Figurative language

During the pandemic, our grandchildren have been home schooled. They will return to their regular schools in the fall, but for now, their home schooling lessons are continuing. As grandparents we get to work with them and help with their schooling from time to time. Yesterday, I was helping our granddaughter, who was writing a thank you letter following her recent birthday and also making a father’s day card for upcoming celebrations. Across the table I could overhear a conversation between my wife and our grandson about a lesson in his workbook that was introducing the concept of simile and metaphor. The exercise involved using similes comparing aquatic animals and land-based animals: “A tiger is fierce like a shark.”

Thinking about it now, on the next day, I am aware of how important it is to teach the use of complex language. Being able to use figurative language is essential to human communication. If we limited ourselves to using only literal language, our conversation would be limited to a much small realm of human experience. Being able to make comparisons and to use words in ways that point beyond the obvious is a tool that I use every day. I couldn’t write the blog without such language. Figurative language is an everyday tool of a preacher.

We use much more than similes and metaphors. We make allusion. We create imagery. We employ personification. Oral language is even more filled with figurative language than written. Onomatopoeia is simply more fun when spoken out loud.

Of course, a workbook exercise designed for a ten year old didn’t discuss seven or twelve or how many forms of figurative language exist. The exercise was designed to be an introduction, making the use of figurative language simple. We teach our children to go beyond literalism in their reading and writing. It is part of the core curriculum of a good school.

Since we are used to using language in ways that reach beyond simple literalism, it often surprises us when the basic tools of figurative speech seem to escape others. Over the course of my career, I was often asked by people about things they read, and things that they thought might be in the Bible. I suppose every minister has been asked, “Where in the bible does it say . . . “ as if we had memorized the entire book. Often those questions are about things that aren’t actually in the bible. People often think that aphorisms from popular culture have biblical origins. And when you get to the actual words of the bible, you encounter a lot of figurative language. It makes sense. Talking about God stretches the capacity of language. We can think of many ways to describe a bit of what God is like or give evidence of God’s action in the world, but coming up with words that fully describe God eludes us. Our language is limited. It shouldn’t surprise us that the Bible is filled with figurative speech. Still, there are many fundamentalists who try to interpret figurative language as if it were literal.

Jesus often spoke in parables. In Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus gives the parable of the mustard seed, he prefaces his simile with an acknowledgement of the limits of language. He asks, rhetorically, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” He knows he is describing something for the people that goes beyond the use of literal language. He does not say, “It is a mustard seed,” but rather, “it is like a mustard seed.” It is classic simile. The kingdom of God is not tiny, but it is a concept that does have the capacity to grow.

A ten-year-old knows when you use a simile, you aren’t speaking literal truth. Our grandson knows that a tiger is not the same thing as a shark. He understands that the comparison is limited to some of the qualities of the two animals. Comparing them does not equate them.

The extensive use of figurative language throughout the entire bible means that the value of the words lies deeper than simply the surface. It also is job security for preachers. There will always be room for interpretation of the words of the bible. You can discover that by a quick scan of several different mainline church services this Sunday. The Revised Common lectionary reading for this week is just two verses from the Gospel of Mark. Mark 4:30-32 is the parable of the mustard seed. All around the world the same words, or translations of those words into many different languages, will be read. From those two verses preachers will deliver sermons from a short reflection to a half hour or more. And they will take many different meanings from Jesus’ parable. Jesus uttered one long run-on sentence that has inspired over two millennia of sermons. Anyone claiming to have the final word on this parable is clearly making a false claim. Christians will be talking about it generations from now.

Language is powerful, but it is limited. We cannot express all of human experience and the fullness of religion with words alone. To fully educate our children, we need to teach both the power and the limits of words.

The church, of course, is not just words. It is not just what is said. The practice of religion involves the use of symbols, music, sacrament and direct action. We sing, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” And, as David James Duncan wrote, “People often don’t know what thy are talking about. When they talk about love, they really don’t know what they’re talking about.”

I do not call myself a biblical literalist. I am firmly committed to the the truth of the bible, but I know that the truth doesn’t just lie on the surface of the words. A lifetime is all too short to explore all of the meaning in a single book of the bible. Fortunately for us, our faith has been growing for millennia before we were born and will continue to develop long after our time on this earth has ended. We’re a part of something much bigger than ourselves.