METAPHOR: WHAT IT’S NOT
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
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
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"
"Language is a tissue of dead metaphors."2
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
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
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
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
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,
4. Blaise Pascal,
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.