I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about metaphors recently, in relation to my PhD research. A key book I’ve found helpful is G. Lakoff and M. Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By. One of their central ideas is that metaphors shape how we live and not just how we talk. So, in a culture where we conceptualise arguing as ‘warfare’, we ‘attack’, ‘defend’, ‘win’ and ‘lose’ arguments.

But, ask Lakoff and Johnson, what if we are from a culture that conceptualises arguing as ‘dance’. Suddenly our arguments are more about mutual performance and beauty.

This may sound a little abstract but my colleague Richard Johnson (Redcliffe’s Head of Biblical Studies) made a very shrewed point in relation to metaphors and mission. How do we conceptualise mission? Do we take our imagery from Joshua (‘mission is a battle’)? Or from the parables (mission is sowing seeds)? What other metaphors might we use? What would ‘success’ or ‘failure’ look like according to each metaphor? How might it affect our relationships with those we are seeking to ‘reach’ (another metaphor!)?

So it was with considerable interest that I came across the statement issued by the ‘Consultation on Mission Language and Metaphors’ which was held at Fuller Theological Seminary in June 2000. Here is the opening paragraph:

We, the participants in the consultation, have gathered to think and pray together about the words, metaphors and images evangelicals use to communicate about the missionary mandate and endeavor. As a relatively small group of mission agency and church leaders, theologians and communicators, we comprise neither a comprehensive nor adequately representative cross-section of the evangelical spectrum. We do, however, comprise a group unified in our concern that unwise language choices not be a hindrance to persons truly hearing the Gospel of Christ. We hope and pray that our tentative beginning here will encourage others in our context and around the world to grapple with some of the issues we have considered.

How does the language we use to describe mission affect (or reflect?) the ways we do mission? Could we be applying imagery from the Bible in unhelpful or downright harmful ways?

Read the consultation’s full statement

3 thoughts on “Bible, mission and metaphor

  1. Greetings. I find this topic particularly important in today’s fast-changing culture. One thing I have noticed is that Christians often want to re-create the “idyllic time” – usually the 1950’s – as the focus for mission and ministry within the local congregation. Not only is the focus wrong, but as you so rightly notice, the vocabulary reflects that wrong focus.

    Thought-provoking. Thanks

  2. Greetings Tim, my name is Sarel and I am currently completing my Masters degree in Hermeneutics at the University of Stellenbosch (in South Africa). I am also doing my thesis on Metaphors (mainly in Psalm 91). It is a very interesting field of study with so many possibilities for theology as a whole. My focus is mainly on Lakoff and Johnson. Their Conceptual theory poses useful application for the intepretation of the Psalms. I am struggling to find some resources who seriously critique their work. Are you aware of any good criticisms on their conceptual theory, especially from a Biblical viewpoint? Thanks

    1. Hi, sounds very interesting. You may want to check our S. Dille’s Mixing Metaphors; she uses L and J’s methodology for her own work on the God as Parent metaphor in Isaiah 40-55. I’ve not come across much by way of critique of L and J but will keep an eye out. Thanks for your message, Tim.

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