The Necessity of Metaphor for God-Talk: Reflecting on Bono & Eugene Peterson on the Psalms

Yesterday Fuller Studio released its first film: a conversation between Bono and Eugene Peterson on the Psalms. Bono is the lead singer of U2. Eugene Peterson is a Christian pastor and author, most notably of The Message a translation of the Bible in modern idiomatic English.

In the video it is clear both men give great attention to the importance of language, particularly our speech to God. In a critique of contemporary Church music they lament the lack of honesty and realism before God. Bono compliments the beauty of the music found in churches, but finds the lyrics too safe and sanitized. Contrast that to the Psalms, which are prayer-poems of honest rawness.

Beyond the need to recapture the honesty of the psalmists, these men talk about the importance of metaphor. Bono says in the film, “The only way we can approach God is if we’re honest through metaphor, through symbol.” This statement woke me up. I love the arts and have even argued for their necessity in the life of the Church. I’ve written devotionals on the Psalms and spend a good amount of time in them trying to help readers enter the worlds evoked in their language. Bono’s statement revealed to me just how reflexively drawn I am to analytical language. Somewhere deep within me I think concrete analytical language is more valuable than mysterious symbolic speech.

There is room for measured, careful analysis, but a thesis followed by three supporting paragraphs and a clear conclusion can’t capture the truth of desperation found in Psalm 22.1-2:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. (NRSV)

We need symbolic language to express the reality of our wonder before the grandeur of God as the writer of Psalm 18 does:

The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (NRSV)

By writing this way the psalmist evokes a greater response than if he simply wrote, “God offers safety and deliverance.” But this symbolic language does more than express a truth artfully. The metaphor, the symbol, is the truth itself. If the psalmist wants to be analytical, he would write an essay. He chooses to express himself in a poem. Metaphors and similes are not window dressing, they are the message itself. We inhabit a world we cannot fully understand. We encounter a God who will always remain a mystery to us, whose reality will always push the boundaries of our speech. Symbolic language is a step in the right direction at expressing our wonder before the mystery.

I want to dive into symbolic language. Metaphors invite and even demand readers to get dirty. We cannot stay objective or removed. The question for readers of the Psalms is not, what is the concept behind this metaphor? For once we find said concept, we often discard the metaphor. God then becomes merely an abstract source of safety and is no longer a fortress. We lose the powerful image. The real questions might be, how does this metaphor open me to truth? How do these symbols welcome me into the mystery?

I greatly appreciate the work of both Petereson and Bono. Peterson’s books on pastoring greatly shaped my understanding of the vocation while I served churches. His work reminded me of why I was there and what was truly important in the midst of myriad tasks — things like praying, reading Scripture, spiritual direction. U2 has been one of my favorite bands for years and I recently wrote about how I find much beauty in the earthy transcendence of Bono’s lyrics.


Forgiveness Should Shock the World, Not the Church

CBS News

CBS News reporter, Steve Hartman, profiled the surprising friendship between Jameel McGee and Andrew Collins. McGee was exonerated after spending four years in prison following a wrongful drug-dealing conviction. Collins was the arresting police officer who falsified the report against McGee. Collins would later be caught and would serve a year and a half in prison for this and other crooked actions. (I’ll leave the discussion of the discrepancies of their sentences for another time.) After their releases from prison, both men returned home to Benton Harbor, Michigan and ended up working at Mosaic, a faith-based employment agency.

At Mosaic, Collins confessed and apologized to McGee. McGee graciously forgave him. When Hartman asked McGee if he forgave Collins for Collins’s sake or for his own sake, McGee said, “For our sake,” meaning for the sake of the whole world that desperately needs grace. McGee cited his Christian faith as reason for his gracious actions. The men are now friends and speak publicly about the power of forgiveness.

This forgiveness surprises us because in the moral calculus of the world, McGee had no real reason or demand to extend forgiveness to Collins, who unjustly ruined his life. Most people would see nothing wrong if McGee maintained a grudge against Collins. This story has popped up in several places in my Facebook news feed and some readers have criticized McGee, saying he showed weakness or perpetuated injustice by forgiving Collins. McGee’s grace is alien in a society that keeps long accounts.

Since McGee roots his forgiveness of Collins in his Christian faith, those of us in the Church should find this act especially beautiful, but not unforeseen. McGee aligned himself with God’s kingdom and that is wonderful. We ought to celebrate this forgiveness as an example of God breaking into our unforgiving world. This is a sign of our new Easter reality. I’ve read and watched the story several times with gladness and gratitude.

At the same time, McGee’s act ought not shock us in the Church the way it has shocked the rest of the world. Forgiving our enemy is one of the essential practices of Jesus’s followers. We need to hear and celebrate stories of when such forgiveness happens, but the good news is that McGee is no alien. He has been transformed by the power of Jesus’s grace and love. The Holy Spirit can change each one of us to be as forgiving and loving as McGee has been toward Collins. Stories of this nature ought to be common in our faith communities. If they are not common, we need to take a hard look at ourselves and wonder why the story of a Christian man forgiving his enemy would be so shocking to us.

The response from the Church should not be one of, “I cannot believe such a thing has happened.” Rather our response should be, “Yes, we recognize this act as coming from the God we worship. We joyfully celebrate such a beautiful and wonderful extension of grace. It is what we expect from our sisters and brothers in Christ.” The way our brother Jameel McGee acted is the way Jesus calls all of us to act. That is a beautiful invitation.

National Parks as Incubators of Democratic Values, or: How Giant Sequoias Make Us a Better People (Repost)

St. Mary Lake from Sun Point(The following is a post I wrote in August 2012. I wanted to share it again as we are in the midst of another heated presidential election. The national parks provide us more than recreation or a chance to reconnect with nature. If we take time to reflect on their meaning, we can see they also shape us into better democratic citizens. If you have the chance, I encourage you to visit one soon.)

Back in June, my family visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. As we hiked along the Congress Trail, I carried my infant son and he began to cry just before we came upon a group of three people. They silently and excitedly motioned us to come over and together we watched a black bear cub playing on a fallen tree on the other side of a clearing. My kid continued to cry in spurts despite my best efforts to soothe him. Thankfully he did not disturb the cub’s focus. After a few minutes we began to leave and I apologized for my son’s noisiness, to which one of the women in the group smiled and responded in a wonderful Southern drawl, “That’s OK, this park belongs to him too.”

After that trip I have returned to Ken Burns’ excellent documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. The early episodes detail the creation of these parks, which was unprecedented in the world’s history. Never before had a nation set aside public land in order to preserve the natural wonders for its citizens to experience. When Congress established Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872, it stated that the land would be set aside, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Reflecting on my experiences in national parks as well as learning more about their history brings to mind a concept that has surprisingly received little attention in this election year: democracy. Those who originally sought to create national parks did so for two reasons. First, they wanted to protect the land, vegetation, and wildlife, what we today might call environmental conservation. Second, they protected the lands with an eye toward their neighbors and children — they believed it would be good for others, including future generations, to experience the lands in as pristine states as possible. They agreed to limit personal and private claims for development or exploitation of their resources. They believed to preserve the lands was democratic. Burns’ documentary quotes George Caitlin, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and others at length. Their words extolling the inherently democratic values of national parks evoke inspiration consistent with the natural beauty they sought to protect.

Because the creators of the national parks chose to curb their own possible gain, everyone who has the ability to travel there can experience the wonder of Yosemite Valley without paying exorbitant entry fees. One does not have to cough up cash to a photographer with sole proprietary rights to all pictures from Glacier Point. The granite of Half Dome will never be quarried for kitchen countertops. Burns’ films show there were people who wanted to lay private claims on what became the national parks for purposes of tourism or commercial use of the resources. But the American citizens, through their representatives, decided that these lands should belong to everyone. No one should have more of a claim to the lands than anyone else. I stand amazed at the selflessness required to secure natural beauty for all people present and future. These are values one still finds in the parks. When I was a child my parents would never let me take home even a rock from a stream bed and they argued, “If everyone took a rock home, one day there would be no rocks left.” The national parks are incubators of sharing and restraint, two key values of democratic virtue.

The woman we met on the Congress Trail clearly understood the virtue shaping the national parks’ existence, but I find little about democratic values in today’s public discourse. Most of the discussion has focused on economics, namely whether we are moving toward absolute free markets or socialism. Reducing life to mere economics, however, will not account for something as magnificent as preserving the Grand Canyon. While one can detail the relationships between economics and democracy, or argue whether free markets or socialism is more democratic, the fact is that economics is different from democracy. From the points of view of both the free market and socialism, Grand Canyon National Park is extremely inefficient. A mere $25.00 gets a carload of people into the park for seven days.  People would gladly pay higher fees and far more money could be made either for private investors or the state. From the perspective of economics, the raw resources in the parks are going to waste. Economics, however, cannot understand the democratic values that make these sanctuaries of beauty and wilderness available to all. The parks exist not for the return to shareholders or for the promotion of the state, but, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” National parks remind us that benefit and enjoyment sometimes come in forms other than money and consumable products. Benefit and enjoyment are not granted by the state, but rather, when people choose to restrain their own private claims and freely share with one another.

Good things happen to us when we encounter natural majesty for which we have a shared responsibility to maintain. When my son meets a woman from another state and they have a mutual interest in preserving the habitat of a black bear cub, community is created, a sense of being a part of something larger than oneself is fostered, and they are made, if only for a moment, more generous toward each other and nature.

As I read about the issues shaping this year’s election debate, I wonder how the lessons we learn in the national parks and the democratic values that gave rise to them them should play a larger part of the discussion. Currently we restrain ourselves by allowing ourselves just one vote. No one can (legally) sell their vote or purchase more opportunities to vote. This value of ensuring one vote per person and restraining ourselves from commoditizing that vote makes little economic sense, but it makes terrific democratic sense.  Where else might restraining and sharing for the purpose of ensuring all have a say or receive benefit help us move forward together?

If economics cannot make sense of the democratic values that formed the national parks, it seems unlikely to me that economics will be able to foster those values. I do not intend to demean economics. Rather, I hope we begin to see that there are matters that are beyond an economic scope. Economics should not be the primary or final arbiter of determining value. We need economics because we must produce, distribute, and consume goods to survive and progress. At the same time, let us remember Theodore Roosevelt’s beautiful charge he gave while visiting the Grand Canyon, “Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” Free markets, socialism, and other economies will always tempt us to look at the Grand Canyon and think that we could somehow make it better, more efficient, or more profitable. The truth is we cannot improve on it and we need values that encourage restraint and sharing, that help us to appreciate that the biggest hole in the ground, or the largest living things on Earth, are all our responsibility and are means of benefit and enjoyment for everyone. We need these values not only to protect natural beauty, but also our nation.