Have you ever had your heart broken? I have. I could tell you what happened. But instead I’m going to tell you what didn’t happen. No one called an ambulance. No one checked my blood pressure. No one attempted CPR.
Is it true that my heart was broken, when my blood was still pumping? Is the pain of a broken heart with no medical implications any less than the pain of a cardiac arrest? If you’ve ever been brokenhearted, you’ll know the answers. You’ll also know that true and literal are not interchangeable concepts.
Our lives are littered with metaphors. We bust our gut working. We love with our whole hearts. We literally die of embarrassment. Recent research in communication studies has verified what poets have known for millennia: we humans find metaphors more memorable, more persuasive and more moving than literal statements. Our brains and our hearts are wired for word-pictures that liken one thing or experience to another. They ignite our imagination and help us feel close to the writer or speaker, drawn together by the shared experience that makes the metaphor work. Like a private joke or a common language, metaphors build relationship. It’s why lovers write poetry.
Somehow, we forget this when it comes to the Bible. In a 2014 Gallup survey, pastors were asked which of the following statements most accurately reflected their view of the Bible.
“The Bible is the actual word of God as is to be taken literally, word for word” (28%)
“The Bible is the inspired word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally” (47%)
“The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man.” (21%)
Instinctively, we expect that these statements categorize pastors in descending order of how seriously they take the Bible. But if you pick up a Bible and read the words of Jesus, you’ll realize that to “take the Bible literally, word for word” is often to miss the point. When Jesus says “I am the good shepherd”, are we to think he’s advertising his skills at herding sheep? When Jesus says “I am the true vine,” we know he’s not claiming to be a plant. And when Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan, who cared for a man left robbed and assaulted on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, we know he’s not reporting on a crime scene.
In fact, there are multiple episodes in the gospels when people misunderstand Jesus because they take him literally. In John’s gospel, Jesus breaks race and gender barriers to ask a Samaritan woman for a drink and then tells her that he can give her living water. She takes him literally and misses his point. Next, the Jewish leader Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, and Jesus says he must be born again. “How can I do that?” asks Nicodemus, "Can I get back into my mother’s womb at my age?” Then Jesus invades the temple, clears the money changers out, and challenges his shocked audience, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up again in three days!” "It’s taken 47 years to build this temple,” they respond, “How can you raise it up again in three days?” But Jesus was talking about his body - the true temple, where God met with his people and the real sacrifice was made.
So does this mean the Bible is not intended to be taken literally? Not at all. As with any conversation, some parts are intended literally and others are not. Usually, it isn’t too hard to tell. For example, the New Testament writers take great trouble to emphasize that Jesus was literally raised from the dead - bones, flesh, and wounds. Attending to the powerful metaphors that circulate throughout the scriptures doesn’t for a moment reduce the radical claims that the Bible makes: claims of miracles, everlasting truth, and life-and-death decisions we must make.
But there are times when texts are ambiguous and people who take the Bible seriously disagree: Is this statement literal or metaphorical? Is that story history, or parable? As with any conversation, we must attend to context and nuance, and sometimes we won’t get it right. But there is also an important sense in which Biblical metaphors are not like ours.
When we make metaphors, we’re noticing connections. Love is a sickness. Life is a marathon. Parents are like helicopters. We draw analogies between different parts of our experience. If the message of the Bible is true, its metaphors are reverse-engineered. God did not notice that human parents love their children and decide to call himself our Father. God created fatherhood, so that the best of human fathers could give us a glimpse of how he loves us. God did not notice the intimacy of sex and marriage and decide to call Jesus the bridegroom and us his bride. Rather, God created sex and marriage so that marriage at its best might give us a taste of his passionate love.
John’s gospel - the account of Jesus’s life that is most driven by metaphor - starts with a stunning statement: “In the beginning was the word.” To the original readers, this would have conjured up the Bible’s opening lines, when God creates simply by speaking. John then identifies that word as Jesus, and floods our understanding with metaphors: Jesus is the light of the world, the lamb of God, the temple, the true vine, the good shepherd, the way, the truth, and the life.
So if you’ve ever been heartbroken, but not needed an ambulance, try reading the Bible. You might find the passionate words that you need to know how truly you are loved.