The power of metaphor

Marcus Borg helped me appreciate the power of metaphor. Ancient Jews and early Christians understood the inherent power of story and the depth of meaning that can come through a parable. A literalist may assert that the faith issue in the story of Jonah is whether one believes Jonah survived three days in the belly of a big fish. But, the point of the story is a bigger, and tougher, issue: God called Jonah to love the hated Ninevites. Who might God be calling me to love?

Of course, it’s okay to interpret the Jonah story literally. Also, It’s okay to interpret it metaphorically, as a parable. I love history. It’s important to look for the historical context of the biblical stories. But the Bible is more than history. I believe it is trans-historical, full of timeless truth. Borg helps me see that the question, “Is it true?” is more important than the question, “Did it happen?” Borg wrote, “emphasizing the historical factuality of the stories can distract from their meaning.”  

Borg writes of the miracle stories about Jesus: When their factuality is emphasized, the miraculous elements are emphasized so that “believing” these stories means believing that all these spectacular events happened. This emphasis often produces a sterile debate between those who think they are factual and those who think they aren’t, an endless back-and-forth: “It happened this way, “No, it didn’t,” “Yes, it did.” When this happens, the rich, more-than-literal meanings are most often lost.

It helps me to not to ask, “Is this story literally true?” Rather, I ask, “Is this really true?” (It may be both, of course, but what’s most important to me is whether it is really true.) Borg ends his section on “The Truth as Metaphor” with these words: …when people say, “I believe the Bible is literally true,” I want to ask, “Are you saying that you believe the Bible is really true? If so, I agree with you.”

The quotes in today’s post are from Borg’s The Heart of Christianity. For more about Borg on the power of metaphor, see Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, an excerpt of which can be found in Spirituality & Practice

3 thoughts on “The power of metaphor”

  1. When I was at church of the carpenter he studied a book about the Bible that guy did my thinking ever since. It pointed out Bibles books are great for rioting and therefore to take each is factually true makes no sense.

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  2. Voice recognition made a mess of my comment. I meant to say we studied a book that guided my thinking. It pointed out the great variety in the books of the Bible.

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