Friday, November 22, 2013

Truth by metaphor

When C.S. Lewis died 50 years ago today, hardly anyone noticed. Another death that same day, in Dallas, claimed most of the headlines for days afterward, and it was some time before even the British writer's most ardent admirers heard the news.

In a cover story in this month's issue, Christianity Today remembers Lewis's life and legacy. The article hit home with me even before I had begun to read it. A Lewis quotation in large type is spread across two pages: "All our truth, or all but a few fragments, is won by metaphor."

Lewis himself was a master of metaphor. His books remain popular, and understandable, today in large measure because of the strength of his metaphors. He put this one in one of his letters: "The pleasure of pride is like the pleasure of scratching. If there is an itch one does want to scratch; but is is much nicer to have neither the itch nor the scratch." That is typical Lewis.

Just as he used metaphors to express complex ideas in understandable ways, so people in all walks of life use them to make things simpler. Preachers put stories in their sermons. Scientists talk about the Milky Way, the Big Bang, black holes, string theory and wormholes. In the world of history and politics, we have such metaphors as the Dark Ages, the Iron Curtain, New Deal and New Frontier. In economics there is talk about price bubbles, hiring freezes, fiscal cliffs, skyrocketing stocks, mountains of debt and overheated economies. Most truth, it seems, really is won by metaphor.

I happened to be in the midst of a book called I Never Metaphor I Didn't Like by Mardy Grothe when I was asked to speak at a graveside memorial service for my father-in-law last month. Bob had made it clear he did not want a funeral or any formal marking of his passing. So instead of a minister, I was asked to speak. What would I say that would be meaningful to those who knew him? I finally decided to just say it with metaphors. I read a few metaphors from Grothe's book that seemed to apply to Bob, then added my own comments and invited comments from those gathered at the northwestern Ohio cemetery. Somehow it worked.

One of the metaphors I read was from actor Danny Kaye: "Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint on it you can." Bob Savage certainly threw a lot of paint on his canvas, as did C.S. Lewis.

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