Thursday, May 31, 2012

Metaphor---What's it for?

If I could master one thing in my writing, I'd choose---Metaphor.


It comports meaning, transports the mind, inspires hope and illuminates the soul.
It changes. It invites. It whispers.

What is metaphor? Doesn't that take you right back to visions of your 7th grade English teacher lecturing at the chalkboard? (I happen to love my 7th grade English teacher--Ms. Yoder, I'll never forget)

That distant memory should bring to mind comparisons of metaphor to simile. While simile uses the phrases "like" or "as"--metaphor compares two different things that by that comparison conveys a meaning not obviously or previously noted.

Jesus used simile all the time: "the Kingdom of Heaven is like"  --- a mustard seed, a hidden treasure, etc.
Or in poetry, we see it: "My love is like a red, red rose, that has newly sprung in June."~by Robert Burns

We might even say that in novel writing simile is too cliche, such as the phrase "as quiet as a mouse". It shows us something, but overused and uninteresting we pass over it unmoved.

But metaphor compares two different things to communicate meaning. Sometimes it is quite simple, like this example:   "Tommy is the lion king of his class." Tommy is a boy, not a lion. We think of lions as strong, and the lion king as the strong leader of his pride. Now we think of Tommy in a much different light. We now know something about him without saying or telling us "Tommy is strong."

But I'm really not wishing to capture the talent of the metaphor on a one sentence scale. I'm dreaming of it on a much grander scale of story telling. Or perhaps we should call it "story-showing" because I think capturing the metaphor on that scale has something to do with the "show don't tell" skill set.

For example, "Bill's teeth were hardened blue cheese nuggets, speckled with green and black." Now, when I read that, I see it! Not only do I see his teeth, I see a haggard old miner, aged beyond his actual years, teeth rotting out, beard unkempt, hair dried and brittle from poor health, but a grin bigger than Texas as he holds up a nugget of gold--his condition a price he's willing to pay for his treasure. This is much more interesting than being told "Bill's teeth were rotten."

But enough of grammar, the master of metaphor in my life is Jesus.

We studied John 13 last week in Sunday school class. Jesus says to Thomas, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one can come to the Father but through me."

The Way. Hmmm--what does that really mean?? If He would just tell us plainly how to follow Him, we could go there. But even we can understand when Jesus tells Thomas its not that simple. He came to show, not tell.  His whole life is his Way, and the Way of the Father. Love, faith, hope, forgiveness. Like Thomas we see things so simply. Why love someone who doesn't deserve it? Why have faith in something unseen? Why hope for the impossible? Why forgive when the other doesn't deserve it? And furthermore why forgive, since I have a right to remain angry because I was right and he was wrong? We know what's wrong, we know what's right, but like Jesus' disciples we often just don't understand. We are aware of this Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil--we see the good and the bad but feel helpless to grasp for the Tree of Life--to break our sorry cycles of misunderstanding, to be shown a more excellent Way. To be drawn into greater Truth than we know, a richer Life than we live.

Eugene Peterson, author of The Jesus Way describes metaphor:

"Metaphor does that, makes me a participant in creating the meaning and entering into the action of the word. I can no longer understand the word by looking it up in the dictionary, for it is no longer just itself. It is alive and moving, inviting me to participate in the meaning. When the writers of scripture use metaphor, we get involved with God, whether we want to or not, sometimes whether we know it or not."

My simple prayer for my writing is that God will help me show that He is the Way.

I want to show not tell. People have been told and lectured until the life has ebbed out of them, crammed down their throats until they choked on it. We don't need more telling. We want more showing. More metaphor. Something we can sink our teeth into and find sustenance. Transported to a place of transformation that invites us to deeper understanding of Love, Hope, Faith, and Forgiveness.


  1. I think Francine Rivers' Redeeming Love is an epic example of showing the Way, from start to finish. If I could achieve even a portion of that, glimpses of it in my writing, I'd feel my writing would be used for God's glory. :o)

  2. Jesus was the master of word pictures, wasn't He? I like your example of Him as "the way." He's also the vine and the shepherd, two other pictures that I love!

  3. I totally agree. I love a well-done metaphor in a novel.

  4. Thanks for stopping by Rhonda and Julie!
    And don't you love it that metaphors are never boring, there's always another way to show a truth, like the vine, shepherd, gardener, pruner, fisherman, etc.