Imagine driving by a furniture store and seeing a large sign in the window that reads, “We stand behind our furniture for ninety days!” Now imagine reading the sign literally. What would you conclude? Personally, I would be a little freaked out. I mean seriously, who are these people? And why the hell do they stand behind their furniture for three months? How could this possibly benefit anyone!? WEIRD!
Welcome to the wacky and confusing world of metaphorical language. So, let’s “go down the rabbit’s hole” and “get this party started.” See my point?
Metaphors are common and widespread, and children learn about them in school. But most of my students are totally unaware of the scholarly discussions and debates about biblical metaphors. Most assume the Bible is to be read literally, and some are completely “in the dark” when it comes to even knowing what a metaphor is, let alone a metaphorical story.
To help them understand metaphorical stories I use Beauty and the Beast as an example. This story – one all my students are familiar with – is about an egotistical, cruel, and selfish prince; a young man so mean-spirited he is beast-like. But rather than say he is “like a beast,” the author depicts him as an actual beast, a beast so insensitive that he treats his servants as “objects” rather than human beings. Hence, his servants are literally objects.
Beauty and the Beast is a great metaphorical story. And in the end, love transforms the beast into a beautiful young man. And with his “resurrection,” the servants become human and are no longer treated as objects by the prince. The spell is broken. Love, symbolized in the rose, changed everything.
Discussions about fairy tale metaphors do not evoke much controversy, but biblical discussions do, especially in my classroom. In recent years many biblical scholars have suggested that some of the most sacred stories in the Bible are metaphors, and were never meant to be taken literally.
I make it very clear to my students that I cannot tell them what stories are to be read literally and what stories are to be read metaphorically. I do, however, draw their attention to scholarly arguments. One academic debate that I focus on deals with the resurrection of Jesus, and I use the below images to initiate discussion.
The above story in Newsweek deals with a contemporary debate among scholars regarding the risen Christ. Some scholars are suggesting that the Easter story is entirely metaphorical, and was never meant to be taken literally. Rather, it was meant to explain (metaphorically) how the Christian movement did not end when Jesus died. In other words, Jesus was the embodiment of ideas, and the “body” of those ideas “rose from the grave” and “lived on.”
Usually at this point in the discussion one or more of my Christian students jump in and say, “Christians believe in the literal interpretation.” “True,” I tell them, “but not all do.” I then share with them a significant national survey that was conducted in 1982 by the sociologist Jeffery Hayden(see my post “A stop-and-think-survey” for the entire story). Hayden sent out a survey to ten thousand mainstream Protestant ministers and pastors. He asked them if they believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus(among other questions). Fifty-one percent of Methodist ministers said “no,” thirty-five percent of United Presbyterian ministers said “no,” and thirty percent of Episcopalian priests said “no.” Conclusion: not all Christians accept a literal reading of the Bible. And I want my students to understand this.
Another example of metaphorical language in the Bible that is prone to debate and interpretation is in the Garden of Eden story. In the story, immediately after Adam and Eve disobey God and eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the narrator writes, “and their eyes were opened.” My students conclude that this passage must be a metaphorical statement, and even my kids who read the Bible literally are forced to agree. Here is where it gets fun.
I then ask them to compare the metaphorical connotations of having your “eyes open” with having your “eyes closed.” They all agree that living with “eyes shut” is to be “blind,” to “live in darkness,” and to be ignorant, naive, and unable to “see things correctly.” My students start to realize that the disobedience in the garden can logically be interpreted as a noble rather than sinful act, an interpretation my conservative Christian students find offensive. At this point I tell them that Mormons celebrate Adam and Eve’s act of disobedience, and I show them the following passage from the Book of Mormon.
“And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the Garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who oweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:22-25).
So… why do I teach this information to my students? I teach it because I want my students to understand that there are disagreements, ongoing debates, and divisions in every religion. I want them to know that it is sometimes difficult to extract “exact meaning” from holy books. And, more importantly, I want them to learn to be skilled and comfortable with critically examining religion and issues of faith (or lack of), be it their own or that of others.