the persistence of metaphor

What is it about the adherents of organised religion and their inability to cope with metaphors?

First, there is the business of the literal truth of Genesis. Nobody who wasn’t pathologically incapable of recognising a metaphor – nobody that is until the belated arrival of the American bible-bashers and Richard Dawkins – would think that the stories at the beginning of Genesis were ever intended to be taken literally.

Then, the other day, I was talking to my son, the philosopher and privateer, about transubstantiation.

Do Catholics think that the chemical properties of the wafer change at the critical point of the Mass, he mused. Does it taste differently?

He was in philosophical rather than piratical mode at the time, obviously, but there was a brief interlude as he needed to cross to the other side of the deck of The Jolly Thought and assist his ethicist First Mate who was in difficulty with a Somali, whom my son transfixed through the foot with his sabre, leaving the ethicist to administer the coup de grace.

If that had been an epée, he said, I would have got double points. For through the foot.

I thought that you spat on the epée.

I do. Even so. Double points is double points.

I said that to me the idea of transubstantiation seemed to be a metaphor – more than simply a sign or brand but not amounting to a description of fact. It was what Jung called a symbol. Warming to my subject I touched on the homoousion/homoiousion riots in Alexandria so scathingly described by Gibbon.

I was of course showing off. So would you, if you’d just had to watch your second-born skewering a Somali to the deck of his own pirate ship.

(I know that he is a privateer and not a pirate, but in the terrible summer heat of the Straights of Hormuz with death one’s constant companion, the sharks coursing through the water to port and starboard confident that we will soon make it worth their while, it is hard to mark the distinction.)

My son looked more than usually thoughtful. Gibbon is at the extreme edge of his expertise.

I thought of it all again last Sunday, attending our local church with daughter three and her Alex, who are shortly to be married there. The twenty-third psalm formed a theme to the service, the one that starts ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’. We sang it, we sang a hymn based on it and the sermon turned on sheep, their particular characteristics and how remarkably – vis-à-vis shepherds – they resembled us, the congregation, vis-à-vis Jesus.

It’s a point of view, certainly, or rather it is a metaphor. I don’t feel like a sheep. For a start I am uneasy with gender transformation; sheep with few exceptions are girls or babies and I am neither. I don’t experience Jesus as guiding me into or through green pastures, metaphorically or otherwise. But many do. I would be the last to carp.

(I apologise if the carp introduces an unwanted level of faunal diversity. I will try to minimise the implications but can see no present alternative.)

What I do find regrettable is the lack of rigour with which the metaphor is applied. Here we are, after all, with the number one psalm in terms of popularity and a visual image that has graced a generation of Sunday-school books. A bit of care might have been expected of the church fathers. What we have, however, is lamentably sloppy.

Here is the hymn that we sang, based on psalm twenty-three:

Not for ever by still waters
Would we idly rest and stay;
But would smite the living fountains
From the rocks along the way.

Are we still a sheep at this point? I have an inescapable image of an elderly bovid, on her back legs coping bravely but inadequately with an unexpected gusher at the side of the road. Her fleece is soaked, her dignity impaired. And where is Our Lord the Shepherd who got her into this mess? Further up the road smirking, that’s where.

Well, Mrs L M Wills (1864), who wrote the words, never so far as I know claimed infallibility as to the persistence of metaphor. Even Homer nods, and the last adjective to which Mrs L M Wills (1864) aspired was ‘homeric’.

But let us go to the source, the living fountain as it were. Let us address the words of the psalm itself. At the end of verse three we are undoubtedly still a sheep. ‘Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.’ It is a clear reference to the shepherd’s crook. Straight on to verse four:

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

There is only one reason to anoint the head of a sheep with oil. It is that you are about to cook and eat it.

Poor stupid trusting old thing. I can’t help seeing in my mind’s eye Our Lord the Shepherd, in the kitchen, plating up and sniggering.


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