You are love

By Donald Schell

I was folding laundry. My wife, international programs director of an NGO doing AIDS work in Africa, Ph.D. trained gerontologist, amateur actor, mother of three splendid grown children and stepmother to another splendid grown child, does her best to avoid using the dryer. We hang out our clothes year-round, which actually means that in San Francisco’s soggy November, December, and January and foggy July and August, we hang our clothes “in”; on a drying rack in the bedroom, one in her study and one in mine.

So, she was off at her work, and I was folding laundry before heading down to my office, and as I shook and hand-smoothed a pair of her black jeans, I found myself singing, “Love, your are love, better far than a metaphor can ever, every be.” It was a corny, enjoyable moment as I thought of her and remembered first hearing the musical “The Fantasticks” on the radio when I was 16 or 17. A lot of reading of philosophy and thinking about language lay ahead for me, and seminary too. I didn’t know Ellen then. Marrying her was a dozen years ahead of me. I also wouldn’t have imagined that I’d have some difficult experience and a failed marriage before between singing “You are love” and knowing she was the ‘who?’ I couldn’t yet answer. But the song stuck in my 16 year old brain because I wanted to know that face and because ‘better far than a metaphor’ spoke compellingly to me.

Better than a metaphor. I’m frustrated when my fellow theological liberals engage the literalist/fundamentalist dilemma with a blithe proclamation, “It’s all metaphor.” The things that matter most to me in life are themselves, real, immediate, compelling, and yet they point beyond themselves. Ellen isn’t a metaphor for love. She’s her own flesh and blood real self, the woman who decided we’d spare the environment a bit by hanging the wash on folding racks. That kid singing along with the radio knew that something called ‘love’ would have that kind of different meaning for knowing someone he didn’t yet know.

I imagine part of what prompted my recent singing moment with the laundry was the run of parables we heard this summer – the Sower (or the Miraculous Harvest), the enemy sowing darnel (or the wise farmer), and the mixed catch in the dragnet. Listening and talking with lay listeners before I preached on those readings and talking and listening with them after my sermons, I was intrigued at how hard we all found it to dislodge the allegorical tags the Gospel writers supplied for each of the parables.

Is the parable of the sower warning us about the cares of the world and exhorting us to be a particular kind of soil?

Is the parable of the darnel direction on how to deal with a diabolical spiritual enemy?

Are the undesirable fish caught in the net an allegorical warning of the perils of hell?

Several of the people I talked to around these three sermons were relieved to hear that many scholars tell us the allegories (red letters in such a Bible, officially “Jesus’ words”) were editorial insertions, probably the voice of early Christian preachers. They sensed that the hellfire threat skewed the parables. The logic of the allegory and the logic of the parable felt different. People felt relieved to hear how each of these parables begins with the storyteller’s trick of offering the soul-numbing familiars of hard work and bad luck in farming and fishing and then each takes the familiar to an unexpected place of abundance, grace, and ease. God is at work. As my youngest son says of so many things, “It’s all good.”

But whenever we talked about the parables, we kept falling into our own allegorizing. We did delight in these parables more-than-metaphorical (and vastly more than allegorical) vibrancy, and we wondered at what parts of our everyday lives and experience a storyteller like Jesus would seize hold of (“…a homeowner was building a new house and before the painters could come a gang member came with spray paint by night and tagged the garage door”).

But we found ourselves hooked again. We slipped back to thinking it was God sowing the seed or wondering that if the inedible fish didn’t go to hell, what happened to them?

What’s so compelling about this allegorical point-by-point Gnostic offering of the inexorable workings of the world?

First off, I think it’s that it’s amazingly difficult for us to even imagine ourselves into hearing these stories freshly. Two millennia and our many Sunday School and sermon iterations makes us know these parables cold, but that cools them. They were told hot, structured to surprise us and structured so the ending made us jump or nod a warm smile of unexpected recognition.

But additionally allegory lets us off the hook. That Ellen “is love better far than a metaphor” actually poses me some day-to-day choices that beginning with a more cosmic, abstracted or interpreted way of speaking of love would not. Because she IS love, I was folding laundry.

Jesus is challenging his hearers to feel their way into the pain and risk of seed-time, the anger and frustration of an anonymous hostile neighbor deliberately spoiling our best efforts to make something happen well, the back-breaking labor of hauling in a net full of fish knowing that there’s a bunch of fish in there that we’ll just be throwing back. Choices, the circumstances that make us resigned, bitter or cynical about life…and God at work in the mystery of seed growth, in our sowing, in our patience, and in a plentiful harvest of the sea.

What I find most life-giving in our church practice, things like singing, like the presence of Christ among us and in bread and wine, like offering one another God’s Peace, like sitting together in God’s silence, those things that are closest to my heart, what we’re doing in moments when we find God at work just won’t sit still to be reduced to metaphor. Neither heartless literalness and nor heady metaphor lives as they do. They’re better far than a metaphor could ever, ever be.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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  1. I don’t think that it has to be “it’s all metaphor.” Rather, we can have “there’s so much more to this than just the literal!” The truth of the matter is that the literal is important, AND the metaphorical or allegorical is important.

    One of the most wonderful things about Jesus and about Christianity is that there is so much mystery, so much that we do not (and CAN not) know. And one of the particular gifts of the Anglican tradition is learning to live in the dynamic tension between two ideas. We don’t have to take scripture *only* at its literal word, any more than we have to take scripture *only* as allegory. Instead, we can say, “Look! What an amazing literal event! And what beautiful metaphors and symbols we can find in it! How exciting!”

  2. I remember a United Church friend of mine once said: “You Anglicans don’t really believe that the bread and wine really become flesh and blood, do you?” Out of my mouth came the words: “As fully as I believe Jesus Christ rose from the dead.”

    Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux OSB) suggests that it is only through prayer – contemplative prayer – that we are able to perceive the vast reality the sacraments and the scriptures are pointing to, and further, the vast reality, which is God, that anything we perceive is pointing to.

    I resonate with this idea because it draws me closer to a sacramental posture in how I live my life. The heart expanding choice to pay attention as every moment God’s self emptying love is pouring through and as creation, and in, through and as me, us. To infuse one’s life with a constant remembrance of kenosis, of resurrection, of incarnation surely is a pre-emptive, anticipatory consent to the eschatological reality of CHRIST.

    I think by steeping in scripture and the sacraments, breathing, living, rising, falling and dying – is where we discover the truth – not in cognitive analysis. “Out beyond yes and no, there is a clearing – I’ll meet you there,” says Rumi.

    This, I think, is the power of scripture. Scripture, indeed, in a ‘factual’ reading is the bricks and mortar which must be preserved as the Word of God. Metaphoric reading is an important next step, a way to experience a meaning with relevance and impact for the reader. But – if our Benedictine friend is correct – the scriptures are there to lead us into relationship, into the vastness that awaits us beyond our cognitive perception to transformation, all transformed into Christ.

    When asked about the scriptures, a priest said: “I don’t know if it ever happened, but I know its true.”

  3. Jacob Slichter

    Dear Donald,

    I love this. It instantly brought to mind a response from Flannery O’Connor to a professor of literature, whose class had read all kinds of extravagant meanings into one of her stories.

    She concluded as follows: “The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.

    My tone is not meant to be obnoxious. I am in a state of shock.”

    Thanks again for this wonderful piece.

  4. donald, right now I’m reading and absorbing Walter Brueggemann’s A Pathway of Interpretation – here’s a couple of sentences that speak to your essay. Brueggemann writes: “I have come to see that imagination is the capacity to entertain, host, trust, and respond to images of reality (God and the world) that are out beyond conventional dominant reason. It has slowly dawned on me that biblical exposition cannot be, in the context of the church, a scientific enterprise designed to recover the past as historical criticism has attempted; it is an artistic preoccupation that is designed to generate alternative futures.”

    I’m also reminded of something James Garner said about Maverick, a TV western that you and I and perhaps some of the others reading here are old enough to remember. Garner said, “In other westerns, things are serious but never hopeless. In my show, things are hopeless but never serious.” I’ve cherished that remark all my life, and today it comes to mind as a comment on how to live as people of the Book – by receiving the Bible with tenderness, with utmost respect, with willingness to engage and trust – yet still, not searching in it for the newer gifts of Enlightenment thinking: internal combustion, antibiotics, and so forth.

    Pamela Grenfell Smith

    Bloomington, Indiana

  5. dear undercovernun, Gregory, Jake, and Pamela,

    Thanks for these responses. I was hoping for conversation writing this piece because it feels like a still sprouting thought or maybe even just a freshly germinating seed of one.

    What I’m thinking as I read your responses is that the antitheses of literal vs. metaphorical or a continuum from literal to metaphorical both cover an argument or assumptions about “which one is really true.” So reactively to literalism we fall to saying that metaphor is actually TRUER.

    In a way metaphor is truer than bald ‘literal reality’ because the literalist pretends not to interpret. In my ancient youthful days in the world of evangelical fundamentalism I remember feeling some angered at the preachers and teachers who warned that novel writing was simply a socially-condoned version of lying. Why would a Christian want to ‘make up something that didn’t really happen’?

    But a literal/metaphorical polarity or even spectrum misses something else that I hear in Flannery O’Connor’s words and and in Walter Brueggemann’s reflections on interpretation. The early Christian allegories the Gospel writers supply us interpreting Jesus’ parables take a dynamic doing and turn it to being. “A sower went out to sow…” as a first century listener I may have done the same myself. I can feel it in my body. And I sense in my heart the frightening risk of wasting seed on a bad harvest. But “the sower” IS the word of the kingdom and the everyday loss a farmer experiences IS Satan and people ARE various kinds of soil (and we’re exhorting soil to BE different), we’ve sacrificed the dynamic of the story in order to explain something about how the world “really is.”

    God’s work (what God is DOING) is actually manifest energetically and dynamically in an ordinary growing seed and in the hopes farmers bring sowing seed and even in the human hope that’s willing to risk loss and famine to sow seed and wait for harvest. Our literal/metaphorical dichotomy is caught thinking we need to know what things “really are.” Parables (and good preaching and theological reflection) invite us to consider our experience and find God at work, see and feel the dynamic of that work, and join in the creating energy we find in what’s already happening before our eyes.

    So, still working on it, but thanks to the four of you and I’d welcome further reflections (or protest, correction or rejoinder).

  6. donald, you wrote [more or less] “… good preaching and theological reflection… invite us to consider our experience and find God at work, see and feel the dynamic of that work, and join in the creating energy we find in what’s already happening before our eyes.”

    Are you offering us a kindly but false resolution? Because I think life as people of the Book should be much messier than what you describe. I’m not a preacher & can’t speak for that vocation, but good biblical storytelling invites us into the tension, anguish, and paradox that lives in every text I’ve wrestled with so far.

    The parable of the sower and the soils gives voice to terrible sadness at the failures of the Word, the Logos, to bring a harvest harvest – we have to feel that.

    Pamela Grenfell Smith

    Bloomington, Indiana

  7. “…false resolution…” as in music. I’m not accusing you of hermeneutical duplicitousness.

    Pamela Grenfell Smith [again]

    Bloomington, Indiana

  8. Dear Pamela,

    I would never have imagined you were accusing me of hemeneutical duplicitousness, though the accusation is so delicious it almost makes me want to provoke it from someone.

    I’m with you all the way on scriptural storytelling immersing us in messiness, tension, anguish, and paradox and I see it in the parable of the sower. But as I understand the storytelling line of the parable, it only begins with Jesus getting people nodding their bitter or complacent agreement that life is hard, same-old/same-old. Jesus is simply describing everyday experience of any sower, given the farming methods of that time (which I’ve seen in rural Malawi where drought and famine still make sowing time a time of unavoidable dreadful risk).

    So the story unfolds exactly as everyone expects (and hears with resignation, probably wondering what Jesus is driving at) – what’s a sower to do but sow the seed and plows it into the dry earth and pray for rain? So much always goes wrong – birds, weeds, hidden rocks, soil that’s too hard to plow, all commonplace, all familiar part of everyday experience that even Jesus’ listeners who did other work would have witnessed whenever they saw someone sowing. And for what – an ordinary harvest might be ten times what one sowed, a good one twenty times. And it could all go wrong. Drought. Little or nothing coming up.

    As a storyteller, he’s led them along with a ‘you know how it is…’ and then knocks them over with the miraculous harvest, a yield like no one has ever seen or heard of.

    As I hear it the parable is very like Julian of Norwich’s vision of Jesus in the time of the Black Plague – with all the stories everyone was hearing of illness, suffering and death, Jesus says, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

    It would be genuine hermeneutical duplicity to say that our fears in taking the risk to sow (or to hope) are foolish. But as I read it, the parable invites us to move through uncertainty, fear, and actual experience of losses that could confirm our pessimism. God is at work in the miracle of the seed, in the miracle of life, and the harvest will astonish.

  9. donald, I’m not so sure about the everyday-ness of the parable. I’ve heard that K. Jefferts-Schori preaches it as a parable of a very sloppy sower – that the invitation to laugh at the sower is present right from the start. Throwing seed around like an idiot! And all thees utterly obvious problems happen, that anybody could have predicted! And then the harvest that comes is outrageously huge… I think there is humorous hyperbole throughout the telling, which closes with – pretty much – “You’ve got ears, you figure it out.”

    It’s wonderful to me as a storyteller that the Matthean and Marcan versions reverse the direction of the size of the harvest. Matthew says, a hundredfold, sixty, thirty… but Mark says, thirty, sixty, a hundredfold! And Luke just says, a hundredfold! I’m embarrassed to say that when I first learned this parable I chose Matthew’s version because at that time I preferred the more “reasonable” expectation management in Matthew. I didn’t want Jesus to talk so silly and wild. As I have journeyed with the story, though, I’ve come to prefer Mark’s version and I’ve come to a more heartfelt love for Jesus’ chops as a storyteller.

    I’m not sure where we’re going here – in these tenderly-colored boxes allocated to us by EC – but I DO think you have set up a false dichotomy between metaphor and literalism. In my experience it is possible to escape this puzzle you have postulated. However the story got here, it is here, and commands our attention, our best insight, and our love.

    Pamela Grenfell Smith

    Bloomington, Indiana

  10. Murdoch Matthew


    You raise too many points for a neat response. So I’ll be random.

    I was struck initially by your finding Love in a person, because I have, as well. The word Love has always seemed to me an abstraction with no certain content, or maybe too many meanings. But when I catch a glimpse of the man who chose me 28 years ago and has been constantly at my side for better and worse, richer and poorer, I get an glimmer of what Love may be. I suspect that’s where it starts, with a person, and the abstract concept “Love” is an often vaporous universalizing.

    A theological review of the Harry Potter stories noted that the narrative lacked a God figure. Instead, the love of the characters for one another stood in the place of a unifying force. Maybe the writer of I John had it backward, not God is Love, but Love is what we mean by God.

    As for the parables, I’m sure you’re familiar with the work of William Herzog, who holds that the stories are about economic justice, not God. As a reviewer on Amazon has noted,

    The masters and landowners in these stories aren’t ciphers for God. Just the opposite: they’re exactly as portrayed. This book “Parables as Subversive Speech” (and its sequel, “Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God”) provides an especially insightful window onto the historical Jesus, whose concerns were forever with those at the bottom of the social heap.

    More Amazon review:

    Jesus envisioned a renewal of the ancient covenantal relationship that had all but disappeared under aristocratic rule, foreign occupation, and the inexorable advance of a monetizing agrarian economy. The innovation of private property rights, heavy taxation, and urbanization had the result of breaking God’s original covenant with His people. The people of Palestine, particularly the rural Galilee of Jesus’ home were losing their land to powerful elites under the burden of this exploitation and were being reduced to destitution. It is to these people that Jesus announced: “Blessed are you destitute, for yours is the kingdom of God”.

    Crossan and Reed in their 2005 book, “In Search of Paul,” note that both Jesus and Paul preached a radical equality in their communities and were concerned with Justice in this world. The world didn’t end as they expected, but their message of equality and justice remains relevant. Again we live in an age of empire that exploits the poor and weak for the sake of the overseers. We can free ourselves from “sin,” but how to free ourselves from the oligarchs who’ve corrupted our world?

    Finally, I’m bemused by those who don’t see that we swim in language as surely as fish swim in water. We construct our world with language and remember in language. Language creates realities, as you can experience in reading any good book. What we’ve learned in the age of Galileo and Darwin is to check certain stories we tell against evidence. It’s easy to imagine flying, but fatal to try it from an upper window. People who declare that facts aren’t enough — we need imagination, spirit, glory — don’t seem to realize that the spiritual world they proclaim is the world of language. Our mental realities are as real to us as stubbed toes, but if they didn’t happen, “true” may not be the proper word for them.

  11. Murdoch,

    With your great opening, that point of recognition of knowing love in a person, even a glimpse of that person and then finding “love” the abstraction, the word beginning to live, I was with you all the way on this.

    The Herzog material fascinates me. I’ve been thinking recently that the landowner who hires workers all through the day and then publicly pays them all the same at the end was priming himself for a riot or never being able to hire another worker from the casual labor pool until the very end of the day. And the landowner who sends his son and heir after the tenants, he’s heard, killed other messengers(knowing they’re legally entitled to the property in the law of that time, I’ve read, if the owner dies without heir) is making a foolish and pointless move. It sounds like a story Jesus and his hearers knew from real life and I hear it as a hair-raising reminder of people who know how to seize an opportunity. Allegory holds all that. I’ll look forward to reading the Herzog.

  12. Ann Fontaine

    Re: paying the same at end of day- having worked day labor as a teen — it is the young and the male and the strong who always get hired at the beginning of the day. The rest – women, those with disabilities, etc are hired only when needed. What a wonderful thing for them to find out they will be able to feed their families one more day instead of coming home empty handed.

  13. Murdoch Matthew

    If Herzog is right, allegory has obscured the actual message.

  14. Kathy Staudt

    Don – I’m coming to this a few days late but as a poet I can’t let this discussion go by completely — I’m thinking of a poet I’ve spent much time reading, David Jones, who said that we are by nature “sign-making” or “sacramental” creatures whose habit it is to “hold up this thing and say “this IS something other” — i.e. we are always making metaphors to make sense of our lives. So the either-or of literal or metaphoric doesn’t really work. I have been wondering (and maybe I’ll write more about this) if we have some things to learn from the Jewish tradition of reading Scripture, which sees the word of God as inexhaustible and is perfectly capable of holding up multiple meanings of the same text — from the most “literal” to the most outlandishly “allegorical” to metaphorical, and letting them be together. I like this non-linear approach to the poetry of Scripture. On the other hand, at any given moment of preaching I suppose you have to decide on what level a text is speaking to/through you to those listening — whether it’s didactic or metaphorical or experiential or what. But your opening example of “You ARE Love” says it all, doesn’t it — because we can spend a lifetime exploring and appreciating what that “ARE” means.

    Kind of random but that’s my first reaction, speaking out of my experience as a poet, where more often than not metaphor — my own metaphor in a poem “interprets” for me something I have not realized I knew about life, God, love, Creation. . .

    I also can’t resist, since we’re quoting Flannery O’Connor, remembering what she wrote to someone who suggested that the Eucharist was just a metaphor. She said, “If it’s only a metaphor, then to hell with it!”

  15. Kathy and Murdoch,

    I’m on with Herzog. Allegorization doesn’t just tame parables, it consistently skews their meaning away from challenge and surprise and toward the known, religious status quo. In the allegorizations enshrined in the Gospels, Grace and turning the tables disappears typically turning our thoughts to warning and admonition.

    And Kathy, I think Flannery O’Connor hit it dead right in ‘if it’s ONLY metaphor…’

    What we’ve done with that is to take the things we actually do in liturgy (or other actual practices) moving, singing, dancing, touching, eating, etc. and put sole value on the ‘highest’ sense of them. So, with Flannery O’Connor’s example, someone might say,”What we’re really doing in Eucharist is remembering that God is our true sustenance.” At which point human hunger, bread, the smell and texture of the bread, the baker, the moment of sharing when one person shares the bread with another cease being the Body of Christ. As I hear it in common use, a metaphor means more and differently than the thing standing for it. In or experience (and in the parables) something ordinary just may burst open to layers and layers and layers of vibrant meaning. Writing poetry isn’t just or only a metaphor for God’s creativity; it touches God’s act as God touches us in it. And in our fascinating inter-religious, ‘spiritual but not religious,’ skeptical times, we may find ourselves hearing plenty of the Spirit in a confirmed skeptic’s non-metaphorical experience of writing a poem or doing scientific research or working in a soup kitchen for the homeless. There’s plenty of reality there to celebrate.

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