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the value of metaphor

July 8, 2011

I became a director because I like to tell stories through acting them out. It’s as simple as that. I always have. I was a great reader as a child, and I spent a lot of my playtime explaining the stories to my friends, assigning characters, and acting out whatever book I was currently enamored with (I seem to recall being directed by many of them in exchange). This narrative style to a certain extent defines my directing today.

But I also really like metaphor. I like connecting ideas to each other and I like investigating the larger ideas behind their literal representations. A scene with a family sitting around a dinner table, for example, can be about more than a family sitting around a dinner table. Through the use of signs and symbols, it can be about family in general, or the act of communal eating; it can be about America. A turkey would automatically signify Thanksgiving, barbecue July 4th. A KFC Variety Bucket would tell a story, perhaps, of two working parents, neither of whom has time to cook, or of a low-income family for whom this is an extravagant Sunday dinner. Given all of these options, I’m constantly amazed that people continue to stage things that don’t mean anything more than a family having dinner.

This is how I see religion, too. I believe in a God who is capable of metaphor. A God who is all knowing, ever present, and capable of awesome love is surely capable of metaphor. Why would I want the Bible only to be about what it is literally about, when I know that life, from matters of the spirit to the petty concerns of the Cities of Men, is never, ever, ever that simple? Surely God must be at least as complex as Creation?

I bristle at the certainty of some that based on a literal interpretation of the Bible they get God. Surely if there’s anything you can learn from a literal look at the Bible it’s that a little humility before God never goes amiss. What you can learn when you look for metaphor, both for its explicit use by its authors to teach a lesson and for its use as a literary device that illuminates a broader point, is a great deal more than that. For example:

Corinthians 13 8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Here the speaker deliberately creates a metaphor (what we can know and understand now is only as much as a child can know and understand) to make a specific point about the nature of knowledge during life. He also uses this metaphor to set up a contrast for the listener between the realistic concerns of life on earth and the eternal nature of God’s love, which nevertheless exists both in our fragmented lives here on Earth and within the infinite unknown.

To treat this, or any other passage in the Bible, as anything less than a work of art that can only be fully appreciated by exploring all its levels and its relation to the time in which it was created is to disrespect the wisdom contained within it, and in my opinion, the infinite wisdom of God. This is why as a Christian science is not a problem for me, why evolution seems like just about the greatest plan God could have come up with. Why I find the creation story(ies) in Genesis to be beautiful and meaningful, but I don’t think the earth is 6,000 years old.

During the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance, when debate raged in Europe about the morality of the theater, those on both sides of the issue employed the metaphor of theatrum mundi: theater of the world. They argued that playwrights played an important/dangerous role – that they played God – when they created new worlds out of whole cloth in their plays. Just as God had written a play and our job as his actors was to play our parts to the best of our ability, playwrights were dictating destiny. I do love that part of directing – creating the entire world of the play, and making it one that could only exist in the theater. I know from practice that when the playworld is created in both literal and metaphorical realms, it ultimately means more.

But creation requires interpretation, and the c/Creator’s intentions are not always obvious. I’m no divine creator; my created playworlds are no where near as complex as God’s real one, and still people don’t always see all the connections between all the parts. If we are to interpret, if we are to prophesy about God’s intentions, surely we must try first believe in a God who, both in the created world and in the words of the Bible, means more.

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