Metaphor or Five

These are my notes for a portion of the Wordsmithy conference we held, just now concluded. Many thanks to the students who participated.

You will soon discover that I am using the word metaphor in a broad sense. Some allow it to expand to include simile—this is that, and this is like that are close enough. But I want to use it (for my purposes here) to include any figure of speech that makes connections and tie-ins to other parts of the world. My reasons for this should become apparent as I go on. It is not like I am a grammarian or anything.

But remember what I said last night. Wodehouse put it well when he said, “The handicap under which most commencing authors struggle is that they don’t know how to write.” Let’s see what we can do to address at least a portion of the trouble.

Let me begin by starting where we must start, which is where we are. We are finite and limited. This means that we must start from somewhere, and not from everywhere. In order to start from everywhere, we would have to be everywhere, and we are not.

But as John Calvin points out at the beginning of his magisterial Institutes, we must know ourselves to know God and must know God to know ourselves. This—this glory of epistemological finitude—is all running in the background of what I am saying here. I say this because I don’t want anyone thinking that I believe that we can find some autonomous starting point. No—but we must find some particular starting point, and where better than where you are? Start from where you are, and never from anyplace else. That’s the first rule.

But if we start where we are, we should know from the outset that we cannot hang everything in the cosmos from what we have experienced—it obviously cannot bear the weight of it. But we know that whatever we experience down here that is good must itself be hanging from something. Every good finite thing answers to something in the Godhead. The world is not a mirror of God—it is not that simple—but following Augustine, we have to understand that we find vestigia Trinitatis everywhere we go. For example, we encounter love down here, and we know that this is only possible because God is love, and He is love because He is triune. God’s nature, God’s character, God’s attributes, are necessarily prior to all created things logically or conceptually. But they are not necessarily prior to our experience of them. What is logically prior need not be chronologically prior.

This is another way of saying that our knowledge of God is mediated to us through the created order—by mother’s milk, by a warm towel right out of the dryer, by a night sky with stars so close you could knock them down with a garden rake, by a surly ocean chewing on the beach. (I do not deny that there is an immediate knowledge of God that is His gift in regeneration, but such a grace, even when given, is never given in isolation from the mediated grace. We live in the world God made, and if we are given the immediate gift of living again, it is in the world God made.)

So what does all this have to do with metaphor? Our experience of metaphor is this: we find two disparate things and put them together and it somehow works. Let me give you a few, inspired by Wodehouse the master. He had a face like a diseased custard. She had a headache that started at the ankles and got worse going up. He was a high-stepper, and was festooned in blondes. The building was done out with an eczema of red brick

You can also learn a lot (about what not to do) by researching some of the bad metaphors out there. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

The fact that everything connects does not mean that anything connects. This is high complexity, not a game of cosmic willy nilly.

Now suppose you were in a workshop and you saw a host of little parts and pieces all over the work bench. You stood and stared at it all for an hour or more, not knowing what the pieces could possibly be a part of, or even if they were parts of the same thing. Now suppose further that while you are standing there, another person comes in and starts piecing things together. He looks for a second, picks something up with his right hand, and snaps it into the piece he is holding in his left. He does this over and over, ten times, say.

What can you say about this? You would conclude, rendering general by induction, that he is going to reassemble whatever it was on the bench there, and you are going to stand there and watch him do it. He has only done this operation ten times, but the connections he has made make you think that there must be many more. In order for him to keep going like that, there has to be a logical assumption you make about the process, but your experience of the whole thing assumes the reality of that logic without knowing the nature of it. You know that something is without yet knowing what it is.

When we encounter someone who is gifted with metaphorical ability—a Chesterton, say—the astonishment we feel has to do both with his giftedness, and with the connectedness of the world. To watch this being done is to be given an appetizer, with the world as the main course. To be astonished at Chesterton is to be astonished with the world. To be astonished at Wodehouse is to be astonished with the world. To read metaphorically rich writers is to learn something about them, of course, but that is not the main thing you are learning.

Just as some people come to know the love of Christ because they encountered it first in the love of their next door neighbor, so also some come to understand that the world is tied completely together, with Christ as the arche, the integration point, because they first encountered it in someone who said the kingdom of God is like a woman who put leaven into three measures of flour. This is like that, here. This is like that, here. This is like that, here. What must the universe be like? And how can it be like that?

So we step up from the metaphorical grace of the poet to the metaphorical genius of the Lord’s teaching. We then step up from the Lord’s words to the fact that the Lord is Himself a Word. And I must jump ahead for a moment.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1-14).

The Word was alongside God, distinct from Him (with) and the Word was Himself God (not distinct from Him in another sense). This Word was a Word, and as such was a revelation of the one who spoke Him. We have God the Speaker, God the Spoken, and God the Interpretation. We have God the Writer, God the Written, and God the Reader. This is the triune reality, the way it was before the worlds were made, and the way it would have been had the worlds never been made. God did not need to make the world in order to express Himself. He was expressing Himself fine already. But He did need to create the world if we were ever to see it.

But God the Written was not just written for publication within the triune life. He became flesh and dwelt among us—He was written for publication here.

Now just as giving someone a cold cup of water in the name of Jesus is a testimony to the ultimate, final, and eternal nature of Jesus, so also the wise use of metaphor testifies to the integrated nature of all reality. In Christ all things hang together.

“And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence” (Col. 1:18).

The word used here for beginning is arche—He is the one in whom all things hang together. There are metaphors because Christ is the Metaphor. Remember that the whole earth is full of the reverberations of His glory. The whole earth is full of the echoes of His glory. The whole earth resonates with His glory. Look—that sunflower is like a tractor wheel . . . and it is only like a tractor wheel because Jesus is Lord.

Leave a Reply

6 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
4 Comment authors
Valerie (Kyriosity)FrederickaAaron SnellMike Bull Recent comment authors

newest oldest most voted
Notify of

Great stuff. What gets me is that Christian academia generally gets this stuff under its belt, yet struggles with the consistent symbol language used in the Bible, or is scared of it. I wrote a book called God’s Kitchen to help things along, but Christians flip through it and look at me in horror! If God is the arche, surely we must get the Bible’s symbols under out belts before we take too much pleasure in our own, or those of Chesterton or Wodehouse. After all, His Word is the authoritative guide to the gallery of the world. And God’s… Read more »

Aaron Snell
Aaron Snell

This post is a knife cutting through the leafy layers to get to the heart of the artichoke.

Aaron Snell
Aaron Snell

Ok, that was bad. I like Doug’s embedded metaphor in his post about metaphor better: “To watch this being done is to be given an appetizer, with the world as the main course.” See, that’s skill.


This post is like a butterfly sipping nectar to repletion, until its wings are torn off by the hay-baling machine, exalate, forlorn, though well-fed.


Took me two days to catch the pun in the title. I really must be ill… (Also, I qutie like “illage vidiots.”)


(I might even quite like it.)