It’s a scandal!

Today’s believers no longer speak today’s language! The Lord of History is doing a "new thing,"1 yet our linguistic journeymen have missed the journey. And, as a result, God’s "representatives" seldom represent God.

They may "walk the walk," but they can’t "talk the talk."

Lost in the past, some know the language of the seminary, but almost none know the language of the sidewalk. Looking into rearview mirrors, many understand scientific reality, but few understand virtual reality. And, learning from soured skeptics, the majority speak knowingly of grim realities, but few speak convincingly of glorious visions.

The Christian "elite" walk confidently in the grammatical, but not in the mystical. They work tirelessly at the political, but not the poetical. And, they are experts in the literal, but not the metaphorical.

In short, they’re great at "God talk," but they don’t know "God’s talk." They embolden their "modern world," yet they don’t realize their world is no longer modern.

Meanwhile, history moves on:

Language stretches beyond the boundaries of language itself. It demands new ways of meaning what we mean. It insists on sayings we’ve never said. And, it requires new—even simultaneous—definitions of both meaning and reality.

Why must church leaders leave us leaderless? Why must seminaries refuse teaching the only subject that promises their survival? And why must we bump into a "New Heaven and New Earth"2 only by accident?

In this "outer space" world, believers shouldn’t ask, "Is anyone out there?" Ask, instead, "Is anyone here speaking the language of this world?"

An Ancient/Future Language

Yet, how do we hear this language? And how do we speak it? How does the church "talk" with the Lord of History and about the Lord of History when the Lord of History has already moved beyond our history?

Amazingly, ancient wisdom answers our questions. The distant past solves our future. Hosea, for example, explains that the Lord of History speaks to us—and then we share this inspiration with others—through damah,3 or prophetic metaphor.

(I’m not hiding behind Scripture simply to provide a quick and easy answer to a difficult question. Hosea’s revelation—as we will see—miraculously confirms its own evidence.)

To begin, biblical prophets were masters of metaphor. They were creators of comparison and contrast—artists of analogy and affinity—virtuosos of similarity and similitude. And they worked these spirit-born visions into endless levels of enigmatic announcements.

Yet—astonishingly—we totally miss the implications. We tragically ignore the connections between then and now. Why? Because their metaphor was a different metaphor.

Prophetic metaphors, for example, are not part of our literal world. They have nothing to do with modern language. They are neither logical ideas, objective truths, nor absolute knowledge. Nor do they reduce to mere figures of speech, decorative images, or colorful language.

In fact, the truth in a prophetic metaphor is not found in the metaphor itself—the message, in other words, is not the metaphor. Further, these metaphors do not submit totally to our control—they are neither of us nor by us.

Of course, every metaphor—whether ancient or modern—puts things side by side that don’t go together, and the tension or "interplay" between these differences defines the metaphor.

But prophetic metaphor—in postmodern times—marks a 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 joining in an unknown intimacy.

And, in this intimacy, metaphor follows few preset rules. It occurs anytime, anywhere, in any form, and on several levels at once. And not having answers—within the metaphor itself—is more essential than having answers.

This ancient/future language flows in a never-ending cycle—initiated by God and completed by God, with us in the middle.

"Necessarily Artistic"

But there’s more—much more. . . .

Few realize Hebrew prophets were also artists. These prophets, for example, created poetically charged worlds beyond the world taken for granted. And, through the force of that inspired artistry, they made "God present and that presence urgent."4

For example, the great narratives of Israel and the prophetic books in our Bible were lyric oracles or poetic songs. We know, of course, the Psalms were originally sung. And when David appointed prophets, he demanded musicians (288 of them!).5 Indeed, prophets and performing artists were so closely connected Ezekiel complained when people thought of him as "just another performer."6

In fact, all the arts—music, poetry, dance, drama, and visual art—were prophetic. Drama, for example, was "acted out by prophets."7 Remember that Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea all resorted to early versions of drama.8 But, whatever the art form, prophets spoke dangerously about dangerous things, and their fictions proved more powerful than facts.

This marriage of prophecy and art makes sense, for metaphor is the seed—the underlying language—of all the arts. And prophetic metaphor is the seed of the most profound arts.

So how else will we speak prophetically without also speaking artistically?

All prophets are necessarily artistic. What a prophet has to say can never be said in (ordinary) prose.9

What It’s Not

Yet, prophetic art is not what we think. So our story of a new language in a new world remains incomplete.

Prophetic art has nothing to do with "high" culture, the "fine arts," or what happens Tuesday night at the museum or concert hall. In other words, it does not pick a time and place to celebrate how great we are. Neither does it bow before art itself, mere "ideas" of beauty, nor the rules of art critics. And, it refuses to extol the glamor of show business personalities or the "pecking order" of culture-climbers.

Further, prophetic art feels no allegiance to the strict borders among music, poetry, dance, drama, and visual art. At the deepest levels, these "categories" are contrived, artificial, and unnecessary. For "felt meaning" is never sensory specific—as in "music is only for the ear," or "visual art is only for the eye."

Neither does prophetic art submit to the shallow decor of a spiritually bankrupt culture—simply filling in the empty spaces like wall-to-wall carpet. It was never intended, for example, to seduce the flesh or set a mood.

Finally, prophetic art doesn’t even have to be "religious." If truly inspired, it needs no doctrine to justify itself. If it comes from God, it needs no "added glory." If it is indeed prophetic, it needs no hidden evangelism.

So we must first see what this art is not. Then, perhaps, we can see what it is.

Incognito Art

To see what art is, though, we must also see what metaphor is: And—simply stated—metaphor is the tension between the "known" and the "unknown." Here’s more:

The "known" is our accepted reality—anything credible, literal, "obvious"—anything common, ordinary, normal—anything familiar or friendly that says who we are.

By contrast, the "unknown" conflicts with the "known"—it differs, deviates, or dissociates from the "known." It catches us off-guard—messes with our expectations—pushes our envelopes. Often, it is a carnival-like violation of the ordinary.

When Isaiah, for example, compares the color of scarlet and the whiteness of snow with the profound realities of sin and grace,10 nothing makes sense! Yet, the tension between the "known" and the "unknown" turns Isaiah’s metaphor into a powerful mediator of Truth.

We find the same tensions in music: In melody, harmony, and rhythm, the "known" and the "unknown" play not only between each of these elements, but within each element as well. When melody goes against its own direction—when harmony goes against its own tonality—when offbeat rhythms go against on-the-beat rhythms . . . mere sound turns into metaphor.

Yet, something startlingly different is happening in the arts today:

Metaphor is breaking the boundaries of all the old stereotypes. Strange new metaphoric tensions, for example, are taking place between things outside of art. Indeed, what we once called "art" is showing up incognito in life itself. And these new tensions may prove the most profound metaphor—or art!—of all time.

Here are a few of these phenomena:

Tensions between old and new, local and global, here and there—between fact and fiction, technology and art, reality and virtual reality—between the essential and the trivial, the sacred and the secular, the risk of everything and the risk of nothing. . . . Comparisons like these seem, at first, unfamiliar, exotic, even alien. Yet, they are pervasive, and they are ushering in the world in which we will live.

Ice and Fire

How do we learn to speak this new language? How do we move responsibly among these new metaphors? How do we survive this epic metamorphosis?

We begin by realizing we are already "swimming" in metaphor. Contrary to the cold logic of our great schools, "most human thought is metaphorical."11 Even "stable scientific knowledge" is metaphorical.12 In fact, "Without metaphor, abstract thought is virtually impossible."13

So nothing is trivial. Nothing is insignificant. Everything "points." Everything "speaks." And, since everything we do is metaphorical—to those who watch and hear us—we may as well do it intentionally. We may as well knowingly become a walking parable, a transforming presence, a vital virtual reality—extracting the precious from the worthless—making all things sacred.

And, yes, there are risks in these roles. Like the Wright brothers, we become "conservative daredevils, cautious prophets."14 And, like those with a foot in both worlds, we speak with the intellectual ice of Episcopalians, yet the emotional fire of Pentecostals.

An Inspired Dialogue

Of course, anything prophetic requires inspiration. So we also harbor an alert expectancy that allows otherness and newness in any and every moment. And—true enough!—otherness and newness are always nearby. Inspired metaphor, in other words, is already there. It hides in the volition of our imagination, in the poetics of our will, in the empowerment of our spirit.

The metaphor in our desire is already in our desire.

Then, in that moment, there comes a quickening—an intuitive sensitivity, a breath of insight—and we get "carried along" as in a great river. Such inspiration is the raw reality of all creativity, all spontaneity.

True originality, of course, "is the prerogative of God alone."15 Still, prophetic metaphor requires a dialogue. It is bidirectional. It is an inspired collaboration. It is a give and take, to-and-fro movement between one place and another.

Again, we find our model in the distant past: Hebrew "meditation" was a whirling, revolving reflection with multilayered metaphor and meaning. In ever deepening circles, the Hebrew faithful contemplated things of the spirit and expressed the resulting visions in a dialogue with God.

This example is far more than poetry. It is frighteningly important: As computer intelligence increases, the leading of the Holy Spirit will be the only advantage we will have!

...not written with (digital code) but with the Spirit of the living God . . . on tablets of human hearts.16

"Utter a Parable"

So we meditate the mystery, but—finally—we shape the mystery. We stand awed by its depth, but—sooner or later—we reveal its depth. In other words, we "do" something. We give form to the "substance," "evidence," and "proof" of things we do not see.17

Like Michelangelo freeing his statues from stone, we disclose what is already there.

Whether in stories, words, movements, sounds, or images, we call forth new meanings beyond the boundaries of language—we proclaim universal truths through vital yet virtual realities—we "call those things that be not as though they were."18

Or, like a quarterback in football, we throw the ball where the receiver is not.19

Usually intuitive, we make off-the-wall comparisons. We put side by side things that don’t go together. We juxtapose ideas having no desire to coexist. We forcibly interface the unalike with absurd similarities.

The more sensuous of these metaphors simply cross from one sense to another—they endlessly translate into unrelated feelings and senses. With "bright voices," "sweet melodies," and "velvet tones," for example, we easily compare sight, sound, taste, and touch. . . .

Then, the rich ambiguity of metaphoric tension finally strips "the veil of familiarity from the world"20 And, in that moment, "(you see) something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible."21

"The Lord came to me, saying . . . utter a parable."22

The Language of God

Calling prophetic metaphor—in its many forms—the "language of God" is neither a figure of speech nor extravagant exaggeration. In both sacred writing and sacred example, Scripture confirms prophetic metaphor as the ultimate communion.

It is the only language, for example, that surpasses its appearance—that transcends present reality—that represents something "not there," something beyond itself, something unseen. And, it is the only language that manifests its own meaning—that reveals autonomous power—that even invokes "the miraculous."23

It is, after all, incarnational language:

The greatest metaphor of all time, for example, was Jesus Himself. Prophetic metaphor confirmed His entire ministry. And Paul said, "(Jesus) is the exact likeness of the unseen God [the visible representation of the invisible]."24 Further, His very death and resurrection, Paul said, were metaphors of our own death and resurrection—in this life and the next life.25

Even today, great minds agree that metaphor has something resembling "supernatural power":

Carl Hausman writes that metaphors are "active forces in the world," that they have the power to bring "something into being."26 Paul Ricoeur insists: They have "the power not only to generate meaning but ultimately to change the world."27 And José Ortega y Gasset confirms, "Metaphor is probably the most fertile power possessed by man."

In other words, metaphor doesn’t simply happen in history, it is history. It doesn’t simply predict the future, it fathers the future. Its fiction proves more powerful than fact.28

Why wouldn’t we already know this? We already live metaphors. We already inhabit stories. In fact, creativity, beauty, felt-meaning, transcendence, and a purposeful life are impossible without metaphor. All the things that matter most—all the things that make life mean what it means—require metaphor.

Is this mere subjectivity? Look, then, at our finest "objectivity":

Metaphor frequently proves itself more real than today’s "reality." It dares to probe beyond the settled formula of today’s "truth." It boldly ignores all the errors of today’s "thinking." Indeed, great thinkers insist it is the only way we can fully grasp the meaning of any word or idea.29 30

Johann-Georg Hamann wrote, "Divine truth appears only through . . . contradictions of reason."31 And Søren Kierkegaard echoed, "All existential truth is paradoxical . . . (and) the language of revelation . . . (is) absolute paradox."32

So it follows that metaphor is the primal and irreplaceable mode of all theology. It is the baptism of our imagination—the empowerment of our spirit—the conversion of our reason.

It is "the Word made flesh."33

Incredible Revelations

Are we ready for this?

A new commonality of language, a new currency of thought, a new lingua franca of the future is proving the new voice of this age. We could call it a new "living language"—a new "incarnation" of the Word—a new emergence of ancient metaphor. . . .

Or, we could call it a new technology of talk—"technology" from the word tekhne, which means "art," and logia, which means "the study of." After all, a larger-than-life art is emerging within this epic age of technology. Granted, this new art often appears in hidden forms—it’s suddenly not "art," it’s surprisingly not "fiction." Yet, the "arts"—hidden or not—are becoming the coin of the realm.

Already at odds with the past, the language of the future is an endowed "doing," while old language remains a "labeling." New believers live evoked "events," while old believers live doctrines. And, new image-makers find meaning in metaphor, while old word-junkies look for renewal in rhetoric.

Yet, the past is past! History tolerates no excuses! It’s not enough to say, "I don’t understand the language." Or, "I’m not important enough to do anything prophetic." Or, "I’m not talented in things artistic."

As they say, "Get over it!"

In both the ancient and future worlds, "The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor."34 The future of faith depends on it. Yes, the church has lost much, but we’ll find our way back through a new language. Yes, our credibility is diminished, but we’ll know the renaissance of hope through a new metaphor. Whether we’re the CEO’s of our little "kingdoms," mainstream secular artists, countercultural rebels, or simply "pew-sitters," we must release the unique calling within.

Strangely enough, history needs more than more Christians, it needs more Christians who respond to history. In a world that refuses us, what could be more important than the prophetic skills to reach that world?

That means wordy "prophets" must become artists—masters of metaphor. And self-absorbed "artists" must become prophets—masters of the "Word." That means the authority of Scripture will require artists to render the text. And the authority of art will require prophets to render the metaphor.

Life, after all, is metaphor. "The fundamental gestures of existence bear a symbolic potential."35 That’s the reason Paul said we must interpret "spiritual truths with spiritual language."36 For Truth is "taught by the Spirit with language appropriate to the Spirit."37

That "appropriateness" is prophetic metaphor, and—in the hands of "unspoken" prophets—it will become the primary tongue of our time—the most powerful force of our history.

The rediscovery of this truth brings incredible revelations. If we understand the inspired language of metaphor, we will understand the laws of all the arts—the awesome power of worship—the interface of our time—and the very language of the Lord of History.

© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt


1. Isaiah 43:19.

2. Revelations 21:1

3. Hosea 12:10 (The Hebrew God always moves in history—He is the "Lord of History." And, in the original Hebrew, Hosea tells us the same God speaks to us through damah or prophetic metaphor—a far more revealing term than the usual translation, "parable.")

4. Eugene H. Peterson, The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2003) pp. 1199, 1200.

5. I Chronicles 25:1, 7; II Chronicles 29:30.

6. Ezekiel 32:33, AMP.

7. Hosea 12:10.

8. I Kings II:29-32, Jeremiah 13:1-9, 27:1-7; Ezekiel 4:1-3, 5:1-4.

9. Hans Urs von Balthasar, quoted in Walter Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), p. 4 (my parentheses).

10. Isaiah 1:18, AMP.

11. Lakoff and Johnson, quoted in Fritjof Capra, The HiddenConnections: Integrating the Biological, Cognitive, and Social Dimensions of Life into a Science of Sustainability (New York: Doubleday, 2002) p. 63.

12. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: TheEmbodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999) pp 78, 95, 96,128.

13. Lakoff and Johnson, pp. 58, 59.

14. James Tobin, "To Fly!" Smithsonian, April, 2003, p. 56.

15. Leanne Payne, Real Presence (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000) p. 80.

16. II Corinthians 3:3, AMP (my parentheses).

17. Hebrew 11:1 (This Scripture is considered the very definition of "faith").

18. Romans 4:17, KJ.

19. Leonard Sweet, informal comment.

20. The words of the poet, Shelley. http://www.bartleby.com/27/23.html

21. Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It (New York: Pocket Books, 1992) p. 101.

22. Ezekiel 24:1-3, AMP.

23. Murray Krieger, quoted in Carl Hausman, Metaphor and Art: Interactionism and Reference in the Verbal and Nonverbal Arts (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989) p. 5.

24. Colossians 1:15, AMP.

25. Romans 6:5.

26. Carl Hausman, Metaphor and Art: Interactionism and Reference in the Verbal and Nonverbal Arts (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989) pp. 5, 111, 198.

27. Morny Joy, "Images: Images and Imagination," The Encyclopedia of Religion, 1987 ed., VII, l08.

28. Walter Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), p. 6.

29. Brueggemann, p. 9.

30. C. S. Lewis, http://dickstaub.com/culturewatch.php?record_id=686

31. Johann Georg Hamann, quoted in Louis Dupré, Symbols of the Sacred (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) p. 58.

32. Louis Dupré, Symbols of the Sacred (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) p. 58.

33. John 1:14.

34. Aristotle, in his Poetics, quoted in http://www.pace.edu/press/briggs.htm

35. Dupré, pp. 122, 123.

36. Corinthians 2:13, AMP.

37. Corinthians 2:13, translated in Gordon D. Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996) p. 80.

Future Church Administrator