Metaphors Bring Life to Reading

by drwinn on March 23, 2015

We tend to take the words on a page with literalness when we read. Having taught Bible as Literature for many years in Southern California, I know this to be true. In one of my early classes, I began by holding the Bible and asking: “What is this?” As you can imagine, I received all kinds of answers: Scripture, the Bible, the Word of God, and the Sword of the Spirit among others. On that occasion, one lady responded that she didn’t trust the words of the Bible.

I asked, “Which ones?”

She responded, “The ones in black, I only believe the ones in red.”

I inquired further. “Why only the red words?”

She simply replied, “Because, the red words are the words of Jesus.”

Not only did she discount all the Old Testament and most of the New Testament, she literally believed that only the red words were believable.

I asked her if every red word meant exactly what the dictionary defined the English word to mean?

Her answer was quick and decisive? “Yes!”

I asked her if Jesus used any figures of speech like metaphors anywhere in the red words?

She said she didn’t really know, but she didn’t believe that he did because he meant what the words meant.

By the way, the words “red letter” have been added to the word “Christian” so,…

[By the way, the words “red letter” have been added to the word “Christian” so, “red letter Christians” are folks who assert that they have committed themselves first and foremost to doing what Jesus said. While doing what Jesus said is surely important, it seems to me to be another in a long line of reductionist ideas that Christendom fondly creates and holds to.]

We had an open conversation about those comments with the class. It was a delightful way to begin.

In the Western world, we have trouble with figures of speech, well, some of the time. When we hear political reporters say, “Today the White House said…” most folks don’t get a picture of the doors of the White House opening and closing with words floating out in sound waves that we hear with our ears. Rather, we understand that “White House” stands for something else. It is actually a metonymy (a figure of speech that replaces the name of a thing with the name of something else with which it is closely associated). We too often are focused on reading everything in a monotone literal fashion without allowing for the beauty of figures of speech. Funny, we allow figures of speech in a basketball game from the announcer’s mouth, but don’t really like to think about such in the Bible.

Metaphors are needed, even though the ChurchWorld appears on the service to be alive and healthy with its myriad of megachurches, conferences, seminars, and endless chatter from its spokespersons with messages ranging from “God wants you to be rich” to “if you just become spiritually disciplined enough God will accept you.” In the midst of all the hoop-law, there is a growing nervousness about the lasting feasibility of the ChurchWorld empire template of faith and life acknowledged by its growing number of exiles.

Empire and exile are words that can function as metaphors to help our imagination.

Empire and exile are words that can function as metaphors to help our imagination. The First Testament Scriptures have many instances of major exiles and empires: from the Garden, exile to Egypt, to Assyria, to Babylon, and to Rome. From Egypt to Rome, Israel lived within the shadows of those great and powerful empires, which exerted political, social, and economic power over them. The same was true in the turn of the story for the ecclesia in the Second Testament. Brueggemann writes extensively about exile and empire and suggests that we can view these metaphors as ways of seeing and understanding similar situations by pointing them slightly in a different direction. In his writings, he uses these metaphors to make the comparison between Israel and Babylon and then points them to the church and the USAmerica governmental system.

In my imagination, I want to point these two metaphors toward the ChurchWorld (read institutional church: empire) and the thousands of folks who are either leaving that institution or are being asked to leave that institution (exiles). These exiles remain a vibrant part of the Body of Christ even if they don’t attend the focused Sunday morning and multiple other meetings of the ChurchWorld at the corner of walk and don’t walk. They live in exile in the shadows of the ChurchWorld empire.

Those living in the shadows of the ChurchWorld empire, have been abused, maligned, cast away, marginalized, told they have sin, told they have a religious spirit, along with other hurtful things. Recently, I heard of a person living and working in the ChurchWorld system that she was in, being told by the senior leader of that system that the reason she had cancer was that she had sin in her life. There is no retort for this kind of stupidity. I am not saying that all leaders in the ChurchWorld would denigrate their congregants in such a way, but rather that that kind of stuff is more prevalent than we hear. Yep, bad theology just makes you stupid! I am sure many of you who are reading have similar stories in your encounter with the ChurchWorld. Some of your stories became deal breakers or the final straw that broke the camel’s back.

You don’t have to continually live in the fear that “the man” will control you when “the Man” has set you free.

When folks become exiles from the ChurchWorld, they discover a loss of an ordered world of perceived security with meaning and solidarity, which the ChurchWorld provided them. In exile, they find themselves in a different culture where their most cherished and dependable symbols are now insulted, or out of hand dismissed. Outside the ChurchWorld, exiles grow in their alienation of the dominant values of the ChurchWorld and its power structure and financial display of grandeur and lifestyle in larger churches and a continued almost begging for funds in smaller churches. Those who question and reflect truly become “resident aliens,” as they seek to find ongoing meaning outside the ChurchWorld system. They are not exiles from the Body of Christ, the ecclesia. They still have a vibrant faith as followers of Jesus. In their new life situation, exile folks need to speak out individually or collectively against the tyranny of the dominant ChurchWorld culture. You don’t have to continually live in the fear that “the man” will control you when “the Man” has set you free.

If you were marginalized in the ChurchWorld, don’t become marginalized as exiles by losing your voice. Find your prophetic voice and use it. While there is a sense of loss and displacement, there is surely a new “home” away from the “home” that is now gone to you as you live life as an alien. Exiles are talking about and telling an alternative, subversive story from those in the dominant ChurchWorld empire.

Below are some thoughts that might be helpful.

When you begin to speak and tell your story, here’s what you can expect: the modes of authority may seek to progressively diminish you for speaking out, labeling you with all kinds of out of hand epithets. Don’t let their insinuations keep you quiet. As your journey continues in exile, Scripture has something to say to you that will bring comfort out of your pain.

Brueggemann writes, “How can we have enough freedom to imagine and articulate a real newness in our situation?” [read exile from ChurchWorld] (Brueggemann. Prophetic Imagination. 39). If we begin with such a question, we may already be surrendering to the ChurchWorld system that we only need to reform the way things are done in a failing system. Rather, a realistic possibility for an answer and its implementation is not the question to be asked. Often accusations are leveled at those who rattle the cage of the power structure suggesting that you did not participate in finding a solution. But, therein lies the rub. Solutions are actually the wrong place at which to start because a lot of the time simple solutions are simply rearranging the chairs on the deck of the local Titanic.

The real question according to Brueggemann is:

“Is it imaginable?”

“Is it imaginable?” That is to say, can we imagine something in a totally different way? What we need to consider is can we discover a new imagination since our present imagination has been so corrupted by the ChurchWorld system that we have been cheated of our willingness to “think an alternative thought.” (39).

We may have become so practice/praxis oriented that we search endlessly for solutions to problems. This drive for practice goes on in megachurches, large churches, middle-size churches and small churches alike. We have become increasingly competent in implementation. But, the drive for implementation is what causes our imagination to shrink because questioning systems and imagining alternatives is seen as a danger to the present system of operation (39-40). Scripture embraces the idea of imagination; the system of today seeks to kill it off! What’s changed?

…singing “Jesus is my girlfriend” songs,…

To those of you who are living in exile from the ChurchWorld empire, whether by your own choice or by the choice of its power structure, there is good news. There is a way to find comfort. It comes through complaint. The children of Israel knew how to do it, but somehow the ChurchWorld has lost sight of its practice, with its oversimplification of the idea of love, often demonstrated by its singing “Jesus is my girlfriend” songs, fluffy, sometimes aloof, and often without very much substance as compared to the songs found in the First Testament, which are full of figures of speech offering hope in the midst of pain.

Israel, on the other hand, could and were allowed to complain as a group or as individuals and it was considered worship! In today’s world, in the gathering houses at the corner of walk and don’t walk, folks gather and surround themselves with others of like mind doing virtually the same thing every Sunday ad nauseam. The net results: there is little to no growth except a growth in fear of those who don’t seem to think in the same way that folks who live in exile may think.

Next time, thinking about the worship of complaint.

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