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.


Four Types of Violence, Part One: Conquest

David slaying Goliath, painting by Peter Paul Rubens circa 1616 AD

David Slaying Goliath by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1616 AD

I’ve been thinking a lot about violence, Jesus, and the strange fact that American Christians are among the most pro-war, pro-gun and pro-death-penalty of Americans (I even count myself in that second category, though not in the others).

In thinking about violence, I noticed four types of violence in the Bible, and I thought I’d talk briefly about each.

Conquest, or Selfish Violence – violence committed for personal gain, self-aggrandizement, or to satisfy an appetite, urge, or emotion (such as hatred).  This is the typical robbery and murder that is prohibited by all civilizations and most pre-civilization human societies.

We’ve known this was wrong since before God chose Abraham, but Christ did add something new to even this obvious, black-and-white case: we are not righteous if we only avoid committing the act of violence.  We must also resist the contemplation, the fantasizing, the hate itself that underlies the act [Matthew 5:21-22].

That said, there was one exception in the Old Testament: the Hebrews’ conquest of the Promised Land, which was specifically ordered by God.

Soren Kierkegaard had a term for such things: “the teleological suspension of the ethical.”  That is, the “Knight of Faith” may be asked by God to do things that would not, under other circumstances, be right, like wage a war of conquest or take his only son to the top of Mount Moriah to be sacrificed.

There is no reason to believe that, short of a divine revelation of the sort Moses received, that any later wars of conquest can be justified from a Christian perspective.

This seems so obvious to say, but the thing is, whatever war we’re currently contemplating always sounds like the “exception,” whether it involves a full-scale invasion or just bombing a technologically inferior enemy back to the stone age.

I’ve spent too much time talking politics lately, so I’ll just say this. As Christians, we must have some kind of belief that limits violence. We can make an argument for total pacifism. We can make an argument for just war theory. But we cannot, as Christians, argue for Clauswitz’s idea that war is, essentially, just another form of diplomacy. We cannot promote war for “national interests” alone.

We can’t say that whatever country we’re living in deserves our support for all its wars, uncritically. We cannot say, “my country, right or wrong.” We have to be willing to be considered “bad Americans,” “bad British subjects,” or “bad Russians” if that is required of us by Christ.

And if our theory of war never seems to find an “unjust war,” if it justifies every war that our nation desires, then we have a problem.

–A Note on Context–

I’ve been thinking about violence, justification, and the “kingdom of heaven” a lot lately. I’ve written a lot, too, but nothing I’d be comfortable publishing. But I’ve also been reading some things I wrote previously. I wrote this four-part look at violence back in 2011, and I’ve done only a little editing since.

Think of this as a time capsule as I struggle with the larger implications of the issue.

The four categories are completely of, for, and by me. They are not the product of theologians or biblical historians. They don’t have roots in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. They’re just something I noticed, and felt the need to work out.

An Old-Fashioned Kind of Love

Something to keep in mind when reading biblical passages about marriage, love, and sex:  for most of human history, consent was a foreign concept, and love was an afterthought.  Women were effectively their father’s property, and were “given away” to the husband upon marriage (often in exchange for a “bride-price” or to seal a treaty or agreement).

But it wasn’t all wine and roses for the groom, either: husbands-to-be often had as little choice in the matter as their brides.  The parents arranged the marriage, usually for monetary or political reasons, and the people getting married basically had to deal with it.  Of course there were exceptions (Ruth and Boaz, for example), and of course the practice varied over time, culture, and geography.  But the pattern was pervasive.

One thing the groom did have going for him was the definition of adultery. Adultery didn’t mean cheating on your spouse. It meant sleeping with another man’s wife. A married man could visit prostitutes or any other unmarried non-virgin he could bed, and it was a-okay, even in the first century. The legal double standard persisted into the reformation (King Henry the VIII of England killed two wives for adultery, but always kept a mistress on the side. Funny, that). The societal double standard exists to this day.

This only started to change in the last two or three hundred years.  We’ve all read Jane Austen (or at least seen the movies).  But Austen wasn’t writing safe, posh romances. She used the romance novel to criticize arranged marriage, hypocrisy, and materialism in early nineteenth-century Britain. She wasn’t the first or only person to speak out, but it took a long time to get from arranged exchanges of property to what we currently think of as marriage.

And eighteen hundred years earlier, when the Apostle Paul was writing?  Or twenty-five hundred years earlier, when Queen Esther would have been alive? Forget about it. The wife was the husband’s property.  So were the kids and the slaves.

Nobody cared whether the bride wanted to get married. Nobody cared whether the slave wanted to become the husband’s mistress.  Nobody cared whether the male slave wanted to become the husband’s ‘lover.’ And though they weren’t slaves, nobody cared whether the 12 year old boys in ancient Greece and Rome wanted to have adult ‘mentors’ with a side order of pederasty.

So why does that matter today? Because it affects how we interpret the Bible. If we see marriage in our modern, 21st century light, or even in an idealized 1950’s light (as the complementarian movement does), we don’t see the reality. Biblical marriage, biblical adultery, biblical homosexuality – these things are all fundamentally different than their 21st century counterparts.

That’s not to say the Bible doesn’t speak to us today on these issues. It absolutely does. But if we ignorantly superimpose our own culture on the biblical text, we will fail to understand. We have ears, but if we cover them and sing 21st (or mid-20th) century love-songs, we will not hear. And as Christians, we must hear what the Bible says. We simply must.

Proof-Texting and Cherry-Picking

Cherries from the Jerte Valley by Hispalois, Creative Commons

Cherries from the Jerte Valley by Hispalois, Creative Commons

It’s only human to sift through the evidence and latch on to any fragment that supports your case.  Prosecutors do it. Lawyers do it. Even preachers and theologians do it (there’s a song in there somewhere, I think).  It’s only human … which means it’s certainly not divine.

The things we believe are vital to our subconscious, especially in Evangelical Christian circles.  In a very large sense, we are what we believe. You’ve probably heard of confirmation bias, the tendency to subconsciously interpret the evidence before us (whether textual, physical, or statistical) in a way that’s consistent with our existing worldview.  We cherry-pick and reinvent to protect our self-image.  And most of the time we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

So it’s not that surprising when someone accuses me of not taking the Bible seriously.  What they generally mean is “Anyone who doesn’t agree with my interpretation of the Bible doesn’t really take the Bible seriously, and here are the proof-texts to prove it!”

As if using isolated verses out of context to prove your point in an internet debate actually amounts to taking the Bible seriously.

The Bible is simultaneously a divine work of amazing unity and a related group of human works spanning several centuries and many genres, including poetry, history, prophecy, apocalypse, epistles, and genealogies.  It’s kind of like Jesus in that way – simultaneously fully divine and fully human, as Peter Enns wrote.

Both aspects have to be appreciated and respected, if you want to take the Bible seriously.  Isolated verses thrown out with no cultural context (and in translation, no less), used to silence opposition and win arguments?  That’s how the world uses knowledge: as a weapon, a means to an end, with the end justifying the means.

I’ll quote a comment I made earlier (I won’t link to the debate, because I think that would just be “pointing fingers” at the person I was arguing with).

The truth is, we can cherry-pick individual verse and parts of verses from the Bible, and honestly, we can use them to “prove” anything – subjugation of women, Biblical support for slavery, predestination, free will, Manifest Destiny (the necessity of conquering “pagan savages” so you can teach them about Jesus), vegetarianism, socialism, capitalism, whatever.

THAT practice is what offends me. Not the scripture, but the use of individual verses (and verse-fragments) as a tool to back up whatever point we’re making.

The Bible can only be respected if it is studied as a whole unity, understanding that it was divinely inspired, but written by human hands. We respect it and take it seriously by studying it as a whole, praying for God’s guidance, AND by learning about the genres, culture, and lives lived by the people who first heard it.

The point is not that I’m wiser or more spiritual than some random person I’m arguing with on the Internet.  I’m not.  I’m as vulnerable to confirmation bias as anyone.  I’m as prone to cherry-pick and proof-text as anyone.

The point is, we all have to be aware – and beware – of our own biases and tendencies.  We want the Bible to shape what we believe, but too often it’s the other way around.  Sometimes I think we’d all be better off if we stuck with the basics:  Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

Repetition – an Explanation

I’ve posted two “Repetitions” here, and it occurs to me that some of you may be wondering just what I’m doing.

Well, it all began back in college, when Dr. Meadors had us read Soren Kierkegaard, including Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing and Fear and Trembling/Repetition.

I have to admit, some of Kierkegaard’s writing went right over my head.  Other parts of it challenged me (the knight of faith, the teleological suspension of the ethical as seen in the story of Abraham and Isaac).  But one part slipped, almost unnoticed, into a little empty space in my mind, and hid, almost unnoticed, for many years.


In the beginning of Repetition/Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard re-tells the story of Abraham and Isaac several times.  And each time it’s different.  One time, it focuses on Isaac’s broken trust in his father.  Anther time, it focuses more on Abraham’s pain and dread of what he has to do.

But what struck me was this: the Bible gives us an outline, a story in a form much shorter than what we are currently used to.  It tells us what happened, but we must infer or imagine the feelings, the reasons, the details.

And so we do.

There’s a huge sub-genre of Christian fiction retelling Bible stories in novel form, but even those of us without literary agents rewrite the stories into modern-style narratives within our minds.  And that’s good, because it makes it more than just a brief passage, an efficient chronicle of something that happened long ago.  It helps us make the story real to ourselves.

But it’s important to remember that we don’t know how Jacob or Ruth or Abraham felt (at least I don’t).  It’ s important to know that those details (the ones that didn’t make the canon) could go any number of ways.

And so, when I retell stories from the Bible, as I will sometimes do here, I never just tell them once.  That would be an “answer,” and an answer I am surely not qualified to give.  But by writing the story again and again, using different possibilities, different approaches, I can keep myself engaged with the questions, with the Bible itself.

How did Jacob feel when he wrestled the angel?  Why did he stay behind at the Jabbok ford?  Who started the fight?  If Jacob hoped to live, what did he base that hope on: his gifts and plans, God’s protection, or Esau’s mercy?  Did he ever fear the angel would kill him?  Did he even know what he was wrestling?

I don’t know.  But it helps me, sometimes, to imagine.