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Building Doorways to Truth Through Creativity and Metaphor

Creativity is essential to design. We’re all created creative?Äîeven those who might claim that the creative gene skipped them. In Genesis 1, God models the creative process, demonstrating that good things take time. Although God could have made all of creation happen in an instant, He instead demonstrates meticulous intentionality and the importance of design. But how does that play out? There are many different forms that creativity can take, but we believe that one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, forms is through metaphor.

What exactly is a metaphor? Simply put, metaphor is a tangible way to express an abstract story, thought, or idea. Applying a metaphor to the message simply means communicating potentially abstract stories, principles and/or ideas with present day tangible equivalents. Substituting familiar objects, stories and situations can make archaic and hard to grasp texts easy to understand.

Metaphor is a doorway through which we can pass into a truth. Ronnie Ruiz at the Georgia Institute of Technology states that a metaphor is a comparison between two seemingly unrelated objects, where one’s characteristics are transferred onto another. This is for the purpose of giving us understanding. Ruiz says, “Metaphors act as shepherds to lead the audience onto the correct path of thought and mindset.”

What seems more abstract than a God somewhere “up there”? Maybe that’s why God repeatedly shows up through metaphor, from a burning bush to a pillar of cloud to, ultimately, a Body. Even after the God comes Incarnate in Jesus, God’s Spirit shows up as a dove or a rushing wind. Excepting Paul’s epistles that shaped church doctrine, most of the Bible is stories of faith in God told with and through metaphor.

This ancient wisdom wasn’t limited to God’s people, either. Aristotle wrote in 322 BC, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance.”

In fact, it could be argued that the world has a much better handle on metaphor in our present time than the church. Metaphor is immersed throughout our increasingly digital culture, both as a form of expression but also more fundamentally as a way we understand truth.

As an experiment, one morning as Len left the house he decided to monitor his experience of metaphor. His wife had left the car radio on the adult contemporary station the previous day, so the first song he heard was called “White Flag,” by the artist Dido. In it, Dido laments the end of a relationship in which she still loves her significant other. She uses the white flag, and a distressed ship, as metaphors for her feelings. Next was the classic by Elton John, “Candle in the Wind.” In it the songwriter compares the life and death of the American celebrity Marilyn Monroe to a fragile candle, who was too easily blown out by destructive forces around her. After 2 melancholy love songs, Len was feeling a little nauseous so he switched to a rock station, The Edge, whose name itself is a metaphor. They were playing a popular song by Coldplay, “Clocks.” As you might imagine, the song was not literally about clocks. The first four experiences of his day were metaphorical.

Later that day as we worked on our ministry database, we were struck by the number of churches whose very identity is rooted in metaphor. There were records for churches called The River, The Journey, Crossroads, The Oasis, and more.

In addition to its ubiquity in our culture, there are three fundamental reasons why we believe focusing creativity on metaphor is important.

The first is that metaphor makes the message easier to understand. When there are elements of a biblical story that are hard to connect with, or there is language that doesn’t make sense in today’s culture, metaphor comes to the rescue. We’ve seen this work too many times to keep track.

A while back, we designed a worship service around the story of John the Baptist preparing for the coming of Christ as told in Luke 3:16-17. Our team expressed concern that many of the elements in this passage are foreign and confusing to today’s non-agricultural society. John uses language such as “thong,” (which means something completely different today than it did back in Jesus’ day), “winnowing fork,” “threshing floor,” and “chaff”?Äîall objects with which suburbians might not be familiar. Beyond the confusing language, the crux of John’s message is purity. We didn’t want that to get lost in translation.

So, we focused our creativity on designing a metaphor that would connect John’s message with this present culture, and settled on one of today’s most pervasive beverages: coffee. The filter plays the part of the winnowing fork that separates the wheat (or flavor of the coffee) from the chaff (or grinds). When the water passes through a filter full of ground coffee beans, the result is a pure cup of coffee. The grinds are tossed away. All of a sudden, John’s message connects in a way that most everyone can understand.

The best part of a metaphor like this is Monday morning and throughout the rest of the week, when in people’s daily routines coffee becomes a reminder of what it means to be pure. We sometimes say that metaphor is the glue that makes the message stick. This glue, retention, is the second reason we like to use metaphor.

We have seen time and time again that when a metaphor is employed and the hard work of redeeming the metaphor is done, people will carry the message with them for much longer than they would have otherwise. Retention goes through the roof when the right metaphor is used.

We designed a service once with a youth pastor colleague on the subject of racial reconciliation. As we began designing the service, our youth pastor colleague, Efrem, an African-American, shared a personal story about his time at a small (mostly Caucasian) Christian college. Early on as he familiarized himself with his new surroundings, he was taken back by some of the art in one of the buildings on campus. A very large mural depicting heaven filled one the cathedral ceilings.

Efrem scanned the painting back and forth and was disturbed by what he saw. This representation of heaven left something or rather someone out. It was filled only with European-looking white guys in the typical angelic poses. He wrestled with this painting as he asked himself, “Do I fit into a heaven like that?” His internal response was, “I don’t think this is what heaven will look like at all. All who believe will dwell there together, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.”

The basis for his sermon was that if segregation has no place on heaven, and we will live there together in harmony, then we should strive to do the same on earth. That led us to the theme of “A Preview of Heaven,” and the metaphor of movie previews. Just like trailers give the viewer a sense of what the upcoming movie will be like before they see it, so should our earthly expression of the kingdom of God give the world a preview of heaven, where no one is excluded.

We created an animation to start worship that mimicked the style of the cheesy clips that run between the trailers and the feature, filled with dancing refreshments, crying babies and ringing cell phones. The sanctuary was decked out with theater decorations (including a row of theater seats on stage) and we served popcorn to worshipers as they entered the room. The worship graphics had a movie preview theme. It all went off without a hitch.

Six months passed and a woman from our congregation came to Jason and said, “Jason, I’ve got to tell you something. You’ve ruined my movie going experience.” She went on to explain, “It’s actually a good thing. Every time I go to the movies now, and I see that cheesy animation that runs before the movie starts, I leave the theater with a renewed passion for living a preview for heaven on Earth.”

We were blown away when we heard this. We knew metaphors made the message easier to understand, but until then, we never quite realized how it helped worshipers recall the message, with a certain degree of depth, even a long time later.

We’ve also learned that when we use metaphors from the culture, and we really do the hard work of redeeming them, the culture becomes a reminder of the Gospel. This means that the Gospel becomes inescapable, because culture is inescapable.

The third reason we recommend metaphor as a key part of the design process, and maybe the most important reason, is that it was the model Jesus gave us. Mark 4 tells us a story from the early part of Jesus’ public ministry, in which he tells the parable of the sower. It’s a long parable, the longest in the Gospels (vv. 3-9). Afterward, when the crowds had left and the disciples were alone with Jesus, they revealed to him that they had no clue what he had been saying. He took the time to explain the entire parable to them, actually spending more time on the explanation than he had on the parable itself (vv. 10-20).

What is really interesting is what happens next. Instead of concluding that such a creative presentation of the Good News didn’t work, and returning to the religious style he had learned in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52), he continued to speak in parables, telling the parables of lamp on the stand (vv. 21-25), the growing seed (vv. 26-29), and the mustard seed (vv. 30-32). He was on a roll!

The best moment comes in verses 33 and 34: “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.”

Parables were Jesus’ exclusive public style! He didn’t simply use parables as an alternative for the dumb ones in the crowd. Metaphorical teaching was his only public method. Jesus understood that to communicate ideas with effectiveness he had to present his teaching in a means that made sense to his audience. Our audiences today aren’t any different. People listen best when spoken to in a familiar language. This is the essence of metaphor.

So, metaphor is how we define ourselves. The same is true in design. No longer is it sufficient to present text through creative treatments; now, the best designs use visual metaphor to communicate basic ideas and thoughts. The presence of metaphor is what separates good design from bad, because it is the primary means with which we can express creativity.

How does this translate into designing graphics for worship? This is a question that we’re still learning to answer as we go, too. No one’s got this future figured out yet. The advertising industry is in a panic because one of its key target audiences, the 18-34 yr old male, is so attuned to interactive technologies such as TiVo that they are choosing to delete or ignore traditional advertising (known as features and benefits, or F&B, ads) because they’re “boring”?Äîi.e., they don’t communicate through metaphor. David Art Wales of Ministry of Culture, a New York advertising consulting firm, says, “There’s a huge lure to obscurity. That’s one of the keys?Äîgiving people something to discover, which is the antithesis of the way most advertising works.”

As you begin to design, look for ways to communicate ideas through visual metaphors. Tap into your creativity. Think about visual equivalents. Avoid doctrinal words and move toward experiential words and objects. Brainstorm about everything from current pop culture references to pithy sayings. And stay away from bullets, because bullet points are best left to BULLET-ins.