Metaphors We Live By

In textual interpretation – whether interpreting the sacred scriptures, an ANE document, or a piece by Flannery O’Conner – it is important to recognize and understand metaphor.  Much more has been and needs to be said about this aspect of hermeneutics.  A fascinating study would be those like exploring how Isaiah used metaphor (i.e. the spider webs and snake eggs in ch 59) or how Paul appropriated OT metaphors (throats as open graves in Rom 3); another area of importance would be how metaphors do/should shape the Christian imagination.  Finally, I would love to see a book on “homiletical metaphor” or “metaphorical homiletics.”

Though not essentially theological, there is a great book to dig into if you want to swim part of the pool of metaphor.  George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).  Lakoff and Johnson argue that metaphor is not simply a linguistic category, but a conceptual one as well.  “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature” (p. 3).  Concerning metaphor itself, “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (p. 5).  Here’s a main point: “Metaphors as linguistic expressions are possible precisely because there are metaphors in a person’s conceptual system” (p. 6).

Let me just give a few examples of metaphor before commenting on the above phrases.  Good is up, bad is down; high status is up, low status is down, the mind is a machine,  time is money, love is a journey, and so forth.

Lakoff and Johnson argue that metaphors like this are culturally based ways of speaking which also show up in writing.  Though some have disputed areas of Metaphors We Live By, if the general point is correct, if metaphorical speech makes up a great deal of what we say, how we think, and what we write, then this has huge implications for hermeneutics.  I’ll beg a few questions to prod the reader on:

1) How can you recognize a metaphor?  2) Are certain metaphors cross-cultural?  3) Have certain metaphors been used similarly for hundreds of years or more?  4) How do you translate a metaphor so a totally different culture can understand it?  Do you give a similar metaphor from that culture or just remove the metaphor and make it “plain?”

A few more thorny areas: 1) How do ANE metaphors and OT metaphors compare?  2) How do later biblical authors use earlier metaphors?  3) Can a NT writer turn OT history or text into a metaphor for his purpose?  4) Can a NT writer use an OT metaphor in a different way for a different (or similar) purpose?  5) If a biblical author utilizes a metaphor from another biblical author, did he take the grammatical-historical context of the metaphor in mind or could he use the metaphor for his own unique purpose?  6) How far should biblical metaphors shape our conceptual thinking and metaphor in exegesis, systematics, and teaching?

There are many more questions to be asked – for sure.  A few fruits of studying metaphor are these: they show the depth of the text, adding a few more notes to the chorus of Scripture.  They force us to use our imagination in reading Scripture – it would be a shame to flatten Scripture by missing metaphor.  They force us to be careful in our interpretation of them.   I’m sure you could add to these lists!

By the way, anyone notice how many metaphors I used to describe metaphors?

shane lems

sunnyside wa

1 thought on “Metaphors We Live By”

  1. On metaphors and thought you may also want to read:
    Owen Barfield, History, Guilt and Habit
    C.S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes” (appears in more than one collection of essays).


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