My theolinguistics students and I are currently wrestling with a significant aspect of religious language: conceptual metaphor. A conceptual metaphor is a figurative comparison in which one idea is understood in terms of another. Metaphors are indispensible in religious language precisely because they are vague. They ‘allow us to refer to what really exists, while conceding that our knowledge of the relevant aspects of reality [like the nature of God] might be incomplete’ (source).
As part of this discussion, we have been looking in particular at what happens when a metaphor is decontextualized from a religious text and then recontextualized. In this process, the metaphor is detached from the context in which it occurred, then inserted into new contexts. Ana Deumert explains,
The replicated text might look the same, but it will not mean the same, and although it carries with it certain meanings from its earlier uses, it also acquires new meanings.
Take, for example, the metaphor of the CHRISTIAN LIFE = BATTLE. Our minds might immediately turn to Ephesians 6, but our language indicates that this metaphor has been recontextualized in numerous ways. As a mother, one such recontextualization I’ve become particularly sensitive to is PARENTING = WAR. Consider the opening sentences in a post from CBMW from last year:
Parenting is war. There is, and we can’t say this with enough emphasis, nothing more war-like in the spiritual realm than parenting.
And this title from a post from the early 2000’s on another popular Christian site, Crosswalk: ‘The War Between Loving Mom and Teen Daughter‘. More recently, on the same site, readers were taught ‘How to end battles with a powerful child’. Focus on the Family puts it like this:
In one way or another, every child will fight this battle with his parent. The earlier you win that battle, the better, both for your sanity and your child’s. You can win it when your kids are toddlers, or you can wait and try to win it when they’re teenagers. Victory comes a lot easier when a child is two, and it’s more quickly accomplished at that age when you use spanking, appropriately and lovingly applied, to enforce it.
And over at Desiring God, a more recent post offers a more subtle development of the Biblical metaphor, closer to the original, though the association between children and one’s enemy is likewise perpetuated.
But if we understand that spiritual warfare is taking place, we may not run as quickly from their rudeness, or at least not in the same way. Having expected it, we may enter into it with correction and kindness. We may not be annoyed that she took a swing at her sister; rather, we may be shocked that she shared her Skittles. When we know we’re wrestling demons, disobedience doesn’t surprise so much as obedience does.
Even these more cautious developments of the Biblical metaphor deserve critical attention. Given that God uses the metaphor of a parent (father and mother) and child to illuminate His relationship with us, the PARENTING = BATTLE metaphor is one we should be particular skeptical of. As Christians, we are no longer at war with God. As Reformed believers, we believe our children are part of the covenant community. And given evidence that the metaphors we use not only reflect the way we see the world but even shape the way we act, it’s time we stopped talking about our children as enemy combatants.