met•a•phor ‘met-uh-for, noun, a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.
Some years ago, I was approached by a concerned visitor to our church after a worship service. She was asking for clarification on something regarding the message that morning, and during our conversation, we got on the subject of literal versus figurative language in the Bible. I was trying to help her grasp that the Bible is far more poetic than we realize, certainly more poetic and metaphorical than she realized.
“You mean, you don’t believe that the Bible is literally true?” she challenged me.
“It depends on the passage of Scripture, doesn’t it?” I replied. “Everything in the Bible is wholly true, but not everything in the Bible is literal. In fact, a lot of it is metaphorical.”
She was taken aback. “Well what about being born again? Don’t you believe that you need to be born again to be a Christian?”
Obviously, there was a disconnect going on. So, I explained further. “When Jesus said, ‘you must be born again,’ He wasn’t being literal. He was being figurative. I think what you’re really asking is if we believe it is really, really true. So, yeah, we believe it is metaphorically really true that we must be born again. But it isn’t literally true.”
In the third chapter of the book of John, Jesus was trying to explain to Nicodemus the keys to the Kingdom. In His own unique creative manner, Jesus employs the beautifully rich metaphor of birth to explain the regeneration that comes from believing and living in the Spirit (John 1:1-21). Of course, Nicodemus, the Pharisee, entirely misses the point of Jesus teaching—because he interpreted Jesus literally.
Like a painter dabbing at oddly colored acrylics on their pallet, trying to coax new hues from the brush, the songwriter must dab at the words in an effort to elicit something more impassioned…
I mention this because I’m not only a worship leader but also a songwriter, one who greatly appreciates the craft of songwriting. And I’ve noticed the very encouraging trend toward more poetic prose in the lyrics being written today. Metaphors, similes, allegories, symbols, analogies—those figures of speech which stretch and reframe the meanings of words. Like a painter dabbing at oddly colored acrylics on their pallet, trying to coax new hues from the brush, the songwriter must dab at the words in an effort to elicit something more impassioned, provocative, soul-stirring. And though there may be an imprecision to these “figuratives”, I believe we can express greater truth from them.
You see, you can be literal and compose the lyric, “God is eternal,” or you can write, “You ride the ancient skies.”
You can compose, “God’s love for me is intense,” or you can pen, “He is jealous for me, loves like a hurricane, I am a tree.”
You can say, “You lead me through trials,” or you can say, “You call me out upon the waters, the great unknown, where feet may fail.”
Each of these sets of lyrics are true, and each essentially say the same thing, but the latter lyrics better capture the depth and emotion of God’s eternal and active being.
There can be greater truth in the metaphor—especially when speaking of mysteries of the universe or matters of the heart. Definitions place boundaries on meaning; metaphors create space for the meaning to take shape. Definitions are distinct, specific, antiseptic; metaphors are angular, indeterminable, open-ended. Definitions are like passport photos; metaphors are like watercolor portraits.
I think that’s one reason why Jesus often spoke in parables. For He was speaking of unfathomable mysteries – propitiation, incarnation, atonement, grace – and these words we have invented are simply too small and inadequate to fully describe and explain. Definitions seem to fall short of the immortal grandeur, the cosmic drama, the eternal consequence, of such things.
When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, He drew word pictures of lost pearls and lost coins and lost sheep. With the art of words, He painted images of castles built on shifting sand, of dragnets cast into the fickle ocean, of a prodigal son who had lost his way. He stated these Truths with earthy but profound elegance, presenting an invitation to a better life, a nobler way, a personal relationship with the Maker Himself. As if this mortal life we live were simply a metaphor for some larger eternal life He invites us to.
Of course, some people have difficulty grasping the qualitative imprecision and beauty of a poem or a good song – or for that matter, the Truth imbedded in a good painting, a good dance, or a good instrumental piece. They don’t get it, like the concerned lady visitor. Literally.