Logical Gal – Metaphors and Reality

28 Mar

Metaphors  I’m sure you recognize a metaphor when you see one.  It’s an analogous word picture that describes reality but is not to be taken literally.

It’s spring break and I am enjoying the time to read more leisurely and at length.  This morning I picked up John Lennox’s book, Seven Days that Divide The World – The Beginning According to Genesis and Science.

The author instructs the readers in a useful distinction by describing the use of metaphor.  What I probably knew implicitly but had never thought about explicitly was that metaphors are to be taken literally, not literalistically.

Lennox uses the example, The car was flying down the road.  This is a metaphor that describes reality.  There is an actual car and an actual road. We take ‘flying’ literally, to mean the car was going very fast. If you take the verb ‘flying’ literalistically, then the car would be traveling above the ground on some kind of floating road.

Flying car

Here is the operative quote from John Lennox, “ Just because a sentence contains a metaphor, it doesn’t mean that it is not referring to something real.” (page 23)   So we are to take a term the way the author or speaker intended.  That is the ‘literal’ meaning.  On the contrary, what the term means in its basic, primary sense is the ‘literalistic’ meaning.

We ordinary folk use metaphors all the time, as do scientists.

A wife might describe the many worries that plague her husband this way:

-John is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders

Weight of the world on his shoulders

A scientist might describe energy in motion this way: 

the flow of  electrical current along a wire and the movement of light particles in waves 

Light particles and waves

So, how is this distinction between literal and literalistic helpful?  And the connection with reality?

For me, armed with this division between the two definitions, I can better appreciate the discussion on how to take the days of creation.  Bible interpretation depends on a correct understanding of terms.  Often non-believers resort to ad hominem attacks to denigrate and marginalize Christians.  They say something like, “You don’t take the Bible literally, do you?”

But now I can say with confidence, “If by literally you mean to ask if I take the Bible the way the authors intended the meaning, then yes, I do!”   I will follow up with the return question, “Do you read the sports pages literally or literalistically?”

Striking Gold


Question: How does this distinction between the literal meaning and the literalistic meaning help you sort out a difficult issue?





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