Word and Image


The first time I remember hearing the metaphor “rain on your parade,” I was at a parade and it was raining. As a nine year old, the disappointment was memorable. To this day, when I hear the metaphor used, it conveys with heightened success all that the phrase is meant to convey—and arguably more. I remember standing in the rain, watching the once-solid crowd dwindling to nothing, the marching bands abandoning their neat rows, the bright floats bleeding in color. The optimistic few remained in their chairs, somehow assured that the show would go on despite all evidence to the contrary. But we were not among the faithful few. “I’m sorry that it rained on your parade,” my grandpa said smiling at the perfect metaphor as we piled in the car, soggy and dispirited. With half a parade to remember, we went home, our enthusiasm thoroughly overshadowed.

We are mistaken when we think of metaphor as an optional device used by poets and writers for mere fluff and decoration. Much of life is communicated in metaphor. There is so much more to time’s landscape than often can be described plainly. Metaphorical imagery is unavoidable for even the plainest of speakers. When I say to my colleague, “Your words hit home” or “I am moved by your message” I don’t mean that her words are reaching out of her book and patting me on the head. And yet, in a way, I do. What she had to say made an impression, opened my mind, and struck a chord; communicating so without metaphor is nearly impossible. It is the case for much of what we have to say: there is no other way to say it.

Language seems to recognize that there is something about life that makes metaphor necessary. Words in and of themselves fall short of conveying certain truths and intended meanings, so instead we draw pictures with language.

At the image of Jesus in his final moments of death, the hymnist inquired, “What language shall I borrow, to thank Thee, dearest friend?” One of the things I find most nourishing about the Christian story is its upholding of this mystery, speaking not in rigid confines but with words that always point beyond themselves and cannot be boxed in, borrowing a language fitting of both the mind and the imagination. There is a richness conveyed in page after page of the stories in the Bible that stretches minds and moves emotions: “O Jerusalem, O Jerusalem, how oft I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not have it” (Matthew 23:37). “As far as the east is from the west, so far [God] removes our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).

Using the fierce image of animal maternal instinct, Jesus points to the profundity of God’s longing. The psalmist writes of the unimaginable depths of God’s forgiveness using the immeasurable image of east and west on a map. Both paint pictures beyond the words themselves. Both seem to hit as invitations into an intimate, visceral relationship that make any sort of casual encounter seem highly unlikely and undesired. God’s own self-revelation in story and flesh vividly indicates that life can’t always be defined plainly, accepted in terms and principles. God is also far beyond the insufficient words we assign. Indeed, what language can we borrow?

When the Samaritan woman came to draw water at the well, Jesus asked her to give him a drink. The exchange was plainly enough about water but the words were mysteriously about life, though she didn’t realize it at first. Shocked that he, a Jew without a cup, would request a drink from her, a Samaritan without power or position, she asked if he knew what he was doing. And then they had a conversation about thirst that made her so much more aware of her own thirst.

“If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?”

Jesus not only invited the woman to see her own desire plainly, he pointed her beyond the metaphor, inviting her into the real and unplumbed hospitality of the one who came near and offered more than water. “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,” he said, “but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

In this plain and potent exchange of word and image, the woman at the well found someone who told her “everything [she] ever did” and drew her into everything she ever needed. She found someone who knew her and yet still willingly chose her. “Sir,” the woman replied, “Give me this water.”

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

"A Slice of Infinity" is aimed at reaching into the culture with words of challenge, truth, and hope. By stirring the imagination and engaging the mind, we want to share the beauty and truthfulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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