Metaphor will prove the primary voice for the future church. This voice, however, is not the metaphor we’ve known. Instead, a new metaphor . . .

. . . marks a major shift from logic to revelation, from mind to spirit, from proposition to intuition, and from the literate to the prophetic. As a result, permissible knowledge and forbidden knowledge are jumping into bed together.

. . . follows no preset rules. Not having answers—within the metaphor itself—is more essential than having answers.

. . . puts things side by side that don’t go together, and the tension or "interplay" between these differences defines metaphor. The metaphor’s "message," however, is not its medium.

. . . occurs anytime, anywhere, in any form, and on several levels at once.

. . . is an active, mostly autonomous, force. Great thinkers call it the very language of God—the ultimate incarnate dialogue. It is a never-ending cycle, initiated by God and completed by God, with us in the middle.

. . . opens the future to those who know its language.

For more, read the following:

Incarnate Language

Often, I mention metaphor as the language of the future. Often, I describe how metaphor "works." Now, I repeat these claims in more detail and depth.

Those who prefer exactness . . . those who prefer language bent to their own ends will call my claims dangerous. For metaphor follows no preset rules. "No matter how elaborately or extensively rhetoric classifies metaphor, rhetoric cannot master or control the metaphoric function."1

If we have to explain it, in other words, it won’t work!

Yet, we can rise above the limited rhetoric of the past—the literal figures of speech, the fleeting emptiness of colorful words, and the clichés or "dead" metaphors of uninspired worlds. For a new language, bursting with irony, paradox, and ambiguity, asserts—not in spite of metaphor, but by means of metaphor—the existence of a larger Truth.2

This metaphor is "prophetic" metaphor. It is an active, mostly autonomous, force. It disrupts old rules and introduces new "rules" in the postmodern hunger for Wisdom.

And, gratefully, it arrives at the right moment. As the modern world breathlessly falters, something outruns our reality, something outthinks our theology. And, as in a great relay race, a new medium waits just around the corner to receive the baton. Already, metaphor has become the object of awe, "central to aesthetics, the theory of literature, linguistics, and the philosophy of language." Already, it has become a source of wonder, "discussed in psychology, the philosophy of mind, (and) the philosophy of science."3

Metaphor marks a major shift from logic to revelation, from mind to spirit, from proposition to intuition, and from the literate to the prophetic. And, the future belongs to those who see this shift. For people no longer live doctrines. They live metaphor. They no longer find renewal in rhetoric. They find it in metaphor.

Sincerity, alone, will not be enough. If future leaders refuse the language of metaphor they will ensnare us in all the traps that captured the jealous dogmas of the past. For the veracity of future realities will belong to metaphor.

Would-be leaders may say, "What reality? . . . What veracity? . . . Metaphor is not really real! . . . It has no proof of reality." And, in the passing modern world, this is true. But in the ancient/future world, "Life happens at the level of events not of words."4 Life interprets "spiritual truths with spiritual language."5 Life is "taught by the Spirit with language appropriate to the Spirit."6

Metaphor is that language. It is both other-worldly and this-worldly. It is, first, an encounter with God, only then with man. It is the ultimate incarnate dialogue.

Cinched Up at Both Ends

Yes, metaphor seems a strange communion, an exotic discourse. Yet, more and more, we are placing side by side things that contradict each other. We are holding cheek by jowl totally unrelated feelings and senses. And, we are juxtaposing the most absurd similarities.

The unresolved tensions in these ridiculous rapports are like violin strings anchored at one end and cinched up at the other, rejoicing and suffering at the same time from the traveling bow. Such interfaces between things having no desire to coexist break the bounds of language and rupture reality while, at the same time, they birth reality’s truer essence.

It is a covert language, a strange zone between medium and message, that reflects autonomous Truth, that envisions surpassing vision, that generates transcendent reality.

...seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.7

Opposite Pairs

More than anything else, metaphor is controlled contradiction—the commonplace conflict between contraries, the tension between unrelated realities, the juxtaposition of opposites. . . . Or, put more simply, metaphor simply puts things side by side that don’t go together.

And, according to great thinkers, this contradiction is the very language of God. This paradox, in other words, is our only hope for revelation, our only access to Truth. Johann-Georg Hamann wrote, "Divine truth appears only through . . . contradictions of reason."8 And Søren Kierkegaard echoed, "All existential truth is paradoxical . . . (and) the language of revelation . . . (is) absolute paradox."9

So metaphor stands on "known" things, yet also their "unknown" comparisons . . . the familiar, yet also the unfamiliar . . . the same, yet also the difference. It exists, in other words, through both sense and nonsense . . . relevance and irrelevance . . . the "force of habit" and the "shock of the new."

It is a strange, yet reciprocal, relationship. The "known" launches us into the unknown, while the "unknown" finds anchor in the "known." The "known" brings body to the "unknown," while the "unknown" adds power to the "known."

"See now all the works of the Most High: they come in pairs, the one the opposite of the other."10

The "Known"

The "known" is anything that reflects our "accepted" reality. It’s anything credible, literal, or "obvious" that mirrors our "real" world. It’s anything common, ordinary, or normal that runs our run-of-the-mill lives. In short, it’s anything familiar or friendly that points to who we are. It’s the "eye-candy" and "ear-candy" of everything that belongs to us.

Or, we may simply call it "tradition."

Tradition, though, is both the "good news" and "bad news" of all that belongs to the historical church. It claims all the manmade "classics" of creeds and calendars, modes and moods. As a result, the "known" in one culture will shift suddenly to the "unknown" in another. The comfortable code language in one institution will sound strange in another. And the trendy styles of one congregation will seem estranged in another.

The "known," after all, is us! So we must admire ourselves with caution. When we give ourselves the starring role in our religious drama, we resemble actors practicing in front of mirrors. Culture, in such moments, becomes a cult. For that reason the "known" should reflect—as much as possible—those experiences common to all cultures, all genders, all ages, all races.

In other words, as we "go into all the world,"11 the "known" must be known in all the world. If our "Word" is not universal, for what reason does it exist?

Yet—in one form or another—we need the "known." Metaphor requires it. And God requires it. Nature proves the Creator has no problem with form. When the Word became "flesh," there was no problem with form. When Jesus infused common, ordinary things with grace, there was no problem with form. And when Paul witnessed the Greek world-view to its own philosophers, he purposefully chose a familiar form.12

After all, something has to be relevant to our lives. We hold those things dear that rank second only to our face and name. And we make connections between faith and context only within our context.

We know these needs especially today! We sense a longing for the old and familiar as time hurtles past the threshold of a new millennium. We sense a desire for order as wildness invades a new world. And, we sense a clinging panic as life increases its runaway speed.

Still, there’s more than even these needs. Both revelation and the meaning of revelation require the "known." Artists, for example, would go mad without preset limits. And new visions would remain short-lived without interpretive order. In short, the Spirit must take on body, and the body must take on Spirit.

And that—finally—is the purpose of the "known."

Yet, the "known" alone is not enough. Without the "unknown," the "known" turns tedious and tiresome, sickly and stale, vain and repetitive. And its force of habit sires only ritualism and dead orthodoxy. The Second Vatican Council agreed: "Something more is required than the mere observance of the laws governing valid and lawful celebration."13

When a move of God becomes institutional, we mistake the oyster for the pearl. When we reduce God to manageable proportions, we confuse culture for content. When we pragmatically and pridefully "program" worship, liturgy turns into something sacred only in itself.

God doesn’t like the "known" alone. He is the great Creator and created us in His image. He is always doing "new things."14 Biblical prophets complained about empty and external forms more than anything else, and Jesus grieved about the same things.

"We do not want to quench the spirit of the faithful with tedium."15

The "Unknown"

By contrast, the "unknown" boldly conflicts with the "known." It deliberately interrupts the "known." It even disagrees with the "known." The "unknown," as a result, is anything different, deviant, or dissociated from the "known."

It is "otherness."

Often subtle, often not, it catches us off-guard. It messes with our expectations. It impertinently pushes our envelopes, leaving us confused and perplexed. Often a carnival-like violation of the ordinary, it parades a paradox for which we have no precedent.

Yet, this very violation suggests a relevant mystery. This sudden hiddenness sounds an essential otherness. And this unraveled enigma prefigures something still to be known. We are challenged for answers! We are forced to figure out something . . . something that, finally, can’t be figured out.

Still, with all its obscurity, we need the "unknown." We need its very "oddness." Something, after all, has to strip "the veil of familiarity from the world"16 and restore the strange within the common.

Again, this is God language. "That which glides across the face of the unknown takes on the qualities of the unknowable."17 So, with the metaphor itself, not having answers is more essential than having answers.

And, like the "known" alone, the "unknown" alone is never enough. When we seek only to destroy the "known," the "unknown" turns to terror. When we push aside the past, our wrong relevance tends toward apostasy. When we worship only novelty and fads, our "new wine"—intended for "new wineskins"—may as well be poured through a fish net.

Even biblical prophets avoided overdoing the "unknown." Hebrew culture, for example, set limits on how "far-out" their prophets could go. And any prophet wishing to protect his influence stayed within accepted bounds.18 In the same way, Christian saints warned against seeking ecstasy or "otherness" for its own sake.

So metaphor never appears out of nothing. It always requires the "known" as well as the "unknown." Our goal is not to scorn or discard valid traditions, but to allow metaphor to eternally recreate them.

"I have been hesitant and fearful . . . because of the fickly and fastidious spirits . . . who delight only in novelty."19

Multilayered Tensions

Metaphor, though, is more than the mere presence of the "known" and the "unknown." Metaphor is the tension between the "known" and the "unknown." And that tension occurs anytime, anywhere, in any form, and on several levels at once.

. . . the more complex, the more tense; the more tense, the more meaning.

Of course, we’re familiar with the tensions within a metaphor. Less familiar are the tensions between a metaphor and its message—between a metaphor and what it "points to," between a metaphor and its meaning. These are the tensions between metaphor and meditation, metaphor and depth, metaphor and "non-sense."

Then, there are also the tensions between the world of a metaphor and the world of the Spirit—between us and "not-us," between being and nonbeing. These are the tensions between nearness and transcendence, between the One "made flesh" dwelling among us and the distant Holy Other, between the particular and the universal.

As co-creators of metaphor, however, our inspired collaboration deals primarily with the tensions within a metaphor. So let’s look at some of the more typical tensions:

The prophets were artists of analogy and affinity . . . virtuosi of similarity and similitude . . . creators of comparison and contrast. Isaiah said, for example, "Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow."20 And Jesus continued these same tensions between the "known" and "unknown": Want to be first? Be last! Want to be greatest? Be Least! Want to find yourself? Lose yourself!

And Paul kept the same absurdities: Joy is in your sufferings! Power is in your frailty! Life is in your dying! In all of his writings, in fact, he juxtaposes endless pairs of opposites: shame and honor, suffering and comfort, frustration and glory. . . . He exhorted his believers, in other words, with the unlikely pairing of both common sense mind and nonsense spirit. He prayed and sang, for example, with both intelligence and intuition.21

Today, similar "knowns" and "unknowns" cross paths in strange, yet exciting, new ways. Science and art are residing in the same metaphors. Permissible and forbidden knowledge are jumping into bed together. And the emotional fire of Pentecostals and the intellectual ice of Episcopalians are walking the same aisle.

The Old and the New

Often, the conflict churns between old and new. In fact, the history of the church struggles between the continuities as well as the radical breaks, the legacies as well as the disavowals. For these reasons, St. Augustine described God’s beauty as "ever ancient, ever new."22 And Jesus taught,

Every teacher and interpreter of the sacred Writings . . . is like a householder who brings forth out of his storehouse treasure that is new and [treasure that is] old [the fresh as well as the familiar].23

By example, Jesus’ followers retained their Jewish traditions, yet blatantly proclaimed their bodies replaced the temple and their souls its priests.24 They kept, as well, the ancient custom of religious sacrifice, yet Christ became their new "sacrificial lamb"!

In similar churnings, order and freedom have faced-off when the church was most alive. At the height of Hebrew worship, for example, King David held the tension between rules and spontaneity. His technically skilled musicians actually doubled as inspired prophets. Later, St. Paul required his followers to sing and pray with both mind and spirit. He insisted, for example, that their public improvisations always prove coherent. And, in America, the early Quakers practiced great personal restraint, yet spoke under the compulsion of the Holy Spirit. They demanded biblical literacy, yet bowed to mystical interpretation.25

Jazz—at its best—exhibits the modern version of this order and freedom. Though it remains a spirit-moved improvisation, it still bows to unspoken aesthetic bounds. Though it wildly stretches traditional guidelines, it never steps outside jazz parameters.

Sentiments and Sensations

It’s no surprise that opposite feelings also create potent metaphoric tensions. For the body is an essential power in the embodied mind, and emotion is an essential power in the embodied metaphor. The sharp pains of human sorrows and the ecstatic joy of God’s assurance, for example, challenge each other wherever metaphor builds depth and empathy.

Jeremiah promised we will come into God’s presence with dancing as well as weeping.26 And Isaiah described our triumphant Savior as "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief."27 Indeed, the source of our "Good News" was a man who wept, went sleepless, homeless, and finally laid down his life.

Paul reminded us to "exult in our troubles and rejoice in our sufferings."28 True spiritual joy, in other words, always recalls a taste of bitter in its sweetness, and "Godly grief . . . never brings regret."29

Of course, such paradox blows the modern mind. The closest we come to such absurdity is the secret grief of the happy clown. We often find, however, the juxtaposition of these emotions and feelings in the arts. Music, for example, sets a mood, and the most profound music sets opposing moods. We find "struggle" and "celebration" in the same music, often in the same moment! And, African-Americans celebrate joy with the same music in which they grieved during slavery.

At the deepest levels, metaphor presents both the ugly and the beautiful, both terrifying power and fascinating mystery, both the unrepellent and the repellent. Strange notions appear: "Terrible beauty." "Furious calm." "One mark of the Holy, it must always be remembered, is that it repels as well as attracts: it daunts as well as fascinates."30

Finally, the most common sensuous metaphors cross from one sense to another. Though considered "off-the-wall" by decapitated modern minds, we live these tensions between one feeling and another. We not only "see," for example, we also "feel" we are seeing. Our senses, in other words, have feelings. And, for that reason, we easily compare sight to touch, sound to smell, senses to feelings. . . . Of course, these are "synesthetic" metaphors.

Synesthetic metaphor has kept the church alive. Through the dark ages of the unknown Latin mass, the Word became "incarnate" through music, bells, aromas, tastes, gestures, processions. . . .

Postmodern heirs need be grateful.

Tensions in the Arts

Though modern culture cannot stand unresolved enigma, we openly accept it in the arts. So the easiest journey to understand metaphor begins with the arts. And, for our purpose, we begin with music:

The first metaphor in music enters with the tension between sound and music. Sound is part of the common, unadorned "real" world. Or, to a scientist, it is part of the ordinary vibration of molecules. When formed into music, however, it no longer qualifies as common sense or common science. It leaves the realm of reality. If a newscaster, for example, suddenly sings the news—as in an opera—we would feel ashamed . . . even horrified! Yet, this basic metaphoric tension occurs constantly in music.

Then, we find a multitude of metaphors within music itself. The elements of music—melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, timbre, and form—all interact. The "known" and the "unknown" play not only between each element, but within each element as well.

Rhythm, for example, contains a common "beat"—a clock-like, perfunctory pulse that resembles our boring breathing. But breaking this beat with unknown rhythms . . . with surprising punctuations . . . brings breathless wonder. The same wonder occurs when melody goes against its own direction . . . when harmony goes against its own tonality . . . and so on. . . .

With all these tensions comes the illusion of "movement." Listen to musicians talk. Their words describe the "movement" of music—how it "steps, leaps, shifts, runs, marches, drives, relaxes. . . ." Yet, music can’t "move"! Pitches may change—higher, lower, faster, slower, louder, softer—but they can’t move! So we confront, again, known "changes," but unknown "movement."

Among other metaphors in music, we mentioned above, of course, the dramatic conflict between differing moods—struggle against assurance, celebration against struggle. . . . With these and all the other possibilities, music is a virtual skyscraper of endless levels of metaphoric tension. So it is with all the arts.

Space does not permit similar accounts of the other arts, the tensions between the differing arts, or how these artistic tensions flow freely into all of life.

Yes, life is art. There are no borders between.

Holding the Tension

So, the metaphor is the tension. And the tension is the metaphor. The gap between the "known" and the "unknown" is its only power to point to Power. The interplay between differences and resemblances is the only way metaphor does what it does. And this dynamic tension is the only thing that grabs us, excites us, and takes us on its journey.

Metaphor, after all, is neither the candle nor the wick, but the burning.

This burning is the communion that keeps the dialogue open between "here" and "there." Its tense resonance is the medium of exchange between the "signifier" and the "signified." Its insistent innuendo is the traffic between metaphor itself and the world to which it points.

So we must keep the metaphor "alive," keep it "fresh." We must allow it, for example, to always remain partially hidden. We must protect its prophetic environment, the coexistence of its radically different realities. Though we benefit from its revealed visions, we must finally leave the metaphor’s tension partially unresolved. We must finally submit to its world of serious make-believe.

In short, we must bring heaven down to earth and earth up to heaven . . . and keep it that way!

A "live" metaphor is like a rapidly flowing river where the opposite shores stand close by, but never touch. When the banks widen, the river loses its power. When the banks come together, forming a lake, the water stops. So we must retain the force of its flow.

Or, it is like Judeo-Christian meditation where multiple metaphors never run out of revelation . . . where a reflective journey gives a growing vision of the same thing . . . where a stream of consciousness continually brings differing perspectives of the whole. In other words, the meditation of metaphor is a never-ending cycle, initiated by God and completed by God, with us in the middle.

When we stop this tension with our "final" interpretations, the empowering stops. And, then, we have a "dead" metaphor. When we resolve the dissonance in our desperate need for concord, the "harmony" turns static. Then, of course, we have a cliché. When we let ourselves off the hook with disinterest, the "otherness" disappears. So finally, we are left with miniature spiritual ghettos.


If we are to move with the Lord of History, we must see the critical necessity of juxtaposition in the postmodern world. Indeed, this juxtaposition—this tension within metaphor—will prove the primary voice of our time.

"Trust only movement. Life happens at the level of events not of words. Trust movement."31

© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt


1. Lewis Edwin Hahn, Editor, The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (Chicago: Open Court, 1995) p.225.

2. Louis Markos, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2001/april23/1.32.html

3. Daniel Gilman, "Book Reviews," Modern Philology, Vol. 89, Issue 3, Feb. 1992, p. 462.

4. Alfred Adler, http://www.insightquotes.com/a_author.htm

5. I Corinthians 2:13, AMP.

6. Gordon D. Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996) p. 80.

7. Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It (New York: Pocket Books, 1992) p. 101.

8. Johann Georg Hamann, quoted in Louis Dupré, Symbols of the Sacred (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) p. 58.

9. Louis Dupré, Symbols of the Sacred (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) p. 58.

10. New American Bible.

11. Mark 16:15, AMP.

12. Acts 17:16-34.

13. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, formulated by Vatican II and reprinted in Robert E. Webber, Editor, The Complete Library of Christian Worship, Vol 2 (Nashville: Star Song, 1994) p. 319.

14. Isaiah 43:19.

15. Martin Luther, Formula Missae (1523) quoted in Robert E. Webber, Editor, The Complete Library of Christian Worship, Vol 2 (Nashville: Star Song, 1994) pp. 188-195.

16. The words of the poet, Shelley.  http://bit.ly/afHol7

17. William Irwin Thompson, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality, and the Origins of Culture (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981) p. 87.

18. Robert R. Wilson, "Prophecy: Biblical Prophecy," The Encyclopedia of Religion, 1987 ed., XII, 17,19.

19. Luther.

20. Isaiah 1:18, KJ.

21. I Corinthians 14:15.

22. St. Augustine, Confessions, http://feastofsaints.com/ancientnew.htm

23. Matthew 13:52, AMP.

24. I Corinthians 3:16-17; I Peter 2:9.

25. Webber, II, p. 86.

26. Jeremiah 31:4, 9.

27. Isaiah 53:3.

28. Romans 5:3, 4.

29. II Corinthians 7:10, AMP.

30. Paul Waitman Hoon, "Corruption of Worship by Aestheticism," The Complete Library of Christian Worship, edited by Robert Webber, Vol II, p. 404.

31. Alfred Adler.

Future Church Administrator