The Meaning of Life: Consumption

 

A manufactured object obviously has a purpose that was built into it by its designers, but a lot of people do not believe this is true for human beings.

comment on TED in response to the question, “Does humanity have a purpose?” says, “Humanity has no unified purpose and I suggest that history shows us that giving humanity a single purpose can be disastrous (religion, eugenics…).”

It is true that giving humanity a single purpose can be disastrous, but perhaps this is only true when the single purpose is one for which we were not designed.  If I use a swivel office chair as a ladder, the results can be disastrous, but this doesn’t mean that the swivel chair has no purpose.

Giving humanity a single purpose can be disastrous, but perhaps this is only true when it's one for which we weren't designed. If I use a swivel office chair as a ladder--disastrous, but this doesn’t mean that the swivel chair has no purpose. Click To Tweet

There is a danger in living for the wrong purpose, but perhaps it is just as dangerous to avoid purpose if we were actually created for one.

Our Default Purpose–Consumption

In our culture, one of the purposes we have collectively chosen for ourselves (or perhaps it has been subtly imposed upon us) is that of consumer–we buy things, lots of things.  The things we buy are designed to wear out after a time, or they are improved upon, so we throw out the old thing and buy another thing.  We are manipulated to be ever discontent and then offered things that will make us content.  It doesn’t work, of course, but that’s OK because contentment would be bad for the economy.

Were we made to consume?  Is this the purpose for which we were designed?

Zombies and Consumption

This question is a weak spot in the fence of our cultural identity and the hands of the undead are pawing at it.

The zombie is the picture of humanity which lives only to consume.  It ever eats, but is never satisfied.  It takes and takes, but no matter how much it takes–brains, liver, thigh–it’s still empty.

Perhaps humans were not made for religion, but the zombie tells us that we weren’t made for consumption either.

If we were made for another purpose, the cure for the zombie is to orient its whole life toward that purpose.

The zombie is the picture of humanity which lives only to consume. It ever eats, but is never satisfied. It takes and takes, but no matter how much it takes–brains, liver, thigh–it’s still empty.Click To Tweet

Designed for Relationship

I suggest that humanity is designed for relationship.

Not just any relationship, but the kind that is more interested in the flourishing of the other than the flourishing of the self.  Most people have caught at least a glimpse of what this relationship can be like.  Some lovers are like this–they are so interested in the happiness of the other one that they forget themselves.  Parents constantly set the needs of their children higher than their own.

The paradox in these sorts of relationships is the more you give, the more you get back–and not usually from the kids or even your lover.  It comes from someplace else and it’s so fulfilling.  It’s like you are a swivel chair being used as a swivel chair.

Sadly, not everyone has experienced this sort of relationship.

Zombies haven’t.  They are too busy eating other people.

In a consumer culture, other people can easily be reduced to something we can to use–in essence, something to consume–it makes us zombies.  Some people treat their employees this way.  Some men treat women this way, and women men.  Some kings, their subjects and some mothers, their children.

The good news is that there is a cure for zombies.

Here’s more analysis of the meaning of zombies.

Can I Please Have an Extension?

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This is a post for my students and their parents.  I’ve received emails from frustrated parents because I was hesitant to grant a request for an extension on a writing assignment.  Here I explain my refusal, not just to justify myself, but also to provide information so that parents and students can proactively avoid the circumstances that cause the frustration in the first place.

I have explained my two-draft system for teaching students how to write academic papers.  It’s a great system because student writing improves significantly, but it comes at a cost.  There is so much marking to do, and it’s the hardest kind of marking.

When I started this two-draft system, my marking was inefficient.  Today a class set of papers takes me 16 hours, a few years ago is was closer to 24.  I was marking for two weeks solid, as the papers trickled in.

Here's the thing about marking--if you mark 10 papers in one session, it will take just less than 2 hours. If you mark those same papers one at a time, It will take you over 3.Click To Tweet

I didn’t want to abandon the whole system, student writing was improving, but I needed to streamline the process and get the marking under control.  Now, I’ve done it.  Not only is my marking down to 16 hours for a set of papers, but I am seeing even better writing from students as a result of these changes.

The changes place some more responsibility on students.

Managing the Marking

Right now I have nearly 60 English 12 students, and I’m marking most papers twice.

In order to make the marking more manageable, I have established a due date/time for the first draft.  This date is firm.  If the paper comes in by this time, I mark it.  If it does not, I won’t even see it. I stop when I finish the last one.

The papers are always due on Saturday at 8 am.  Remember, there is no requirement to turn in the first draft, but if you want the feedback there is one condition–you have to turn it in for me to mark it.  And I mark them on Saturday.

It takes 10-12 minutes to mark each paper. I usually get around 45-50 first draft papers.

This adds up to about 10 hours of marking.  In order to get the papers back to students as fast as possible, I mark them all that day.  I mark until I have no more papers.  Then I stop.  If a paper comes in after this, I will not see it.

I have a due date/time for the second and final copy of the paper.  This time is also firm.  If a first draft paper has been submitted, this second draft is optional.  If a student wants me to mark their re-write, they need to turn it in, on time of course.  If I don’t get a paper, I assume the student has chosen to take the mark they earned on the first draft.

Sharing the Cost

Student writing has improved so much, that I regularly have students return to thank me for preparing them so well for university writing.  Their success is due in part to this two draft system.  But this success comes at a cost. The cost is shared by the students and myself.  The price I pay is giving up some Saturdays to provide thorough, valuable and immediate feedback on first drafts and then marking them all again.  The student’s cost is they must turn in their best work by the time I get to the last paper.

All this isn’t as harsh as it sounds.  High school papers are a long time in development.  We work on them for 3 to 4 weeks.  We’ve had discussions and done activities that help the student to understand the task.  I do all I can to get students started with a clear sense of direction.  Paper writing can start more than 2 weeks before the due date.  There is time enough to write the paper.

Not all students start early enough.  They are busy with other things, many of them worthwhile.  In the week before the paper is due, those who haven’t started predictably begin to experience stress.  This gets them going.  Some students are involved in a lot of things but haven’t yet developed a system by which they can be busy and get their school work finished.

Some of these will ask for an extension.

Extensions

I will, of course, give an extension for significant illness or an unanticipated family crisis–these are unplanned an unavoidable.  I will also give students more time if they started their paper early and have been diligently working for weeks and still need more time.  I usually have a pretty good idea as to who these students are.

I am very reluctant to give extensions because of a lack of time management.  I totally understand why they want one.  I understand why the parents are frustrated with me for not giving one.  I get it.  In last week before the due date, the student has 3 shifts at Tim Horton’s, the hay needs to be taken off before the rain, grandpa’s 75th birthday party, volleyball practices, piano lessons, and a Taylor Swift concert.  And they have hardly started their paper.  There are tears and frustration–even yelling.  All could be well if only Mr. De Jong would give an extension.

This is when I get the email.

By making the paper a little bit of a priority, and starting early, the busiest student can get a decent draft of a paper completed in two weeks.  Students take between 4 and 12 hours to write a large paper.  They know how long it takes them.  If they are busy and slow, they must start earlier, and take every 30 minutes where they can get it.  They have to say “No” to Starbuck’s and Hockey Night in Canada for two weeks.  This is the price they must pay if they want feedback.

Remember, there is an extension built into my system–there is no obligation to turn in the first draft–it’s completely optional.  They don’t even have to inform me.  They can decide to take an automatic 5-day extension.

All Decisions Come at a Price

Who should pay the price for a student’s involvement in the school play or the missions trip?  Or the hockey game or rock concert?  Almost all students accept the fact that they ought to pay the bulk of the costs for their decisions–for the good ones as well as the bad.  All decisions demand a price.  It’s a fact of life.  Deciding to go on a leadership trip to our nation’s capital is good, but it will cost you.  Many students pay this cost by organizing their schedule in such a way so as to submit the first draft before they leave–that’s five days early.

Students ought to pay for their decisions--for the good ones as well as the bad. All decisions demand a price. It's a fact of life.Click To Tweet

I usually deny a student’s request for an extension because they are, in effect, asking me to negate the natural consequences of the decisions they made. They would like to have their cake and eat it too.  Someone must pay the price, but they’d rather it would not be them.

What lessons will they learn by a refusal of an extension?  What lessons will they learn by a granting of same?

“It’s only one paper.”

One exception will quickly turn into 10 and I’d be back where I stared–the additional 8 hours and marking spread out over two weeks.  I’d go back to students turning in one paper and cut down on the comments.  I’d be doing things just like my high school teachers.  And most students wouldn’t become better writers.

“What about grace.”

I worry about the lessons that are learned if I give an extension.  I think the most gracious thing to do, long term, is to deny the extension.  The kids that are busy need to learn how to manage busy-ness–their life won’t get less busy when they get to post-secondary or move into their career.  I’d also hate to think what a child learns when they don’t pay the price for their decisions.

“It’s not fair.”

59 other students are paying the price of their own choices.  Is it fair that one does not?

 

An Effective Approach to Teaching Writing

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When I went to school, students would turn in their major papers by the due date, or lose 10% per day for 5 days and then they’d get a zero.  When the papers were returned 2 or 3 weeks later, we’d ignore the underlined spelling mistakes, the little circles where the commas should have been, and the few comments written in red ink.  We’d just look at the mark at the top and toss the paper in the trash.  Funny thing, I got exactly the same mark on all of my English papers–a B.  I was happy with that.  I went to university without a clue as to how to use a comma, let alone write a paper.  I took one English class in university–it was the basic one for people who were unprepared for university writing.  I didn’t earn close to a B.  There were many section of this course. Apparently my case was not unique.

Somehow I ended up being an English teacher.

Perhaps a lot of the responsibility for my failings as a high school writer rest with me, but I vowed that I would do anything I could to make sure that what happened to me, didn’t happen to my students;  I would have to take a different approach to teaching student how to write.

Improving Student Writing

The first thing to eliminate was the deduction of 10% per day for late assignments.  Marks measure competence if they are used for punishment they no longer measure competence.  For the same reason, I don’t give zeros for assignments that are not turned in.  Also because I don’t think students have the right to decide to not to do the work and still pass the class. (I’ve written on these issues here.)

The major feature of my system for teaching students how to improve their academic writing is to have them submit an early draft of their paper on which they receive detailed feedback.  They then immediately revise and resubmit their paper.  I use this system for summative assessment–each written piece of student writing  in a series from an analysis paragraph, to an essay, to a larger term paper.

Students can turn a first draft of their paper.  This is optional, but most students choose to do it because they get a lot of individual feedback on this paper.  They receive a mark out of six on six different categories: 1st Paragraph (thesis), Analysis, Format, Organization, Expression, Conventions (grammar, punctuation, etc.).  They also receive a lot of comments. I usually return the papers within 12 hours of the time it was due.

Based on this feedback, students can make revisions and resubmit the paper.

The students who did not turn in the first draft, for one reason or another, receive feedback as well.  I dedicate a good part of the next class to going over the general issues I noticed in the paragraphs I marked.  This helps all students improve in their paper writing.

There are those who don’t turn in either draft.  These cases are referred to a Vice-Principal who employs any number of strategies that helps students get their work done.

Benefits to the Student:

  1. Higher marks: The second drafts are so much better than the first drafts.  So students’ marks are higher.  Although they like the higher marks, this is not the most important benefit.  They’ve actually earned the higher marks because the papers are so much better.
  2. Better Writers:  Students are actually working with my feedback–trying to understand and apply it to their writing.  I don’t begrudge my high school teachers for writing little of significance on my papers, because they knew I wasn’t going to read their comments anyway.  I love it that my comments are read, even scrutinized, and then applied to significant effect.
  3. Immediate feedback:  Within 12 hours of turning in the paper students know what they can do to improve the next draft.  By making improvements to a paper just written, student learning improves. This is so much more effective than having to remember the comments on a paper written a month ago and apply them to a new one.

How to Flourish

There are a few things that students need to understand in order to get the most out of this approach, to take full advantage of the learning opportunities.

  1. Use class time efficiently.  Class discussions, group discussions, and assignments all help you with understanding the material that you will be writing your paper on.  Take careful notes on the discussions.  All of the points you will make in your paper, are being discussed, explored and references at these times.  This is especially important for busy people and those who struggle to understand more conceptual content.
  2.  Start work on your first draft early.  A minimum of two weeks before the due date.  Make the paper a priority.  If you are having a hard time getting your head wrapped around the task talk to me.
  3. If you have a lot of other things happening in the weeks before the due date, establish a work plan for completing the paper and keeping up with your other commitments.
  4. Turn in the best first draft you can.  The feedback you receive will be far more impactful on your learning if you submit your best work.  For the same reason, turn in a complete paper, including citations and a Works Cited page.
  5. If you can’t turn in the whole paper, turn in what you have.  I can give you a lot of good feedback on the first two paragraphs and a Works Cited page.  Just turn in these.  Just a caution, though–you will have a lot more work to do from Saturday to Thursday as you write your second draft.
  6. Don’t ask for an extension: If you do the above, you will learn a lot more and an extension will be completely unnecessary.

I was defeated by Ulysses

Photo by Tbel Abuseridze on Unsplash

I was defeated by Ulysses.

Well, that’s not so bad, so was the entire city of Troy, 200 suitors, and the Cyclops Polyphemos.

I mean the book. The one by James Joyce.  I quit half-way. I’m supposed to be smart. I teach literature.  I did War and Peace, Moby Dick, and Don Quixote in the same year.  I read Infinite Jest in three months, for crying out loud!  (Read this; it is really funny.)

There was that time when I threw Wuthering Heights across the room. But that was when I was young, and I later read that one no problem.  Not so with Ulysses.  I know when I have been beaten.

Maybe this is just round one.  I can go back to it later, to keep up my record.

I don’t want to. Not even a little bit.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I took a British Literature class.  We read Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  I enjoyed parts of this book, particularly the description of hell in Father Arnall’s sermon.  But there was something inside me that said this book was too much of something.

Here is an actual dialogue I had with a fellow student in this class after reading this book:

Professor: Is A Portrait a novel?

Me: No, a masterpiece but not a novel.

Brown-noser: Of course it’s a novel.

Me: No, it’s just Joyce showing all the neato things you can do to a novel.  Novels are meant to be read, this book is not.  It’s meant to be studied.

Brown-noser: Just because it’s not like a typical novel . . . if a painter uses a lot of new techniques we still call it a painting.

Me: If a painter brushes his initials onto a rock with water-soluble paint and then throws it off a cliff into the ocean before anyone sees it, do we still call it a painting?

The “too much of something’ in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was many times too much in Ulysses.

Ulysses: Life is too Short

I agree with Ron Rosenbaum in “Is Ulysses Overrated?

Actually, Rosenbaum doesn’t even agree with Rosenbaum, as much as I do.

I was fascinated by the fact that the plot of this book covers just a single day.  It’s witty.  Each chapter is written in a different style. For some people, all the allusions get in the way, but I thought they added to the meager appeal of the book.

I think that my main problem is that the book overturns almost every traditional way of telling a story.  Is this book, change for the sake of change?  One might argue that this is no worse a sin than writing in traditional modes for the sake of writing in traditional modes.  And one would be right.  Except one wouldn’t be holding Ulysses as one said it.

Traditional modes or writing need to be rejuvenated with new approaches, absolutely.  But in Ulysses, Joyce has evolved the novel brilliantly, but this has not ended up with a book I want to read.

It’s a masterpiece.  By all means, study it, but don’t bother reading it, for there is no joy there.

Or perhaps all this is simply justification and defensiveness arising from my humiliation–perhaps.  If it ends up to be this, I will be posting a refutation and celebration of having finished Ulysses and proclaiming it’s brilliance.

Ulysses is a masterpiece. By all means, study it, but don't bother reading it, for there is no joy there. Click To Tweet

The Perpetual Victim: Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf”

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Everybody whines and complains on occasion.  It can be how we process disappointment.  Some, for one reason or another, whine and complain all the time.  This can be a defense mechanism; “If life is going to suck anyway, I might as well anticipate the disappointment.”

In “Greenleaf,” Flannery O’Connor describes the perpetual victim and provides the antidote to this poisonous view of oneself.

The Perpetual Victim

Mrs. May, protagonist of “Greenleaf,” declares, “I’m the victim.  I’ve always been the victim.”

Mrs. may owns a small farm and she believes it functions entirely by her efforts and hers alone. She declares to her city friends,

“Everything is against you, the weather is against you and the dirt is against you and the help is against you.”

No wonder she considers herself a victim, if she thinks weather and soil are her antagonists.  She is blind to the fact that without weather and dirt, there is no farm—these things aren’t adversaries; they are gifts.   And so is the help against which she rails—the help is Mr. Greenleaf.

The narrator tells us that Mrs. May “had set herself up in the dairy business after Mr. Greenleaf had answered her ad.”  Mr. Greenleaf‘s arrival precedes the establishment of the farm.  Good thing too, because he is the reason her farm is as successful as it is.

This is not, at first, apparent because the third-person narrator tells the story from Mrs. May’s perspective and is, therefore, not to be trusted.  For instance, when the narrator reports a field had come up in clover instead of rye “because Mr. Greenleaf had used the wrong seeds in the grain drill,” we are receiving Mrs. May’s interpretation of reality.  Mr. Greenleaf likely ignored her instructions because he knew better.

Mrs. May frequently speaks of how hard she works.  She believes she “had been working continuously for fifteen years” and that “before any kind of judgement seat, she would be able to say: I’ve worked, I have not wallowed.”  Interestingly, she doesn’t do a stitch of actual work through the whole course of the narrative.  Conversely, Mr. Greenleaf is always occupied with farming tasks.

Everything Mrs. May has, comes to her through the created world and her good fortune at the arrival of Mr. Greenleaf.  But she doesn’t see any of it.  She places a high value on her own, relatively insignificant, efforts and a correspondingly low value on the many undeserved blessings she has received.

Mrs. May’s Faith

Two quotes will suffice to give us the state of Mrs. May’s faith:

“She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

“She thought the word Jesus should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom.”

Symbolism

Mrs. May seeks no relationship with God and her rejection of Grace is shown through various symbols.

A stray bull has arrived on her place.  In the opening scene, he is compared to a Greek God, complete with a wreath upon his head.  He stands beneath her window like a bovine Romeo.  Not only is this an allusion to Shakespeare’s play, it is also a reference to Zeus who, in the form of a bull, rapes Europa.  When the wreath “slipped down to the base of his horns . . .  it looked like a menacing prickly crown.”  The bull has become a symbol of Christ.  Mrs. May’s view of this transcendent visitor is far more terrestrial–“an uncouth country suitor.”  As a symbol of Jesus, the bull is persistent in his pursuit of Mrs. May.  She consistently tries to get rid of him.

Another symbol in the story is the sun.  Among these is the “black wall of trees with a sharp sawtooth edge that held off the indifferent sky.”  The sun, a symbol of providential grace, is blocked off from Mrs. May’s property.  In one of her dreams, “the sun [was] trying to burn through the tree line and she stopped to watch, safe in the knowledge that it couldn’t, that it had to sink the way it always did outside her property.”  Her dreams reflect her stance toward God and his gifts.

The symbolism of the bull and the sun as two figures of the Trinity some together in description of Mrs. May’s view out her window.

The sun, moving over the black and white grazing cows, was just a little brighter than the rest of the sky. Looking down, she saw a darker shape that might have been its shadow cast at an angle, moving among them.

The “shadow” is the bull, a manifestation of the sun on this side of the impenetrable trees.  Mrs. May lives in rejection of God and all his gifts.  She believes herself to be self-sufficient and autonomous.

Lillies of the Field

The Greenleafs, on the other hand, absorb grace in all its forms. The name is suggestive of their familial attitude toward grace, for green leaves soak up the sun and flourish. When Mrs. May takes a trip out to the farm belonging to Mr. Greenleaf’s twin boys, the “the sun was beating down directly” onto the roof of their house. Their milking parlor “was filled with sunlight” and “the metal stanchions gleamed ferociously.” By contrast, from Mrs. May’s window the sun was “just a little brighter than the rest of the sky.”

It is not accident that both Mrs. May and Mr. Greenleaf each have two sons.  In this way O’Connor can compare the generational affect on rejection and acceptance of Grace.  The May boys are as unhappy and resentful as their mother.  The Greenleaf boys are flourishing.

It is because they are flourishing that Mrs. May resents the Greenleaf’s. She means it as criticism when she says, “They lived like the lilies of the field, off the fat that she had struggled to put into the land.” Here we see that she takes credit for God’s gifts, and she derides the Greenleaf’s for living out Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:28,

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.

Once, Mrs. May flippantly says, “I thank God for that.” Mr. Greenleaf sincerely responds, “I thank Gawd for every-thang.” He lives out the Biblical injunction to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thessalonians 5:18).

Victimhood and Gratitude

Mrs. May was so ungrateful for her undeserved blessings that she poisoned herself and her two sons. She created a false reality where Mr. Greenleaf was a parasite feeding off of her family.

O’Connor’s point with Mrs. May is to show that a denial of grace necessarily leads to ingratitude and resentment.  Mrs. May’s life is defined by ingratitude, but she is blind to this failing. Ironically, while lecturing Mr. Greenleaf on the supposed ingratitude of his sons, she says, “Some people learn gratitude too late . . . and some never learn it at all.”  She doesn’t know that she’s speaking only of herself.

The cure for Mrs. May’s form of perpetual victimhood is gratitude.  Unfortunately for her, Mrs. May’s ingratitude and victimhood is terminal.  She never receives the cure, although in the moments before her death, she does see what she’s been missing her entire life.

She continued to stare straight ahead but the entire scene in front of her had changed—the tree line was a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky—and she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.

As she dies in the unbreakable embrace of the bull’s horns, she sees the insignificance of the tree-barrier that separated her kingdom from God’s.

A Walking Dead Zombie Christmas Message

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

We’ve seen nine seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead.  The remaining children are still alive.

At the end of the mid-season finale of the 8th season AMC’s The Walking Dead, Carl Grimes reveals that he’s been bitten.  Fans were upset. 50,000 fans signed a petition to remove showrunner Scott Gimple from the show. He was removed.

Why were they so upset?

I think it’s because children, Rick’s children, Carl and Judith, and Maggie’s child, unborn at the time, mean something. They are a glimmer of future hope in a very dark world. Perhaps they represent our hope as well, because, for some of us, the real world is very dark as well.

In season 9, Henry is spared and Carol burns a group of former Saviours alive to protect him.  It’s a trade we all accept.  Why?

Besides innocence, children represent hope.  And to kill a child is to kill hope.  To save a child is to preserve hope.

AMC's The Walking Dead brings Christmas Hope. Click To Tweet

The thing is, we shouldn’t be all that upset with Gimple for killing off Carl Grimes. Gimple, or any loss of a child in suture seasons because this is what  zombie storytellers always do–they give us characters that embody things that we value and then the kill them.

Night of the Living Dead

This goes all the way back to Night of the Living Dead in which most of the traditional values are murdered.

  • Barbara embodies devotion–dead.
  • Johnny, cynicism of every kind–dead.
  • Ben, the hero–dead.
  • Tom and Judy, romantic love–dead and dead.
  • The Coopers, the nuclear family–dead, dead and dead.  This, of course, includes little Karen, representative of innocence, who slays her mother with a cement trowel.

Zombies Are Trying to Tell Us Something

If you are watching a show about zombies, get ready for the things you hold dear, and the characters who represent them, to snuff it.Click To Tweet

Zombie narratives force us to face the contradictions between what we profess and what we actually believe. It’s why monsters appear, and why the zombies have been so popular for the last fifty years.

On the one hand, we profess that there is no God, no universal truth, no ultimate meaning in life.  In our culture, individuals get to make these things up for themselves.

On the other hand, we believe that families and promises and honesty and courage and fair play matter. We live and act as if things like these are universal and objective.  We believe it’s wrong to deny someone their rights.  We believe that it’s wrong to exploit the weak. That it’s wrong to use women for sex against their will. We believe it’s wrong to kill and eat other people. We believe these things to be universally wrong.  We profess that life has no universal meaning, but we love the parts in TWD where the characters talk of the “something else” that we are fighting for that goes beyond survival.

Zombie narratives don’t let us get away with these inconsistencies.

Much of what Carl did in the final episode of Season 8 was to make his life have some meaning before he died–I can’t recall exactly, but I think his last words included, “I did this” as he pointed to all the people he safely evacuated from exploding Alexandria.

Does Carl’s life have meaning? Does his death?  Yes or No?  We can’t have it both ways.

His future is now certain–he will either be dead or he will be lurching-dead–that’s it.  In the fictive world of The Walking Dead, millions have already met one of these two ends.

But the central question to zombie narratives is, if there is no transcendent meaning, is our existence any more meaningful than a zombie? Death is certainly at the end.  Perhaps we can say, “I did this.”  Is this adequate?  Is this all there is?

Don’t get mad at Gimple.  This is all our idea.

Unless, of course, there is a transcendent God in whom Truth and Meaning dwell–who Loves the world so much that he has come to us as a baby, to live among us to show us the way out of zombieland.

Merry Christmas

The Meaning of Zombies

If you are interested, here is the first post of a series about the meaning of zombies: Zombies: A Whole New Kind of Monster

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

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Songs that are written just to teach a moral lesson or some theological principle are not very good songs.  Written just for the head, such songs are more like a sermon or a lecture.

Because our culture is no longer a thinking culture, we don’t have too many didactic songs turning up in our worship sets.  Our culture is a feeling culture;  many of our songs are written for the heart.  At their worst, they are meant to manufacture worshipful feelings, and little else–this is sentimental worship.

Sentimental worship is no better than intellectual worship because it engages only a part of the worshiper.Click To Tweet

Holistic Worship

Human beings are complex creatures.  According to Jesus, we are heart, soul, mind, and body (Mark 12:30).  But these aspects are not distinct.  They are involved in everything we do in life–in the meals we eat with family, in conversations with friends over coffee, when we visit a museum or attend a concert.

Each of these aspects can be evoked in our imagination.  I can imagine being thirsty.  I can imagine frustration.  I can imagine temptation.  Poetry can evoke these in our imagination as it engages our hearts and our souls and our minds and our bodies.

Our experiences are richer if they involve our emotions and spirit and intellect and body.  The most meaningful worship of the Lord our God, will be the worship of the whole engaged worshiper.

Holistic worship should be the ideal for which we aim.  It is not enough to say that the singing will be emotional, the sacraments and offering will be physical, and the sermon will be intellectual.  For the most meaningful worship, each element will seek to engage more of the aspects of the worshiper, more significantly.

Bad poetry does not deliver the experience.  If it is didactic when it delivers only an idea.  When it goes directly for the emotion, it is sentimental.

Sentimental Worship

Sentimentality is indulging in emotion for emotion’s sake.  It seeks to stimulate the emotions directly, rather than through experience.

A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it. — Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde talks about the cost of emotions–emotions are paid for through an experience.  We feel grateful when given a gift.  We feel sad when someone we love is sick.  In these instances, a price is paid for the emotion.

I chose the picture at the top of this post because it is a beautiful example of sentimentalism.  Anyone who has experienced actual love, knows its cost.  The whole hand-heart thing can create a flutter in the chest (when it doesn’t evoke nausea).  I understand this hand gesture to mean, “Here, have some of my love,” or “Loving this!”  But it’s cheap.  It cost nothing to give it.  It costs nothing to receive it.

We obviously want to avoid singing praise and worship songs that are the equivalent of the hand-heart gesture. Click To Tweet

The poet/songwriter seeks to communicate experience through their words.  With physical, intellectual and emotional dimensions, experiences are holistic.  While we sing, the emotion will be a by-product of this experience.  A sentimental song will seek to evoke the emotion, by-passing the experience.

With some praise and worship songs, the emotion, not the experience, is the goal.  The music builds, the instruments blend with soaring voices, the lyrics repeat and the melody rises in a perfectly orchestrated conquest of our emotions.

How can we avoid such sentimentalism?  By offering worshipers a holistic experience.  Our songs will certainly engage the emotions, but they ought not to leave the mind, spirit, and body in the foyer.

Emotions should not be the object of sentimental worship. Emotions should be a by-product of holistic worship. Click To Tweet

7 Ways to Avoid Sentimentalism in (the Singing Part) of Worship

  1. Be very selective when it comes to lyrics.  Words are important.  They can bring the heart, soul, mind, and body into worship through significant experience in the imagination.
  2. Make sure the song is unified around a specific purpose.  When it is, our heart, mind, and body are directed to a particular experience.  Without unity, we begin to ask questions, not the kind that leads to deeper worship, but the kind that draws one out of worship.
  3. Fill out music sets with songs that are more concrete.  This is where the body comes in.  Experience is made up of physical interactions, therefore, songs with physicality will engage the imagination.
  4. Use metaphor effectively.  Effectively used metaphors can engage our spirits as we can catch glimpses of higher things.
  5. Use symbolism.  In symbols, the spiritual indwells the material.  It is here where we might encounter the transcendent.
  6. We must avoid Cliché — a cliché is a phrase we’ve heard so often that it no longer has meaning.  We don’t want meaningless lyrics.  Only a few of the big-name writers are letting clichés slip into their lyrics, but many amateur writers have a real problem here.
  7. We must avoid nonsensical phrases.  I recently came across the phrase, “release the chains.”  Instead of experiencing gratitude for the unearned freedom I had in Christ, I was thinking of the plight of oppressed chains.  Engaged minds experiencing the words that we sing.  These words must make sense.  If they don’t, we are thinking, “That doesn’t make sense.”
7 ways to avoid sentimentalism in worship.Click To Tweet

The Modern church was guilty of attending too much to the desires of the mind.  In an attempt to right this imbalance, churches (indeed our whole culture) are now creating a space for feelings in the songs we sing.   However, the pendulum has swung too far.  Balance can only be achieved if we appreciate holistic worship.

It doesn’t do for us to fragment the worship, any more than it does to fragment the worshiper.   Holistic worship does not consist of intellectual parts, the sermon; emotional parts, the singing; and physical parts, the offering and sacraments.  Consider all parts of the worship service holistically.  A preacher thinks his sermon a failure when it touches only the head of the hearer.  So too the worship leader dispairs when the singing falls only on the hearts of the singers.

I hope that this series helps songwriters write more powerful lyrics and helps those who select the songs for singing in church services to choose the good ones.  By signing only good songs, more good songs will be produced.

My ultimate hope is that the body of Christ would be edified as we bring the best of our flock, the sacrifice of our praise, to the altar before our Saviour and Lord.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and  Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbolism (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbolism (8)

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

Symbol Basics

Symbols are objects, actions or persons that evoke meanings beyond their literal significance.  They are literal, but they more than literal as well.

Where a long explanation might satisfy the mind, poets use symbols because they can evoke complex ideas in the imagination without all the explanation.  Sometimes a symbol carries a single meaning. but they can also signify many.

There are conventional symbols–we all know that the red rose is a symbol of romantic love and that a wedding ring is a symbol of faithfulness and unity.  But sometimes symbols are contextual.  The One Ring is a complex symbol found in the context of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

The Bible is full of symbols.  Joseph’s coat was a literal coat, but it was much more than that–it symbolized his father’s preferment.  The Hebrews regularly piled stones up to commemorate significant events, like the crossing of the Jordan River.  Elisha wanted Elijah’s cloak, not because he was cold, but because of what it symbolized.

One of the most significant symbols in Christianity is the bread and the wine of Communion.

“Behold The Lamb”

“Behold the Lamb” by Keith Getty, Kristyn Getty, and Stuart Townend makes more use of symbolism than do many other Communion songs.   Here is one verse of this song:

Verse 2
The body of our Saviour Jesus Christ
Torn for you eat and remember
The wounds that heal the death that brings us life
Paid the price to make us one
So we share in this Bread of Life
And we drink of His sacrifice
As a sign of our bonds of love
Around the table of the King

The bread in communion is symbolic.  It is literal bread (or wafers, or crackers, or gluten-free Rice Chex), but it is more.  Symbolically it is the body of Jesus that was, in the words of the song, “torn.”  The literal “wounds” and actual “death,” symbolically “heal” and “bring us life” respectively.  The sharing of bread and wine is a symbolic reflection of  “the bonds of love” that unite us in Christ’s “sacrifice.”

Compressed into Symbol

The cool thing about symbols is that meaning is compressed into them and then it expands out from them.

All kinds of meanings are crammed into the object, action or person.  Into the communion symbols, all the meanings of Christ’s Crucifixion are compressed into the bread and wine.

Symbols are packed so full. they explode by way of the worshipers' experience. Singing symbols can lead us into powerful and transforming worship experiences.Click To Tweet

Jesus begins the process when he says, “This is my body,” and, “This is my blood.”   He speaks of his body being “broken” and his blood “poured out.”  The events that follow these statements, called The Passion of Christ, make symbolic meaning of bread and wine.  This is a partial list of all that is compressed into the Communion elements:

  • Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
  • Judas’ betrayal
  • The scourging and crown of thorns
  • The struggle toward Golgotha
  • The nails in his hands and feet
  • The mockery of the onlookers

The literal objects of bread and wine contain all this and more.  And then all this compacted meaning expands.

Expanded by Experience

The communion symbols are packed with meaning, and, simultaneously, they are expanded by the personal experience that every worshiper brings to the Lord’s table.

  • We know that, had we been there, we might have been numbered among those who shouted, “Crucify Him!” (Luke 23:21).
  • We know that, by word or deed or omission of word or deed, we have said, “I don’t know the man!” (Matthew 26:72).
  • We know the place from which Jesus cried, “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me!” (Matthew 27:46).
  • We have prayed, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom'” (Luke: 23:42).
  • We desperately want to hear the words, “You will be with me in paradise” (Luke:23:43).

The action of compression and expansion that comes with symbols can be a very powerful experience.   The songs we sing in preparation for partaking in Communion can enhance the experience of communion by helping us unpack these traditional symbols.

Some might argue that congregants don’t think about these things in communion, or while singing songs about communion.  I’m not sure of my response.  I have a few:

Some do.

Why not?

If there is some value in this type of experience, perhaps worship leaders can teach engage symbols in this way.

It will lead to deeper worship.

Singing Symbols

This compression and expansion occur whenever we sing symbols.

When we sing symbols, it’s obviously not just our emotions that are engaged, nor even our minds–our imaginations enter into the act of worship.

We don’t sing symbols very often.  So I don’t have another, non-Communion example of effective use of symbol in a praise and worship song, So I’ll provide another example of the use of symbol, let us turn to one stanza from Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rain.”

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

The speaker’s son is “blue-eyed” symbolically suggests innocence.

In line 5, the son has “Heard one person starve” but “many people laughing.”  What or whom is compressed into the symbolic one person who starved?  Into the symbolic many?  How is this symbol is expanded into your experience?

In line 6 a poet, symbolic of wisdom or the ability to see what others cannot, is dead.

Think about that clown in line 7.  What does the clown represent?  What is significant about his being alone.  In an alley.  Crying?

This rain is not hard just in the literal sense.

Compression and expansion.

With almost a symbol per line, no one can hear this song the same way each time they listen to it.

I’m not suggesting this density of symbolism in all of our praise and worship songs, but you can see how even one can add powerfully to a song.  Symbolism is a powerful, and underutilized tool in popular, contemporary praise and worship music.

It is my hope that some future songwriters would take on the challenge and add symbolism to their writing toolbox.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and  Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Music has sound, but so do lyrics.

Yes, even without music, the words themselves have sound.

And the sound of the words can carry meaning.

Onomatopoeia

One way that words have sound is called onomatopoeia.  This, as you probably remember, is when the word sounds like what it means.  Words like crash, crackle, and smack are examples of onomatopoeia.

But onomatopoeia can be way cooler.  Here’s a line from John Keat’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

In this case, the sounds of the whole line echo what is being described.  Read it out loud a few times.  Do you hear the hum and buzz of the bugs?  The sounds and the combination of the sounds that we use to make words, make the sound of those kinds of evenings.

Music has sound, but so do lyrics. Yes, even without music, words have sound. And the sound of the words can carry meaning.Click To Tweet

But this is only the beginning–the sounds of words and lines of verse can be even more suggestive.

Phonetic Intensives

Phonetic intensives are onomatopoeia on steroids.

Here are examples of what Arp and Johnson call phonetic intensives (excerpted from Perrine’s Sound and Sense, Eighth Ed.)

  • the sound fl often suggests moving light, as in “flame,” “flare,” “flash,” “flicker”
  • gl often suggests unmoving light: “glare,” “glow,” “gleam,” “glisten”
  • sl is often associated with wetness: “slippery,” “slick,” “slide,” “slime,” “slushy”
  • st often suggests strength: “staunch,” stalwart,” “sturdy,” “stable,” “stern,”
  • short i often indicates smallness: “inch,” “imp,” “thin,” “little,” “bit,” “kid,”
  • the tt in the middle of a word often suggests sudden movement, as in “spatter,” “scatter,” “shatter,” “rattle,” “clatter,” “batter”

This list is just the beginning of the incredible sound resources that are available to the poet to add meaning through the sound of words.  You don’t have to memorize this list in order to write poetry, for one think the list is incomplete.  The other reason is that you already know it.  We all do.  This isn’t stuff that a bunch of poetry nerds invented.  They discovered it–it’s in our language.  We just don’t think about it.  Poets think about it.  Good songwriters are poets.  Good songwriters will consider how their lyrics sound.

We all know that sounds have meaning; we just don't think about it. Poets think about it. Good songwriters are poets. Good songwriters think about how their lyrics sound.Click To Tweet

If you want to communicate a peaceful beauty, don’t use too many r or k or t sounds because these sounds are not peaceful or beautiful.  If you want the worshipers to feel happy don’t use “slow,” “deep,” “moon,” or any others that sound sad like these do.

Read the lines of your song out loud and listen to them.  Use your ears and feel them coming off of your lips–are the sounds of the words in combination consistent with what you are trying to communicate?  They don’t have to directly line up all of the time, buy the sounds certainly shouldn’t work contrary to your purposes.

Rhyme

I remember thinking it was funny that “love” was rhymed with “prove” in Joy to the World.  I used to sing “And wonders of his lūve” to make my brother laugh.  He always did.

John Stackhouse wrote a blog post some time ago in which he criticized Chris Tomlin’s lyrics, including his use of rhyme, or lack thereof.

The man either doesn’t care about rhyming and settles for the merest assonance, or he lacks the skill or patience to actually craft rhymes.

Perhaps it is true that Tomlin’s rhymes are not as thoughtful as they should be, but the fact that they don’t rhyme perfectly is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.

Perfect rhymes, that is, rhymes that repeat the final vowel and consonant sound exactly, can suggest things like innocence, stability, simplicity, certainty,  and order.  Imperfect rhymes, also called slant rhymes, can suggest the opposite.  If you are writing a song of confession, slant rhymes might be just what you want.  What song are you writing?  How can you use rhyme to reinforce the meaning?

Songs that rhyme suggests an order is reflective of the Christian worldview--indeed, one of the reasons we are worshiping in the first place. That despite seeming chaos, God is in control.Click To Tweet

I like rhymes, not just because I am a Classicist, but because of what they suggest about the world.  Songs that rhyme suggests a pattern of order and control–a stability and predictability.  This order can be reflective of the Christian view of reality–indeed, one of the reasons we are worshiping in the first place.  We are acknowledging and finding comfort in God’s Providence.  The order suggested by rhymes, despite the seeming chaos that surrounds us, suggest that God is in control.

Common Rhyming Problems

Don't use these rhymes in your worship songs: love/above, jewel/fool, feet/seas, out/out, name/fame, up/cupClick To Tweet

There is such a thing as a bad rhyme.  And there are other rhymes require caution in their use.  Here’s my partial list:

  1. feet/seas: the “close enough” rhyme — the fancy word for this sort of thing is “assonant rhyme.”  Assonance is the term that describes a repetition of vowel sounds.  A rhyme is created by both the vowel and consonant sound. I’ve not made up my mind how much of a sin I consider “assonant rhyme” to be.   Stackhouse thinks they indicate a lack of skill or patience.  Perhaps he’s right.
  2. out/out: the same-word rhyme — there can be a good reason for rhyming a word to itself.  Repetition is used for emphasis, so the word you rhyme with itself must be a pivotal word, poetically speaking.  If it is not a word of significance, then take this opportunity to create a powerful effective rhyme.
  3. love/above: the cliché rhyme — the love/above rhyme is a cliché.  This pair has appeared in hymns for centuries.  Cliché is never OK.
  4. name/fame: the bad-diction rhyme —  don’t sacrifice diction for rhyme.  Don’t sacrifice rhyme for diction either.  The point is, don’t sacrifice.  I always wince in that song that uses the name/fame rhyme.  Yes, God is interested in his glory, in being known in all lands, but this is not the same as seeking fame.  That’s what people on American Idol do.
  5. jewel/fool: the forced rhyme — the bad diction rhyme is when you use an inferior word, just because it rhymes with a good one.  A forced rhyme is when you bring in two inferior words just because they rhyme.
  6. up/cup: the “Oh, Come On” rhyme — this means you’re not even trying.
Types of rhymes to avoid in the worship song you are writing: the *close enough* rhyme, the same-word rhyme, the cliché rhyme, the bad-diction rhyme, the forced rhyme, the *Oh, Come On* rhyme Click To Tweet

Rhythm

All songwriters know about rhythm.  I think rhythm is a requirement for corporate worship–some rhythmic consistency contributes to the “singability” of a song.

Rhythm can be restrictive, but real poets seem to be able to use the perfect word in the perfect place, without sacrificing meaning or rhythm.

Sometimes we find metrical variations in poems.  In the best poetry, these variations are purposeful.  In an inferior poem or song, the metrical variation is a result of the “close enough” mentality.

“Nature’s First Green is Gold”

To illustrate the function and power of sound and rhyme, I offer Robert Frost’s “Nature’s First Green is Gold.”

Nature’s first green is gold, 
Her hardest hue to hold. 
Her early leaf’s a flower; 
But only so an hour. 
Then leaf subsides to leaf. 
So Eden sank to grief, 
So dawn goes down to day. 
Nothing gold can stay.

Again, there is so much that we could talk about in this poem.  The first line alone includes personification, metaphor, and paradox, and does so in such a simple and subtle way, that all this poetic activity doesn’t interfere with the simple sense of the line.  I will offer a short analysis focusing only on the sound, rhyme, and rhythm.

There is alliteration in the first line: “green is gold.”  The alliteration is not simply for the sake of alliterating; these words carry the central purpose of the poem.

Line 2, alliterates the h sound.  This is the lightest, most ethereal sound in our phonetic collection, and it’s describing the ethereal beauty of nature’s first green.  Contrast this line with line 7; where the d sound is alliterated.  This sound is the heaviest, most terrestrial of sounds.  See how the sounds echo the sense of these lines?

The whole poem is filled with long vowels.  Read line 4 out loud.  The sounds are of the same sad regret that the words convey.

The rhythm is regular, except for in the first and last lines.  The metrical variation  emphasizes “Nature’s first green” and “Nothing.”  These words frame the poem and carry the movement from elusive beauty to its loss.

Poets utilize every possible resource to communicate an experience to their readers.  What is their motivation?  Surely none have a purpose more important than the poets who write lyrics that will be used in the praise and worship of the King of the Universe.

Some thought, then, might be given to the sound of the lyrics even before the music is added, some thought to the rhymes and rhythms and what they communicate above and beneath the meaning of the words.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and  Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

We sing to and of a transcendent God.  We cannot fully understand who he is or what he does.  And it’s not easy to understand our relationship with him.   We have his Word which is a start.  How do the biblical authors help communicate the mysteries of the God we worship?

They often use metaphor.

This is because metaphors are the best tools for dealing with complexity and mystery.

In Isaiah 64:6 God is the potter and we are the clay.  God is compared to a hen in Psalm 91:4.  And in Isaiah 42:14, to a woman in childbirth.

Even Jesus Christ, wholly God, used metaphors to explain who he was.

“I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35).

“I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11).

“I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:5).

“I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12).

Most of life is mysterious and complex.  Most things cannot be expressed or understood directly or simply.  In order to express what is inexpressible, and explore the unknowable, we make comparisons to familiar things.

But metaphors do more than help us explain and understand things.  In the hands of a skilled poet, they activate our imaginations.

Understanding Metaphor

Before we get into some examples, we need to get some of the technical explanation out of the way.  This is very important, for if you don’t make the comparisons correctly, they will be ludicrous, not magical.

A metaphor has two parts: the thing you are describing (A) and the familiar thing you are comparing it to (B).  In the metaphor, “The wind howled,” the wind (A) is compared to wolves (B).  Note that you can name or imply either part of the comparison.  In this case, A is named and B is implied.

Just a few other related terms, that you probably remember from high school.  A simile is a comparison, but it is indirect, usually using the words “like” or “as”: “The wind sounded like the howling of a wolf.”  Personification is a type of metaphor when B is a person–“The wind whispered through the leaves.”  The term metaphor can be used to refer to the general category that includes the metaphor proper, as well as simile and personification.

Mixed Metaphors

I’ve only sung Needtobreath’s “Multiplied” one time, and it was memorable for all the wrong reasons.  I remember it because of the problems with metaphor.

Your love is like radiant diamonds
Bursting inside us we cannot contain
Your love will surely come find us
Like blazing wild fires singing Your name

In this verse, we have God’s love (A) being compared to “diamonds bursting inside us” (B).  It makes sense to compare God’s love with something as beautiful, multifaceted and long-lasting as a diamond.  It also makes sense to compare the feeling of being loved by God as a “bursting” sensation.  But it doesn’t make sense to compare anything to a bursting diamond, because that’s not what diamonds do.

In the last line has a similar problem: “blazing wildfires” don’t sing.

Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace: My Chains Are Gone” is a more well-known example of the problem of the mixed metaphor.

If you don’t get these metaphor basics right, you might write lyrics that lead to confusion rather than to worship.

The Magic of Metaphor

When metaphors are done correctly, they can be magic.

Here is Robert Frost’s “Bereft”:

Where had I heard this wind before
Change like this to a deeper roar?
What would it take my standing there for,
Holding open a restive door,
Looking down hill to a frothy shore?
Summer was past and the day was past.
Sombre clouds in the west were massed.
Out on the porch’s sagging floor,
Leaves got up in a coil and hissed,
Blindly struck at my knee and missed.
Something sinister in the tone
Told me my secret must be known:
Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God.

As with all great poetry, there is so much more going on here than metaphor, but the metaphors are wonderful.

In line two, the sound of the ocean turns into a roar, which suggests a lion, and in line 11 the tone is “sinister.”  In line four, the door is “restive,” meaning it’s unable to keep still–like a person, so it is personification.  There is more personification in the “sombre” clouds.  All these suggest turmoil within the speaker and the suggestion of danger.  The threat increases as the leaves are metaphorically compared to a snake in lines 9-10.

When the stormy conditions are described metaphorically, we can imaginatively understand the complex feeling the speaker is experiencing–it is a particular kind of loneliness–a loneliness mixed with profound fear.  We experience it a little ourselves.  When we understand his feeling, we understand the final line.

A Metaphor that Works: “My Lighthouse”

I’ve written previously about the wonderful metaphors used by Katheryn Scott in  “At the Foot of the Cross.”  Scott’s metaphors are great examples of how to effectively use standard comparisons that lead into deeper worship.

Metaphors in our worship songs can help us express what is inexpressible, and explore the unknowable, but they can also activate our imaginations.Click To Tweet

“My Lighthouse” from Rend Collective Experiment employs an extended metaphor, a comparison that is extended through the whole song.

 

Verse 1
In my wrestling and in my doubts
In my failures You won’t walk out
Your great love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea, whoa
You are the peace in my troubled sea
Verse 2
In the silence You won’t let go
In the questions Your truth will hold
Your great love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea, whoa
You are the peace in my troubled sea
Chorus
My lighthouse, my lighthouse
shining in the darkness I will follow You whoa
My lighthouse, my lighthouse
I will trust the promise You will carry me safe to shore
Tag
Safe to shore, safe to shore, safe to shore
Verse 3
I won’t fear what tomorrow brings
with each morning I’ll rise and sing
My God’s love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea, whoa
You are the peace in my troubled sea
Oh You are my light
Bridge
Fire before us, You’re the brightest
You will lead us through the storm

Sometimes our life is like a “troubled sea.”   Notice that the troubles aren’t general and abstract.   They are of a particular kind of trouble; they are not in the categories of lost car keys or bankruptcy and divorce.  It is not these trials that stir up the waves; it is a lack of trust.  The forces behind these turbulent waters are my wrestling, doubts, questions, failures, and God’s silence–a lack of trust in God.  The metaphor invites us to look beyond our troubles to the one we can trust to take us through them–to the lighthouse.

Lighthouses have two functions: to warn ships of danger and to guide them to safe harbour.  Remembering God’s promises will shift our focus from the dangers of doubt, and they will guide us “safe to shore.”  Christ and his promises a guiding light when we are on the dark and stormy seas, when we struggle with trusting God.

The metaphor doesn’t simply tell us that we can trust in God in our troubles, it places us on a boat, caught in a storm off of the coast (of Ireland I imagine) and it shows us a lighthouse through driving wind and rain.  We can trust the lighthouse to guide us.  And then, as we sing, we discover we will be all right, not by our own strength, but by looking to him.

That is the magic of metaphor.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and  Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

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