Thinking Out Loud

January 13, 2014

Life is Not Like a Box of Chocolates

analogy comparison metaphor simile

Just because you heard the phrase, “Life is like a box of chocolates…” in the movie Forrest Gump, you shouldn’t extrapolate the individual comparison in a single scene in the film to be a general guiding principle for life. In most respects, life is not at all like a box of chocolates. Nor, as Google might lead you to believe, is like an arrow, a bicycle, a camera, a deck of cards, an elevator, a football, a grapefruit, a hurricane, or… I’ll let you work your way through the rest of alphabet.

Comparing things can be helpful to our understanding however. In Jesus’ teaching ministry, he took examples from the world as his hearers knew it — mostly agricultural comparisons — and either made direct connections or taught the principles as parables because they were parallel to things his audience could relate to. In my world, I often will use computer jargon and terminology to create an analogy which teaches a Biblical principle.

Our language generally offers us two options: Metaphor and simile.  (You’d have to be as dumb as an ox not to know the difference. Just kidding! That’s an example of simile. And sarcasm.)  A popular technique in the broad category of metaphor would be allegory, with the most recognizable examples in Christian literature being Pilgrim’s Progress, or the Chronicles of Narnia books; along with a number of contemporary writers in the Christian fantasy fiction genre.

But there is another writing technique I would like to offer here as simply springboard. Skye Jethani does this in The Divine Commodity where he uses the art of Vincent van Gogh to get the discussion rolling, or in the forthcoming Futureville where the springboard is the vision of the future as offered by the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Mark Batterson does this with The Circle Maker, beginning with the legend of Honi.

You could also argue that almost all Christian fiction — while some of it allegorical — is mostly springboard for further discussion; consisting either of internal deliberation, or discourse with friends in your book group, church library or at the Christian bookstore.

This technique does not sit well with all readers.  The purists who prefer expository preaching to topical preaching would, with horror, rate the springboard type of writing even further down the spectrum. It’s just all too easy to criticize; to get lost in the metaphor or allegory and miss the point.

So here are some reminders:

  1. Most metaphors are limited to single aspects of the thing being compared. Any similarity life has to a box of chocolates is overshadowed by other aspects of the box, the wrapper, the plastic inset, etc., and life generally does not come with a complete guide printed on the lid. This is because…
  2. …All metaphors eventually break down at some point. There are a few ‘perfect’ metaphors, but more imperfect ones. This can lead to a situation where…
  3. …Metaphors and allegories are easily misunderstood. Not everybody grasps the comparison first time around, especially if the chosen metaphor is something somewhat foreign.
  4. Borrowing a theme or idea from another world — whether it’s a legend from another religion or a principle of motorcycle repair — does not necessarily imply endorsement.
  5. The placement of a metaphor or discussion springboard in mainstream Christian literature may result in it being seized upon by people on the fringes of mainstream Christianity who want to use the metaphor to say things the author never intended.

However — and this is so important — the use of parables and similar teaching forms by Jesus should be an encouragement to us to find similar redemptive analogies in our modern world.  If you’re a writer, avoid the pressure to be boringly precise and instead, introduce edge into your writing by finding the connection everyone else has missed heretofore.

Communication is only achieved when the hearer fully gets it, and that will involve drawing parallels between ‘A’ and ‘B’ rather than repeating the words of a definition over and over to someone who is missing the point.

July 2, 2013

Where You’ve Bean

Eugene Peterson in Tell It Slant (Eerdman’s, 2008, pp 60-61)

Eugene PetersonSeveral years ago I was conducting a seminar in the interpretation of Scripture in a theological seminary. It was a graduate seminar. Our topic that day was Jesus’ parables. All the participants were experienced pastors and priests. One of the priests, Tony Byrnne, was a Jesuit missionary on sabbatical from twenty years at his post in Africa. As we discussed the Biblical parables, Father Tony told us of his experiences with his Africans who loved storytelling, who loved parables. His Jesuit order didn’t have enough priests to handle all the conversions that were taking place, and he was put in charge of recruiting lay-persons to carry out the basic teaching and diaconal work.

When he first began the work, where he would find men who were especially bright he would put them in charge of their village and sent them to Rome or Dublin or Boston or New York for training. After a couple of years they would return and take up their tasks.

But the villagers hated them and would have nothing to do with them. They called the returnee a been-to (pronounced bean-to): “He’s bean-to London, he’s bean-to Dublin, he’s bean-to New York, he’s bean-to Boston.” They hated the bean-to because he no longer told stories. He gave explanations. He taught them doctrines. He gave them directions. He drew diagrams on a chalk board. The bean-to left all his stories in the waste-baskets of the libraries and lecture halls of Europe and America. The intimacy and dignifying process of telling a parable had been sold for a mess of academic pottage. So Father Brynne told us, he quit the practice of sending the men to those storyless schools.

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