In Praise of Biblical Language
By Kenneth Francis (September 2018)
Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise, Marc Chagall, 1961
There is nothing quite like metaphors or symbolism to bring a book to life, especially when used as a literary device in poetry or fiction. However, many adults are metaphorically challenged, while younger children can be confused by homonyms (same-sounding words with different meanings) and metonymy (figure of speech with something associated with something else).
A child hearing radio reports of guerrilla warfare, can conjure up images of heavily armed, silverback apes with AK-47s searching the jungle for the enemy. And how many young children who grew up in the 1960s/’70s thought Scotland Yard was a small backyard with a shed, somewhere in Highlands, where policemen wearing kilts would meet for tea and biscuits? Or to hear someone say, ‘he has catholic tastes in literature (broad, varied) and think of him as a religious man.’
But the language in the Bible is where most people who don’t study Scripture go from being challenged to almost becoming illiterate. One example is a story from Genesis. For many atheists, the Garden of Eden is a soft target to mock Christianity, by saying it is literally about a naked man and woman, tempted by a talking snake, to eat a forbidden apple from a tree. However, the majority of theologians have a more sophisticated view of the poetic, figurative language in the Bible. Although they ultimately believe in the authenticity of the Genesis account, they also believe metaphor is used to communicate truth in the story, as well as symbolism (we’ll come back to this later).
Another example of atheists and early Church fathers’ confusion of biblical language is the story of Galileo, who was a devout Christian. During that time in the early-17th century, members of the then-Church interpreted the Bible on a geocentric system, which derived from Aristotle and Ptolemy. This influenced the theology of the early-Church fathers and was, during that period, the world view of the scientific establishment. But they failed to see that this view clashed with the teachings of the Bible, some of which are poetic in style, infused with metaphors, metonymy, similes, symbolism, etc.
Galileo was trying to show the Church members that the heliocentric system was more in line with how the universe works, as opposed to geocentricism, and not what Aristotle taught. However, Galileo was imprisoned for heresy but later pardoned by the Church, whose previous members took some of the biblical text literally, and not poetically. The Bible is not a science book, thus it describes things phenomenologically and poetically. And let’s face it: during sunrise or sunset, no one describes such a beautiful experience as an earth tilt.
And there is much truth and meaning in symbolism and metaphor. If we take the example in recent times when dilettantes in the media and chattering classes perpetually mined metaphors in a famous poem called The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats (1856-1939). The opening lines to the poem are as follows:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned . . .
This poem was written a few decades after the philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche declared ‘God is Dead’ (we know he didn’t mean God is literally dead, as he didn’t believe in such an entity). In light of that phrase, the ‘falcon’ can be interpreted as Mankind turning its back (not literally, of course) on the ‘falconer’, God: ‘Things fall apart/The centre cannot hold’: objective morality collapses, as humans lose their moral compass; ‘Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned’: moral chaos follows the death of God (The Great Wars, the decadence of the West, and conflicts in the East). Nietzsche said it first: by killing God, we unchain the earth from the sun and wipe away the horizon with a sponge. As for Yeats’ poem: no one can deny, despite poetic language, that the metaphors in his masterpiece are eerily prophetic.
To return to Adam and Eve, the same can be said about the metaphors and symbolism in this story: the ‘apple’ on the tree is a metaphor for omnipotence, something only God can possess; the serpent is a symbol of evil or metaphor for the devil (literally, there is no ‘talking snake’ written about in Genesis 3:1; it seems like many atheists use the smear comparing it to the talking snake in Disney’s Jungle Book
When you think of it, the profound meaning and spiritual authenticity of this story is acted out every day in the world by human beings trying to be their own god and failing miserably. And the fallen state of the world, after Adam and Eve sinned, is testament to the flawed condition of Mankind, despite our greatness and uniqueness.
Then there are the metaphors in Isaiah 64:8: ‘But now, O Lord, You are our Father, We are the clay, and You our Potter, and all of us are the work of Your hand.’ As well as the Lord being our ‘Potter’, He’s also referred to as being our Shepperd (Psalms 23:1; Ezekiel 34). For a child, this metaphor can conjure an image of a tall, bearded man in a meadow, dressed in robes, surrounded by sheep, while holding up a long staff.
And when Jesus said ‘I am the door’ and ‘the bread of life’ (John 10:7 and 6:35), well, that’s bound to confuse any youngster; while in Revelations 21:6: ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end’ (a paradox sounding like quantum physics). However, in this great book of truth and wisdom, there are so many stories with a spiritual dimension that can be partially understood metaphorically. In the story of Noah’s Ark (a baptism, renewal, or cleansing of Mankind), the chaos emerging from disharmony with the Creator is poetically represented by the primordial waters falling from the sky,” according to Christopher Kaczor, professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, L.A.
He adds: “The story of the Flood, in other words, is not a tale of God becoming frustrated and lashing out at human beings. The flood represents the consequences of disharmony with God. In acting out of harmony with Divine Love, we cause primordial chaos within ourselves. When we act against our ideals, we create within ourselves an inner schizophrenia. We pit the best of ourselves against the rest of ourselves.”
But aside from metaphors and a spiritual dimension, most theologians believe there was a great universal flood and the fossil record is remarkably consistent with the biblical account of of Noah’s era.
In the case of the Prodigal Son (Mankind) and his Father (God) who forgives and welcomes ‘home’ the genuinely remorseful son seeking redemption, we have a perfect parable rich in metaphor, love, hope and forgiveness.
And what to make of Jonah ‘entombed’ in the whale? Another apt metaphor foreshadowing the death and resurrection of Jesus on the third day. But it’s not just Christians who appreciate the rich language and metaphors of the Bible. The late atheist writer, Christopher Hitchens, once paid tribute to the King James version of the Bible, as did his friend, biologist Richard Dawkins.
Back in 2011, during the 400th anniversary of the translation, the two most famous atheists in the world expressed appreciation for the Bible’s contribution to English literature. In an article in Vanity Fair, Hitchens wrote: “Though I am sometimes reluctant to admit it, there really is something ‘timeless’ in the Tyndale/King James synthesis. For generations, it provided a common stock of references and allusions, rivalled only by Shakespeare in this respect. It resounded in the minds and memories of literate people, as well as of those who acquired it only by listening.”
During his time battling cancer, this quote by Hitchens contradicts the sub-title of one of his books, God Is Not Great (How Religion Poisons Everything). However, he relented when it came to honouring the King James Bible, which was first published in 1611.
In an article in The Christian Post, Audrey Barrick wrote: “But the bestselling author went further to criticize other translations of the Bible and ongoing attempts to update it. Offering one comparison, Hitchens cited a passage in the New Testament book of Philippians, which he read at his father’s funeral: ‘Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.’ (King James Version)
Amid numerous Bible translations and customized Scriptures, Hitchens lamented the gradual eclipse of the King James Bible, according to Audrey Barrick, quoting Hitchens again: “A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one. To seek restlessly to update it or make it ‘relevant’ is to miss the point, like yearning for a hip-hop Shakespeare,” he wrote. “‘Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward,’ says the Book of Job. Want to try to improve that for Twitter?”
A year later in 2012, Richard Dawkins said he supported the Department for Education’s drive (by the then secretary, Michael Gove) to make sure every public school in the nation has a copy of the King James Bible. “A native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian,” said Dawkins in a column for The Guardian. Despite remaining a non-believer, the biologist said he would have donated to the cause had he been given the opportunity to do so.
But it’s not just metaphors that are used to convey truth in the King James version. The Bible also uses poetry, hyperbole, didactic teaching and much more. An example of phenomenological language can be found in in the Book of Joshua (10:27): “But at the time of the going down of the sun, Joshua commanded, and they took them down from the trees and threw them into the cave where they had hidden themselves, and they set large stones against the mouth of the cave, which remain to this very day” “Sunset” here doesn’t mean that the sun “went down” scientifically.
Then there are the biblical passages about trees and rivers that clap their hands, and mountains that burst into song; metaphors about how creation inspires people to praise God. Or, according to author Ruth M. Bancewicz, does the non-human creation actually worship God in some unconscious way? Writing in Science and Belief, she said: “This is the question that Mark Harris, lecturer in Science and Religion at Edinburgh University, asked in his seminar at the Faraday Institute earlier this year. This is particularly relevant to the current series of posts on how a scientist’s faith is enhanced through their own work.”
Bancewicz said Verse 12 of Isaiah 55 is a good example of these natural praise texts. ‘You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.’ “The writer of Psalm 19 was more cautious, saying that although ‘there is no speech’, the heavens still ‘declare the glory of God’. Many of these passages are either songs or invitations to praise God. They might also be pointing to some great work God will do in the future or a testimony of what he has done in the past.”
Humans are unique in the universe. We have the capacity to understand semantics because we are created by God. But artificial intelligence (AI) created by humans will never comprehend semantics or understand when a metaphor is being used. And here is why: AI can only understand the syntax (grammatical rules and structure) but not semantics (abstract meaning) of language. Would a robot understand irony or sarcasm? To say to a robot, in an endearing way, ‘I’m going to kill you’, could have devastating consequences if the robot took it literally and defended itself by killing the human in ‘self-defence’.
Although it could be argued that the robot could pick up on ironic facial expressions, it could also misinterpret them; so, too, could an irony-deficient stupid person, but at least such a person has the potential to be taught it, whereas a robot hasn’t. And to say to a robot that the ‘sun is a demon’, the robot, although ‘told’ the definition of metaphors, has to make a choice what that means. Even beyond the world of AI, there are billions of creatures on this planet but only one who has the capability to understand abstract language. And beyond our world the universe is astonishingly, breathtakingly beautiful and complex, but, unlike humans, is unaware of it. Think about it: the sun, moon and stars are unaware of their existence, but we have the unique benefit of being aware and appreciating their beauty. If that doesn’t make you feel special, then you’re probably a robot. Remember: In the beginning was the Word (Logos)—not the software/hardware of technological components. Thank God we are a spark of the Divine—now there’s a perfect metaphor!
Kenneth Francis is a Contributing Editor at New English Review. For the past 20 years, he has worked as an editor in various publications, as well as a university lecturer in journalism. He also holds an MA in Theology and is the author of The Little Book of God, Mind, Cosmos and Truth (St Pauls Publishing).
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