All storied out: an appeal for greater diversity in our use of metaphors

I recently attended the Catherwood lecture hosted by Contemporary Christianity and with around 130  others enjoyed and benefitted from David Porter’s beautifully crafted address. Alongside the mainstream, my mind was drawn to a back eddy of musing on the number of times the word ‘story’ was used and how this seems to have become a preferred metaphor in Christian circles. This had echoes for me of a workshop I attended two weeks previously at the wonderfully encouraging Down and Connor Diocesan ‘Living Church’ Congress in the Waterfront Hall, when I heard in one of the workshops how “the story”, had to become my story and then our story. Perhaps this is a shorthand for learning about the Gospel, and under the influence of the Holy Spirit, understanding and appropriating the saving work of Jesus, thus becoming part of the church invisible with the privilege and duty of promoting the Kingdom of God on earth. As in most other things metaphors have trends. For a number of years now I have been feeling a little mentally exhausted by always being on a journey (formerly thinking I was in a process of sanctification), but now perhaps I am beginning to recover through the somewhat less kinetic being in a story. Apart from the tiresome repetition the more substantive issue is what do we gain and what do we lose? what do we and others understand, or subconsciously intuit, through the metaphors we choose? I am closely associated with the Systemic approach to psychotherapy, which has a strong narrative stream in which story is a dominant construct. A therapist thanking a client for telling their story was interrupted by the client who impressed on the therapist that, “It is not a ****ing story, it’s true!” This takes us potentially to the thorny related issues of a post-modern view in which no ultimate truths or meta-narratives are permitted (there are only situated stories) and a social constructionist view which holds that reality is created through our ‘languaging’ together. If we speak and act from various positions we occupy/negotiate within a shifting relational web, and it is (only) within these contexts that what we do and say has meaning, then a greater emphasis on the Holy Spirit could be helpful to coherence. As I think of it, a relational triune God communicates with me in my culture and time, mediating my reading and hearing of the biblical text through the activity of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit enlivens my mind through other people and experiences, and all of these elements guide me to serve God in particular ways. If this way of thinking takes greater hold in the Christian community then  I might predict ‘position’, ‘situatedness’ and ‘relational context’ to be our next (emergent) metaphors, which  each in their turn, may be flogged to death! Don’t misunderstand me, metaphors are powerful means of communication, combining digital and analogic elements. Jesus was surely a master of the form and he clearly attuned his choice of metaphor to his audience. So to follow his example, we too will seek to use metaphors relevant to a changing culture; but my appeal is to not be like children playing football – all rushing together to contest maximum usage of the latest (trendy) metaphor. For the sake of discipline and rigour I, for one, would like to see a conference in which participants were banned from using the words story and journey just to make sure we have not lost the ability to articulate in alternative language – any takers?. Anyway, my wife has arrived home so for now I must go and share the story of my day to enhance our lived experience as we journey together  (and to think we just used to talk) ...... is it just me? Stephen Coulter Dr. Stephen Coulter is  Director of Systemic Psychotherapy training at Queens University Belfast and a member of Kirkpatrick Memorial Presbyterian Church in Ballyhackamore.
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6 Responses to All storied out: an appeal for greater diversity in our use of metaphors

  1. Puran says:

    I agree with Dr. Coulter that “metaphors are powerful means of communication.” A standard dictionary defines a metaphor as a ‘figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object is used in place of another to suggest a likeness between them.’ According to this definition, the reality of the object denoted is out there, not created, as the post-modernist and constructionist would have us believe. If this were not so, then one can turn a river into a mountain or a sea merely by the use of suitable metaphors. Holy Spirit, then, could be turned into ecstatic experience (and nothing more than that) arising from seeing an extraordinarily beautiful landscape or use of a certain type of drug. Traditional understanding is that the Holy Spirit is the Third person of a triune God who is really there, not a creation of a fertile human imagination which can use language to create a reality as it desires. If Holy Spirit is nothing more than a creation of human mind, then what does it mean to say that it “enlivens my mind through other people and experiences…”?

    Granted that the metaphors of ‘story’ and ‘journey’ have been used quite carelessly at times (this is the essence of therapist’s client’s retort), the question which needs to be asked is whether, before banning them to describe Christian faith and experience, they have any correspondence to the Third Person of the trinity as portrays in the Bible. If so, then only its misuse need be banned. The same would be true of the metaphors such as ‘position’, ‘situatedness’ and ‘relational context.’ Such metaphors, however, it is worth bearing in mind, would convey very little to a vast majority of Christians in Africa, Asia and Latin America without extensive explanations and illustrations whereas the metaphors of ‘story’ and ‘journey’ would be much more easily understood.

    I end by agreeing with Dr Coulter’s plea for a conference on metaphors with the purpose of discussing their uses and misuses, their values and dangers, and how they functioned in the past and how they function in different cultures and languages now rather than merely banning the participants from using the metaphors of ‘story’ and ‘journey’. May be some participants would be able to make a very good case for the use of such metaphors. I am presently in the process of working through a book by Samuel Wells entitled “Improvisation”. Based on the way the metaphor of improvisation is used in theatre, Dr. Wells seeks to present Christian life and ethics as a matter of ‘faithfully improvising in the Christian tradition.’ Though not agreeing with everything what I have read so far, I find the book highly insightful and illuminating.

  2. Monty commented on Contemporary Christianity:

    Excellent, Stephen. Your experience is very much my “story’ as I “journey’ through many recent conferences. I think Norah’s comment above is true (if I’m allowed to use such an absolutist word- at least “true for her”), but therein lies the really serious issue abut how such relativism can permeate even Christian thinking. I think I would respond to Norah by saying we need to differentiate between truth and opinion, or between primary and secondary truths. To say one person’s truth is not the same as another’s may be existentially true but not ontologically true. That is, she cannot say “It is true that my truth is not your truth”, without being caught in a spiral of self-contradiction.

    Thanks Stephen, really enjoyed it.

  3. Monty says:

    Excellent, Stephen. Your experience is very much my “story’ as I “journey’ through many recent conferences. I think Norah’s comment above is true (if I’m allowed to use such an absolutist word- at least “true for her”), but therein lies the really serious issue abut how such relativism can permeate even Christian thinking. I think I would respond to Norah by saying we need to differentiate between truth and opinion, or between primary and secondary truths. To say one person’s truth is not the same as another’s may be existentially true but not ontologically true. That is, she cannot say “It is true that my truth is not your truth”, without being caught in a spiral of self-contradiction.

    Thanks Stephen, really enjoyed it.

  4. Roger Cooke commented on Contemporary Christianity:

    Guilty as charged!

    In my work (for a Mission agency, in communications) and more generally, I’ve made plentiful use of both the ‘journey’ and ‘story’ motifs. I do, however, recognise the charge made here against such language and imagery – it does sometimes come across as trite and formulaic. But I’m not sure that the two examples given are equally flawed. Nor do I think that we are any better off with ‘process of sanctification’, nor indeed:

    ‘Perhaps this is a shorthand for learning about the Gospel, and under the influence of the Holy Spirit, understanding and appropriating the saving work of Jesus, thus becoming part of the church invisible with the privilege and duty of promoting the Kingdom of God on earth.’

    Not necessarily the most accessible language and surely just as formulaic?

    I think it’s fair enough to have a bit of a light-hearted go at the journey thing – it can certainly be a bit grating at times, but I wonder how much this has to do with the metaphor itself as opposed to the slightly lazy and mawkish way in which it is often used?

    The suggested questions of ‘What do we gain’ and ‘What do we lose’ are helpful ones in ensuring this isn’t just about language fatigue. As long as people continue to find the idea of ‘journey’ helpful in making sense of the messy, exhilarating and unpredictable process of continuing to work out our salvation, I’m happy enough to live with it.

    As for ‘story’ – I’m not sure I’d think of it as metaphor and I reckon it has a lot more to offer.

    As someone who seeks after a dynamic, personal, authentic relationship with God, my experience of faith will be unique, as will be yours – even if the truths that underpin these experiences are universal. There’s a shape and a colour to each of our lives (yes, I’m using metaphor – sorry about that) that reflects something of the miracle of a God who is deeply personal and who’s in the business of transforming lives. Such ‘real-life stories’ of God at work are something we need to champion and celebrate, whatever language or metaphors we choose to adopt. More stories, less dry, repetitive doctrine would certainly make christian conferences (and church services) a lot more engaging.

    Thanks for your article though – it clearly got me thinking.

  5. Roger Cooke says:

    Guilty as charged!

    In my work (for a Mission agency, in communications) and more generally, I’ve made plentiful use of both the ‘journey’ and ‘story’ motifs. I do, however, recognise the charge made here against such language and imagery – it does sometimes come across as trite and formulaic. But I’m not sure that the two examples given are equally flawed. Nor do I think that we are any better off with ‘process of sanctification’, nor indeed:

    ‘Perhaps this is a shorthand for learning about the Gospel, and under the influence of the Holy Spirit, understanding and appropriating the saving work of Jesus, thus becoming part of the church invisible with the privilege and duty of promoting the Kingdom of God on earth.’

    Not necessarily the most accessible language and surely just as formulaic?

    I think it’s fair enough to have a bit of a light-hearted go at the journey thing – it can certainly be a bit grating at times, but I wonder how much this has to do with the metaphor itself as opposed to the slightly lazy and mawkish way in which it is often used?

    The suggested questions of ‘What do we gain’ and ‘What do we lose’ are helpful ones in ensuring this isn’t just about language fatigue. As long as people continue to find the idea of ‘journey’ helpful in making sense of the messy, exhilarating and unpredictable process of continuing to work out our salvation, I’m happy enough to live with it.

    As for ‘story’ – I’m not sure I’d think of it as metaphor and I reckon it has a lot more to offer.

    As someone who seeks after a dynamic, personal, authentic relationship with God, my experience of faith will be unique, as will be yours – even if the truths that underpin these experiences are universal. There’s a shape and a colour to each of our lives (yes, I’m using metaphor – sorry about that) that reflects something of the miracle of a God who is deeply personal and who’s in the business of transforming lives. Such ‘real-life stories’ of God at work are something we need to champion and celebrate, whatever language or metaphors we choose to adopt. More stories, less dry, repetitive doctrine would certainly make christian conferences (and church services) a lot more engaging.

    Thanks for your article though – it clearly got me thinking.

  6. Just thinking this over, having been formerly in the ‘sanctification’ group, and then got involved in Corrymeela, where the story metaphor was presented and used a lot, I think I prefer the ‘story’ metaphor. Also, learned that someone’s truth may not be the same as my truth! Will try and comment on this again, after re-reading while at Corrymeela this weekend!

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