Metaphors We Live By

I’m reading George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, and it’s really rocking my world. To sum up their book in one (terribly inadequate) sentence:

Metaphors are built into our language so deeply that they unconsciously guide – and even restrict – our thinking.

We don’t just write metaphors. We don’t just talk in metaphors. We think in metaphors.

Metaphors aren’t just for literature and poetry. Cultural metaphors go so deep

The Tower of Babel, Russian manuscript, 1539.

The Tower of Babel, Russian manuscript, 1539.

that we don’t even realize they’re there. We think we’re thinking about things “literally,” but our conceptual metaphors are built into the language. And they shape our thoughts without us even knowing it.

If we think “Time is Money,” (from chapter two) then it’s something we can budget, save, and invest. It’s something we must not waste. We’ve all heard and said those things, right?

But think of a culture that isn’t ruled by our industrial rhythms. To hunter-gatherers, time is what? I can barely imagine how someone who has no watch, no calendar, and no real concept of money, might conceptualize time.

Even the earliest hunter-gatherers had to have some concept of time: seasons change; day fades into night; babies grow up, grow old, and die.

But they might think of time as a circle, spinning from day to night to day to night again. They might consider their lives a part of that cycle (either through reincarnation or in other ways). Lacking money, they’d certainly not talk about spending or saving time.

So, what does this have to do with “Wrestling with the Angel?”

If our very thoughts are guided by our culture-specific conceptual metaphors, then so were our ancestors’… specifically our spiritual ancestors.

What were the conceptual metaphors of the writers of the Bible? Can we even really know?

They didn’t live in a post-industrial world. They didn’t struggle with “diseases of affluence.” They knew nothing of equal rights or democracy. And we certainly don’t live in – or understand – their world.

Is it enough to translate the Bible, if we don’t translate the underlying metaphors? Can even the best scholar actually understand the thought processes of a pre-industrial first century believer?

Can we trust the Bible?

Well, yes, but …

Yes, but … we must go beneath the surface. We can’t just read a passage (in translation) and say “God said it, I believe it, and that finished it.”

Yes, but … we can’t allow ourselves to get lazy. In Jesus’s time, Jews and Christians alike studied the scriptures, repeated them, prayed them, and knew the interpretation debates. Today, we’re used to instant answers and polarized parties. We want an ideological clan with all the answers more than we want muddy, messy, living truth.

Yes, but … we must approach scripture humbly, realizing we may be wrong, no matter how long we’ve believed something.

Yes, but … we must approach other people humbly, realizing we may be wrong.

Yes, we can trust the Bible, but … we should know better than to blindly, assuredly, trust ourselves.

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One comment on “Metaphors We Live By

  1. […] been talking about Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (you can read my first post here). It’s been an eye-opener, seeing how (largely unconscious) cultural metaphors can shape the very […]

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