What is metaphor? One dictionary defines it as “a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance.” Aristotle gave an even simpler definition (shocking!): “giving something a name which belongs to something else.”
Any time we try to “swallow our pride”, “pull up our bootstraps”, or “have our cake and eat it too”, we are in fact, using metaphors.
Metaphors are also used as literary devices. For example, in sonnet 116 when Shakespeare calls love a “star to every wandering ship” he does not, of course, mean that love is a ball of burning gas and flame. But in the same way a shining star guides a ship lost at sea in the dead of night, love is a guide to men. Poetry is metaphor.
For those of us without a literary bent, why is metaphor important?
C.S Lewis, a late master of metaphor, claimed that most truth could only be conveyed as such. The Bible is replete with metaphor. The case has even been made that the entire Bible is a metaphor – written words to capture the reality of the God who is. Jesus often spoke in extended metaphors, which we call parables.
C.S Lewis wrote about Jesus’ words,
All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolic attempt to express the inexpressible. Musical instruments are mentioned because for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity. Crowns are mentioned to suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share His splendour and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of Heaven (gold does not rust) and the preciousness of it. People who take these symbols [metaphors] literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs. (p. 137, Mere Christianity)
Lay eggs indeed! We must be careful to look for metaphor, and not mistake the symbolic for the literal.
Pray for eyes to see and ears to hear the metaphors around us in our daily lives as well as in scripture, that metaphor might lead us to Truth.