As a writer, I am interested in how metaphor works. I am also interested in metaphor because I am a Christian. People of faith have to get comfortable with figurative language: Christians speak of Jesus as the Lamb of God, but we also know that Jesus was a man, not a lamb. And some of the fiercest debates among Christians orbit around questions of metaphor. When Jesus broke the bread and said “This is my body,” to what extent was He speaking metaphorically? To what extent is the priest or the pastor speaking metaphorically when he holds up the Host or the bread and says “This is the body of Christ, broken for you?” (The Latin Hoc est corpus meum, by the way, is the origin of the phrase hocus pocus).
I’m writing this on Easter weekend, and I’ve been listening to my friend Andrew Peterson’s newly released record, Resurrection Letters, Volume 1 (a record a commend to you as enthusiastically as I know how to commend anything). Andrew’s poetry and music have gotten me thinking about metaphor. The first track on the record, “His Heart Beats,” is about the moment when Jesus came back to life in His tomb (indeed, all the tracks on the record are about the Resurrection, both His and ours). The song contains these lines that I can’t stop thinking about:
His heart beats.
Now everything has changed.
Because the blood that bought us peace with God
Is racing through His veins.
Here’s the thing: for all my interest in metaphor, both as a writer and a Christian, the central truths of the Christian faith are truths that cannot be metaphorical. Christ was dead. Christ was risen. Christ will come again. Those are either literal truths or they aren’t truths at all.
In the end, metaphorical language isn’t much use to us unless it points to a truth that isn’t metaphorical, a reality that goes beyond language.
I will leave you with “Seven Stanzas for Easter,” a poem from John Updike that I return to every Easter weekend:
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.
And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.