Metaphor, Allegory, and the Bible

Each time I come across the story of Jonah I’m reminded of how difficult it is to explain the bible in metaphorical and allegorical terms.  It seems that people who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s (or maybe even later) were drilled on the bible as literal truth, even if they attended Sunday schools in mainline churches.  That’s important because Sunday school probably ended their formal education in biblical studies.  I guess the thought was that children could not understand metaphor or allegory, so the bible stories were told as simple truth.  How could that be, given all the Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons, fairy tales, and Saturday movies kids watched?  Children are raised in a world of metaphor and allegory, and understand it well.  In any case, with formal education ended at the grade school level, the pews are filled with adults who have a hard time understanding the bible in any other way than what they were taught as children.  I’m selfishly grateful that my Sunday school lessons fell on deaf ears.  I was not entertained by paper cutouts mounted on flannel boards while some story was told by a teacher speaking in a voice appropriate for toddlers.  Being in church with the grownups was a better deal, even if I had to sit through a boring sermon.  But I digress.

Those who grew up in more recent times are a different matter.  They are likely to have had no exposure to the bible at all, except for what they may have heard through mass media, or in conversation with earnest door knocking evangelists.  For them it’s easy to dismiss the bible that they have never read as a literary chimera useful only as a companion to scriptures of other religions, also never read, and whatever spiritual book has been popular in the last couple of months, if indeed anything of a spiritual nature has attracted their attention..

How do you explain metaphor and allegory as bearers of holy truth to either them?  I think I wrote before about a faithful lifelong Episcopalian who was distressed to the point of anger when I told him that the story of Jonah was not historical fact.  He could not conceive of that possibility.  He wondered what other bible stories I might say were not factually true.  We spent an hour with me trying to explain that just as Jesus told parables, so did the writers of the Old Testament, and Jonah was a parable.  We did not achieve a breakthrough, but he did become more tolerant of my irregular views.  Those who have had no exposure to the bible are harder to reach.  Some simply have no interest in it, not even enough to be mildly curious.  Others attach all kinds of extraneous meanings to it, mostly related to what they don’t like about European colonial outrages and cultural dominance.

My best bible students over the years have been young teenagers willing to go through preparation for confirmation, the few college students who made our parish their home for four years, and adults who came to annual adult confirmation classes.  Obviously they were self selecting, and not representative of the larger population.  That said, young teens ate up scripture with enthusiasm once they were turned loose to discover metaphor, allegory, adventure stories, and the power of God’s love.  College students devoured scripture as it spoke to whatever they were learning in their majors and minors.  It didn’t always answer their questions, but it always set high standards for what an answer might be.  Two of them went on to become Episcopal priests.  The annual fall adult confirmation class, advertised as finally learning what you were supposed to have learned in confirmation but weren’t paying attention, always attracted ten to fifteen for an hour a week of deep conversation.  It was liberating for them to discover the bible in a whole new dimension.

As encouraging as all of that was, it’s also true that several life long members left to join more conservative denominations where such nonsense was not tolerated.  Discerning holy truth through metaphor and allegory can be hard work, particularly when it’s mixed in with elements to be taken literally, or nearly so.  It’s just easier to go where one is told what is true, what isn’t, and everyone says amen.

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