“Jesus was a sailor/when he walked upon the water/ . . . but he himself was broken/long before the sky would open . . .”1
If you are of a certain vintage and you read the epigram, you are probably humming Judy Collins’ “Suzanne,” one of her many hits, with a lyric right out of Leonard Cohen’s poem of the same name. It is enigmatic, evocative, haunting. It calls on Jesus as a sailor, a metaphor that is startling, but no more so than the ones we find in the Gospels.
The metaphors in the Gospels are numerous and diverse. “I am the Vine,” he says. “You are the branches.” He claims to be the door, the bridegroom, the lamb, the ransom, the good shepherd, and “The Way, the truth, and the life.” He is nothing if not confident about his mission and his being. Through them we visualize much of what Jesus meant. They are how we learn of Jesus in ways that reason, logic, and theory cannot reach. They are compact links to a kaleidoscope of images.
Some of these are foundational in most cultures: almost anyone could find them appealing. But some may bring only the slightest stirring of recognition to us. The fact that there are so many of them in the Gospels and the New Testament suggests a willingness to reach us through as many images as possible. And I think we must ask why. Why is it so important to Jesus—and by inference, to the Gospel writers—that we see him in so many different ways? Wouldn’t it be prudent to save a lot of time and effort by fastening on one or two powerful metaphors and pour all the wooing of the Holy Spirit through them?
In fact, if we wield Occam’s razor—the simplest explanation is usually the one closest to the truth—we’d want to reduce the options down to those most likely to win the trust of most people. I confess I do not know which those would be. Nor does it really matter, since my own choices have shifted over the years in response to the tides of circumstance, need, and interest.
When I first began to read the Bible in large chunks, instead of key memory verses, I began to think of it as a rather disjointed narrative that banged down hard on certain themes, sometimes to the point of redundancy, and that veered wildly in many different directions. Later, in college, I studied New Testament Greek, and while I could barely keep up with the verb forms and the conjugations, I did come away with a bushel of words I could use and a reverence for the idea that multiple meanings could derive from single words. I also understood that The Bible was a translation of the Greek, Ta Biblia, The Books, and that what I held in my hand was a library, not a single, unified, narrative. Many voices, many stories, millennia in the making, multiple cultures and languages—all of it somehow joining a chorus that hit all the highs and lows of the human experience as it wrestled with the divine.
The Gospel of John reports Jesus saying, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.”2 No doubt hearing the Torah read in the Temple, expounded in the synagogue, and recited in one’s prayers, a practice formed over thousands of years, was regarded as the surest means to salvation. “Yet,” said Jesus, “you refuse to come to me to have life.”
This was a God revealed through his powerful acts, who flexed an “arm mighty to save.” While abhorring all idols, the Hebrews put their trust in words as the lens through which to see God, the bridge over which they would escape the torrents of evil, and the fire which their prophets would take into themselves.
“The point of the Old Testament analogies,” writes John V. Taylor, “especially the metaphors drawn from human experience, is that they are the most appropriate form of speech for talking of a God who . . . is committed to a reciprocal relatedness with the world and has an affinity with it.”3
In the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah underwent a vision within the temple, in which he saw the Lord high on a throne, surrounded by thunder, fire, and earthquake —and angels, terrifying in their majesty. Isaiah, naked in his guilt and shriveling in fear and awe, is touched on the lips with a live coal taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.
That detail blurs the line between a waking vision and material reality. It is a trip wire for our complacent reading. The coal comes glowing from the altar fire. An angel, wielding tongs, carries it to Isaiah and touches his lips with it. If this was a purely internal all-in-his-head manifestation for Isaiah, you’d think the angel would carry it in his hand, oblivious to the heat and sizzle, but aware, nevertheless, that he is going to char Isaiah’s lips with it. Aren’t angels fire-proof?
But we read this symbolically, as a metaphor that expresses the holiness of the word of God that both cleanses and inflames those to whom it is entrusted. In so doing there is something missed and something gained. We do not have the immediacy of such a literal experience, either observed in others or bestowed upon oneself, an experience that appeals to our senses and thus to our sense of “reality.” But we gain the power of metaphor. This is our default mode for learning anything; we range ourselves along a pathway of imagination, an abyss on either side, until we can reach the solid ground of memory and/or experience. In imagination we reach and leap for a foothold. Or to extend the metaphor: we plant one foot in memory and stretch the other toward imagination until the one can join the other.
There has always been a fear of “anthropomorphism” in religions, that to describe God acting in ways that suggest human attributes is to lower God to our level. There is no danger to God in this, only to ourselves. To speak is to call something into existence, to make present what was hidden. We have the power to breathe the breath of life into a curse or a quip or a joke—and once released into the wild it is out of our control. Having spoken about God, we have a responsibility literally to “accept the obligation of response,” to answer for what we have said.4
But the truth is that we are always remaking God in a form we can understand. In every age, as Christian Wiman says, “Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of man.”5 We can see this as a lowering of God or we can recognize the deeper truth that God-in-Christ has become the Word among us to heal and restore us. When we struggle to understand what God is saying to us in the Scriptures, our response should not be “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” nor should it be “Couldn’t God have said it more politically correct!” But, as Rowan Williams suggests, “Our task is rather to say that the revelation of God comes to us in the middle of weakness and fallibility.”6
When we misapprehend or distort the word of God, we are tediously aware of the endless and stinging arguments that can separate us from one another. And yet, through it all—the centuries and millennia of the Word manifested among us—God continues to reach out to us in “many and divers ways.” Just as the fire lit up Isaiah when “the word of the Lord came to him,” so the Word becomes incarnate, overcoming barriers of prejudice and pride, and searching us out where we are. In our experience, the Bible offers so many digressive pathways, that we must be continuously reading and studying in order to hold in mind the profusion of metaphors and storylines within it.
Somewhere in his writings, Kierkegaard conjures up a metaphor that captures for me the terror of faith and despair. In it we are looking up, from fathoms deep, at a tiny figure thrashing alone through the waves. Although I was once a strong swimmer who enjoyed the lift and thrust of catching the waves, I still have a flickering sense of dread when I think of the vast depths of the sea. To imagine Jesus as a wave-walker stepping lightly through the storm and wind, is to see myself as Peter, haunted by the sight of Jesus and yet jolted to be with him, come hell or high water.
We carry these metaphors within us; they have the power to baptize us once again in the waters that could drown us were it not for the Wave-walker beside us.
- Cohen, Leonard. “Suzanne Takes You Down,” Selected Poems 1956-1968. New York: Viking Press, 1964, p. 209. ↩
- John 5.39,40 ↩
- Taylor, John. The Christlike God. London, SCM Press, 1992, p. 149. ↩
- Steiner, George. Real Presences. London: Faber and Faber, 1992, p. 90. ↩
- Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 11. ↩
- Williams, Rowan. Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses.” London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994, p. 159. ↩