METAPHOR: WHAT IT IS
Metaphor will prove the primary voice for the
future church. This voice, however, is not the metaphor we’ve known.
Instead, a new metaphor . . .
. . . marks a major shift from logic to
revelation, from mind to spirit, from proposition to intuition, and
from the literate to the prophetic. As a result, permissible
knowledge and forbidden knowledge are jumping into bed together.
. . . follows no preset rules. Not having
answers—within the metaphor itself—is more essential than having
. . . puts things side by side that don’t go
together, and the tension or "interplay" between these differences
defines metaphor. The metaphor’s "message," however, is not its
. . . occurs anytime, anywhere, in any form, and
on several levels at once.
. . . is an active, mostly autonomous, force.
Great thinkers call it the very language of God—the ultimate
incarnate dialogue. It is a never-ending cycle, initiated by God and
completed by God, with us in the middle.
. . . opens the future to those who know its
For more, read the following:
Often, I mention metaphor as the language of the
future. Often, I describe how metaphor "works." Now, I repeat these
claims in more detail and depth.
Those who prefer exactness . . . those who prefer
language bent to their own ends will call my claims dangerous. For
metaphor follows no preset rules. "No matter how elaborately or
extensively rhetoric classifies metaphor, rhetoric cannot master or
control the metaphoric function."1
If we have to explain it, in other words, it
Yet, we can rise above the limited rhetoric of
the past—the literal figures of speech, the fleeting emptiness of
colorful words, and the clichés
or "dead" metaphors of uninspired worlds. For a new language,
bursting with irony, paradox, and ambiguity, asserts—not in spite of
metaphor, but by means of metaphor—the existence of a larger Truth.2
This metaphor is "prophetic" metaphor. It is an
active, mostly autonomous, force. It disrupts old rules and
introduces new "rules" in the postmodern hunger for Wisdom.
And, gratefully, it arrives at the right moment.
As the modern world breathlessly falters, something outruns our
reality, something outthinks our theology. And, as in a great relay
race, a new medium waits just around the corner to receive the
baton. Already, metaphor has become the object of awe, "central to
aesthetics, the theory of literature, linguistics, and the
philosophy of language." Already, it has become a source of wonder,
"discussed in psychology, the philosophy of mind, (and) the
philosophy of science."3
Metaphor marks a major shift from logic to
revelation, from mind to spirit, from proposition to intuition, and
from the literate to the prophetic. And, the future belongs to those
who see this shift. For people no longer live doctrines. They live
metaphor. They no longer find renewal in rhetoric. They find it in
Sincerity, alone, will not be enough. If future
leaders refuse the language of metaphor they will ensnare us in all
the traps that captured the jealous dogmas of the past. For the
veracity of future realities will belong to metaphor.
Would-be leaders may say, "What reality? . . .
What veracity? . . . Metaphor is not really real! . . . It has no
proof of reality." And, in the passing modern world, this is true.
But in the ancient/future world, "Life happens at the level of
events not of words."4 Life interprets "spiritual truths
with spiritual language."5 Life is "taught by the Spirit
with language appropriate to the Spirit."6
Metaphor is that language. It is both
other-worldly and this-worldly. It is, first, an encounter with God,
only then with man. It is the ultimate incarnate dialogue.
Cinched Up at Both Ends
Yes, metaphor seems a strange communion, an
exotic discourse. Yet, more and more, we are placing side by side
things that contradict each other. We are holding cheek by jowl
totally unrelated feelings and senses. And, we are juxtaposing the
most absurd similarities.
The unresolved tensions in these ridiculous
rapports are like violin strings anchored at one end and cinched up
at the other, rejoicing and suffering at the same time from the
traveling bow. Such interfaces between things having no desire to
coexist break the bounds of language and rupture reality while, at
the same time, they birth reality’s truer essence.
It is a covert language, a strange zone between
medium and message, that reflects autonomous Truth, that envisions
surpassing vision, that generates transcendent reality.
...seeing something noticeable which
makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you
see something that isn’t even visible.7
More than anything else, metaphor is controlled
contradiction—the commonplace conflict between contraries, the
tension between unrelated realities, the juxtaposition of opposites.
. . . Or, put more simply, metaphor simply puts things side by side
that don’t go together.
And, according to great thinkers, this
contradiction is the very language of God. This paradox, in other
words, is our only hope for revelation, our only access to Truth.
Johann-Georg Hamann wrote, "Divine truth appears only through . . .
contradictions of reason."8 And Søren
Kierkegaard echoed, "All existential truth is paradoxical . . .
(and) the language of revelation . . . (is) absolute paradox."9
So metaphor stands on "known" things, yet also
their "unknown" comparisons . . . the familiar, yet also the
unfamiliar . . . the same, yet also the difference. It exists, in
other words, through both sense and nonsense . . . relevance and
irrelevance . . . the "force of habit" and the "shock of the new."
It is a strange, yet reciprocal, relationship.
The "known" launches us into the unknown, while the "unknown" finds
anchor in the "known." The "known" brings body to the "unknown,"
while the "unknown" adds power to the "known."
"See now all the works of the Most High: they come
in pairs, the one the opposite of the other."10
The "known" is anything that reflects our
"accepted" reality. It’s anything credible, literal, or "obvious"
that mirrors our "real" world. It’s anything common, ordinary, or
normal that runs our run-of-the-mill lives. In short, it’s anything
familiar or friendly that points to who we are. It’s the "eye-candy"
and "ear-candy" of everything that belongs to us.
Or, we may simply call it "tradition."
Tradition, though, is both the "good news" and
"bad news" of all that belongs to the historical church. It claims
all the manmade "classics" of creeds and calendars, modes and moods.
As a result, the "known" in one culture will shift suddenly to the
"unknown" in another. The comfortable code language in one
institution will sound strange in another. And the trendy styles of
one congregation will seem estranged in another.
The "known," after all, is us! So we must admire
ourselves with caution. When we give ourselves the starring role in
our religious drama, we resemble actors practicing in front of
mirrors. Culture, in such moments, becomes a cult. For that reason
the "known" should reflect—as much as possible—those experiences
common to all cultures, all genders, all ages, all races.
In other words, as we "go into all the world,"11
the "known" must be known in all the world. If our "Word" is not
universal, for what reason does it exist?
Yet—in one form or another—we need the "known."
Metaphor requires it. And God requires it. Nature proves the Creator
has no problem with form. When the Word became "flesh," there was no
problem with form. When Jesus infused common, ordinary things with
grace, there was no problem with form. And when Paul witnessed the
Greek world-view to its own philosophers, he purposefully chose a
After all, something has to be relevant to our
lives. We hold those things dear that rank second only to our face
and name. And we make connections between faith and context only
within our context.
We know these needs especially today! We sense a
longing for the old and familiar as time hurtles past the threshold
of a new millennium. We sense a desire for order as wildness invades
a new world. And, we sense a clinging panic as life increases its
Still, there’s more than even these needs. Both
revelation and the meaning of revelation require the "known."
Artists, for example, would go mad without preset limits. And new
visions would remain short-lived without interpretive order. In
short, the Spirit must take on body, and the body must take on
And that—finally—is the purpose of the "known."
Yet, the "known" alone is not enough. Without the
"unknown," the "known" turns tedious and tiresome, sickly and stale,
vain and repetitive. And its force of habit sires only ritualism and
dead orthodoxy. The Second Vatican Council agreed: "Something more
is required than the mere observance of the laws governing valid and
When a move of God becomes institutional, we
mistake the oyster for the pearl. When we reduce God to manageable
proportions, we confuse culture for content. When we pragmatically
and pridefully "program" worship, liturgy turns into something
sacred only in itself.
God doesn’t like the "known" alone. He is the
great Creator and created us in His image. He is always doing "new
things."14 Biblical prophets complained about empty and
external forms more than anything else, and Jesus grieved about the
"We do not want to quench the spirit of the
faithful with tedium."15
By contrast, the "unknown" boldly conflicts with
the "known." It deliberately interrupts the "known." It even
disagrees with the "known." The "unknown," as a result, is anything
different, deviant, or dissociated from the "known."
It is "otherness."
Often subtle, often not, it catches us off-guard.
It messes with our expectations. It impertinently pushes our
envelopes, leaving us confused and perplexed. Often a carnival-like
violation of the ordinary, it parades a paradox for which we have no
Yet, this very violation suggests a relevant
mystery. This sudden hiddenness sounds an essential otherness. And
this unraveled enigma prefigures something still to be known. We are
challenged for answers! We are forced to figure out something . . .
something that, finally, can’t be figured out.
Still, with all its obscurity, we need the
"unknown." We need its very "oddness." Something, after all, has to
strip "the veil of familiarity from the world"16 and
restore the strange within the common.
Again, this is God language. "That which glides
across the face of the unknown takes on the qualities of the
unknowable."17 So, with the metaphor itself, not having
answers is more essential than having answers.
And, like the "known" alone, the "unknown" alone
is never enough. When we seek only to destroy the "known," the
"unknown" turns to terror. When we push aside the past, our wrong
relevance tends toward apostasy. When we worship only novelty and
fads, our "new wine"—intended for "new wineskins"—may as well be
poured through a fish net.
Even biblical prophets avoided overdoing the
"unknown." Hebrew culture, for example, set limits on how "far-out"
their prophets could go. And any prophet wishing to protect his
influence stayed within accepted bounds.18 In the same
way, Christian saints warned against seeking ecstasy or "otherness"
for its own sake.
So metaphor never appears out of nothing. It
always requires the "known" as well as the "unknown." Our goal is
not to scorn or discard valid traditions, but to allow metaphor to
eternally recreate them.
"I have been hesitant and fearful . . . because of
the fickly and fastidious spirits . . . who delight only in
Metaphor, though, is more than the mere presence
of the "known" and the "unknown." Metaphor is the tension between
the "known" and the "unknown." And that tension occurs anytime,
anywhere, in any form, and on several levels at once.
. . . the more complex, the more tense; the more
tense, the more meaning.
Of course, we’re familiar with the tensions
within a metaphor. Less familiar are the tensions between a metaphor
and its message—between a metaphor and what it "points to," between
a metaphor and its meaning. These are the tensions between metaphor
and meditation, metaphor and depth, metaphor and "non-sense."
Then, there are also the tensions between the
world of a metaphor and the world of the Spirit—between us and
"not-us," between being and nonbeing. These are the tensions between
nearness and transcendence, between the One "made flesh" dwelling
among us and the distant Holy Other, between the particular and the
As co-creators of metaphor, however, our inspired
collaboration deals primarily with the tensions within a metaphor.
So let’s look at some of the more typical tensions:
The prophets were artists of analogy and affinity
. . . virtuosi of similarity and similitude . . . creators of
comparison and contrast. Isaiah said, for example, "Though your sins
be as scarlet they shall be white as snow."20 And Jesus
continued these same tensions between the "known" and "unknown":
Want to be first? Be last! Want to be greatest? Be Least! Want to
find yourself? Lose yourself!
And Paul kept the same absurdities: Joy is in
your sufferings! Power is in your frailty! Life is in your dying! In
all of his writings, in fact, he juxtaposes endless pairs of
opposites: shame and honor, suffering and comfort, frustration and
glory. . . . He exhorted his believers, in other words, with the
unlikely pairing of both common sense mind and nonsense spirit. He
prayed and sang, for example, with both intelligence and intuition.21
Today, similar "knowns" and "unknowns" cross
paths in strange, yet exciting, new ways. Science and art are
residing in the same metaphors. Permissible and forbidden knowledge
are jumping into bed together. And the emotional fire of
Pentecostals and the intellectual ice of Episcopalians are walking
the same aisle.
The Old and the New
Often, the conflict churns between old and new.
In fact, the history of the church struggles between the
continuities as well as the radical breaks, the legacies as well as
the disavowals. For these reasons, St. Augustine described God’s
beauty as "ever ancient, ever new."22 And Jesus taught,
Every teacher and interpreter of the
sacred Writings . . . is like a householder who brings forth
out of his storehouse treasure that is new and [treasure
that is] old [the fresh as well as the familiar].23
By example, Jesus’ followers retained their
Jewish traditions, yet blatantly proclaimed their bodies replaced
the temple and their souls its priests.24 They kept, as
well, the ancient custom of religious sacrifice, yet Christ became
their new "sacrificial lamb"!
In similar churnings, order and freedom have
faced-off when the church was most alive. At the height of Hebrew
worship, for example, King David held the tension between rules and
spontaneity. His technically skilled musicians actually doubled as
inspired prophets. Later, St. Paul required his followers to sing
and pray with both mind and spirit. He insisted, for example, that
their public improvisations always prove coherent. And, in America,
the early Quakers practiced great personal restraint, yet spoke
under the compulsion of the Holy Spirit. They demanded biblical
literacy, yet bowed to mystical interpretation.25
Jazz—at its best—exhibits the modern version of
this order and freedom. Though it remains a spirit-moved
improvisation, it still bows to unspoken aesthetic bounds. Though it
wildly stretches traditional guidelines, it never steps outside jazz
Sentiments and Sensations
It’s no surprise that opposite feelings also
create potent metaphoric tensions. For the body is an essential
power in the embodied mind, and emotion is an essential power in the
embodied metaphor. The sharp pains of human sorrows and the ecstatic
joy of God’s assurance, for example, challenge each other wherever
metaphor builds depth and empathy.
Jeremiah promised we will come into God’s
presence with dancing as well as weeping.26 And Isaiah
described our triumphant Savior as "a man of sorrows, and acquainted
with grief."27 Indeed, the source of our "Good News" was
a man who wept, went sleepless, homeless, and finally laid down his
Paul reminded us to "exult in our troubles and
rejoice in our sufferings."28 True spiritual joy, in
other words, always recalls a taste of bitter in its sweetness, and
"Godly grief . . . never brings regret."29
Of course, such paradox blows the modern mind.
The closest we come to such absurdity is the secret grief of the
happy clown. We often find, however, the juxtaposition of these
emotions and feelings in the arts. Music, for example, sets a mood,
and the most profound music sets opposing moods. We find "struggle"
and "celebration" in the same music, often in the same moment! And,
African-Americans celebrate joy with the same music in which they
grieved during slavery.
At the deepest levels, metaphor presents both the
ugly and the beautiful, both terrifying power and fascinating
mystery, both the unrepellent and the repellent. Strange notions
appear: "Terrible beauty." "Furious calm." "One mark of the Holy, it
must always be remembered, is that it repels as well as attracts: it
daunts as well as fascinates."30
Finally, the most common sensuous metaphors cross
from one sense to another. Though considered "off-the-wall" by
decapitated modern minds, we live these tensions between one feeling
and another. We not only "see," for example, we also "feel" we are
seeing. Our senses, in other words, have feelings. And, for that
reason, we easily compare sight to touch, sound to smell, senses to
feelings. . . . Of course, these are "synesthetic" metaphors.
Synesthetic metaphor has kept the church alive.
Through the dark ages of the unknown Latin mass, the Word became
"incarnate" through music, bells, aromas, tastes, gestures,
processions. . . .
Postmodern heirs need be grateful.
Tensions in the Arts
Though modern culture cannot stand unresolved
enigma, we openly accept it in the arts. So the easiest journey to
understand metaphor begins with the arts. And, for our purpose, we
begin with music:
The first metaphor in music enters with the
tension between sound and music. Sound is part of the common,
unadorned "real" world. Or, to a scientist, it is part of the
ordinary vibration of molecules. When formed into music, however, it
no longer qualifies as common sense or common science. It leaves the
realm of reality. If a newscaster, for example, suddenly sings the
news—as in an opera—we would feel ashamed . . . even horrified! Yet,
this basic metaphoric tension occurs constantly in music.
Then, we find a multitude of metaphors within
music itself. The elements of music—melody, harmony, rhythm,
texture, timbre, and form—all interact. The "known" and the
"unknown" play not only between each element, but within each
element as well.
Rhythm, for example, contains a common "beat"—a
clock-like, perfunctory pulse that resembles our boring breathing.
But breaking this beat with unknown rhythms . . . with surprising
punctuations . . . brings breathless wonder. The same wonder occurs
when melody goes against its own direction . . . when harmony goes
against its own tonality . . . and so on. . . .
With all these tensions comes the illusion of
"movement." Listen to musicians talk. Their words describe the
"movement" of music—how it "steps, leaps, shifts, runs, marches,
drives, relaxes. . . ." Yet, music can’t "move"! Pitches may
change—higher, lower, faster, slower, louder, softer—but they can’t
move! So we confront, again, known "changes," but unknown
Among other metaphors in music, we mentioned
above, of course, the dramatic conflict between differing
moods—struggle against assurance, celebration against struggle. . .
. With these and all the other possibilities, music is a virtual
skyscraper of endless levels of metaphoric tension. So it is with
all the arts.
Space does not permit similar accounts of the
other arts, the tensions between the differing arts, or how these
artistic tensions flow freely into all of life.
Yes, life is art. There are no borders between.
Holding the Tension
So, the metaphor is the tension. And the tension
is the metaphor. The gap between the "known" and the "unknown" is
its only power to point to Power. The interplay between differences
and resemblances is the only way metaphor does what it does. And
this dynamic tension is the only thing that grabs us, excites us,
and takes us on its journey.
Metaphor, after all, is neither the candle nor
the wick, but the burning.
This burning is the communion that keeps the
dialogue open between "here" and "there." Its tense resonance is the
medium of exchange between the "signifier" and the "signified." Its
insistent innuendo is the traffic between metaphor itself and the
world to which it points.
So we must keep the metaphor "alive," keep it
"fresh." We must allow it, for example, to always remain partially
hidden. We must protect its prophetic environment, the coexistence
of its radically different realities. Though we benefit from its
revealed visions, we must finally leave the metaphor’s tension
partially unresolved. We must finally submit to its world of serious
In short, we must bring heaven down to earth and
earth up to heaven . . . and keep it that way!
A "live" metaphor is like a rapidly flowing river
where the opposite shores stand close by, but never touch. When the
banks widen, the river loses its power. When the banks come
together, forming a lake, the water stops. So we must retain the
force of its flow.
Or, it is like Judeo-Christian meditation where
multiple metaphors never run out of revelation . . . where a
reflective journey gives a growing vision of the same thing . . .
where a stream of consciousness continually brings differing
perspectives of the whole. In other words, the meditation of
metaphor is a never-ending cycle, initiated by God and completed by
God, with us in the middle.
When we stop this tension with our "final"
interpretations, the empowering stops. And, then, we have a "dead"
metaphor. When we resolve the dissonance in our desperate need for
concord, the "harmony" turns static. Then, of course, we have a
cliché. When we let ourselves
off the hook with disinterest, the "otherness" disappears. So
finally, we are left with miniature spiritual ghettos.
If we are to move with the Lord of History, we
must see the critical necessity of juxtaposition in the postmodern
world. Indeed, this juxtaposition—this tension within metaphor—will
prove the primary voice of our time.
"Trust only movement. Life happens at the level of
events not of words. Trust movement."31
© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt
1. Lewis Edwin Hahn, Editor, The Philosophy of
Paul Ricoeur (Chicago: Open Court, 1995) p.225.
2. Louis Markos,
3. Daniel Gilman, "Book Reviews," Modern
Philology, Vol. 89, Issue 3, Feb. 1992, p. 462.
4. Alfred Adler,
5. I Corinthians 2:13, AMP.
6. Gordon D. Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the
People of God (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers,
1996) p. 80.
7. Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It
(New York: Pocket Books, 1992) p. 101.
8. Johann Georg Hamann, quoted in Louis Dupré,
Symbols of the Sacred (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) p. 58.
9. Louis Dupré,
Symbols of the Sacred (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) p. 58.
10. New American Bible.
11. Mark 16:15, AMP.
12. Acts 17:16-34.
13. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,
formulated by Vatican II and reprinted in Robert E. Webber, Editor,
The Complete Library of Christian Worship, Vol 2 (Nashville:
Star Song, 1994) p. 319.
14. Isaiah 43:19.
15. Martin Luther, Formula Missae (1523)
quoted in Robert E. Webber, Editor, The Complete Library of
Christian Worship, Vol 2 (Nashville: Star Song, 1994) pp.
16. The words of the poet, Shelley.
17. William Irwin Thompson, The Time Falling
Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality, and the Origins of
Culture (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981) p. 87.
18. Robert R. Wilson, "Prophecy: Biblical
Prophecy," The Encyclopedia of Religion, 1987 ed., XII,
20. Isaiah 1:18, KJ.
21. I Corinthians 14:15.
22. St. Augustine, Confessions,
23. Matthew 13:52, AMP.
24. I Corinthians 3:16-17; I Peter 2:9.
25. Webber, II, p. 86.
26. Jeremiah 31:4, 9.
27. Isaiah 53:3.
28. Romans 5:3, 4.
29. II Corinthians 7:10, AMP.
30. Paul Waitman Hoon, "Corruption of Worship by
Aestheticism," The Complete Library of Christian Worship,
edited by Robert Webber, Vol II, p. 404.
31. Alfred Adler.