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 "real-time" damah:

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 cleverness.

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 metaphors.

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 Truth.

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.

Here’s how:

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 there."

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 intentions.

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 www.cleanlanguage.co.uk.

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 www.cleanlanguage.co.uk.

6. Lewis Edwin Hahn, Editor, The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (Chicago: Open Court, 1995) p. 271.

7. Colossians 1:15, The Amplified Bible.

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