Metaphor: The Language of Discovery and Invention

Written by Mark Farnham

On April 20, 2011

What is metaphor? Aristotle defined it as giving some “thing” a name that belongs to something else. The “thing” is called the metaphor’s “target” and the “something else” from which it takes a name is its “source.” Like the etymology of the word, meta (over, across, and beyond) + phero (to carry), a metaphor carries across a name from the source to the target. When it does, amazing things begin to happen.

When we lend a thing a name that belongs to something else, we lend it a complex pattern of relations and associations…A metaphor juxtaposes two different things and then skews our point of view so unexpected similarities emerge. Metaphorical thinking half discovers and half invents the likenesses it describes (James Geary, I is an Other, Harper Collins, 2011, p. 9).

Take a simple, unassuming word like shoulder. You can give someone a cold shoulder or a shoulder to cry on. You can have a chip on your shoulder or always be looking over your shoulder. You can stand on the shoulders of giants or shoulder to shoulder with friends.

Ordinary conversation is rife with metaphors because they are how we make sense of the world. Whenever we explore how one thing is like another, we are in the realm of metaphorical thinking.

Here is the challenge of using good metaphors in preaching and teaching—connecting two dissimilar things and showing how the one sheds light on the other. As Geary says above, sometimes the comparison is discovered when we discern how one familiar thing illustrates another in a way we hadn’t noticed before. Sometimes the metaphor is invented when we search for ways to illustrate an abstract idea.

Pastor Matt Chandler provides an example of the second when he wanted to illustrate how we look at our failures compared to how God looks at them. He used the metaphor of a child taking her first steps. After three steps, the child falls, but the parent can only see that the child took three steps. In the same way God focuses on our victories, not our failures.

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at the limits of metaphor and the need to know how to ride a metaphor for its usefulness, while jumping off before it crashes.

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