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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Donald Schell

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).

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Baba Yaga

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

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Jacob Slichter
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.

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Gregor Sneddon

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.”

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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!"

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