One of the most productive metaphors is that of WAR. War on poverty. War on crime. War on drugs. War on cancer. War on terror. Price wars. War of words. Holy war.
War is everywhere. Not long ago, I read one report on how silicon valley companies like Apple and Google foster an “ at war” attitude among their employees. Americans in particular seem to love to be at war. But it’s common elsewhere also.
Bradd Hayes writes, “Perhaps nowhere is the metaphor of war more ingrained than in the realm of religion.” The WAR metaphor gives us a sacred cause. It allows us to feel in control. It gives us hope. It aids us in believing that if we fight hard enough, whatever the perceived enemy, we can win. It gives a community a shared foe, a common cause. It feels good to think that the enemy is those bad people over there, that evil virus from a faraway place, while we’re in a place of righteousness over here. By focusing our eye outwards, the WAR metaphor helps us avoid the difficult work of looking within.
Roughly speaking, a metaphor is a figurative comparison in which one idea is understood in terms of an unexpected other. Metaphors are indispensible in religious language precisely because they are vague. They “allow us to refer to what really exists, while conceding that our knowledge of the relevant aspects of reality [like the nature of God] might be incomplete.” Metaphor communicates a sense of mystery, a negotiation with the unknown. It assists us in life’s most difficult moments.
Metaphor shapes not only our thinking but also our behaviour. Consistently framing relationships and other aspects of human existence in figurative terms of WAR, for example, will impact the ways we view others and how we act towards them, adding an element of aggression.
Religious metaphor undergoes a continual process of de-contextualisation and re-contextualisation. In these, a religious metaphor is detached from the original context in which it occurred, a sacred text for example, and then inserted into new contexts. Ana Deumert explains,
The replicated text might look the same, but it will not mean the same, and although it carries with it certain meanings from its earlier uses, it also acquires new meanings.
Take, for example, the SPIRITUAL LIFE as WAR metaphor, present throughout the Christian Bible (see Ephesians 6). Though this metaphor has a particular function within the story of the Bible, Christians have re-contextualized this metaphor in numerous ways. One instance is PARENTING as WAR. Consider the opening sentences in a 2016 post from American parachurch ministry, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood:
Parenting is war. There is, and we can’t say this with enough emphasis, nothing more war-like in the spiritual realm than parenting.
And look here at this title from a post from the early 2000’s on another popular Christian site, Crosswalk: “The War Between Loving Mom and Teen Daughter.” More recently, on the same site, readers were taught “How to end battles with a powerful child.” Yet another prominent American parachurch organisation, Focus on the Family, puts this dynamic like this:
In one way or another, every child will fight this battle with his parent. The earlier you win that battle, the better, both for your sanity and your child’s. You can win it when your kids are toddlers, or you can wait and try to win it when they’re teenagers. Victory comes a lot easier when a child is two, and it’s more quickly accomplished at that age when you use spanking, appropriately and lovingly applied, to enforce it.
Notice how the writer employs the WAR metaphor as foundation for violence in the form of “spanking” in order to win the battle with one’s child.
And over at Desiring God, though a post entitled “Parenting Means Wrestling Demons” offers a more subtle development of the Biblical metaphor, closer to the original in the sacred text, the writer nevertheless perpetuates an association between children and war.
But if we understand that spiritual warfare is taking place, we may not run as quickly from their rudeness, or at least not in the same way. Having expected it, we may enter into it with correction and kindness. We may not be annoyed that she took a swing at her sister; rather, we may be shocked that she shared her Skittles. When we know we’re wrestling demons, disobedience doesn’t surprise so much as obedience does.
War is weighty. And given evidence that the metaphors we use not only reflect the way we see the world but even shape the way we act, even cautious developments of the WAR metaphor like these deserve careful, critical attention and reflection. Especially when they occur within our relationship with children.
Metaphor Identification and Analysis
Research on Metaphor in Religious Language
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