Aesthetics of Truth…

19 04 2011

From Gary Larson’s “The Far Side”

Recently, a couple of my friends and I attended a Christian conference in the Windy City covering the topic of ‘How to preach Christ from the Old Testament.’ The conference was immensely beneficial both in ways of encouragement and education, but there was a question that lingered forward from the recesses of my mind. One that has surfaced occasionally without resolution over the last five years. This perennial yet sporadic query is one that concerns the art of preaching, more specifically the use of illustrations and metaphors. But even more pointedly, it concerns what theologians call typology (the closest literary equivalent I could think of is ‘foreshadowing’) and relates directly to the theme of last week’s conference. The one of the main mechanisms (of course this is incredibly simplified) for preaching Christ from the Old Testament is to reveal that it foreshadows something of the future, that it ‘points forward to something greater’. In a sense, it is using temporal metaphors to describe the latter object of interest. The listeners of preaching that contains such literary mechanism, are moved, inspired, and in some instances exclaim, “Cool~”. But my question is this: “So what if it’s cool?” At the risk of sounding anti-Christian, what is the difference of such temporal metaphors and foreshadowing to ones we find in fictional novels (or nonfiction for that matter)? Here is an interesting column by David Brooks in the NY Times titled “Poetry for Everyday Life” concerning the prevalent use of metaphors in our everyday life that actually pronounces our weakness in comprehending intangibles or novel ideas:

Metaphors help compensate for our natural weaknesses. Most of us are not very good at thinking about abstractions or spiritual states, so we rely on concrete or spatial metaphors to (imperfectly) do the job. A lifetime is pictured as a journey across a landscape. A person who is sad is down in the dumps, while a happy fellow is riding high.

Most of us are not good at understanding new things, so we grasp them imperfectly by relating them metaphorically to things that already exist.

Brooks is right to point out the prevalence and importance of metaphors in our thinking and learning. People need references to learn new concepts and ideas. In theology, theologians would say we use anthropomorphism to learn of the invisible God, and not the other way around. Such blending of patterns and recognition of relationships is where Brooks places the poetic nature of metaphors, that is, the “cool” aspect of metaphors, he grounds in their ability to unearth unseen, novel patterns. This gives no satisfactory answer for my question(s) of “So what if it’s cool? Do metaphors in preaching merely inspire because of it’s coolness?” With Brooks’ concept of poetry in metaphors, the inspiration from preaching would be no different than reading a very moving book. Thus, the aesthetic/poetic nature cannot be primarily grounded in the mechanism of metaphors (of course, the use of metaphors can be, secondarily, still pleasing) rather it is grounded in what it describes. To make a metaphor such as “You must have had a flat, I see the doughnut on your car” is informative but not moving. In preaching, the temporal metaphors and foreshadowing are “cool” not because of the point of these mechanisms but because of the object of their pointing/foreshadowing. It is truth and reality that moves and inspires. Truth, when it is correctly portrayed using metaphors, is intrinsically beautiful. This is often forgotten because many think of truth, that is, ultimate truth, as one-dimensional or simple, but it is the vastness and the depth of this truth that invokes the sense of novelty, the novel metaphorical patterns merely unearth them to us to realize.

Would it not only make sense that this Truth is so vast and inexhaustible that, as Brooks points out, we have such difficulty in understanding even with the help of metaphors?

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