THIS SUMMER I ATTENDED A BEACH BIBLE CONFERENCE at which the preacher said: "You should see the top of Satan's desk. It's covered with stacks of paper and cigarettes and half drunk cups of coffee, because he knows his time is short."
I wanted that minister's phone number, but I believe he's married. You see, the speaker could always have said (and they always do) that Satan is an indefatigable schemer, and that you should watch out for him. That can make for a fine sermon if the image of schemer is not stillborn, which is the danger after the 500th time.
A dead metaphor, they told us in school, is a once-arresting picture that's spent its capital after too many trips to the till, and has become more soporific than startling ("over the top," "safety net," "warmed-over proposals," "red flags," "broken heart"). Perhaps it's not fair or kind to mention here that it was the emptiness of the clichés in his conversational English phrase book that catapulted Rumanian-born Eugene Ionesco over the line of despair into life as a writer of postmodern absurdist plays.
The question arises: How about Satan as a "prowling lion," which is also much warmed-over but which is from the Bible, after all? Undoubtedly, you don't want to call anything the apostle Peter says a "dead metaphor," not only because it's impolite but because it's God's own word choice, so the image itself is authoritative and can be expected to hold inexhaustible depths of meaning and grace for the meditator. Nor do we ever presume to take hold of one of Jesus' parables, as of a husk of wheat, and extract a one-sentence kernel we then call "the moral," discarding the scabrous hull. No, the story secretes again and again as we, like bovine, chew the cud.
The deeper point of my rumination, however, is that all language is metaphorical, all abstract words containing in themselves the distant drumbeats of things more primitive or physical (note the use of deeper, point, and rumination in this sentence), the original concreteness often so eviscerated by its parasitical usurper that it lives on only in etymology books.
And if this is so, I ask myself whether Jesus had in mind to bequeath to us more than just a quiver-full of stories, but rather a model or direction for evangelism-for preachers of the gospel first, and then for all Christian communicators as a spill-over. I ask myself whether His homely tales of trees and vines were mere accommodation to an agrarian, pre-industrial, pre-abstract-thinking society, or if Jesus was on to something about man? (Francis Bacon observed that "all knowledge progresses by similarity.")
What if we are meant to rack our brains for fresh pictures, edgy ways of speaking old gospel truths into our own cultures, as Christ did into His? Would the Jesus who adduced "new wineskins" and coined "brood of vipers" in the first century have demurred to speak of chain-smoking devils in the 21st century?
What stifles us I think I know. And the confounding thing is that it is a goodly impulse, seems to me: a reverent fear of dishonoring God by unbridled imagination-that dangerous genie which, once unleashed, may never be put back in the bottle again. We loathe to cross the line, irretrievably, into worldliness; a point of no return. We have cold-sweat nightmares of plunging headlong into the outer darkness.
Or, comes this reticence from that tireless hyper-caffeinated spoiler of the Christian joy, whom Franky Schaeffer raged against in Addicted to Mediocrity, decrying how "the arts, cultural endeavors, enjoyment of the beauty of both God's creation and man's creativity-these creative gifts have in our day been relegated to the bottom drawer of Christian consciousness"?
For how can it be that the Great Artist, who has splashed His canvas with the wild abandon of Jackson Pollock as well as the mathematical rectitude of da Vinci, should train after Himself so timid a brood of protégés? Who should be more avant-garde in communication than the child of the One who taught the morning stars to sing together (Job 38:7), and loosed the raven's tongue to cry to him for food (Job 38:41)? Comes this resistance in myself from the God of lights or from the so-called "angel of light"?
All I know is that some things put me to sleep and some things wake me up. And awakeness may be half the battle. Two roads in a sermon diverged, and the preacher at the summer Bible conference took the one less traveled by, and it made all the difference.