Here is a quote from Peter Adamson’s Medieval Philosophy (OUP, 2019, volume 4 in his History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps series) at page 188:
Metaphors exercise a stronger influence in philosophy than most philosophers would probably like to admit. Whole political theories have been grounded in the comparison of the state to a human body …. But no metaphor has been more of a constant or influential feature in the history of philosophy than the comparison of knowledge to eyesight.
There are many other examples from philosophy. You might think of Plato’s allegory of the cave, where shadows on the wall of the cave are the common understandings that people live by, but true knowledge is only to be had outside the cave, in the bright sunlight. You might think of Nietzsche’s characteristically shocking parable of the madman announcing the death of God to uncomprehending villagers: “Where has God gone? I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers.” Camus wrote an entire essay using the Greek myth of Sisyphus to frame his existential view of life. Here’s one of my favorites, a brief ironic tale from Kierkegaard’s book Either/Or, which gets less funny with every passing year:
A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.
Now here’s the problem: If the practitioners of philosophy, the art of clear and rational thinking about the general problems of life and the universe, often resort to suggestive and even beguiling metaphors to persuade readers, how much more tempting is it for theologians and expositors of religious doctrine to do the same? Why give a careful, detailed argument when a parable, metaphor, analogy, or even just a slogan will do? A metaphor may do even better, as an argument, if faulty, can be refuted, whereas metaphors and slogans somehow resist that sort of response. And thus we see how and why metaphors, analogies, and cute little stories abound in official Mormon discourse.
In fairness, metaphors and analogies can lend insight and understanding to a problem or issue. They aren’t always misleading or inapt. So the use of these rhetorical devices alone does not imply misuse. But so often analogies are thrown out as if the comparison made sheds light on an issue or, by itself, creates understanding where before there was none. Properly employed, an analogy is a pedagogical device whereby one who knows a particular subject or issue helps one who does not understand things by way of the analogy. The one who understands uses the analogy to guide one who does not understand. If neither person understands, the analogy has no claim to be providing any understanding. It’s garbage in, garbage out, and running the garbage through an analogy does not transform the process into garbage in, knowledge out.
So here is the question for the day: What metaphors or analogies are used (or overused) in the Church? Do they provide insight and understanding or do they just provide the illusion of understanding or paper over continuing confusion? I’ll throw out a couple of examples and solicit better examples from readers.
Stay in the boat! This recent metaphor from Elder Ballard likens the Church to the Old Ship Zion. We should do Mormon things and stay in the Church just like we should wear a life jacket and stay in the boat on a river rafting trip. Leaving the Church is very risky, just like being bounced out of the raft can be dangerous. People have really latched onto this metaphor. Of course, our missionaries encourage people to take off their non-LDS life jackets and jump out of their Catholic or Evangelical or atheist rafts to swim over to the LDS boat. And there is a steady trickle of members who intentionally jump off the LDS boat in search of another boat or to get completely off the religious river. Maybe a response to this metaphor might be (paraphrasing the line from Jaws): “We’re gonna need a better boat.”
The stone rolling down a mountain. This comes from Daniel, and the metaphor turns on the idea that the stone gets larger as it somehow picks up rocks and pebbles as it careens down the hill. Also, the stone is cut without hands … because God is the maker of it, just like God is the maker of the Church that rolls throughout the world growing bigger and bigger. This metaphor was used a lot when missionary work was having great success in the sixties and seventies. Not so much these days. Maybe the metaphor for today is: “Stormy weather ahead! Batten down the hatches and stay in the boat.”
So what are your favorite, or unfavorite, Mormon metaphors? I will be disappointed if I don’t see twenty or thirty examples in the comments. Because … we’re a team. We’re in this together. Put your shoulder to the wheel. No man or woman left behind. All for one and one for all. The world has no use for a drone. The train is leaving the station. God hates a coward. Fortune favors the bold. Ready, aim, fire.
This from Neil A. Andersen: “The priesthood is the power and authority of God given for the salvation and blessing of all—men, women, and children.A man may open the drapes so the warm sunlight comes into the room, but the man does not own the sun or the light or the warmth it brings.” Clearly he did not consider the inanity of a woman sitting in a dark room waiting for a man to come and open the drapes, but he did inadvertently highlight the absurdity of continuing to refuse women the priesthood.
Well Elizabeth Smart has indicated that she did not find metaphors from YW lesson manuals particularly helpful during her ordeal. You know, the value of chewed gum, etc.
As you say, metaphors can improve understanding, which makes it incumbent on the person using a metaphor to apply it correctly–on the person creating the metaphor to craft something that is illustrative without requiring a lot of additional explanation. Which is why I think the ‘stone cut out of the mountain without hands’ is perhaps the worst metaphor I’ve ever heard. It requires extensive explanation because it fails to utilize an event familiar to most as a substitute for some arcane concept. Stones don’t pop out of mountains. Humans don’t expect them to. No one has seen that happen. If they did, what would that mean? Rolling stones also don’t pick stuff up as they gather steam; they destroy stuff. How is this an apt metaphor? It is not unless someone initially explains it and it gains purchase within a certain culture where it is oft used.
On the other hand, stay in the boat is a very clear metaphor. It assumes no one knows how to swim.
The dogs always bark as the caravan passes by.
I can relate the frustration about imperfect metaphors. I didn’t care for the ship metaphor until I learned that “Old Ship Zion” is actually an old Christian hymn, so it did not originate with Brigham Young. So the irony is that when church leaders say to not abandon “Old Ship Zion” you can choose to interpret it as an invitation to not abandon Christianity as a whole. I find that very comforting when I attend the Methodist church!
This doesn’t answer your question, per se, but I find it interesting that my mission presidents discouraged using metaphors, object lessons, and the like, and they said the direction came from headquarters. Apparently the meanings of metaphors weren’t getting through to investigators and, in fact, mainly confused them. This was from ’13-’15.
Remember who you are and what you stand for…
Metaphors I’m not a big fan of:
1 – the wagon that doesn’t go anywhere near the cliff, staying like a mile away, to imply that we can all avoid sin through scrupulosity.
2 – clearly the licked cupcake, mangled rose, board full of nails, chewed gum, don’t really match up with what we teach about the atonement and show little respect for women by objectifying us.
Generally, Jesus’ parables are top shelf metaphorically, but there are even a few there that I would say aren’t the best:
– The parable of the mustard seed is OK at face value, except mustard trees aren’t actually big and lofty. They are bushes.
– Spewing something out because it’s neither hot nor cold (this is Revelations, though, not Jesus) doesn’t exactly make sense. Does nobody consume things at room temperature? I think I’d spew something out more readily over extremes of temperature than I would over tepidity.
– The one about the man who finds a pearl of great price and sells everything to buy it, I mean, that’s just not great financial advice, but whatever. That’s some Jonestown thinking.
I can’t think of any metaphors off the top of my head – I’m impressed by those who have. Some of the teachings, folk or institutional, that bother me:
-Everything happens for a reason. This was testified of regularly at my previous ward.
I can’t fathom how that works with our much touted free agency.
Theirs is a first world god. What is the reason many people (worldwide and locally) live subsistence existences? If we’re supposed to learn compassion from it, we’re completely failing. It’s what people say when they live in a space with sufficient safety nets for small setbacks to feel devastating for them. Then things miraculously work out!
A single exception negates it. A few years ago I read about Salt Lake police finding a 3yo girl’s body who weighed 13 pounds and had been abused by both parents. Nope. Just nope.
Additionally, it leads to the Problem of Evil.
-The binary thinking teachings:
Don’t watch R-rated movies.
Marry in the temple.
Follow the. Prophet.
Pay a full tithing. First. On the gross.Before you buy food for your family.
There are just too many glossed over nuances, too many missed opportunities, too many missed understandings from this. Not enough critical thinking,
I remember an object lesson where brownies were made, but the teacher said, “oh, I think a little dog poop may have fallen into the mix before I cooked them.” Then a parallel to a movie with one “inappropriate” scene in it makes the whole movie a “bad” movie. I think I saw a Mormon-ad with a nice big serving of ice cream with a cockroach right on it saying something the same . A sarcastic “don’t mind the bug” – emphasizing sinning even a bit made the whole thing bad.
I have seen that ice cream meme repurposed several times to how the church has withheld historical facts because they were not faith-promoting. Now that some people are finding out about the cockroaches in their ice cream, they no longer want the ice cream – or at least this brand of ice cream.
How about the Mormon tendency to substitute the metaphor of the “straight and narrow path” in place of the biblical “strait and narrow path”? Two very different metaphors, it seems to me.
Angela C, you might enjoy Amy-Jill Levine’s book short stories by jesus. She is a Vanderbilt University divinity professor that argues we have domesticated Jesus’s provocative stories. Her take on the mustard seed is quite interesting.
“The temple is the Lord’s University” was taught to me by a member of the temple presidency right before I received my own endowment. He further reasoned that after we die, the judgment is the “final exam” and exaltation is “graduation”, so “go to the temple as often as possible during your mortal life”. Nothing at all about mortal life as a whole being an educational experience. He must have forgotten that life is often full of surprises and unexpected twists, while temple work can get dull and repetitive.
Don’t forget that “priesthood keys” are metaphorical, but we take that fact for granted. I was well into my teens before I came to the realization that holding certain priesthood offices does not necessarily entitle one to a literal set of keys. I had just assumed that the Bishop held the “priesthood keys” that unlocked the building on Sunday mornings. I would prefer we just get rid of that expression and call them “privileges” or something.
“The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums.”—Ezra Taft Benson. Awful.
One of my “favorites” is from this recent conference where Sister Bingham said marriage is like riding a tandem bike. The husband is in front as the leader and steers, while the wife is in the back and pedals. This was an analogy that supposedly highlights equal partnership while the husband presides. My husband and I have been joking about this metaphor ever since we heard it. Whenever we see a tandem bike, we will always be reminded of that terrible talk.
10ac: Yes! I have read Levine’s book. It’s been a while, though.
Happy Hubby: Funny thing about the cockroach metaphor is that I literally did eat around a cockroach in my mashed potatoes when I was a missionary. It definitely seems like the attitude of someone who has plenty of food to say we would never eat something so disgusting. But how many people living in poverty have the ability to be so persnickety?
Well, “wheat and tares”’is itself a metaphor……
My favorite metaphor: the great and spacious building. To me, it has become a wonderful shorthand description of secular disdain toward religion.
My most-disliked metaphor: the iron rod. I dislike it because it has become a shorthand used by many rule-bound Church members to try to create an atmosphere in which only their approach to the Church is acceptable.
Dot: why was ETB’s statement so awful? Would appreciate hearing your views.
The covenant path. As far as I am aware the last eternal covenant is temple sealing, which most do in their 20s. Where does the covenant path go after that? Or is it just that if you repeat the expression, you are obedient, unquestioning?
Tiwan, my problem with that idea is that the corralory is that if you are poor, its your own fault. Its not society, its not the responsibility of us to make our world more equitable. The poor should fix it themselves. Which is rediculous.
Taiwan Missionary, exactly what Geoff-Aus said. We don’t have to help the poor, except maybe to straighten out their attitudes. After that, they can help themselves. Poor people just need to follow Christ better, and they will be poor no longer. And this also means that rich people (or at least rich Mormon people) are following Christ–that is why they are rich. It is prosperity gospel.
I would say, that is your interpretation of his statement, and your assumption of what are the motives behind his statement. I think that your interpretation of his statement and your assumptions are harsh. What you wrote is NOT what he said; it is a version of, if you say A, then you really mean B.
Speaking as one who was appalled by ETB’s political views and his attempts to involve the Church in ultra right conspiracy theories, I can nevertheless find a more charitable interpretation of his statement: that government-led U.S. attempts to lift people out of poverty over the past 60 years have failed badly, and have often backfired, so a different approach, one that attempts to instill spiritual attitudes of longer-lasting self-improvement, might be worth trying.
In the meantime, we continue to follow Christ’s injunction that we liberally help the poor, the widowed, the fatherless.
I like John Wesley’s maxim:
Make all you can.
Save all you can.
Give all you can.
Taiwan: I have no interest in hijacking this post, so this will be my last comment on this topic. But from the little I know of John Wesley’s teachings about giving, there’s nothing about instilling “longer-lasting self-improvement,” which still implies that the poor just need to get their act together.
Dot: thanks for your latest. What I enjoy about Wheat and Tares is the space it gives for people, like you and me, to disagree on a given issue, in a spirit of civility and open-mindedness.
I love metaphors.The brain processes metaphors differently than other forms of communications, giving them a different way to communicate.
One of my personal dislikes that hasn’t been mentioned is teenage girls as princesses of a royal father or daughters of a king or such. Always makes me roll my eyes.
Funny…my daughter and I always loved ETBs metaphor. Sure, we can and should help and provide and offer opportunities, but in the end , CHANGE COME FROM WITHIN. We can have INFLUENCE . In my older years, I have found that many choose not to make changes and will remain where they are until opportunity and choice are in play at the same time…that is why we must always try when given the opportunity to be if help.
I have always enjoyed the freedom metaphors give me to adapt to my beliefs and find something meaningful instead of being pigeon-holed to someone else’s thought.
One of my favorites: Jacob 5 and the Zenos allegory of the tame and wild olive trees. Weeping by the lord of the vineyard (instead of a punishing god) and the grafting of tame and wild trees…not just one good tree and everything else sucks.
I have used it often to go find the “fruits” of wisdom and teachings outside the church which have strengthened my testimony, not replaced it, but grafted into my new conjunctive faith.
All religion is an metaphor. Heavenly Father is a metaphor. Love begins with a metaphor.
About the ETB slums metaphor.
Change comes from within, but generally mental health professionals will agree that without environmental changes, changes are exponentially more difficult to make. We can calculate the likelihood a child will graduate from high school based on zip code. Social science data is making it increasingly clear that environment and opportunity matter.
The slums quote doesn’t acknowledge the social problems many wealthy people experience and the profound need for many wealthy people to change. It throws shade on the poor when Jesus was more likely to throw shade on the wealthy.
The slums quote is based on prosperity gospel ideology. It doesn’t mesh well with the teachings Jesus shared during his sermon on the mount.
The slums quote sounds good until one really stops to think deeply about it, its assumptions and its implications. I used to share it. I no longer do.
Watch “Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream” and then reevaluate the metaphor shared in the ETB slums quote.
Thanks for your input. Well-reasoned, and approached the ETB quote issue in a way that had not before occurred to me. Especially the point about how environment makes opportunity harder or easier to come by (your point about zip code correlation to high school graduation rates is especially well-taken).
Public assistance has a miserable track record; church assistance is somewhat better, but cannot begin to address the scope of assistance needed in our society, even if the Church completely empties its Ensign Peak portfolios.
So, how do we effect cultural change? My question is serious, because in my cynical old age, I have concluded that every attempt to solve an issue inevitably creates new problems. That is why I like the Wesley maxim: I have not seen anything better.
Over 40-plus years, I have seen Bishops start out being generous with Church assistance, then having their hearts become harder as a recipient does not attempt to improve. But the Bishop fortunately continues with the assistance, because children would go hungry, otherwise. Meanwhile, the problem does not get solved.
Then again, there are people in chronic situations where improvement is difficult.
So, Christ condemns the wealthy who won’t help the poor, but warns us that we will always have the poor with us.
So I don’t know if there is a solution. Do we just continue? Thoughts?
Tiwan, The first requirement is attitude. I am my brothers keeper/helper.
If you live in a wealthy country it should be easier to have no poor. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(nominal)_per_capita So if all the income in America were divided evenly each American would recieve $65,111 per year. No more poverty.
There are countries where there is virtually no poverty. https://data.oecd.org/inequality/poverty-rate.htm
This is because the citizens have made the choice that they will have no poor among them, and arrange the political policies to achieve this.
An example America has become oil independant recently, did anyone become rich from the exploitation of a national resourse? In Norway when oil was discovered it was treated as a national assett, and the profits went into a National wealth fund, for the good of all. In Australia many of the wealthiest individuals own mining companies. But they are selling a national assett. Should not be allowed.
Having a more equitable country creates a feeling of unity, cohesiveness, and love for our fellows, so we would not want them to suffer. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=RY_tl-N93AY, there are a number of versions of this, for example with the singers also doing sign language.
So you can influence whether there is poverty in your country by how you talk and how you vote. Do you want there to be no poor, or do you want the rich to get richer? In the pandemic national, and state leaders are showing how they ballance the value of lives v money.
Taiwan, I’m not sure what you mean by “public assistance has a terrible track record.” A terrible record at what? Helping provide necessities for people in need?
There are other countries doing just about everything much better than the US in creating a happier, healthier people through their public assistance programs. There are lots of possibilities, but we most likely won’t find them in those societies who have self-interest above all else as the foundation of their economic system and political ideal. Can we truly be surprised when communities and countries turn divisive and selfish when those attributes are held up as the solution for everyone’s economic and other problems?
On ETB quote and opportunity:
Robert Reich and Nobel Prize winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman; (among others) illustrate that public policy contributes to income inequality and wealth disparity. The 2017 $1.7 trillion tax reduction that enormously benefited corporations and wealthy individuals, (with some small, temporary crumbs for working people) is a good example. Economic gains after the 2008 financial crash had already largely benefitted the top 1% (top 0.1% even more so), then we reduced their tax contribution on top of that.
Not surprisingly, the tax cut hasn’t paid for itself as promised by its proponents. Shortly afterwards our president and others started saying we needed to reduce Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and SNAP spending to balance the budget.
One silver lining from the pandemic is that it has highlighted the essential nature of so many often woefully underpaid jobs: those who keep hospitals clean, people who work in grocery stores, postal employees, bus drivers, farm laborers, etc. Our economy is built from people working. It is strongest with a strong middle class.
Opportunity by public investment in education and nutrition for those who struggle will pay off by providing a foundation of self sufficiency, while giving back to society innovations they may not otherwise be able to contribute.
I thought we were all born with the Light of Christ within us. ETB’s quote seems to be influenced by his well established John Birch Society connections.
Yesterday NPR’s Dan Charles did a piece in The Salt, “ Food Banks Get The Love, But SNAP Does More To Fight Hunger”.
Offers a valuable, balanced look at two approaches to fighting hunger. Four minutes.
Matt 14: 28 And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.
29 And he said…
“No Peter, just stay in the boat”.
28 And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.
29 And he said, No Peter, just stay in the boat.
I had a running partner/friend who had a world view similar to Dot and Geoff. He was absolutely appalled at the “give a man a fishing pole and he eats for life” metaphor. We spent many a long mile on our early morning runs together arguing back and forth over that one. We finally made a truce with “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, give him a fishing pole (and some free fishing lessons and some free fish to eat while he’s taking the lessons) and he eats for a lifetime”.
It was a tough compromise. I wanted “lessons and fish at a nominal cost.” But you can’t have it all.
Fred: I can support that compromise! Oddly enough, I’m currently having similar conversations with my own running partner/friend. I’m going to present this to her next time we meet.
Dot: Be sure to enjoy each and every moment of those runs and deep conversations. As an older man who is reduced to walking (and without a partner) I sure look back fondly on those days. Walking is great, but it doesn’t provide the endorphins that really lubricate all of those deep philosophical thoughts and arguments that flow so easily on the run with a partner. Great memories!