Metaphorically-Challenged

Some people have problems with metaphors. The poet John Brehm had one of these metaphorically challenged people in a freshman class that was studying Matthew Arnold’s classic nineteenth-century poem Dover Beach, which likens the decline of organized religion to the outgoing tide of the “Sea of Faith”. To her complaint that the expression confused her, the teacher gently asked what confused her about it.

“I mean, is it a real sea?” she asked.

“You mean, is it a real body of water that you could point to on a map or visit on vacation?”

“Yes,” she said. “Is it a real sea?”

Those lines of dialogue are now part of poem Brehm wrote, a poem that continues with the words he wanted to say, but did not.

It is a real sea.
In fact it flows right into the Sea of Ignorance.
IN WHICH YOU ARE DROWNING.
Let me throw you a Rope of Salvation
before the Sharks of Desire gobble you up.
Let me hoist you back up onto this Ship of Fools
so that we might continue our search
for the Fountain of Youth. Here take a drink
of this. It’s fresh from the River of Forgetfulness.

In my opinion, Christians who can’t cope with metaphors have done their best, perhaps unintentionally, to spoil the faith for the rest of us. Part of progressive Christianity’s task is to reclaim the classic metaphors for what they are: figures of speech that inspired beautiful legends. To name a few –

  • Son of God
  • Resurrection of the Dead
  • Body of Christ
  • Kingdom of Heaven

Over the years, I have known many people who abandoned Christianity because their teachers and preachers were metaphorically disabled. Once they discovered that religious language is primarily figurative by nature, the experience of faith opened up for them. You can be a follower of Jesus without thinking that “heaven” is a place or that a “son” has to be a biological relative or that “dead” necessarily refers to the condition you’re in when the undertaker comes for you.

I am indebted to TCPC Executive Committee member Susan Heath for bringing John Brehm’s poem to my attention. Her husband Rush Smith found it in The Best American Poetry 1999, edited by David Lehman and published by Scribner. The whole poem is well worth reading.

The poet himself is currently a freelance (and no, he doesn’t carry a large spear) writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

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