Literally. Or Not.

thmet•a•phor ‘met-uh-for, noun, a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.

I was approached by a concerned visitor to our church after a worship service once. She was asking for clarification on something regarding the message that morning, and during our conversation, we got on the subject of literal versus figurative language in the Bible. I was trying to help her grasp that the Bible is far more poetic than we realize, certainly more poetic and metaphorical than she realized.

“You mean, you don’t believe that the Bible is literally true?” she challenged me.

“It depends on the passage of Scripture, doesn’t it?” I replied. “Everything in the Bible is true, but not everything in the Bible is literal. In fact, much of it is metaphorical.”

She was taken aback. “Well what about being born again? Don’t you believe that you need to be born again to be a Christian?”

Obviously there was a disconnect going on. So I explained further. “When Jesus said, ‘you must be born again,’ he wasn’t being literal. He was being figurative. I think what you’re really asking is if we believe it is really really true. So, yeah, we believe it is metaphorically really true that we must be born again. But it isn’t literally true.”

In the third chapter of the book of John, Jesus was trying to explain to Nicodemus the keys to the Kingdom. And in His own unique artistic manner, Jesus employs the beautifully rich metaphor of “birth” to explain the regeneration that comes from believing and living in the Spirit (John 1:1-21). Of course, Nicodemus, the Pharisee, entirely misses the point of Jesus teaching—because he interpreted Jesus literally.

1907355_662841520436752_6887130322396390870_nI mention this because I am teaching a class in songwriting, and I am encouraging the students to be more poetic, to employ figures of speech in their lyrics. Metaphors, similes, allegories, symbols, analogies—those figuratives which stretch and reframe the meanings of words. Like a painter dabbing at oddly colored acrylics on his pallet, trying to coax new hues from his brush, the songwriter must dab at the words in an effort to elicit something more impassioned, provocative, soul-stirring.

So I’m challenging them to go beyond the literal. And it is not as easy as it sounds. There is an imprecision to these figures of speech. They do not draw a linear journey from the word to the definition, and as such, it forces the writer (and hopefully the reader) to ponder, to relate, to grapple with the ideas hidden within them.

I am challenging my students to dig deeper. Yes, you can be literal and compose the lyric, “God is eternal,” or you can write, “You ride the ancient skies.” You can compose, “God’s love for me is intense,” or you can pen, “He is jealous for me, loves like a hurricane, I am a tree.” You can say, “You lead me through trials,” or you can say, “You call me out upon the waters, the great unknown, where feet may fail.”

Each of these sets of lyrics are true, and each essentially say the same thing, but the latter lyrics better capture the depth and emotion of God’s eternal and active being.

There can be greater truth in the metaphor. Because I believe that sometimes—especially when speaking of the mysteries of our universe or the matters of the heart—the metaphor better captures the depth and fullness of an idea. Definitions place boundaries on meaning; Metaphors create space for the meaning to take shape. Definitions are distinct, specific, antiseptic; Metaphors are angular, indeterminable, open-ended. Definitions are like passport photos; Metaphors are like watercolor portraits.

Composers ClassI think that’s one reason why Jesus often spoke in parables. For He was speaking of unfathomable mysteries—propitiation, incarnation, atonement, grace—and these words we have invented are simply too small and inadequate to fully describe and explain. (And our brains are too way too small to understand the mind of God anyway.) Definitions seem to fall short of the immortal grandeur, the cosmic drama, the eternal consequence, of such things.

Jesus spoke of the Kingdom—which is not a place, but the reign and rule of God in our hearts and lives. And when He spoke, He drew word pictures of lost pearls and lost coins and lost sheep. With the art of words, He painted images of castles built on shifting sand, of dragnets cast into the fickle ocean, of a prodigal son who had lost his way. He stated these Truths with earthy but profound elegance, presenting an invitation to a better life, a nobler way, a personal relationship with the Maker Himself. As if this mortal life we live were simply a metaphor for some larger eternal life He invites us to.

Of course, some people have difficulty grasping the qualitative imprecision and beauty of a poem or a good song—or for that matter, the Truth imbedded in a good painting, a good dance, or a good instrumental piece. They don’t get it, like the concerned lady visitor. Literally.


8 thoughts on “Literally. Or Not.

  1. Manuel ~ Thank for this discussion. I run into this same misunderstanding often. I really like how Calvin Seerveld puts it in his masterwork “Rainbows for the Fallen World”. He writes, “The Bible is God-speaking literature telling us a true story; that is its nature. Therefore, when faithful, childlike people read the Bible, they should read it literarily. One should not read the Bible literalistically (= ‘literally’?) and then figuratively when one gets stuck. One should always read it literarily, literaturely, the way it is written, to mine its special wisdon-making, true-storied knowledge for children.” Seerveld / 91

    BTW: I recently read your book, “imagine that”, awesome nourishment. Thank you!

    1. Love that Seerveld quote. Thank you for sharing. This issue of figurative/literal is part of a larger discussion, in my mind, of our “deification” of the Bible, i.e., making the Bible the fourth member of the Trinity. It is unfortunate that “Logos” is interpreted to mean “Word” which while true, is quite an inadequate translation. But I don’t necessarily want to open that can of worms. My point was that the Bible is far more poetic (and beautiful!) in its rendering of the Truth than we understand it to be, and we should model that in our art.

      1. I agree with both of your points; that the Bible has been deified and that the rendering of the Truth needs to emerge via our art. Have you read “Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through The Arts”? (by Jeremie Begbie / 2000, Baker Books). It’s a collection of 8-essays on how God’s Truth can be modeled through our our art-making. You might find chapters 7 & 8 particularly interesting as they deal with music; 7. Through Popular Music:’ Wholy Holy’ / Graham Cray and 8. Through Music: Sound Mix / Jeremie Begbie.

  2. Once again, Manuel, thank you for delving into this place where our art and faith reside together. And for confirming in me the new direction I’m feeling led with my work…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s