This is an excerpt from the opening page of my new book, It’s Like This, to be released before Christmas, with an introduction by Olympic Gold Medalist Bryan Clay. If you’d like to receive a free copy of the first chapter and a notification when the book is published, sign up at the bottom of this page.
I’ve been assaulted in church twice. The first time was during a worship service by a 275 lbs. amateur boxer who was high on crystal meth and stalking a woman in the congregation. The second was by an organized and judicious Board of Elders who decided I was not qualified to be a pastor. If I had to choose between the two, I’d take the former. The first incident left a precise spine of stitches woven into my right eyebrow. The scar is invisible and harmless, and memories of it are only triggered when I’m bragging to my seminary students. The second incident was as precise as a shotgun blast. They handed me a seething letter saying that if I didn’t leave the church quietly they would damage all of my future career opportunities. I shivered an unnatural kind of shiver. I had young kids at home to support. One of the Elders, sneering ear to ear, told me I could just let the congregation know on Facebook that I had left the church. Fortunately, these wounds resolve into scars as well, my therapist assures me.
I had lost a fight over metaphors.
It’s Like This
I begin my seminary class by talking about the power of metaphors. “Metaphors are as powerful as a crystal meth addict,” I say sagely. In fact, they do have a strength of their own. Metaphors sneak a world of ideas from the mind of the speaker into the mind of the listener. They serve as a filter for implications but don’t tell the listener which ones are intended. A single image communicates an entire system of relationships. Furthermore, when someone takes an image as authoritative, it becomes the defining force in the way they think about and relate to a given subject. Would you rather marry the person who thinks that love is a flower or the one who thinks love is a battlefield? The governing metaphor shapes everything else.
Metaphors are not just poetic flair. They decide from which vantage point a thing is looked at. If someone compares an argument they just had to a war, it’s very hard for anyone to imagine the possibility that the two debaters might have been able to come to a helpful, mutual conclusion. If he compares the argument to a dance, one might see it as creating community rather than damaging it. The metaphor through which one views arguing will shape the way one argues. Metaphors are not add-ons to language. They shape language, and they shape thought.
There are metaphors for the church, and everyone has one. Our operating assumptions about the purpose of church derive from our preferred analogy. Some see it as a mission and others as a museum. A few churches are modelled on nightclubs, and even more on castles. Historically, churches were based on the structure of the classroom – lecturer up front pontificating, pupils in chairs, staring at the clock. The Bible uses a range of metaphors for churches. They’re not pretty. The most shocking are pornographic. The more we pursue an appropriate metaphor for the church, the more we may find that God doesn’t think about it the way that we do.
Whatever metaphor for the church we choose, it defines everything we expect from the church. Every complaint ever made by a church-attender was made because the experience didn’t match the assumed metaphor.
The same is true about the way pastors are thought of. If a pastor sees herself as a shepherd, she may be compassionate but condescending; if as a general, distant but effective. Perhaps some of the most important metaphors for pastors come from Eusebius of Caesarea, who, in the fourth century, distilled a description of Jesus down to three images: prophet, priest, and king. This means that as a prophet, he scolds us and tells us what we did wrong. He makes us feel a little bit guilty, and then tells us what we need to do to fix it. Sometimes there is a thin line between a biblical prophet and your mom. As a priest, he cares enough to plead our case before God in our defense. As a king, he rules over the birds of the air, the beasts of the earth, the fish in the sea, the sorting of the mail, and so forth….
If you’d like a free copy of the first chapter and a notification when the book is published, sign up here: