By Kevin Antlitz
What would it take to remove Flint and Detroit, Michigan from the list?
According to a recent Atlantic Monthly article, the most recent FBI crime data lists Flint and Detroit, Michigan as the two most dangerous cities in America.1 How would the church contribute to solving this problem? Crime is a complex problem, so the solution will likely also be complex. To shape the minds, morals, and manners of a society, Percy Bysshe Shelley, a Romantic poet of the 18th century, suggests giving preeminence to poets and painters.
Poets, painters, writers, and storytellers are the makers of metaphors. Their preeminence in changing culture was discussed in a recent study titled, “Metaphors We Think With.” Two psychologists from Stanford University suggested metaphors can wield powerful influence in what we say, think, and do. Their study demonstrates how framing crime using two contrasting metaphors shapes the way people endeavor to solve such complex social problems. When crime was framed as a “beast preying on a city” nearly 75 percent of participants suggested solving the crime problem through enforcement and punishment rather than social reform. When crime was framed as a “virus infecting a city” only 56 percent suggested enforcement and punishment. Remarkably, the study reports that the metaphors flew under the radar – the participants did not recognize them as influential in their decision-making process.
Metaphors move people – whether they recognize their power or not. If we want to change the world, we must first move the world. So what are metaphors and how do they work? Aristotle’s definition is still the best. He defined metaphor simply as “giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.”2 At its root, a metaphor is name transference.
One of the pioneers of modern metaphor studies, the late Max Black from Cornell University, suggests that metaphors work like a type of attribution – “Man is a wolf.” He describes metaphors using the focus-frame conception. The focus is the word(s) meant non-literally and the frame is the word(s) meant literally. In “man is a wolf,” man is the focus and wolf is the frame. One then associates the proper wolfish characteristics with man according to the broader context. We could put this in terms of the German philosopher Gadamer and describe metaphors as the fusion of lexical horizons. Giving the thing a name that belongs to something else is a creative act. Metaphors create new pictures that shape our perceptions and our actions. The pictures we use are powerfully persuasive.
In too many modern faith communities, metaphors are seen as rhetorical flourishes good only for manipulation. This view hails from the Enlightenment when rationalism reigned supreme and anything but “literal” language was viewed with suspicion. This is why in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke (1632-1704) argues that the artful applications of words (e.g., metaphors) are good for nothing else but to move the passions and mislead the judgment. Metaphors are to be avoided in discourse aimed at informing or instructing as they have no place when communicating about important things like truth and knowledge.3 For Locke and many of his Enlightenment contemporaries, metaphor and truth were mutually exclusive. Metaphors are at enmity with truth.
C.S. Lewis argued that these so-called enlightened thinkers were in the dark about language, truth, and reality. We may be able to avoid metaphors when speaking about things perceptible to our five senses. However, when referring to supersensible things like psychology, politics, philosophy, or poetry, there is simply no other way of talking – “all speech about supersensibles is, and must be, metaphorical in the highest degree.“4 Metaphors are not deceptive de facto; rather, they often help draw us closer to the truth. Poetry reigns over prose; prose need not rein poetry in. This is why Lewis argues that in the scale of writers, poets will take the highest place – “those who have prided themselves in being literal, and who have endeavored to speak plainly, with no mystical tomfoolery, about the highest abstractions, will be found among the least significant of writers.”5 This is so because metaphors make meaning by appealing to the imagination. Lewis asserts that reason is the organ of truth but the imagination is the organ of meaning. Thus, “imagination, producing new metaphors or reviving old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”6
Giving preeminence to metaphors doesn’t give them free rein, however. Good metaphors must be tempered by truth. But truth telling is not simply a matter of communicating a series of true propositions. George Lakoff, cognitive-linguist from UC Berkeley knows this better than anyone. This is precisely why he has worked to frame the language the Democratic Party uses to shape the way people think and vote.7 The church needs more people who not only appeal to the intellect but to the imagination as well. This is why it needs pastors who are also storytellers, poets, and painters. One example is George Herbert, the English pastor-poet of the 17th century. The final stanzas of his poem “The Forerunners” teach us of the proper place of metaphor in proclaiming the message of the Church.
“Farewell sweet phrases, lovely metaphors.
But will ye leave me thus? when ye before
Of stews and brothels only knew the doors,
Then did I wash you with my tears, and more
Brought you to Church well drest and clad:
My God must have my best, ev’n all I had.
Lovely enchanting language, sugar cane,
Honey of roses, whither wilt though fly?
Hath some fond lover ‘tic’d thee to thy bane?
And wilt thou leave the Church, and love a sty?
Fie, thou wilt soil thy broider’d coat,
And hurt thyself, and him that sings the note.
Let foolish lovers, if they will love dung,
With canvas, not with arras clothe their shame:
Let folly speak in her own native tongue.
True beauty dwells on high: ours is a flame
But borrow’d thence to light us thither.
Beauty and Beauteous words should go together.”8
Urban crime is a complex problem. The solution is complex. Albert Einstein said you cannot solve a problem using the same mind – imagination – that created the problem. Creating a new imagination is not easy. Percy Bysshe Shelley writes of the impact a poet’s word-pictures can have on a society. In A Defence of Poetry he writes, “The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry.” This is because “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”9 When poets tap into what is true and good and create things of beauty, the moral imagination can be transformed – the first step in the complex problem of getting Flint and Detroit off the list.
Kevin M. Antlitz is a lover of the finer things in life including theology, literature, music, good beer and his lovely wife, Susan. He recently graduated with a Masters of Theology from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and currently works for the Pierce Center at GCTS and for Leadership Transformations, Inc. He and Susan are active members of the historic Park Street Church and live in what they call “God’s country” – Boston, MA.
1 www.theatlantic.com: The 10 Most Dangerous Cities in America
2 Aristotle, Poetics 1457b 6-9.
3 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 508.
4 C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 115.
5 C.S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” in The Importance of Language, ed. Max Black (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1962), 49.
7 See George Lakoff, et al, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2004).
8 George Herbert, “The Forerunners” in George Herbert: The Complete English Works (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1995), 172-73.
9 Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry” in The Harvard Classics, ed. Charles W. Elliot (New York: P.F. Collier, 1968), 359.