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Volume 14, Issue 5: Recipio

Big Words

Ben Merkle

Nothing demonstrates the powerful antithesis between the Christian worldview and the pagan worldview like a vibrant love of poetry. By this I don't mean the sentimental lingerings of affection that a few of the professors in liberal arts at the local state university have, but a true vibrant love of metaphor and the poetic life.

The difference between the two is that one group believes that poetry and metaphor communicate deep truth, while the other believes that all words are hollow, but some are hollow in a pleasant way. The latter character clings to poetry like a picture of an old girlfriend who dumped him. She may have cheated on him countless times and left him in the dust, but it felt like she was devoted to him. So he is willing to settle for the memory of a sensation, though the reality never existed. In the same way, the pagan literature professor will cling to the words of the great bards of the ages, but when push comes to grunting, he will always concede that the words are actually empty and meaningless, because metaphor and poetry have no truth. Truth, he will tell you, actually belongs to the hard sciences (along with all of the grants). But act like metaphor and poetry might mean something, act like his lover was actually faithful and worth his devotion, and he comes unglued.
The pagan man hates truth, because to him all truth is condemnation. Being under the condemnation of the law, all revelation has turned into condemning law. So he runs from revelation. But he must live in the world that God made, a world where "day unto day utters speech and night unto night reveals knowledge." Condemning revelation is all around him.
So he attempts to at least dim the brightness of God's revelation. He does this by warring against God's words. Like his father the Serpent, he asks "Hath God really said?" He takes the power that God put in words and tries to put it on a leash, playing God by saying "thus far, and no farther." In other words, he denies the truth of poetry and metaphor. He tells you that a metaphor isn't real because it isn't really true. Solomon wasn't actually communicating truth to us when he said that his lover's waist was a heap of wheat set about with lilies, because a heap of wheat is an entirely different thing from a woman's waist. Solomon's words sounded nice, but when added up, the pagan tells us, they amount to nonsense.
He won't allow for metaphor because he doesn't want the words to be able to go that far. After all, imagine how much truth might be out there if something as mundane and simple as a mountain peak was packed with thousands of meanings? But he wants the truth that he finds so offensive to be kept small, so he demands that all words be chopped down. Every word gets its own simple literal referent (as if it could be as simple as that) and nothing more. But in the most paradoxical way, as the pagan attempts to run from the threatened bondage of vibrant poetry, he creates his own prison house of wooden laws. The flesh is always quick to tie itself to a bureaucracy of legalistic statutes, all the while kicking at the freedom given in God's law.
But God, refusing to live in the man-made prison house, gives His Law as a metaphor. Too often we treat the Law as rationalists, checking off the commandments on our little "to do" list. But how does Christ exegete the Law? When Jesus mentioned the command to love one's neighbor as one's self, a lawyer, "wanting to justify himself," asked Christ, "who is my neighbor?" The flesh wants that word "neighbor" parsed, wants it cut down to the narrowest referent possible to make the command narrow and small. The flesh tells you that you will be justified if you can just make that word small enough (or better yet, unintelligible). But when Christ answers the question, He refuses to parse. Rather He tells a story, making the word "neighbor" larger than ever before.
This attempt to shrink words is common in evangelical schools. When questionable clothing styles filter into the school body, the administration gets nervous and begins exhorting the students to dress modestly. The immediate response is invariably "but there's no rule against. . .". As if the "modest" had no meaning. The implication is that in order for the school to address dyed hair and bikinis, the school must have those items explicitly addressed in the rule book. The administration then runs and dutifully makes the new entries and returns to deal with the offenders only to discover that they have outlawed dyed hair and bikinis when in fact the offending issues were actually bleached hair and sports bras. Another rule is obviously called for, because the words in the previous rule were too small.
But that sort of legislation is for the dead. Those sorts of rules are rules for the dead. Christianity brings life to words and words to life. The word "modest" does not require an attached dress code in order to have applicable meaning. As Christians, we are called to come to the Law in the same way that Christ did. The flesh wants to see how little it can make a word, but we are called to see how big these words are. For the redeemed, the Law is no longer death, but life. Why would we want to chop up life?

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