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.

 

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