Metaphor Maniac

I am a metaphor maniac. I love symbols, and I love searching for their hidden meaning. But symbols are not truth; they simply help explain truth.

In college I had a Bible professor who used the phrase “Don’t make the parable walk on all fours.” Due to my fetish for figurative language, I was intrigued by his statement but unclear as to its meaning. Since parables don’t really “walk”—on two feet or on four—the statement itself is a metaphor. So what was my professor trying to teach me about interpreting metaphors that I had not learned in any literature class?

Years later, a friend and I were discussing the symbol of yeast in the Bible. After hearing Bible teacher Ray VanderLaan mention “the yeast of the Pharisees,” which Jesus referred to as hypocrisy (Luke 12:1), my friend commented, “I always thought the Bible taught that yeast was good.”

“Oh, no,” I said, drawing from the archives of my Baptist background, “yeast symbolizes sin.”

Later that week my devotional reading was from Matthew 13, which states: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough” (v. 33).

“Aha,” I thought, “this explains it.” My friend grew up in a church that emphasizes the redemptive power of God’s kingdom. To her, yeast symbolizes the kingdom of God, not sin.

Then I recalled “walking” metaphors, and the mysterious meaning that had eluded me for so long became clear.

The professor had used a metaphor to explain the proper use of metaphors: Don’t make them “do” what they’re not intended to do. Don't make them carry more meaning than they are meant to hold; don't make them apply to all situations at all times, and don’t make them more important than the truth they illustrate. In the case of yeast, it is neither good nor bad, but it can be a symbol for both.

Symbols are good when used to explain truth, but not when we make them more important than truth.

For metaphor maniacs, that’s important to remember.