Metaphor: The Language of Discovery and Invention

What is metaphor? Aristotle defined it as giving some “thing” a name that belongs to something else. The “thing” is called the metaphor’s “target” and the “something else” from which it takes a name is its “source.” Like the etymology of the word, meta (over, across, and beyond) + phero (to carry), a metaphor carries across a name from the source to the target. When it does, amazing things begin to happen.

When we lend a thing a name that belongs to something else, we lend it a complex pattern of relations and associations…A metaphor juxtaposes two different things and then skews our point of view so unexpected similarities emerge. Metaphorical thinking half discovers and half invents the likenesses it describes (James Geary, I is an Other, Harper Collins, 2011, p. 9).

Take a simple, unassuming word like shoulder. You can give someone a cold shoulder or a shoulder to cry on. You can have a chip on your shoulder or always be looking over your shoulder. You can stand on the shoulders of giants or shoulder to shoulder with friends.

Ordinary conversation is rife with metaphors because they are how we make sense of the world. Whenever we explore how one thing is like another, we are in the realm of metaphorical thinking.

Here is the challenge of using good metaphors in preaching and teaching—connecting two dissimilar things and showing how the one sheds light on the other. As Geary says above, sometimes the comparison is discovered when we discern how one familiar thing illustrates another in a way we hadn’t noticed before. Sometimes the metaphor is invented when we search for ways to illustrate an abstract idea.

Pastor Matt Chandler provides an example of the second when he wanted to illustrate how we look at our failures compared to how God looks at them. He used the metaphor of a child taking her first steps. After three steps, the child falls, but the parent can only see that the child took three steps. In the same way God focuses on our victories, not our failures.

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at the limits of metaphor and the need to know how to ride a metaphor for its usefulness, while jumping off before it crashes.

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Metaphor, Part 2: The Pin-Prick of Metaphor

In his book, I is an Other, James Geary recounts the story of Édouard Claparède, a Swiss neurologist who studied patients with neurological damage who could not recall old memories. One of his patients had completely lost her short-term memory. Everyday when she arrived at his clinic, it was as though she was meeting Claparède for the first time.

Claparède wanted to see if any part of the woman’s memory remained, so one day when she arrived, he shook her hand, sticking her with a pin he had concealed in his hand. She cried out in pain and withdrew her hand. The next day when she arrived, Claparède proffered his hand, but the woman hesitated, fearing another jab. The experiement proved that at some level, the woman recalled the pain and associated it with Claparède’s handshake.

Like Claparède’s handshake, metaphor slips a pin into the mundane. “By mixing the foreign with the familiar, the marvelous with the mundane, metaphor makes the world sting and tingle. Though we encounter metaphor everyday, we typically fail to recognize it. Its influence is profound but takes place mostly outside our conscious awareness. Yet once metaphor has us in its grasp, it never lets us go, and we can never forget it.”

Geary’s book expounds on the power of metaphor in all arenas of life: politics, advertising, finance, science, and psychology to name a few. Who can forget Ronald Reagan’s 1984 Campaign commercial, “It’s morning again in America,” or George Bush, Sr.’s “a thousand points of light”? Or advertising’s “like a good neighbor” and “you’re in good hands”? Or high finance’s “bulls” and “bears”? Or science’s light “waves” and “particles,” and “the blind watchmaker.”

Geary makes a convincing case that metaphors are such a part of our thinking, writing, and speaking, it is impossible to communicate without them. Philosophers such as Hobbes, Berkeley, and Locke attempted to purge language of metaphor because they regarded it as dangerous and full of absurdities. Yet, in their very condemnation of metaphors, they used them! They couldn’t help writing without using metaphors.

Although metaphors are not the only way people think, it is obvious that they constitute a significant part of how we understand virtually everything we experience. If this is true, what does this mean for preaching? What if preachers could tap into the power of metaphor to communicate more vividly and memorably?

In part 3, we’ll explore metaphor more fully.

The Place of Metaphor in Thinking, Writing, and Preaching, Part 1

I am the Good Shepherd.

I am the Door.

I am the Bread of Life.

How often would I have gathered you under my wings.

My beloved is a bouquet of flowers.

I have fought a good fight.

Metaphor is a powerful tool in communication; so powerful, in fact, that Jesus conveyed some of his most important self-revelations through the medium of metaphor. Solomon and his bride describe the depths of their love through metaphors. Paul’s best words on his ministry and the Christian life are metaphors of fighting, running, farming, educating, and shepherding.

What is metaphor? It is a literary device through which we describe one thing in terms of another. But metaphor’s significance is not in what it is, but in what it does. “Metaphor systematically disorganizes the common sense of things–jumbling together the abstract with the concrete, the physical with the psychological, the like with the unlike–and reorganizes it into uncommon combinations” (James Geary, I is an Other:The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, Harper Collins, 2011, p. 2).

In part 2, we’ll expand on metaphor’s ability to shake up our thinking to create new combinations of thought.