A network of highly cohesive details reveals the truth.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

What's a really big Meadow For?

Over on the Better Bible Blog Rich Rhodes has posted Orthotomeo and Metaphor. In that article he mentions Lakoff and Johnson's "Metaphors We Live By." I read the first several pages (thank you Amazon) and now it is on my "wish list". Even after reading only the first few pages I must say that every exegete needs to read that book.

One question I've had for some time now is how science fiction writers can transport us to a made-up world. The world that is created on the printed page is different than our world; however, we feel with a very definite sense that we enter into their world. In a well written science fiction novel, we live their narrative. I want the Bible to do that to me. So, I view this question as if it is in the context of Bible translation, and I'll remind everyone that exegesis isn't finished until you have a translation in your own heart language. Setting that reminder aside, my science fiction question tries to get me to think about some of the exegetical and translation issues in what it takes to transport the modern reader from the here and now to the there and then.

I think I've discovered the answer to my question. Well, at least the start of an answer.

It's obviously true that science fiction writers utilize new words and concepts. At a bare minimum they conceive of new uses for the words we have. This is very similar to what is presented to us in the world of the New and Old Testaments. For example, a denarius is a new word for us, and they used a word we translate flesh but they used it in a way we don't use. But there is something greater going on. New words don't transport us; they leave us where we are at. Something larger must happen. So, what is going on?

Here's a lengthy quote from the book. What struck me (interesting metaphor) in this quote was the insight it generated (interesting metaphor) into cross-cultural ministry. That led me immediately to the impact (interesting metaphor) that metaphor has on exegesis and Bible translation since Bible translation resonates (interesting metaphor) with the cross-cultural. This is where "The Metaphors We Live By" comes in (another interesting metaphor):

"To give some idea of what it could mean for a concept to be metaphorical and for such a concept to structure an everyday activity, let us start with the concept argument and the conceptual metaphor argument is war. This metaphor is reflected in our everyday language by a wide variety of expressions:
Argument is War Your claims are indefensible. He attacked every weak point in my argument. His criticisms were right on target. I demolished his argument. I've never won an argument with him. You disagree? Okay, shoot! If you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out. He shot down all my arguments.
It is important to see that we don't just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument--attack, defense, counterattack, etc.--reflects this. It is in this sense that the argument is war metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing.

Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different. It would seem strange even to call what they were doing "arguing." Perhaps the most neutral way of describing this difference between their culture and ours would be to say that we have a discourse form structured in terms of battle and they have one structured in terms of dance.

...the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another." -- George Lakoff in "Metaphors we live by" (pg 4-5)

In order for Science fiction writers to transport us, two things must happen: first they have to make it the same, and second, they have to make it different. If it were all the same, we wouldn't end up at a different place. If it were all different there would be no connecting flight (as it were) to move us from where we are at to where we end up.

So, what is the larger thing I'm saying? First, science fiction writers utilize metaphorical concepts we are comfortable with. Since we don't even know we think in terms of metaphorical concepts, the use of them is perfectly natural to us. That allows us quite naturally to walk in their world. However, in the second place, they also build up new metaphorical concepts that create a connection between there and then and here and now.

And, here is where the exegesis gets quite interesting and the implications for Bible translation become thought provoking. It takes linguistic real estate to build up a metaphorical concept when the reader is not naturally tuned to it. This has immediate implications for how the original authors would have needed to communicate a Christo-centric, monotheistic, creational world-view to a pagan world. There were metaphors that had to be built up. The large exegetical question here is what are those metaphors? Word, spirit, incarnation, flesh, love, partnership with God (ie. koinonia), body, etc. are but a few that come to my mind immediately. Would these metaphors not only give us insight into how the original authors built their arguments, but also help us to know how to take the same message to a similar pagan world?

But, it also means that the original authors used metaphors the general population was comfortable with (Mars Hill comes immediately to mind). We have to understand that the writers used metaphorical concepts from the culture. If we don't, we will (in fact, I suspect we have) create church language that takes in and owns ideas from the Hellenist world of the time. The exegetical key here is to realize that utilizing a naturally understood metaphor takes no linguistic real estate, but building up a non-natural metaphor does take linguistic real estate. (This has implications for Bible translation!)

I might add that there's homiletic insight here, too. Think about what narrative style preaching might look like when an extended metaphorical concept needs to be conveyed to an audience unaccustomed to the metaphor.

Also, more specific to exegesis, this greatly underscores the need to look for the metaphorical concepts that cohere a given text. And by text I refer to linguistic forms that are paragraph size or larger. There's a cohesion going on in a paragraph that is sometimes difficult to discover because we are not accustomed to thinking within the metaphorical concept they were natural at thinking within.

Part of good exegesis is building within our minds the metaphorical concepts the original authors used--the ones they intended to transform our minds. Another part of good exegesis is understanding that other metaphorical concepts were utilized simply to get the real message across.

Keeping these straight and separate is quite difficult because the context we bring to the text has become very encumbered by metaphors pressed upon us.

We press these onto the text. And that's eisegesis, not exegesis.


Blogger J. Archer said...

Mike, thanks for posting this. I've been reading it (I blame you) and it is utterly fascinating. I intend to buy the book soon to complement my studies in social anthropology.

I'm seeking a way to do what might be termed "natural exegesis"--cultivating a framework of metaphors, in this case, with the goal of recreating a Mediterranean peasant's world and life view. The problem I see (that sparked this idea) is that a good deal of bible study, while sometimes engaging the social, historical, cultural, economic, ecological (etc) and literary contexts, do not fundamentally change one's view such that a natural reading is more contextualized.

For example, one may wish to highlight all the honor-shame aspects in the trial/crucifixion/resurrection of Jesus--but until the reader can read WITH honor-shame lenses as a natural set of spectacles, I consider it insufficient. As you say--

Part of good exegesis is building within our minds the metaphorical concepts the original authors used--the ones they intended to transform our minds. Another part of good exegesis is understanding that other metaphorical concepts were utilized simply to get the real message across.

Keeping these straight and separate is quite difficult because the context we bring to the text has become very encumbered by metaphors pressed upon us.

9:06 PM  

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