Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Gendered church pedagogy, part 2: Metaphors

A comment by reminded me that metaphors are a strongly gendered pedagogical tool.  Identifying specific metaphors is more helpful than my previous, general comment on gendered analogies. I think that by speaking of metaphor we are not departing from meta-pedagogy; indeed, a metaphor like war or business can be so pervasive that we take on roles and act and speak as the metaphor would dictate. These metaphors are, in part, influenced by gender and are most definitely received differently by each gender. 

Biblical metaphor
Of course, this sends us in the direction of a discussion about the nature of inspiration; has God ordained both the medium and the message, does man's fingerprint on the book tilt it, does culture and place add something to it that we are free to strip away and replace with a more 'relevant' culture and place? I ask, because I believe that the war metaphor is perhaps one of the most commonly used in the Bible-it's no mistake that the church employs it. Of course, it may be rivaled by the image of the bride of God/Christ (adulterous Israel, the bride of Christ, etc); I would, however, place that metaphor in the masculine category as well. The notion of the stained or unstained bride, with ideas of virginity and cleanliness, pining for the groom - favours the groom; this is to be expected, as the groom stands for God, but I wonder if the metaphor favours the male so much that men either put themselves on the God side of the equation, or when that doesn't work, externalize the analogy as something to be observed because it is unpalatable to be placed in the vulnerable position of the pining bride. I know that's my reaction. And that's a biblical metaphor, heck, that's one of Jesus' metaphors. How much more must gendered, man-made metaphors in church teaching taint our understanding of the teaching, the church and our faith?

Man's metaphor - business
The business metaphor is the most ubiquitous one, forged by men and parasitically presuming the place of doctrine, defining the role of laity and leader, and surreptitiously knocking the pillars of faith aside and standing in their place to support the roof over God's house. It may be assuming to place 'business' in the masculine category of metaphors, but the numbers-oriented, categorizing, compartmentalizing, results-driven church, if anything, is a 'doer' of the Word (which I have identified as the more masculine). Even in the face of a slowly-changing world of business, the undeniable dominance of men in higher mgmt and in the development and maintenance of the Western, capitalist business ethos (and, indeed, logos) leads one to almost unquestionably place the metaphor in said category. So, it would stand to reason, that if such a metaphor holds such sway in the development of, pedagogy and group hermeneutic of teaching in today's Western church, that men and women must experience this differently. In a shallow church, where this metaphor and the seemingly opposing existence of emotionalism and experiential Xianity stand as the most dominant forces, it would be anything but surprising that the church would be full of: Women who simultaneously do their duty as employees while secretly seeking for passionate experiences & Men who, turned off by the 'femininity' of experience, either immerse themselves in 'running the business' or just punch-in, punch-out and never experience or live a real faith of any kind. If church is a business, you either run the business or you work for the business; either way, you treat it like a business - but in running it you are able to fool yourself that your busy-ness is related to having a faith. It's why the word 'commitment' is so popular; the word 'commitment' is an essential tool in the business metaphor's kit. {See how I used a metaphor to describe a metaphor? Either I'm creative or I lack the vocabulary to describe something without metaphor.}
Perhaps that is the true test of one's understanding of and Spirit-led following of the Truth - can we explain it without metaphor? Do we understand our faith, the church, Christ's teachings without resorting to metaphor? Christ himself used metaphor constantly, but either explained his 'real' point later or allowed that the Spirit would draw it out later - the point is that the metaphor was only a tool. 

The ease of metaphor and analogy has led us to build the church, our faith, our doctrine in the image of our metaphors. For the congregation, this pedagogy is flawed and will lead not only to a misunderstanding of doctrine, but a misplaced confidence that we truly 'get' what Xianity is all about just because we have a deep resonance with the metaphors our teachers used to build our idea of Xianity.

When I speak of 'metaphor', I switch between the proper idea of a metaphor and other, related, literary tools of comparison like analogy [which may use metaphors], allegory [an extended metaphor], synecdoche & metonymy [types of metaphor], or parable [a more removed form of allegory].  The effect of using any and all of these, repeatedly, over time transforms business & business-concepts into absolute metaphors, which means that business-concepts or terms come to take on their own meaning with reference to the church, removed from their original meaning, though their original meaning spawned the genesis of the metaphors that formed the absolute metaphor.  A related, but different, event is the conflation of meaning in 2 or more uses of a word; for instance, when the current usage of 'mission statement' in business and 'mission' in church come to mean something comprised of both concepts, though they were previously unrelated other than in their use of a particular word.  It's akin to, but different from, reading the properties of 'dynamite' into the use of the Greek dunamis, meaning power, just because 'dynamite' indirectly uses that Gr. root.  Of course, the use of dunamis would not intend to convey the explosive power of dynamite, but that precise comparison has been preached repeatedly. That's an exegetical fallacy, easily identified by scholars, but nevertheless commonplace and misleading in churches.  In the same sense, but in greater magnitude, absolute metaphors like business, though identifiable through close study and observation, hold considerable sway in the church teacher's weekly exegesis, nay eisegesis. In fact, they are so invasive that the exegete is entirely unaware that they are importing them into their hermeneutic. What they assume to be faithful analyses of text are, in fact, syntheses of the text and the absolute metaphor.  Perhaps the faithful scholar is, however, somewhat aware of his eisegesis, but continues in it precisely because of its pedagogical ease and the congregational response to such simplifications (read bastardizations) of doctrine.  I've knowingly done it out of ease,  due to the press of time, or to indulge the hearer.  It is difficult and unpopular to strip such window-dressing away, to even acknowledge it as such.  But so much rests on this.


  1. This is awesome stuff. It makes me want to study what metaphors are used to describe the relation between Christ and the church (body, army, sheep, etc.) A study like that would go a long way in moving the conversation forward.

    It also makes me think that how we conceive of the atonement (what's the problem? what's the answer? what does the reconciled state look like?)will also have a large effect on how we conceive of the church as a whole, but also how we interact with one another. If your atonement model is an emergency fix on the part of God, then the reconciled state is something like a return to a prior state. But if atonement not only repairs but creates something new, then the atonement cannot be used to prop up "business as usual." We are re-related to one another through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

    That's exciting and scary at the same time. That we might be pulled into a new vision of life together sounds great, but as you said, trying to initiate a new vision is "not good for business." (I'm having fun with this business metaphor)

  2. It's funny - I've always prided myself at my skills of analogizing or creating metaphors, never considering seriously the implications of the analogy beyond my initial use of it. I.e. I never considered that an analogy might take hold in a mind and later be used in a context I did not intend it to, let alone be used to form a worldview by which a biblical hermeneutic is formed. Scary stuff. I will pay much closer attention to my comparisons.
    Sometimes it is exciting when an analogy or metaphor just 'clicks' in your own mind or even resonates with another person, so we charge ahead with it, excited to see the results. But an idea is a dangerous thing.

  3. Here's a link to more discussion of metaphor, based on the book I referred to in your first post: