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Apr 28, 2017

When a Metaphor Becomes Matter for a Christian

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"Family Supper" — Horace Pippin, 1946

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Crider Scott

Scott F. Crider

University of Dallas

Scott F. Crider has published extensively on the works of William Shakespeare and maintains the English Renaissance as one of his major research interests.

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When a Metaphor Becomes Matter for a Christian

The Rhetorical Poetics of John 6:22-59

I have gone back to school as a religious magpie. A non-Christian student with Buddhist interests studying in a Catholic Theology graduate program at the same university where I am a professor of literature, I have noticed my fellow-students are anxious when I raise literary questions about scripture. I can’t help it: I’m trained in poetics and rhetoric, the arts of representation and persuasion, and I approach the Bible as a work of such arts. Having learned how to read the Bible by reading Robert Alter, I do not think of the literary and the spiritual as opposed: As he puts it, “What we need to understand better is that the religious vision of the Bible is given depth and sophistication precisely by being conveyed through the most sophisticated resources of prose narrative.”1 He makes the same case about the most sophisticated resources of lyric.2

Yet I would not simply dismiss that anxiety: people of faith respond to their scriptures differently than they do to profane novels, plays, or poems. And when one discusses their Bible as literature, believers often hear that as “the Bible as mere literature.” There is some quality of scriptural language other than ordinary, the resources making possible some quality not only deep and sophisticated, as Alter would have it, but also other. What is the character of scriptural language that makes it scriptural?

Biblical scholars tend to think of a rhetorically poetic, or “literary,” approach to scripture as a new approach, one now sanctioned, in the Catholic hermeneutical tradition for one instance, by an important encyclical of Pope Paul VI, The Word of God:

To search out the intention of sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to “literary forms.” For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture.3

Of course, the text of the Bible and the tradition of Biblical hermeneutics have been literary from the beginning: Many of the texts of scripture itself are objectively literary since they are essentially acts of poetic representation (their modes of mimêsis being narrative, drama, and lyric) or of rhetorical persuasion (their modes of pistis being deliberative, judicial, and epideictic); as well, at least from Origen’s On First Principles on, interpreters have distinguished between the literal and the figurative senses of scripture, a distinction which is essentially literary. There is no space here to rehearse the literary character of both scripture and scriptural interpretation.4

Is there a distinctly Christian understanding of metaphor, one which might indicate that rhetorical poetics itself changed with the advent of Christianity? And, then, an even larger question: Might this understanding help us discern the nature of the language of scripture itself, regardless of specific language, religion, and culture? That is, if the Christian rhetorical tradition transformed the classical rhetorical tradition’s understanding of metaphor, might that new understanding enter into dialogue with the world’s other religions to discern what makes sacred literature other? Allow me to focus on the question in Christian rhetorical poetics first.

Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics on Metaphor

Whoever the author of the Gospel of John is and whatever the exact geographical, historical situation from which he authored it, he may or may not have actually read in the Greek philosophy of art, or aesthetics; even so, interpreters of John often employ Aristotelian aesthetics to understand the gospel.5 I will do the same here. It should be pointed out that contemporary categories of discourse separate the arts of rhetoric and poetics in ways that do not do justice to the ancient understanding that sees them as two sub-arts of one art.6 For example, Aristotle’s discussion of metaphor exists in both his Rhetoric and his Poetics. What is metaphor, according to Aristotle?7 The Poetics has the better treatment of metaphor’s character as a made thing, the Rhetoric the better treatment of its effect upon an audience.

According to the Poetics, metaphor—which is a part of style or lexis, the way that narrators or characters in a literary work speak—is a transference of a word in one field of reference to an object in another related but distinct field: “A metaphor is the application of a word that belongs to another thing.”8 The roots of the Greek term metaphora indicate a literal transference: a word is carried (pherein) across (meta) from its customary referent to a novel one. We can see from Aristotle’s discussion of the types of metaphor that what we would label synecdoche or metonymy, or even simile, he would think of as metaphor: “either from genus to species, species to genus, species to species, or by analogy” (1457b6-7). (Aristotle is assuming his own logical categories here: A genus is a general category of a thing; its species the specific characteristics differentiating it from other things in the same genus. A human being belongs to a species since each person shares its genus, “animal,” with other animals but is differentiated from them by possessing reason, leading the classical tradition to its standard definition of a human being—“a rational animal.”) His examples of each type are worth attending to. The first type—genus to species—is exemplified in “my ship stands there” since “mooring [species] is a kind of standing [genus].” The second—species to genus—is exemplified by “ten thousand deeds has Odysseus accomplished” since “ten thousand [species] is many [genus], and the poet used it here instead of many.” The third—species to species—is exemplified by “drawing of the life with bronze” and “cutting with slender-edged bronze” since he has used “drawing of ” for cutting and vice versa, species for species. And the fourth, analogy, is exemplified by calling “evening ‘the day’s old age’” or old age “‘the evening of life’” (8-24): one assumes an analogy between the times of a day and those of a life. He adds, as well, a type of analogy we would call catachresis9, a type of metaphor which will be important for Jesus’ central metaphor later:

In some cases of analogy no current term exists, but the same form of expression will still be used. For instance, to release seed is to “sow,” while the sun’s release of fire lacks a name; but the latter stands to the sun as does sowing to the seed, hence the phrase “sowing his divine fire” (25-29).Metaphor—broadly understood and including other, more precisely calibrated figures of speech—is a transference of a word from one field to an object from another, related but distinct field.

According to the Rhetoric, the effect of metaphor—which is also part of style, how a rhetor speaks or writes—is enlivenment, and he uses Homer as his exemplar: “And as Homer often, by making use of metaphor, speaks of inanimate things as if they were animate; and it is by creating actuality in all such cases that his popularity is due, as in the following example:. . . ‘The arrow flew.’”10 Vividness is actually composed of two distinct effects: animation and actuality. The Greek term for animated is “ensouled”: “the inanimate becomes animate [ta apsukha empsukha].” The Greek term empsukha reveals that the animated has “soul” or psukhê. The Greek term for actuality is energeia. The effect of metaphor, according to Aristotle, is to treat those things without soul as if they have soul, and, in so doing, actualize the potential (at least in the persuasive rhetorical world) that could not be actualized without figurative language.

Of whatever type, a metaphor, according to Aristotle, enlivens and energizes in the rhetorically poetic moment that which is persuasively represented. I do not plan on reducing John 6’s central metaphor to Aristotle’s theory of metaphor; instead, I hope to use Aristotle to explicate John in order to show that the Gospel figuration advances Aristotle’s theory: treated as a literary tradition (though obviously not only literary), the rhetorical poetics of John reimagines the nature and effect of the figure of speech of metaphor, baptizing rhetorical poetics as now a Christian discourse. If true, this matters because a literary tool for interpreting scripture may itself then be influenced by that scripture, becoming a new literary tool for understanding that scripture anew—and perhaps even the scriptures of other religions.

Metaphor as Hard Saying in John 6

It is always important to remember that a part is part of a whole, and this is true of the forthcoming metaphor to be examined. Using Raymond Brown’s outline of John’s Gospel, I would say we should remember that the metaphor comes in a discourse Jesus gives (6:27-59) during Passover (6:1-71), when Jesus engages the principal feasts of the Jews (chapters 5-10). That section is itself part of the Book of Signs, during which Jesus speaks and acts wondrously (1:19-12:50), followed by the Book of Glory, during which he presides at the last supper and is then arrested, condemned, tortured, and crucified, only to be resurrected (13:1-20:29). The whole gospel is framed by its famous prologue (1:1-18) and its epilogue (20:30-21:25)11. The metaphor arises in a discourse Jesus uses to try to explain who he is to both his followers and those deliberating about becoming followers. In his commentary on the gospel, Francis Moloney points out that the discourse is characterized by Jesus’ responses to the people’s questions (6:25-59): “The discourse unfolds around these questions and answers, each section developing a new thought around the single theme of the bread from heaven."12 It is clear that this questioning is occasioned by Passover, the Jewish celebration of Israel’s escape from Egypt and its trial in the wilderness, during which the Lord supplied them with manna: all of the people’s questions probe who or what Jesus is, and, since he earlier provided food for them (6:1-15), they presume him a kind of Moses—a prophet and/or king. Throughout the exchange, as Talbert puts it, “Jesus fulfills the Jewish Passover” (137). They want him to feed them again.

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It is worth noting that the central metaphor of interest here—thrice verbatim—is given several times but in different forms. In the first instance, the people ask for a sign, mentioning the manna in the desert, “the bread from heaven” (30-31), and he offers the metaphor by moving from the bread to himself, though the antecedent of “that which comes down [ho katabainôn]” is only implicit: “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world” (6:33)13. Missing the point, they ask for such bread, and he explains further in the second version of the metaphor: “I am the bread of life” (35). They murmur, in response to which he, in turn, offers the third form of the metaphor—“I am that bread of life” (48)—then a fourth, more extensive one—“I am that living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever” (51)—which he then reverses and refines in the fifth instance: “the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (51). After this startling formulation, he elaborates at great length on the consequences of his being the bread of life that they must eat (52-58), an elaboration which follows upon the central metaphor of the discourse, three of whose instances follow the same pattern: “I am the bread of life [egô eimi ho artos tês zôês]” (35, 48 and 51)14. Although I will not pursue these strands, the reader should remember throughout that part of the metaphor—“bread of life”—is an allusion to the manna of Exodus 16:1-15, indicating that Jesus’ metaphor fulfills the Exodus text central to Passover.

Aristotle's Poetics

Arabic translation of Aristotle's Poetics by Abū Bishr Mattā (d. 940 CE), a Christian philosopher

That is the statement of Jesus I shall focus on: “I am the bread of life.” Is it a metaphor? This question is perplexing for Christians because Jesus is clearly using a metaphor, but the metaphor moves, in some sense, beyond the merely metaphoric, to be actually true. That is what Jesus is trying to explain, and how he does so is significant. In his later elaborations (52-58), he treats the earlier statement literally, and it is just that literal interpretation that disturbs them; after all, even the disciples find it a “hard saying” (60). I would like to suggest that the first iteration of the statement (35) is a metaphor; the second, a metaphor becoming a literal statement (48); and the third a literal statement (51), at which point the bread that he is can be equated with his flesh and the consequences drawn out by the author of John. The same statement is both metaphor and literal statement, or, rather, the iterations enact the movement from a merely verbal to an ontological transformation of Jesus; that is, a change in word becomes a change in fact. In John’s understanding, the Word has become flesh. This differs from Talbert’s conventional argument that “what Christ does for human beings is identified with a metaphor” (143), an argument he repeats when indicating that “the language [of the metaphor] is not literal” (144). I am suggesting that what begins as metaphor is, through the repetition, literalized. In theological terms, the Christological register becomes the Eucharistic: the divine human somehow dwells within the bread or host whose ingestion sustains one. Let me examine each instance of the central metaphor in order.

Moloney argues that in all of these “I am [egô eimi]” statements taking a predicate, “Jesus is not describing who he is but what he does” (214), but all three instances deny that grammatically: “I am the bread of life [egô eimi ho artos tês zôês]” contains, not just any predicate, but a predicate nominative, which equates the words and the things they denote on either side of the verb “to be.” The bread’s nourishing powers may be as Moloney would have it—“he nourishes with a bread that produces life”—but that is not what Jesus says, and it is hard not to notice that Moloney has stripped the metaphoric form and character from the statement in his rephrasing: in his domestication of the line, the metaphor is no longer about who or what Jesus is, but what he does; there is no identification of the bread with the person. In fact, Moloney is relying on Raymond Brown’s commentary on John: “The egô eimi [‘I am’] with a predicate does not reveal Jesus’ essence but reflects his dealings with men; in this instance, his presence nourishes men.”15 Both Brown and Moloney interpret against the grammar of the metaphor.

If the first instance is a metaphor, does it fall within any of Aristotle’s types? It does—the very last kind, the metaphor which is an analogy in which one of objects has no term. In Aristotelian terms, the first instance of “I am the bread of life” is a metaphor; in our terms, it is an instance of catachresis. Jesus knows that the analogy that he is establishing between himself sent by the Father and the manna sent by heaven (Exodus 16:15) is unusual since there has never been another instance of him. Jesus Christ is unique in the gospel tradition, and there is no clearly extant term for him, though here he is himself partial to “the Son of Man” (6:27), a famously complicated name.16 So the analogy—as God sent manna, so now the Father sends me—is incomplete since he is so unique that he is not a species of any single genus: The I of “I am the bread of life” might be said to be a species of God—and earlier Jesus sounded rather LORD-like when he says only, “I am” (6:20). Yet, even if that Trinitarian understanding that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one is right and implicit in John, Jesus is also a species of the genus of humankind, but he is the only one since he is also a singular species of the genus human. No person of the Trinity is both god and man except for Jesus; no human person is, either—again, except for Jesus. In order to explain who he is, Jesus must employ catachresis. Jesus requires figurative language because his character is both singular and new. There is no literal language for what or who he is—until, that is, his metaphoric language exists to be taken literally. Most theorists of metaphor suggest that most if not all language is itself metaphoric, the literal being a category of what Nietzsche would call, in “On Truth and Lies in the Extra-Moral Sense,” a “dead metaphor”:

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coin.17

We are not there yet, and when we get there, it will be other than Nietzsche imagines. At 6:35, what we can say is that Jesus’ metaphor for himself is animating and energizing him in his audience’s experience of and belief in him. Through analogy, they can understand that he is like the manna God sent their fathers in the desert, the food that gave them temporal life; he is unlike that manna, though, since he brings eternal, not merely temporal life (6:27). The language is actualizing within his audience’s experiential belief in Jesus’ potential to save them from death. Jesus as rhetor is trying to persuade the audience internal to the episode that he can save them by means of a metaphor indicating just that. Of course, it is this very metaphor that alienates so many and sets them to murmur, then leave.

It is worth remembering that the author John is representing Jesus representing himself thus, so, while Jesus’ audience inside the literary representation is alienated by the metaphor, the audience outside—John’s audience, that is, we as readers—may be thrilled by the animation and actualization of a merely verbal into an ontological reality. Once Jesus’ own internal audience pulls away from him, John’s reading audience might draw near him, for we realize that it is the very difficulty of believing in the literal truth of the metaphor that alienates Jesus’ audience. Jesus notes this necessary difficulty right before the second instance of the metaphor (47-48): “[W]hoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.” John represents through literary means Jesus’ recognition of his rhetorical duty—to persuade his audience to believe, each one of whom must be “ho pisteuôn,” “he who believes,” he who is persuaded by the pistis of the metaphora: “I am that bread of life.” Here, we are in the presence of a metaphor becoming a literal statement—or being recognized as such—through faith itself.

Once the metaphor has become a literal statement—“I am the living bread that came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (51)—Jesus treats the statement as such and equates his flesh with the bread and requires that they eat him. At this point, we enter a new phase, one beyond my scope, for the next question becomes this: Does Jesus expect them to eat him literally? That is how they interpret it, and he pushes it as far rhetorically as he can (53): “[U]nless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” A hard saying, indeed. I do not believe that he wants them to cannibalize him, but that is clearly how the people and some of the disciples interpret him. And the early Christians had to reverse the metaphor—from “he is the bread of life” to “the bread of life is he”—to create the Eucharist, the host that, by ingestion during the liturgy, allows one to participate in Christ’s presence. But the metaphor can be taken literally if one re-imagines Jesus’ body as now somehow identical with the substance of the bread. The Eucharistic character of the passage is a working out of this very literalization of the metaphor I am arguing takes place across the three instances of the central metaphor, here catachresis. Although Aristotelian catachresis is one form of the figure, there is another, one in which the terms of a metaphor multiply, sometimes beyond the capacity of an audience to follow. (Although this is sometimes loosely called “mixed metaphor,” Shakespeare is known for the power of his catachresis, which ought to caution us against considering such figuration as a vice, rather than a virtue of language.) The terms in the remainder of the discourse do multiply, and they are difficult to chart exactly. But prior to this explosion of catachresis in the broader sense, we have seen its exercise in the narrower one—the same statement going from being a metaphor to being a metaphor in the process of being literalized, then from being a metaphor in the process of being literalized to being a literal statement: “I am the bread of life” (35); “I am the bread of life” (48); “I am the bread of life” (51). The same statement undergoes a process of metamorphosis from a merely verbal to an ontological reality. In Brown’s terms, the transition here is a transition from the sapiential to the sacramental theme18. While Jesus’ speech is Eucharistic, it is not so from the beginning, but becomes so in the metamorphosis of the triple instance of its central metaphor.

In the context of the whole of John, one can see that Jesus’ discourse about his incarnate self is a working out of the consequences of John’s description of his pre-incarnate being in the Prologue—the Word made flesh (1:14)—and a preparation for his post-resurrection state as universal body with which his disciple Peter is to feed his sheep (21:17).

A Christian Rhetorical Poetics

The rhetorical poetics of John’s mimesis of a central metaphor in Jesus’ discourse itself undergoing a literalization from the metaphoric to the ontological, from a purely verbal to an existent reality: this would have surprised Aristotle. For the capacity of language to be, in an incarnational sense, what it signifies a uniquely Christian contribution to the art of rhetorical poetics itself. John’s “Word made flesh” is a sacramental rhetorical poetics, and John’s enactment of Jesus’ metaphor becoming real in Chapter 6 is his own commentary on a new understanding of language in its highest form. Again, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical The Word of God is right: “[T]ruth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse.” What rhetorical poetics has to offer theology is attention to how the truth is expressed in various forms; what theology has to offer rhetorical poetics is a realization that this new truth expressed in inherited forms alters the possibilities of those forms. The liturgy of the Word is animated by this very conception of metaphor, a conception prepared for but unanticipated by classical aesthetics, a conception which changed a great deal in the world, including rhetorical poetics, which from that point on has a myth and a vocabulary for the mystery of human language—its power, once ingested, to alter our world. Robert Alter discusses this in his own description of figurative language in Biblical poetry: “Poetic language and, in particular, its most characteristic procedure, figuration, are manipulated as pleasurable substances” (The Art of Biblical Poetry, 203). Metaphor is substantially powerful.

This is the power of language to save us from nothingness by our eating the bread of life, a linguistic bread which is the highest form of language: that Word which is what It figures—before the world was created, during one historical moment of speech and act by a wholly distinct person, and after his transfiguration into the body of the world now redeemed by that moment. We and our metaphors in the West were never the same.


Returning to my opening question—“What makes scriptural language other?”—I would respond, under the influence of John’s metaphor, that such language does not simply represent a new religious vision, but somehow is such. The rhetorical poetics of scripture is not merely linguistic, but ontological, altering the fabric of being for the believer. Setting aside all differences for a moment, perhaps Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, along with Hinduism and Buddhism, set aside certain texts as sacred scripture because they participate in a phenomenon John’s rhetorical poetics helps us understand: somehow moments of new language are moments of new being, during which the world and its inhabitants become other than they were—first metaphorically, then actually. What would such an ecumenical rhetorical poetics look like?

I am aware that the religious magpie must be cautious here; after all, one might exercise such inter-scriptural interpretations misleadingly, importing an alien tool of interpretation into the native text. What we might gain, though, is worth the hazard. Allow me to draw from the other scriptural tradition I know, the Buddhist. In The Dhammapada, the enlightened or superior person, called a brahmin, is described through a metaphor: “[T]he superior person has gone to the other shore” (26:384)19. Spiritual enlightenment is a journey from shore to shore, over the waters of existence and their resultant attachments. We might imagine that as only a metaphor, and it is true that Buddhist aesthetics seldom loses sight of the distinction between a representation and the thing represented. Yet I cannot resist imagining that achieving nirvana is arriving upon that shore, where one is so detached that one no longer sails on the tempest but comes to one’s destination ashore. (It’s interesting how often Jesus’ followers have trouble on the water and he does not.) Where is that shore, and what would it be like to arrive there? I certainly don’t know. Yet we can fashion language to represent it, and somehow—I don’t know how—somehow, through the metaphor that says this is that—nirvana is that shore; Jesus is the bread of life—somehow, one’s own being is altered and the being of the world discloses itself anew as the source of the alteration. Through language at its most artful.

The art of rhetorical poetics can help us understand that experience of arrival and nourishment, in and through the advent of the word—whatever its specific language, religion and culture—the arrival and nourishment of a freshly sustained language and life. However we respond to that advent, let us not say it is a mere metaphor.

For Frs. Denis, Roch, and Thomas, brothers on the way


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