In Tents 32 Scripture Study Tools part IV: Figurative Interpretations

Greetings from Missoula, Montana. We traveled here today from my wife’s hometown not far from the Stanley, Idaho wildfire, and Monday morning we will be going over Lolo Pass, more wildfire country. In all the little towns on the way here businesses have “Thank You Firefighters” on their letterboards.

All of which means that when we decided rather quickly that we could indeed go on vacation I came away without my list of translations I was going to talk about. Maybe next month. This month I’ll start with a short series on figurative interpretation.

When Jonathan Langford invited me to join the bloggers on Dawning of a Brighter Day I cast around for a title and subject, and thought about a phrase that encompasses for me a lot of what literature and literary criticism is about, “Intense Intents in Tents.”

In 1991 I began my AML career with a paper contrasting Terry Eagleton and Marden Clark’s approaches to the question of literary value, with a long look at Lionel Trilling’s “On the Teaching of Modern Literature.”

Trilling’s main concern in the essay is the intensity with which modern literature confronts social and moral and societal and philosophical questions. But modern literature is more than confrontation, more intense. Trilling hesitated when his students asked for a class in the subject, and wondered how to teach it. You don’t point a howitzer at your students without assessing how much damage you could do.

And it wasn’t that modern writers and artists had stumbled upon a howitzer not knowing what it was, or that his students would be (this is my image, not Trilling’s) like children playing on anti-aircraft guns and other surplus that appeared in city parks around the country after the War. No, they had written and arted with the intent of destroying a corrupt culture, showing the corruption and rot in the stakes and ropes and fabric of the tents our fathers and mothers dwelt in in the wilderness of their afflictions.

I quickly moved from looking at intent in general to looking at intent in scriptural interpretation, at why we interpret scripture the way we do. I wanted to see how our understanding of the Gospels might change if we assumed Jesus was a Pharisee, rather than assuming Jesus and the Pharisees were enemies. That assumption makes sense of a lot that is difficult to make sense of.

Consider the parable of the Pharisee and publican in Luke 18. The Pharisee prays, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.” It’s a difficult parable to make sense of ethically unless we assume the teller is a Pharisee, or a friend of Pharisees.

If we see the parable as an attack on the teller’s enemies, we’re simply seeing it as an invitation to say, “I thank thee that I am not like these Pharisees,” rather than a caution to be careful who we despise, because they might be justified ahead of us, rather than an invitation to see ourselves as sinners and beg God for mercy.

Jesus could have chosen a member from any group. We’re all self-righteous. We all know how to justify ourselves. He chose Pharisees, his own group, or his hearers, in the same way that Gordon B. Hinckley–several times–addressed members of the Church, not Baptists or Catholics or atheists, when he said no man could worthily hold the priesthood who was abusing his wife and children.

My purpose in this blog is to understand and examine the rhetoric of the Gospel accounts of Jesus and the Pharisees, to understand the figures of speech Jesus uses, and that we use when we interpret the stories of Jesus we sang about wanting to know in Primary (and in later life, I hope)

When we talk about understanding the figures of speech, about figurative interpretation, we often talk as if we had to choose between a figurative and literal interpretation. This is a mistake. Jesus was surely a real, historical figure, who often spoke figuratively, and whose disciples and biographers, particularly Mark and Matthew, often see events in the Hebrew Bible as prefiguring his ministry.

A second mistake we make is to assume that figurative equals metaphorical. Metaphors belong to a class of rhetorical figures called metonymy, which work by displacement. A metaphor is a comparison between two things, but it’s not an indirect comparison of similarities, saying one thing is like something else, it’s a direct comparison, saying that x=y. That’s a little abstract, and I’ll go into much greater detail later. For now, suffice it to say that metaphorical readings displace literal readings. If I say the story of Jesus turning water to wine is a metaphor for God’s overflowing grace in our lives, I’m saying it’s not a real event.

Metaphorical interpretations shut down the conversation by displacing the literal level of the story. Did the workers at the wedding realize they were replaying the story of Elisha sending the widow around to collect every vessel she could so he could multiply her oil into them? Did John realize it when he wrote the story? Did Mary realize her son was repeating that story? Did her son?

You can’t ask questions like that if the story is just a metaphor, because there’s no literal level underlying the metaphor. The metaphor has displaced it, as we acknowledge when we say, “Oh, that’s just a metaphor.”

I hope to go into considerably more detail later on. Right now I’ll just say that while all metaphors are comparisons not all comparisons are metaphors. Puns are comparisons, but neither sound displaces the other. You have to have hear both sounds simultaneously for a pun to work. Scriptures are a lot more like puns than metaphors. If we are going to liken all scriptures unto ourselves for our profit and learning, we have to have both the literal story to liken from, and the figurative meaning to liken to/too/two.

And metaphors are not the only figures of speech, and figures of speech often have a literal counterpart. A few weeks ago I was listening to the other Gospel Doctrine teacher, the one I alternate with, talking about the Missouri woes, and I wrote down “petition the governor.” But petition is not the word the Lord used in D&C 101, so it took me a while to find it. The word is importune:

81 Now, unto what shall I liken the children of Zion? I will liken them unto the parable of the woman and the unjust judge, for men ought always to pray and not to faint, which saith—
82 There was in a city a judge which feared not God, neither regarded man.

83 And there was a widow in that city, and she came unto him, saying: Avenge me of mine adversary.

84 And he would not for a while, but afterward he said within himself: Though I fear not God, nor regard man, yet because this widow troubleth me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.

85 Thus will I liken the children of Zion.

86 Let them importune at the feet of the judge;

87 And if he heed them not, let them importune at the feet of the governor;

88 And if the governor heed them not, let them importune at the feet of the president;

89 And if the president heed them not, then will the Lord arise and come forth out of his ahiding place, and in his fury vex the nation;

90 And in his hot displeasure, and in his fierce anger, in his time, will cut off those wicked, unfaithful, and unjust stewards, and appoint them their portion among hypocrites, and unbelievers;

91 Even in outer darkness, where there is weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth.

In searching for a likeness to the situation of the children of Zion, the Lord commanded them to take the figurative words of a parable literally. That is, he proposed a figurative interpretation of a scriptural passage, and the figurative purpose was to take the parable literally.

One final example for now. I’m reading The Documentary History of the Church. I noticed yesterday that in presenting Section 8 B. H. Roberts used the 1835 or later edition of the Doctrine & Covenants for his text, rather than the original manuscript, or the Book of Commandments. I don’t have the exact wording with me, but in verse 6, where the Lord says you have the gift of Aaron, the original read something like, “the gift of working with the [divining] rod.”

In Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants, Steven Harper drew on his experience editing the Joseph Smith Papers to discuss this variant. He said Joseph changed the wording for the 1835 edition to make it more abstract, to hide the true meaning from an unbelieving audience.

6 Now this is not all thy gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things;

7 Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you.

8 Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God.

9 And, therefore, whatsoever you shall ask me to tell you by that means, that will I grant unto you, and you shall have knowledge concerning it.

Thus we learned in seminary that “the gift of Aaron” was the gift of being a counselor. And holding it in your hands must mean something like having the ability to ordain people, or to heal through the laying on of hands.

Spiritual gifts are multi-faceted, and there’s no reason to believe that the gift of Aaron is not both working the rod and being a spokesperson, just as Elijah’s sealing power can both seal the heavens, stopping rain and the rain of God’s word, and binding families together for all eternity.

Scriptures are likewise multi-faceted, but if we insist on narrowing our interpretation to the metaphorical, we will have to be content to lose the literal meaning–maybe not even knowing what we’ve missed.

Your turn.

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4 Responses to In Tents 32 Scripture Study Tools part IV: Figurative Interpretations

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    I’ve never really understood why English teachers traditionally make such a big deal of knowing the difference between a metaphor and a simile (even when I was an English teacher). Now I think I get it. The simile leaves the original (literal) meaning intact; the metaphor displaces it. Food for thought.

    • John Skink says:

      I think they make such a big deal about it because it’s such a small matter, and in either case comes between the reader and the poem.

      • Harlow Clark says:

        Thanks for your comment, John. I think for most of us the difference between kinds of comparisons is fairly slight: a comparison is a comparison is a comparison. And if someone pushes back at the comparison we’re making we’re likely to say, “Well, any comparison breaks down if you push it too far.” Conveniently ignoring the fact that we’re not just making an off the cuff comparison, we’re using the comparison to try and convince someone to do or believe something.

        We need to pay attention to how comparisons work, which is by seizing common sense. When we’re comparing two things we’re really saying, “This comparison is just common sense.”

        Dennis Rasmussen gave me a great gift in his Philosophy 110 class. He was considering the objection students make to tests where they’re supposed to regurgitate what’s been said in class. “I reject the analogy.”

        You can do that? Great. But the gift was greater than permission to reject analogies. His comment helped me understand how readily we give assent to comparisons. It’s certainly worth thinking about. The difference between similes and metaphors is fairly significant, but in practice we don’t make much distinction. I suspect that’s because we see the comparison itself as more important than what’s being compared.

    • Harlow Clark says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jonathan. Sorry to take so long to reply. If you’d asked me 30 years ago about the difference between similes and metaphors I would have likely said a simile is a weak comparison and a metaphor is a strong comparison. That was my impression from what my English teachers had told me.

      Several years later I came upon a taxonomy of rhetorical figures, which said metaphor is a subset of metonymy, which works by displacement. I’d thought of metonymy as “the part for the whole,” but it hadn’t occurred to me that the substitution of the part for the whole was a displacement. But it explained how we know that when someone says a story is metaphorical they’re also saying it’s not to be taken literally. We know without having to think it through that the metaphorical meaning has displaced the literal.

      We usually think of metaphors as benign comparisons using something we understand to explain something we don’t. But metaphors are much more complex than that, since we can understand them without understanding the underlying comparison.

      My son’s best friends’ grandmother died recently. At the funeral one of her daughters talked about her mother’s many sayings, like “mind your p’s and q’s.”

      I told her afterward that the term comes from typesetting. You set type backwards, and since p and q are mirror images you have to take care not to confuse them. (At least that’s the etymology I’ve heard, and it makes sense, but then etymologies are designed to make sense of confusing things.)

      But I don’t think her mother ever heard that explanation, and though she might have thought it had more to do with minding your manners rather than minding the details, she knew the general meaning was “pay attention.”

      But how do we understand a metaphor when we don’t understand the comparison? I’ll probably get to this within the next month or so. It deserves some careful thought.

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