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Metaphor and Fact

By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated:  December 31, 2001

On a Personal Note

By far the easiest way to misunderstand this whole work, as you read further, is to think that I am somehow against metaphor, that I think metaphor is bad, that I am "fact-bound."  I can hear them now:  "Nelson the literalist."  

It is rather absurd, I think, that I should have to prove to you that I understand metaphor, think metaphor is good, realize that the New Testament is full of metaphor, and can even most of the time spot one when I run across it.  But I suppose it's necessary.

I Believe in Metaphor

Actually, my paternal grandfather is the one who could have well been described as "fact-bound."  He was an industrious Swedish immigrant, a carpenter.  He actually believed (or at least announced that he believed) that fictional books were just "lies", and busied himself reading encyclopedias!  Now, you might have had a case with him - but not with me.

In my defense, I will first point out that I was a professional songwriter for several years.  I don't think that the person who wrote these lines (me) could be charged with avoiding metaphor:

Jimmy's lost in memory
sunken eyes that staring, never see.
A hunger rises deep within
but he has not the strength to turn the key.
And he feels like the lost son
wandering far from home,
listening for dreams that never come.
And he wants to follow you
to take him where the healing waters run.

I also must point out that I've proven myself to be capable of handling abstractions and "fruitful distinctions."   I couldn't have earned my Master's degree in Philosophy (from Claremont Graduate School) without reading and understanding an array of difficult works.  (We'll see whether my abilities have held up over the years).

The Use of Metaphor

Metaphor is Ubiquitous
(And all over the place, too)

In fact, I fully realize that metaphors are all around us (oops, there's one - "all around us", a spatial metaphor), if we only pay attention (oops, there's another one - imagery of counting out money).  It's difficult to put together a decent string of sentences (a teeny one - "string") without including a metaphor or two.  (Personal note - I only discovered the metaphors after I had looked these sentences; I didn't plan it that way!)

C.S. Lewis points (darn, just did it again) this out.  I structure his paragraph somewhat here to make it clearer:

"But very often, when we are talking about something which is not perceptible by the five senses, we use words which, in one of their meanings, refer to things or actions that are.  

Everyone is familiar with this linguistic phenomenon and the grammarians call it metaphor.  But it is a serious mistake to think that metaphor is an optional thing which poets and orators may put into their work as a decoration and plain speakers can do without.  

The truth is that if we are going to talk at all about things which are not perceived by the senses, we are forced to use language metaphorically.  Books on psychology, or economics, or politics are as continuously metaphorical as books of poetry or devotion.  . . . all speech about supersensibles is, and must be, metaphorical in the highest degree."  (The Joyful Christian, p 109 - excerpts from his works)

Jesus' Use of Metaphor

Jesus was a storyteller.  He was a teller of parables.  What is the kingdom of heaven like?  It is like a mustard seed, like a field, like a banquet.  His teaching was largely based on metaphor and simile ("like").  "Out of your belly shall flow living water" - "You will never thirst again with the water I give you" - "I am the bread of life" - "I am the Good Shepherd", etc. 

One of the truly amusing parts of the gospels is when Jesus warns his disciples against the "leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees", and, completely misunderstanding him, they fall to arguing about who forgot to bring the bread.  Like the Twelve Stooges.  The disciples' inability to understand figures of speech (not only what the figures mean, but also that they are being employed at all!) is almost a running gag.

In fact, finally at the the "Last Supper", the disciples are relieved to hear straight talk instead of metaphor!

"His disciples said, 'Now You are speaking plainly and not in figures of speech; now we know that You know everything and do not need anyone to tell You.  From this we believe that You came from God.'"  (John 16:29)

I could write a great deal more about Jesus' use of metaphor in the New Testament, but that's not what this study is about.  I hope this is enough to reassure you that I "get it."

Historic Christianity's Use of Metaphor

Beginning in the earliest post-New Testament documents we have, the richness of opportunity for metaphor was not lost on the early writers.  See Clement's "Jesus Christ our Lord gave His blood for us by the will of God; His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls" (To the Romans, xlix).

Ignatius and Polycarp not only understood the metaphor of "death and resurrection" described by Borg as the heart of the message, they went one better.  They lived and died it.  (Ignatius, ironically enough, is often ridiculed for proactively seeking death that he might find Life.)

Even in the ongoing early church, the "literalizers" (in the eyes of the MG Theory) were so involved in developing the spiritual meaning of the stories that they sometimes over-extended their analogies (as in Origen and Augustine), yet their metaphorical zeal didn't stop them from believing in the factuality or historicity of the accounts and claims.

Ironically, the very Christian saints Borg points to as ones who profitably used metaphor, such as Ignatius of Loyola (Spiritual Exercises), did not find their belief in the reality of the gospel events to be a barrier to their meditations.  On the contrary, I would venture to say that one of the points of his Exercises is to put oneself via imagination into the events.  To know that the events never happened, it seems to me, would hamper this approach, not enhance it.

To bring us to current times, an old friend of mine, Greg Laurie, is a "conservative" pastor of a very large church in Southern California.  He told me one time that one of his regrets was that in his early days he sometimes tried to find too much in the stories.  He had tried to get too fancy, to allegorize too much (something Borg, for instance, rightly criticizes in Augustine).  Laurie's belief in the factuality of gospel events has never distracted him from the meaning.

The MG Theory is Defined by What it Denies

The proponents of the MG Theory typically contrast their view with "fundamentalism", "conservative Christianity", "evangelicals", sometimes "traditional Christianity." 

Advocates of the MG theory sometimes actually set belief in the factual nature of the stories and claims about Jesus against the effort to understand the spiritual meaning!  Borg states the following (emphasis mine):

Moreover, when what is said about the canonical Jesus is taken literally and historically, we lose track of the rich metaphorical meanings of the gospel texts.  The gospels become factual reports about past happenings rather than metaphorical narratives of present significance.  (Borg, new book p 191)

But if we focus on the event's "happenedness", we easily become distracted and miss the point.  We then wonder if such a thing could really happen; and if we think it could and did, we then marvel about what Jesus did on a particular day in the past.  But the meaning of this story does not depend upon its "happenedness."  Instead, it is a "sign", as John puts it.  Signs point beyond themselves; to use a play on words, they sign-ify something, and what they signify is their significance.  (Borg, new book p 204)

Now let's stand back and think about this for a minute.  It's no secret that Historic Christianity has always valued both the "happenedness" of the accounts and their spiritual meaning (the metaphorical element).  The MG Theory proposes to take away the element factuality and leave the metaphor.

The bald fact is this:

The MG Theory is characterized not so much by
what it affirms, but by what it denies.  

It is thus a truncated form of Christianity.  To portray it as adding meaning and metaphor to dry, dusty "merely factual" assertions about the past is wildly inaccurate. 

The particularly humorous element in all this is that the proponents of the MG Theory seem to think that they are providing insights into the meaning of the text which their "fundamentalist" Bible-thumping adversaries habitually miss due to their preoccupation with fact.  This is easily refuted by sitting through any Sunday sermon (conservative or liberal).  What do you think pastors do when they prepare a sermon?  They start with a text (or sometimes a concept), and try to draw out the spiritual meaning of that text; and if they're any good, they try to show how it applies to our lives here and now.

Imagine the hundreds of thousands of pastors who sit in their studies, or offices, or living rooms, each Saturday night, extracting the metaphorical content for their flocks.  Even, and especially, those who think the gospels report what happened.  Each one of these is a living counter-example to this contention.

I can attest from personal experience that no matter how "fundamental" a church might be, the pastor is likely to find meaning - yes, metaphorical meaning - to expound.  If the text is about the Good Samaritan (presumably a made-up story), he's going to tell us about reaching out to those in need.  If the text is about Peter walking/not walking on water, we're going to hear about the benefits of trust and faith. 

To sum up:  Historic Christianity, in all of its flavors, has always provided a wealth of imagery, lessons, observations, and personal application.  Rather than adding metaphorical understanding to the text, the MG Theory simply seeks to remove the foundational facts (thus leaving the metaphors groundless).

Terminology:  Factual, Historical, "Real"

Another misconception has already arisen with early reviewers of this work by my use of the term "factual", "historical", or "literal" in opposition to "metaphorical." 

Factual.  It's been pointed out that metaphorical truths are actually "factual" in a sense - that is, they are real truths. 

Historical.  There is a certain amount of verbal wrangling about the proper use of "historical" (that which happened, that which can be known to have happened, that which can be determined by the "historical method", that which historians tell us, etc.)

Literal.  The most problematic of all.  Jesus didn't "literally" say any of the words in our English Bibles; he spoke Aramaic.  Jesus is the Door, but he's not made of wood.  Etc.

I agree.  Therefore I need to make the intended meaning of the words I use as clear as possible.  I'm not trying to do anything sophisticated here.  I merely want to find terms to designate "that which really happened", "events which really occurred", etc.  Also, more difficult, "Real" deity and "Real" resurrection.

Accounts of Events

Since the MG Theory is characterized especially by what it denies, we should ask them for the proper terminology to describe that which they deny.  

Marcus Borg uses these terms, among others:

Bishop Spong:

John Dominic Crossan

I will thus follow suit and will also use the terms "factual", "historical", "literal" more or less interchangeably to designate events which occurred, reportage of events that occurred, or references to events that occurred.  I hope that the explanation provided above will alleviate the confusion.

"Real" Deity

It is comparatively easy to say what we mean by events that "really" happened.  It is more difficult to explain what is meant by "factual" or "literal" or "real" deity, as opposed to "metaphorical" deity. 

I do not find any clear positive definitions in the MG books I've read.  However, I'll call "Real" Deity that which Historic Christianity has always affirmed about Jesus' relationship with God, and which the MG Theory emphatically denies.

First, you could find out whether someone believes in the deity of Jesus "factually" if you asked some follow-up questions.  Historic Christianity would answer "YES" to all of these questions below.  The MG Theory would answer "NO."

"Did Jesus exist before he was born?"
"Do you contrast his pre-incarnation existence with his incarnational existence?"
"Was he the agent of God's creation?"
"Is he the rightful Judge of the universe by virtue of who he is?"
"Did he truly accept worship when he was a man?"
"Did he forgive the sins of those who had never sinned against him?"

And, the general question, 

"Do you identify him in some sense with God, by virtue of his nature, in a way that cannot be said of any mere human?"

The person who understands Jesus' deity metaphorically would say "NO" to these questions, and would probably clarify by adding, "No, Jesus himself was just a man, but lived in communion with God to such an extent that we see him as representative of God, as embodying what we mean by God's love" - perhaps also "We see him as the life-giving experience within the community of faith, and, therefore, as God's way of communicating truth to us."  And, "Jesus is indeed the 'Judge of the world', but in the sense that the moral truths he embraced are valid for us as well."

Note that Historic Christianity also affirms that Jesus lived in communion with God in a unique way, that he is a life-giving experience, God's communication to us, bringer of moral truths, etc. - but it contendsthat he is so much more.  And he is these things by virtue of the fact of his "Real" deity.

"Real" Resurrection

A similar difficulty arises when speaking of a "factual" or "literal" or "real" resurrection.  I propose the same kind of solution.  The person who understands Jesus' resurrection factually would say "YES", and the MG Theory would say "NO" to these questions:

"Was the body indeed gone from the tomb?"
"Was this same body transformed into a resurrection body?"
"Did it have some resemblance to the old body but a difference as well, in that it had taken on new properties and abilities and would never die again?"
"Will the bodies of believers really be raised in a similar way at the last day?"

The person who understands Jesus' resurrection metaphorically would say that nothing special happened to the body (it remained dead), but would affirm that Jesus was "alive" in some other way to his disciples.  

He might say, "Jesus followers, reflecting upon his life and death, came to a new understanding of his Way, and thus he lived in them in that sense."  Or, "Jesus' presence was experienced by his followers to such a degree and in such a way that they believed he was still alive and dealing with them, and that he had passed beyond mere mortal limitations."  Or, closest to Historic Christianity of all, "Jesus' body remained in the tomb, but his disciples and Paul experienced his spiritually resurrected body." 

Or, "We today experience a spiritual presence in worship that we identify with Jesus - this presence represents the 'Risen Christ' to us." ... or, perhaps, "Jesus is 'alive' in the sense that we continue his work."

Note that Historic Christianity would agree with most of this:  that Jesus' followers came to a new understanding, that they experienced him, and that we today experience him and continue to do his work, etc. - but it would also contend that there is so much more.  And that is by virtue of the fact of his "Real" resurrection.