Metaphor and Literature

By Kersley Fitzgerald

The other day I was pondering to a friend how the computer age is changing people's reading of the Bible. It used to be that people read literature, rich with language and metaphor and imagery. Now we either write code and expect binary answers to all our questions, or we read snippets in a social media setting without taking the time to really contemplate what's being said. I think both computer language and computer-based interaction are creating a disconnect between modern readers and the metaphorical language of the Bible.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
This, of course, is Dickens's opening paragraph for A Tale of Two Cities. Anyone with half a thought toward metaphor would recognize Dickens was explaining the dichotomy of the situation in France and England at the time. In some ways, for some people, at a particular moment, things were looking really good. For others, life was miserable. Hope mingled with despair; light with dark. Times were so fluid and confusing that even the eternal state of one's soul seemed to be in flux. Is this biblical? Of course not. But when faced with true love in the midst of the French Revolution, nothing seems certain. And yet everything does.

Had anything like this appeared in the Bible, scores of modern readers would declare themselves atheists because surely the God of the universe wouldn't contradict Himself. And yet the Bible does contain passages that seem to contradict. Should we acquire wisdom (Proverbs 4:7)? Or is it futile (1 Corinthians 1:19)? Should we argue with fools (Proverbs 26:5) or not (Proverbs 26:4)?

Sometimes, life isn't binary yes/no, on/off, 1/0. Sometimes it's both/kinda/depends/maybe. Context matters. For Dickens's wine shop owners, the Defarges, life is miserable but the coming revolution promises great things. For Miss Manette, love is grand until her beloved is imprisoned. Similarly, human wisdom is profitable to a point, as long as we realize God's wisdom is more valuable.

Equally vexing is the Bible's habit of using turns of phrase. It used to be that readers could easily infer the meaning of metaphors from the symbolism. Nowadays, however, the computer age has made us so literal that the modern reader takes imagery at face value and squeezes the meaning into nonsense. "Stiff-necked" people do not need a chiropractor (Exodus 32:9). "Flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 3:8) would indeed sound sticky. And an "iron sky" will not be magnetic (Leviticus 26:19).

Sometimes the metaphors in the Bible are cultural. To "uncover your father's nakedness" (Leviticus 18:6-19) takes some parsing out. A "Tree of Moreh" (Genesis 12:6) sounds like a nice picnic spot until you realize it's more like a pagan totem pole. And the Sirocco, or East Wind (Genesis 41:6), means nothing to those of us on the front range of Colorado where the warm Chinooks come from the south. But whether they are cultural or not, if a phrase seems to contradict theology, or if it sounds ridiculous, we need to be willing to dig deeper, determine if it's metaphor, and then figure out what the metaphor means.

Shakespeare may be the literary master of metaphor and imagery, and I leave you with a most appropriate passage from The Tempest. The verses are what we should all hope for when reading literature, sacred or profane, that expects more from us than 1s and 0s.
The charm dissolves apace;
And as the morning steals upon the night,
Melting the darkness, so their rising senses
Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantel
Their clearer reason.
Their understanding
Begins to swell; and the approaching tide
Will shortly fill the reasonable shore
That now lies foul and muddy.

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Published 8-21-12