The Right Metaphor

Michael Metzger

Iain McGilchrist says Western Christianity is undermining itself. C. S. Lewis said something similar. Both cite the same reason. We’re starting with the wrong metaphor.

Last week, we saw how Lucifer couldn’t go further up into Heaven. So he couldn’t go further in to see what’s at the center of the heavens and the earth. It’s love. Lucifer only saw law. The churches of Europe and America are often guilty of the same error.

We see this when we recognize the differences between the human brain’s left and right hemispheres. The left is narrowly focused on the familiar and categorizing. It loves language. The right hemisphere perceives the whole. It is the source of experiencing, discovery, and comprehending. The right is better with metaphor.

The two hemispheres are designed to collaborate. The right experiences, sending events out into the left brain. The left interprets, returning analyses to the right. The right forms a coherent whole. This design, however, has broken down in the Western world. The left brain has taken over the entire process. The result is we’re blind to our errors.

Like the cross. For most of church history, no single consensus prevailed on what the church meant when she said, “Jesus died for our sins.” But in recent centuries, one theory became mainstream. Substitutionary atonement. On the cross, Christ paid for our sins. In this view, the governing metaphor is law. This is evidence of the left brain governing how we view the cross, narrowly focusing on law.

Jesus did indeed pay for our sins on the cross. But if the gospel is about satisfying the demands of justice so that God could forgive our sins, then there’s no goods news before we fell into sin. Substitutionary atonement theory parallels criminal law, the penal theory of atonement. Law is important, but it’s not the main metaphor for the cross.

The right metaphor is marital love. Older traditions recognize we were betrothed to Jesus our husband on the cross. This is love, but it’s the metaphor the Western world discarded, wrote C. S. Lewis. But seeing this requires going further up, out into Heaven.

Older Christian traditions recognized this. Examples include Christianity in Britain (dating from the 100s) and Celtic (Irish) Christianity (from the 300s). Their crosses feature the Triune God of love at the center. Or a rose, depicting the bride of Christ.

We rarely see these crosses today. And that has implications. If the cross is merely payment for sin, then we’re set when we receive Christ (Dallas Willard calls this “gospels of sin management”). But if the cross is first and foremost betrothal (marriage) to Jesus, then we’re not set. We must prepare to be presented as a pure bride (II Cor.11:2).

This is why the right metaphor matters. Iain McGilchrist says “Western Christianity is active in undermining itself.” Fixing this problem “depends on choosing the right metaphor,” he adds. The right metaphor is God seeking to “wed” his joy with us.

I unknowingly began going further up and further in when I came to Christ in 1973. The first book I read was Out of the Silent Planet. I certainly didn’t understand it all. I went further up and in by reading the works of Lesslie Newbigin and Dallas Willard. They recognized how the Enlightenment has blinded the Western church to her errors.

Then I watched “The Matrix.” Written by Larry and Andy Wachowski, the story is about the human race being blinded. When the Wachowski’s agent read the manuscript, he got all excited. He said they’d written a script about Descartes. The blinding Enlightenment.

Inside the Enlightenment Matrix, we’re blind to the big picture. We don’t go further up, so we don’t see further in. It’s no coincidence that the cross was reduced to law during the same period of time that the Enlightenment engulfed the Western world.

Lewis recognized this. He wrote that when we go further out, we see further in, we see a God-bathed universe. We see at the center the “revelry of insatiable love.” He cited drinking as an example of this revelry (Lewis could put down three pints of beer before lunch). Next week is St. Patrick’s Day. We’ll go further up to discover what Lewis meant.

But that’s next week. For now, a reminder if you’re newly subscribed. This series, further up and further in, began on February 10th. Might enjoy starting there.

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3 thoughts on “The Right Metaphor”

  1. The Enlightenment pried the Law out of the hands of Love and Mercy.

    For I would not have known Love without the Law. For the Law was meant to be the Father who gives the Bride to the Husband.

    Part of my going “further up and further in” was the revelation that Law, Love, and Mercy are nearly interchangeable, even as the names of God. “For Law so loved the world that He gave His only Son”.

    In the same way we delight in the differences between each Person of the Trinity, doing so does not pry them apart from being One God and neither should Law, Love, and Mercy be alienated from, or opposed to each other.

    As the law is spiritual, there is no law against love and love is the fulfilment of the law.

    And it was in this moment that the eyes of my understanding opened to see that unless you love to love you are yet to understand the law.

    And as you say, in place of the hope of marriage that purifies the bride even as the Bridegroom is pure, the Law’s good news is reduced to sin management.

  2. I think the difference between a prod and nudge is that when you poke and push and I turn and look back at you, that is a prod. When I turn and look ahead, that is a nudge. Same action from you. Different reaction/perspective from me. At times your words have been “a prod”. Hopefully more often “a nudge”. Mike, I am grateful for both. Thank you. Keep writing. I had never read Out of the Silent Planet before. I did this past week. Thanks for the nudge.

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