Metaphor exerts a surprisingly powerful influence within our thinking. Although it is easily dismissed as little more than a figure of speech, when we attend more closely to the ways in which we use it, metaphor’s importance swiftly becomes more apparent. Although many of our metaphors have become quite invisible to us through habitual use, they nonetheless form our thinking in significant ways.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson observe that our “metaphors and metonymies are not random but instead form coherent systems in terms of which we conceptualize our experience.” We habitually grasp reality by mapping one domain of reality onto another and drawing analogies between the two.
For instance, we tend to understand people’s theorizing and argumentation in terms of buildings—this idea is foundational to my understanding; I demolished his case; I buttressed my argument with some further case studies; I constructed a defence for the position; the structural weakness of his theory can be seen at this point; his argument collapsed under cross-examination; the evidence does not support your case; that notion is architectonic for their system of thought, etc., etc. The use of any one of these particular metaphors can evoke the larger system behind them and to which they all belong. In such a manner, they can shape our understanding of and actions in relation to the realities to which they refer.
Conceptual metaphors can bring certain dimensions of reality into focus, yet they may also distort, occlude, or weaken our sense of others. Not all conceptual metaphors are equally helpful. Some conceptual metaphors are profoundly illuminating—for instance, the Church as living temple or as body.
A good example of a powerful conceptual metaphor is that of life as vapour in the book of Ecclesiastes. Vapour shrouds and veils, making it difficult to see the reality of things. It is inscrutable. It can’t be grasped or controlled. It slips through our fingers and eludes our attempts at mastery. It is ephemeral and passes away into nothing, leaving no trace of its presence behind. It is radically insubstantial and cannot provide any bedrock of security against change.
Other metaphors, however, can cast much of the reality that they seek to describe into shadow and distort our perception of what we think that we see. Metaphors such as that of war, for instance, have an undeniable political appeal and, consequently, our leaders often speak of “wars” on poverty, drugs, terrorism, obesity, waste, etc. Such metaphors frame difficult problems in terms that are familiar to us, relieving some of the sense of threat associated with them. The “war” metaphor is typically adopted because it implies an immediate and serious threat to our well-being as a society, the need to make the matter in question a top priority, and the probability that addressing the problem will demand costly commitment and sacrifices of us. Yet bringing the domain of war into correspondence with other domains of reality can prove treacherous, as such a powerful metaphor can easily burst the narrow banks of our intended usage, affecting our perceptions in unhelpful ways and misguiding our actions.
The concept of war, for instance, encourages us to think in terms of external enemies to be defeated and of good and bad guys. While the “enemy” may initially be little more than the reified problem, it seldom takes long for problems so conceived to become associated with particular parties, who start to be regarded as enemies too.
If, for instance, instead of employing the metaphor of war when speaking about these problems, we employed something like a fabric metaphor when speaking about problems such as poverty—the frayed edges of society, recovering the stitches we once dropped, the unravelling of communities, the knotty tangles of social problems, belonging to close knit families, crucial threads in the fabric of society—we might think and act rather differently. Such a metaphor (merely one of many possible alternatives) teaches us to think of our problems less in terms of opposition to an external enemy and more in terms of our interconnectedness and the importance of maintaining the integrity of society’s relationships. It alerts us to the delicate character of social problems and of the need for patience, care, and measured action in addressing them, lest “tangles” become knots or “dropped stitches” lead to unravelling. Unfortunately, although the conceptual metaphor of society as fabric is a very helpful one, enabling us to conceive of action in relation to social problems in more appropriate ways, it is far less effective at exciting people to action and galvanizing them together than the conceptual metaphor of war.
Given the significance of conceptual metaphors for our thinking and action, we must choose and employ them with care. Most of us are unaccustomed to devoting thought to our conceptual metaphors. Our conceptual metaphors are far more akin to lenses through which we perceive our reality than they are to particular images or representations of the reality itself. As a result, they can go unnoticed, even though their effect upon our vision may be pervasive. Viewing reality through a well prescribed conceptual metaphor can be like putting on your 3D glasses at the cinema—that which was formerly fuzzy and unclear suddenly jumps out at you with an arresting clarity.
Thinking Theologically Through Music
Considering the importance of conceptual metaphors for our thinking, the relative paucity of theological attention devoted to them may be surprising. There are rare and signal exceptions to this neglect, however. The theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie is one thinker who has much to offer the Church in this area.
Begbie takes the statement of Jacques Attali as a starting point for his project: “Music is more than an object of study: it is a way of perceiving the world. My intention is . . . not only to theorise about music, but to theorise through music.” Begbie’s theological project is an attempt to propound the potential of music as a conceptual metaphor for theological reflection, demonstrating that much Christian truth will come into crisper focus when viewed through such a lens.
In particular, Begbie highlights the value of music for thinking about time. As human beings we find ourselves in a world shaped by many temporal patterns operating concurrently—the movement of the planets in their courses, the starting and ending of planetary epochs, the waxing and waning of empires, the creaturely movement from birth until death, spring, summer, autumn, and winter, weekday work and Sabbath rest, evening and morning, waking and sleeping, breath and heartbeat. The heavens, the earth, human societies, individual creatures, and our very bodies are deeply temporal—profoundly musical—realities.
Much as we find ourselves within a world of interwoven temporal patterns, Begbie observes: “Within a piece of music there is usually a multiplicity of temporal continua, operating concurrently…. [W]e can find different kinds of temporal succession, which intersect, interpenetrate and enhance one another as the music unfolds.”
Drawing upon the work of the musicologist Victor Zuckerkandl, Begbie suggests a number of different dimensions to music’s temporality (his focus is upon the Western tonal tradition). He begins by observing the importance of tension and resolution: music’s movement from equilibrium, to the establishment of a sense of incompleteness, and, finally, to closure and rest. This is teleological in character and typically excites a sense of anticipation in the hearer.
The first dimension of music’s temporality Begbie focuses upon is the interaction between rhythm and metre. “Metre is a patterned succession of beats; rhythm refers to the variegated pattern of durations given in a succession of tones.” Rhythm “rides” the waves of metre and “reveals the shape of the waves” in the process. The waves of metre have their own pattern of tension and resolution and can in turn be part of higher wave patterns, all levels exhibiting movements away from and back towards resolution. As a result, a piece of music can achieve closure on certain levels, while straining forward to something more on others. The time of music is not the mechanical beat of a metronome, but the living movement of the wave.
The second dimension of music’s temporality that Begbie attends to is “melody in the dynamic field of key.” The dynamic character of a melody is not only found in its relationship to metre, but also in the relationships that different tones have to each other within the context of a particular key. It is essential to recognise that a melody is not just a “succession of separate tones” against some static background, but a motion of interrelated tones within a dynamic field. One note “reaches towards” another, which in turn “attracts” the first. A melody is not merely an illusion of motion, like that which might be created by some aural equivalent to a zoetrope. The continuous motion of music is found in the field of key within which various tones are related. Begbie observes that this claim is supported by the importance of silence within music: silence needn’t interrupt music because in hearing music we are always “between the tones, on the way from tone to tone; our hearing does not remain with the tone, it reaches through it and beyond it.”
Alastair Roberts recently completed his doctoral studies in Durham University. He is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged.
 George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 41.
 Cited in Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 4.
 Theology, Music and Time, 35
 Theology, Music and Time, 40-41
 Zuckerkandl, cited in Theology, Music and Time, 49.