Maybe it’s because of the pending release of a certain movie which will go unmentioned which is based on a certain book which was so very controversial in 2007 when it released; but I keep thinking that some of us Christians are very narrow when it comes to embracing different art or literary forms…
…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. In my wife’s opinion, life is more like a sushi bar, or the bag containing the Scrabble letters, or herding cats, but I’m willing to bet this month’s rent that those don’t work for you either.
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 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. Some recent popular preachers shun illustrations entirely to the point where, several years in, their advisors corner them to say, “We don’t really know anything about you.”
So here are some reminders:
- 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…
- …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…
- …Metaphors and allegories are easily misunderstood. Not everybody grasps the comparison first time around, especially if the chosen metaphor is something somewhat foreign.
- 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.
- 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.