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Metaphor

03 Aug 2000

I’ve been thinking a lot about metaphor today. Last semester my semantics professor said something that caught my attention: “People don’t generally realize that metaphor is the major form of language change,” he said. “Almost all of our terms for abstract things were once concrete terms—just look at the etymology.” With that in mind:

The Country of the Blind
C.S. Lewis

Hard light bathed them—a whole nation of eyeless men,
Dark bipeds not aware of how they were maimed. A long
Process, clearly, a slow curse,
Drained through centuries, left them thus.

At some transitional stage, then, a luckless few,
No doubt, must have had eyes after the up-to-date,
Normal type had achieved snug
Darkness, safe from the guns of heav’n;

Whose blind mouths would abuse words that belonged to their
Great-grandsires, unabashed, talking of light in some
Eunuch’d, etiolated,
Fungoid sense, as a symbol of

Abstract thoughts. If a man, one that had eyes, a poor
Misfit, spoke of they grey dawn or the stars or green-
Sloped sea waves, or admired how
Warm tints change in a lady’s cheek,

None complained he had used words from an alien tounge,
None question’d. It was worse. All would agree. ‘Of course,’
Came their answer. ’We’ve all felt
Just like that.’ They were wrong. And he

Knew too much to be clear, could not explain. The words—
Sold, raped, flung to the dogs—now could avail no more;
Hence silence. But the mouldwarps,
With glib confidence, easily

Showed how tricks of the phrase, sheer metaphors could set
Fools concocting a myth, taking the words for things.
Do you think this is a far-fetched
Picture? Go then about among

Men now famous; attempt speech on the truths that once,
Opaque, carved in divine forms, irremovable,
Dread but dear as a mountain-
Mass, stood plain to the inward eye.


On a related note, I heard Tony Evans on the radio a while ago talking about the authority of the Bible, and I disagreed with a few claims. First, he said that the Bible must either be all truth or none at all, and I see no reason why this must be true. But that’s not the really interesting argument. Next he addressed the problem of contradictions in the Bible. For instance, he said, passage X might say that 1000 people were killed in a battle, and passage Y says that 972 were killed. He explains that this is okay, one is not necessarily a lie because the Bible, like any literature, uses normal human conventions of communication, such as rounding, etc. I agree, but i think this concession gets him into trouble. Metaphor and myth-telling are all normal forms of human communication, and those could be (and are) used in the Bible, which allows me to believe that, for instance, Genesis isn’t factually accurate. Evans, though, says, “the Bible is not a science book. But when it speaks in matters of science, it does so perfectly. The Bible is not a history book. But when it speaks in matters of history, it does so perfectly.” As far as I understand things, I disagree. For me, the important distinction is between truth and fact, as discussed by Lewis in “Is Theology Poetry?” from The Weight of Glory: “It’s the difference between a real event on the one hand and dim dreams or premonitions of that same event on the other. It is like watching something come gradually into focus; first it hangs in the clouds of myth and ritual, vast and vauge, then it condenses, grows hard and in a sense small.” Both myth and fact can be part of truth.
If seen from this perspective, it’s not damaging to the Christian faith to have factual errors in the Bible, because it can be seen as a “true myth.”