’t "argue about semantics." Indeed, a true metaphor finds its meaning in the very death of these categories.

We could say, "Language dies in order to live."

In this rebirth, metaphor passes outside language itself. It is "extralinguistic." It creates new rules, puts forth new realities. Yet, its "other world" domain in no way suggests nonsense. Instead, this "otherness" promises even greater degrees of certainty.

Linguists may say, "Yes, but we can at least transcribe or paraphrase the metaphor." Not so. Nonsense does not translate. It does not lend itself to paraphrase. If it does, it was never a true metaphor.

In short, metaphor has nothing to do with language. When it comes to metaphors, we can say "The medium is not the message." Metaphor depends, instead, "on the ‘pre-semantic surface’ of human experience for its power."1 That’s the reason we comprehend metaphor across cross-modal media—moving from seeing to hearing to tasting to feeling to moving. . . .

For metaphor "speaks" in "nonliteral" similarities.

"Language is a tissue of dead metaphors."2

Logical Illumination?

So it makes sense that metaphor doesn’t make sense. It refuses the narrow structure of ideas. It ignores the easy explanation of things we’ve known before. And it denies the objective "truth" of "absolute" knowledge.

For metaphor is fluid and reflective. It can’t be argued with or dismissed like a proposition. It is, instead, illumination, not logic . . . rapture, not reason . . . recognition, not cognition . . . vision, not report. And, though it may use space-time objects, it is not a space-time object.

Metaphor grows totally indispensable when the message is too great or the gap too wide. It’s the only way we roll back the frontiers of nonsense. Indeed, "It doesn’t teach by induction or deduction. It teaches by ‘abduction’."3

And, though nonliteral, metaphor is always expressive. It speaks directly to the heart. Or, in the words of Blaise Pascal, it speaks to the reasons of the heart, "whereof Reason knows nothing."4

"(Metaphor) erupts at the surface of consciousness when the crust of reality is too weak to support the status quo."5

"Figures of Speech?"

Literal or not, we love metaphors because they embellish our language. We love to reach into our common basket of decorative images, colorful idioms, and figurative figures. We love to project the illusions and illuminations of our culture with all their possible ornamentations.

We project not only the customs and powers of culture, we revel as well in the latest novelties, current fads, superficial makeovers, and cosmetic detours. Yes, many "live" metaphors dance across the land in celebration of our current styles, tastes, and modes.

But these metaphors serve only self-reflecting mirrors. And their refreshing newness reveals only an emerging triviality. Even linguists have little use for such common sentimentality. And scholars refuse such vacuous divergence.

For finally—other than the pleasures of decor—nothing profound happens with these "figures of speech."

"There are standards of (spiritual) excellence that transcend both individual tastes and cultural norms."6

Heroic Achievements?

Yes, metaphors are for us. But they are not of us or by us. Their power is not our power. They are neither the fruit of heroic exploits nor the genius of self-will. For the vision in a metaphor is autonomous. It is something spoken to us, not by us to ourselves.

In other words, metaphor is not a monologue of reinvented wisdom from the past. It is not a one-way regrouping of former insights. Nor is it a soliloquy of things previously known.

We can’t invent Spirit, in other words, nor spiritualize our inventions.

For metaphor rises above the pride of our ideas, the projections of our thoughts, the comfort of our opinions. It transcends, as well, the "poetic license" of our subjectivities . . . the assumed anointing of our pent-up passions . . . and the clever catharsis of our psychological conditions.

Woe unto "those who prophesy out of their own mind and heart."7

So metaphor does not submit totally to our control. We "allow" it more than we "elicit" it. For metaphor couples our response to His action. And, since Spirit requires no mediation, the forms we give metaphors remain secondary. In other words, "No prophecy ever originated because some man willed it." "It never came by human impulse."8

As a result, the power in metaphor is "confronted" rather than invented. We are the "discoverers" rather than the Creator.

"The future does not come as the result of our doing, but must break into the present and transform it."9

Artistic Masterpieces?

In the same way, metaphor is not the message. It has no power in itself. It is not the Truth toward which it points. All the externals to a metaphor—the media, the space/time objects—represent things other than their message.

When Isaiah wrote, "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow,"10 his choice of colors and frozen water had nothing to do with either sin or grace. Isaiah drew a possible likeness from the supposedly alike—though in reality, the unalike. His metaphor and message were distinct and dissimilar.

The Truth of Isaiah’s message was even independent of his metaphor!

Today, many complex metaphors may comprise an artistic masterpiece, but even the masterpiece is not their meaning. For truth in a work of art is something not found in the work of art. We may feel its strange seduction, but finally, "Overwhelming beauty points beyond itself."11

So metaphor is the most profound bridge between our realm and another realm . . . the most unfathomed medium between the world of the observer and something "not there" . . . the most incarnate messenger between paradox and Truth. In other words, it does not exist for itself. It exists only for an interpreter.

It has no other reason to exist!

"Art is only a means to life, to the life more abundant. It is not in itself the life more abundant."12

© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt


1. Lewis Edwin Hahn, Editor, The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (Chicago: Open Court, 1995) p. 216.

2. Frye, Northrop, Sheridan Baker, and George Perkins, The Harper Handbook to Literature (New York: Harper, 1985) p. 282.

3. Brian McLaren, http://www.leadnet.org/archives/NEXT/Feb99.pdf

4. Blaise Pascal, http://bit.ly/bLp3CY

5. Derrick de Kerckhove, The Skin of Culture (Toronto: Somerville House Publishing, 1995) p. 169.

6. Donald N. Ferguson, Music As Metaphor: The Elements of Expression (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1960), p. 54 quoting Martin Gardner, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (New York: William Morrow and Co., l983), p. 67.

7. Ezekiel 13:2, AMP.

8. II Peter l:2l, AMP.

9. Grenz and Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)EM> p. 246.

10. Isaiah 1:18, KJ.

11. Hans Urs von Balthasar, quoted in Patrick Sherry, Spirit and Beauty: An Introduction to Theological Aesthetics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, l992) p. 161.

12. Henry Miller, quoted in Brewster Ghiselin, The Creative Process (New York: Mentor Books, 1955) p. 181.

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