Sand Castle?

Michael Metzger

Sand castles look impressive – until the tide comes in. The tide is currently turning toward same-sex marriage. Traditional marriage is collapsing. Does this indicate that advocates for traditional marriage have built a sand castle?

It’s likely that the Supreme Court will rule on the same-sex marriage case this summer. Regardless of how the justices decide the Defense of Marriage Act, the tide is turning toward accepting same-sex marriage. Male-female marriage is being swept away. But this isn’t the end of the world. There’s a lesson to be learned. It has to do with sand castles.

Jesus once told a story about a foolish man. He listened to Jesus but doesn’t do what Christ did (Mt. 7:26). That man built a sand castle. Now consider one of the many things Christ did. He spoke in parables. He probably expected his followers to follow suit – to do this. The early church did. It communicated in pictures. But over time, language began to trump metaphor – argument over imagination.

The shift toward language began with the Greeks and was resurrected with Islam. The story starts with the vandals who sacked Rome, destroying much of the writings of the West, including those of the Greeks. The Greeks believed truth was “something proved by argument,” not metaphor.1 A few centuries later, Islamic scholars reintroduced Greek thought to the West.2 The importance of metaphor was forgotten.

By the time of the Reformation, metaphor was feared as well as forgotten. Iain McGilchrist writes that Reformation involved a shift away from the capacity to understand metaphor towards a literalistic way of thinking – a move away from imagination, now seen as treacherous, and towards rationalism. Rationalism ignores Jonathan Swift’s wisdom: you cannot reason someone out of a position they never reasoned their way into.

The Enlightenment exacerbated this trend – or more correctly, Enlightenments. Four differentiated Enlightenments hit America’s shores – the Moderate (1688-1787), Skeptical (1750-1789), Revolutionary (1776-1800), and Didactic (1800-1815).3 The first, the Moderate Enlightenment, provided many benefits, including the Scientific Method. The Skeptical and Revolutionary were short-lived and hardly influenced America. The final Enlightenment – the Didactic – was more consequential and detrimental.

The Didactic Enlightenment came from the Scottish “Commonsense” school. It’s highly rationalistic. Teachers teach. Pupils sit and take notes. The assumption is think right, act right. According to Henry May, this Enlightenment was marked by “second and third-rate thinkers” who put forward a version of epistemology and human nature that was easily incorporated into the burgeoning 1800s evangelical movement in America. The sermon replaced the sacraments as the centerpiece of the worship service. In time, the church came to “a kind of comfortable cohabitation” with this Enlightenment.4

It’s a costly cohabitation. Didactic Enlightenment clergy began presenting marriage as a series of facts, “principles,” and “concepts.” But people don’t live by concepts. The reality of marriage as a picture or metaphor for the gospel became an abstraction. People can’t live by abstractions. This might be why divorce rates in the American faith community are similar to those communities outside the faith.

The Western church has forgotten that facts are like grains of sand. Metaphor is the mortar holding facts together. People require both for something to be meaningful. The gay community gets this. Advocates for same-sex marriage operate in metaphors. In After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90s, gay leaders tell us they assume that, “without reference to facts, logic or proof…. the person’s beliefs can be altered whether he is conscious of the attack or not.”5

For the faith community’s understanding of male-female marriage to be taken seriously, much work will have to be done. First, it would help if there were a larger percentage of outstanding marriages in the faith community. Second, it would be beneficial if more spokespeople in the faith community learned to communicate in pictures. There are indications of a growing number of believers learning about the power of metaphor. That’s good. But most appear to be merely doubling down on the Didactic bet. They teach others about metaphor. But they don’t speak in metaphor. Big difference.

Learning to communicate in metaphor requires coaches and crap detectors. Metaphorical thinking is mainly a function of the brain’s right hemisphere. By the age of 20, most of your neural pathways are set in place. If you are older than 20 and came to faith in a typical Western church, you’re operating mostly out of your left hemisphere. Hacking out new pathways in your right hemisphere will require re-scripting how you talk, crap detectors telling you when you unconsciously opt for the left, and lots of practice. Until that happens, you’ll talk about metaphor but will hardly talk in metaphor.

Re-learning how to talk sometimes calls for not talking – for a season. This is James Davison Hunter’s advice. In his book, To Change The World, Hunter notes how the church has turned to politics to try to be taken seriously. Politics has a rightful place, but the church has naively become politicized. Hunter suggests that the church and its leadership should “remain silent for a season.” That makes sense. Traditional marriage is being swiftly swept away. It appears we’ve built a sand castle. Better to start over. That might mean remaining silent for a season and learning to communicate in metaphor.

1 c.f., Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)
2 c.f., Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995)
3 Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).
4 Newbigin, Proper Confidence, p. 33.
5 Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen, After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90’s (New York: Plume, 1990), pp. 152-153.


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  1. Funny. I was just thinking back to the end of your doctoral conference in Germany some years back. . . . yes, there is a big difference between teaching about metaphor and speaking in it. There were some at the conference who were having some trouble getting the right hemisphere re-fired. Especially as they were trying to use the left hemisphere to do so!

    This may be the beginnings of the answer to the problem I’ve been mulling over for some time, as I’ve viewed with deep sorrow the apparently inexorable collapse of the one man, one woman marriage castle.

    “You can not reason someone out of a position they never reasoned themselves into.”

    Meanwhile, the impending tragedy looms of how to deal with the insanity we’ve unleashed from pretending that family can be what whatever we say it is.

    I recently read an account of a child beaten to death because he wouldn’t call his mother’s lesbian partner “Daddy”. . . . No one seems to be bothered by the fact that homosexual couples are, by definition, sterile. Children born to those couples are not the offspring of those two people – they can’t be. And yet one of the arguments I’ve been hearing in support of homosexual marriage is that we need to affirm to the children of homosexuals that their parents are just as good as heterosexual ones.

    Just let that one sink in for a minute. . . .

    I wish I could draw. I’d be cartooning these days.

  2. Mike
    a few more than a few years back, i read this line and it struck me, stopped me, and held me captive:Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.Mat. 13:34. i have been uwrapping that gift for some time now and it turns out you and your writing are a significant part of it. Last week your reference to “Bluspels and Flalansferes” revealed more of the gift and along the way discovered an article on Lewis written by a Czech author, Pavel Hosek titled “C. S. Lewis and the Language of
    Apologetics”. Others like Greg Marshall too are in the gift that has been both learned and lived. My simple minded point is this: i am thankful to many for the mechanics and principles you and others have shared to be able to enjoy God’s gift. it seems i share that thought with Elder Joseph Brackett who had them about 165 years ago when he wrote “Simple Gifts”-
    ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be, And when we find ourselves in the place just right, ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight. When true simplicity is gain’d, To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d, To turn, turn will be our delight, Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

  3. Mike, I’m a pastor and I’m intrigued by your urging us to learn how to speak in metaphors. I would like some suggestions on reading/??? that would help me grasp and give me help in practicing speaking in metaphor. Can you make some suggestions?

  4. Don:

    Start with George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of An Elephant.” You only have to read the first half. As you digest it, read C.S.Lewis’ space trilogy. After digesting these works, send a little note to me and we’ll look at some more books on metaphor.

  5. Mike,
    Thank you for this post. It’s the first of your work I have read and I find it resonates on more than one level. As a metaphor-thinker and one who, at nearly age 40, has struggled to understand and be understood for this ‘handicap’ of right-brain thinking that I own, this post is almost a call to…if not arms, then words. My own and not the institution’s. I wish to speak for those who cannot, and I will begin, and not just metaphorically. Many thank yous.

  6. Isn’t the metaphor actually stronger. People have for generations been prepared to build castles on the sand because they believe that the wisdom of the Rock as a foundation is taking away their right to choose freely. The foundation is the key to the difference.
    Also marriage and singleness are both valid structures as giftings. The fruit of self-control countering any drifting from the blueprint. Teaching that accepts storms is required as opposed to teaching for sunny days on the beach.Metaphors where the rubber meets the road, rather than castles in the air.

  7. Mike: I presume you are not a fan of Francis Schaefer…:-) Metaphor can slip into propaganda, IMO, without logic and Facts to back it up. Dr Geobbels was a master of using images to stir the imagination. I am afraid, when it comes to marriage, no metaphor will save a society that downplays commitment in order to get the fleeting,romantic illusion that living together promises.

  8. Dear Tom:

    What makes you say that I’m not a fan of Francis Schaeffer? I think he made many wonderful contributions to the kingdom. Loved the knickers. As for the potential problems associated with metaphor, remember that bad example makes bad law. People can abuse wine, but God made it to gladden the heart. All vices are simply virtues gone bad. Don’t overlook the virtues of metaphor because of some bad apple examples.

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