Religious Metaphor: A Primer

Next week I will be discussing religious metaphor in Tommy and Rocky Horror; but right now I think it’s important we are on the same page about ‘metaphor’ in general.

Do you know who Joseph Campbell is? If so, give yourself a high-five. If not, get mentally prepared to have your consciousness expanded, and take one of his books out the library. Or if you have five minutes, watch this video.
Before I read Joseph Campbell, I have to admit I had little understanding of what a myth’s purpose was; what parts of religions were meant metaphorically; or how a metaphor even operates in normal life. I have had conflicting ideas about religion: that they are ‘historical facts’ bastardised into organised religion to control the masses; and that their aim was to communicate the mysteries of life. Okay! So I had one part of it right. Myths (and religions by extension) are there to explain otherwise uncommunicable ideas about our world, society, and selves.

All that I’ve learned from our regular school content and people around me failed to make me understand that, oh, Jesus was a dude who went through his own, totally unique, religious journey, and told us about it using metaphor: “I and the Father are one.” “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” Some of us thought his journey was so important, they wrote some shit down that he said, so that other people may benefit from his wisdom. Fast forward 2,000 years. Now, we have two major camps: those who know that stuff in the Bible is not true, and those who believe it is. Atheists and followers. But the matter presented is neither factual nor false. It is a linguistic shadow play of great ideas existing on higher levels than our thoughts are capable of reaching. So who has it right?

Let’s take a step away from religion for a sec and just look at metaphors on their own. Why use them? We have simile, surely that should be enough. Here’s an example. Let’s say your business is dying and I want to tell you. I could say “Your business is dying.” Okay, so technically it’s a metaphor, but one that’s so common it’s barely one, since it has such practical connotations. It’s too easy for your pride to say “Pff, what do you know?” and disregard it. If I say, “Your business is like the last leaf on a tree in winter,” I have presented you with my opinion. I posit that this statement is true. You and your precious ego will refute it and say, “No I’m not!” and cling to the hope that you’ll remain on the tree all winter, and somehow be revitalised in the spring.

If I say, “You are the last leaf on the tree, and winter is coming,” it’s different. I’m not pretending it’s literally true. Your conscious mind can very easily say, “Well that’s rubbish, I’m not a leaf.” You stop thinking about it. But your subconscious is still considering that image. Wheels are turning. Maybe that night you have a dream about being a leaf, and feeling tremendous relief as you fall off the branch onto the ground, with your fallen brethren, and decompose, and in the spring, become grass, or absorbed once more by the tree, that you may blossom in time. You understand what I meant now. Your stubborn denial has melted. You close down or sell the business and start something new with the money you had left.

This is what religious metaphor attempts. Statements that are obviously nonrepresentational confound the conscious brain, allowing the subconscious mind to use images to focus your psychic energy on the mysterious connection present in all beings. Then, we may consider those images and obtain deep understanding of aspects of ourselves, our society, the interconnectedness of it all. In turn, we may eliminate some of the crushing doubts we have about life and lead a happier, saner life.

Next week I’ll talk about a couple of specific metaphors in Rocky Horror and Tommy, why we need them, and why they are so comparable to the gospels of Jesus.

Thanks for reading. Hope you’ll come back next week!
-T

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