Saturday, May 10, 2008

Ink Blots

The Younger threw back his head and drank in a deep lungful of the fragrant spring air. "Ah, do you ever get tired of that 'it's spring and everything's gonna be all right' kind of feeling?" he asked his walking companion. The trees, freshly green and bursting with new blossoms, seemed to wave in agreement in the warm breeze.

The Elder chuckled as he adjusted his cap. "No, it's an irrepressible feeling of youthfulness and joy that even the most depressing of winters cannot oppose," he replied. "Although I must make brief mention of the wind, which seems determined to make me part ways with my Mariners' headwear."

The Younger turned to give the Elder an appreciative look as they ambled along the ocean-side boardwalk. "Wow, before the Mariners bit, you were sounding pretty poetic, even deep," he teased his friend.

They shared a laugh, the kind born of a long and comfortable friendship. The Elder paused mid-step suddenly, and with a sly look, remarked, "I suppose that's why I still have some hope for the state of the church these days. No matter how depressing the winter of transition has been, I still believe that spring will inevitably return."

The Younger stopped and turned back to face his friend, with a thoughtful tilt of his head, "Are we going to develop a weather-based metaphor for our ecclesial ponderings, then?"

The Elder shrugged, "That would be an interesting exercise, now that you mention it. In fact, I was hoping that we could explore the use of metaphors in our spiritual journey when we met today. Maybe this could serve as a good segue?"

As they resumed their relaxed pace, the Younger conceded, "Sure, I guess developing new metaphors would be a good starting point, as long as," and his glance was as slyly conspiratorial as the Elder's had just been, "it doesn't become our new foundationalism, eh?"

The Elder rolled his eyes and chose not to be baited into that direction. "Well, let's just have a quick look at the various metaphors that are already in the Bible, then. Which ones come to mind first?"

They came to a park bench overlooking the bay, and after quickly dusting off the sun-dried evidence of recent bird migrations, sat down. "Well, the most common ones that I seem to hear," began the Younger, "would be the Body, the Kingdom, family – like children, sons, daughters, and so on – temple, citizens of heaven…"

"Don't forget Isaiah using agrarian language like 'planting of the Lord'," suggested the Elder. "It's a kind of garden metaphor, even if it's not clearly called that."
"And the many different metaphors Jesus used to describe the Kingdom," the Younger chimed in enthusiastically. "Like a treasure in a field, or the pearl of great price."

"And St. Paul's use of military metaphors in Ephesians," suggested the Elder with equal enthusiasm.

A sudden silence that followed his last statement; the only sound was the breeze teasing the small sailboats across the water in front of them.

"What? Did I say something wrong? Unbiblical? Heretical?" asked the Elder, looking genuinely puzzled.

The Younger shifted uncomfortably on the bench. "Well," he reluctantly began, "I've never been much of a fan of military language when talking about the Kingdom or the people of the Kingdom."

His eyes searched the now-expressionless face of his older friend. "I think you'll find that many, if not most, in my generation don't respond well to army metaphors."

"Hmm," replied the Elder, nodding as he studiously contemplated the few clouds dotting the blue sky above the wind-swept waters. "Well, I can understand your reticence to embrace that as a metaphor, but it is in the Book," he finally said, glancing at his young friend, who was likewise casting a brooding stare at the waves and tiny boats scurrying past.

After a longer pause, the Elder finally broke the silence. "Do you recall, from your college days, the Rorschach test?"
"Wasn't that the ink blot guy?" asked the Younger, remembering. "He would show people ink blots and they would tell him what they thought the blots signified. Wasn't that supposed to 'reveal' more about the person than the ink blot itself?"

The Elder nodded, "Something like that. Sort of like the old joke about the person taking the test seeing 'sex' in everything and accuses the guy giving the test of drawing dirty pictures... But getting back to metaphors of the Kingdom," he continued, "would it be safe to say that Jesus in particular used various metaphors in order to bring an expanded understanding of the Kingdom to His listeners?"

"Yeah, that was sort of the opposite of His parables, in a way," replied the Younger. "Parables to hide truth and make people work to figure it out, but metaphors of what the Kingdom is like in order to bring greater illumination. Although even then, some of Jesus' parables – like the sower and the seed, for example – were supposed to bring clarity about the Kingdom, yet only for those willing to do the hard work of being those with 'eyes to see and ears to hear'."

"Jesus sure breaks all the rules of clear and concise communication, doesn’t He?" laughed the Elder. "Not to mention all the church marketing guru-speak."

"Don't get me started on church marketing!" warned the Younger, his mood lightening and his countenance darkening at the same time as he laughed and waved an accusing finger in the direction of the Elder.

"Okay, back to metaphors," said the Elder, pausing briefly before continuing. He began counting on his fingertips. "Let's cut to the chase and say, first of all, that it's plausible – I think it would be safe to say – that all the metaphors in the Bible are simultaneously true about the Kingdom. Second, as metaphors, they're intended to bring clarity to our understanding of the Kingdom. Even when we sometimes have to do the hard work of figuring out what Jesus is trying to communicate through some of the parables."

As the Younger nodded, the Elder continued. "Third – and this is where we need to tread a little more carefully – the Kingdom is so multi-faceted, like a finely-cut diamond, that we dare not isolate the various biblical metaphors from each other, or we run the risk of developing a lop-sided, simplistic, or at best inadequate understanding of the Kingdom and our role within it."
The Elder slowed down his speech and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees as he stared over the bay. "And fourth, in some ways, our preference for certain metaphors of the Kingdom – like a spiritual ink blot test – may say more about us than it does about the Kingdom."

He leaned back and looked at his friend. "Maybe the things we want to exaggerate out of proportion – say, gardening metaphors -- says something more about what makes the Kingdom comfortable for us. And de-emphasizing metaphors that make us uncomfortable – military ones like 'army' – may say something equally revealing about us. Something disturbing, to be honest."

The Younger never let his gaze stray from his friend’s eyes. "Disturbing? How so?"

The Elder turned toward the Younger and leaned in as he said, "Maybe, just like the Rorschach ink blots, our preference or avoidance of biblical metaphors for the Kingdom reveals that we're still trying to control the Kingdom, and make it about us, instead of about Him. What if, when we say 'I'm not comfortable with that metaphor', we're really simply choosing to ignore Kingdom reality that makes us uneasy?"

The Younger nodded slowly, mulling over the implications. "Or when we say, 'I prefer this metaphor', we're really saying that we're enamored with one aspect of the Kingdom," he suggested. "I wonder why? Because it makes us feel good? Because it doesn't challenge our status quo or demand anything sacrificial of us?" He frowned, shaking his head. "This isn't how I would have expected a discussion on metaphors to go, to be honest!"
The Elder suddenly laughed out loud, breaking the tension and sending nearby scavenging birds screaming into the air in shock. "Then I guess what we're really saying is:
The one metaphor we should never use about the Kingdom is 'smorgasbord', eh?"
And he laughed again, as the Younger shook his head and ruefully let out a long-suffering sigh.