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A Collusion of Tropes: Simile, Hyperbole, Metaphor, and Irony in the Work of Theology

From: Intertexts
Volume 16, Number 2, Fall 2012
pp. 15-28 | 10.1353/itx.2012.0012

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Modern thinkers have, for the most part, viewed figures of speech, whether poetic or rhetorical, as a devalued currency which offers no assistance in acquiring or expounding philosophical truth. As Descartes exclaimed in the Discourse on Method, “I held eloquence in high regard and loved poetry, but I believed that they were both gifts of the mind, not fruits of study. Those who possess the most forceful power of reasoning and who best order their thoughts so as to render them clear and intelligible can always best persuade one of what they are proposing, even if they speak only the dialect of Lower Brittany and have never learned rhetoric” (4). Descartes banished poetry and rhetoric from philosophy because they serve to cloud thinking with subjective ornamentation rather than advance the mind toward clear and distinct ideas. Much of the modern philosophical tradition has followed Descartes in this assessment of figurative language. And how could it be otherwise? The aim of this philosophical tradition is to locate philosophical ideas that are devoid of what is taken to be subjective influence. Whether this aim takes the form of the location of clear and distinct ideas derived from first principles (Descartes, Locke), or the articulation of objective norms of thought (Kant), or the objective transparency of concepts (Hegel), or the construction of logically coherent statements (Searle, Davidson), poetic, rhetorical, and figurative modes of expression are taken to be sources of philosophical confusion, subjective whimsy, or simple nonsense. Sadly, a great deal of contemporary religious thought has followed philosophy in this assessment.

What I want to do here is question this account of poetry and rhetoric by focusing attention on the tropes of simile, hyperbole, metaphor, and irony. My central claim is that these figures of speech are indispensible to religious and theological thinking. I want to emphasize the term thinking; I argue that figures of speech are not merely verbal ornamentation, but works of the imagination that ground thinking, especially theological thinking. A particularly apt example of how these four tropes come together and “collude,” as I call it, is Mark’s parable of the mustard seed. In analyzing Mark’s parable, I will show the manner in which simile, hyperbole, metaphor, and irony pile on top of each other to create a rhetorical effect, to exhort Mark’s audience to some action. I will conclude that a principal purpose for Mark’s inclusion of the parable is to draw an ironic distinction between the kingdom of God and the Roman Empire. But, in deploying these four tropes, Mark gives us something to think about, a content that urges us to speculate theologically.

The Devaluation and Reemergence of Rhetoric

Are figures of speech derivative?

Traditionally, “figurative” language has been viewed as derivative from “literal” language; on this view, literal signification is seen as the normative, correct use of language and figurative usage is seen as a deviation from this standard, normative usage. The modern adoption of this view has typically been taken a step further to suggest that literal language articulates the domain of objectivity, i.e., the level at which statements can be judged to be objectively true or false; figurative language, being a deviation from this literal usage, is not open to such objective judgments. Addressing this “literal meaning theory,” with particular focus on its impact on traditional understandings of metaphor, George Lakoff and Mark Turner explain, “The general thrust of the theory is to claim that all ordinary, conventional language (called ‘literal language’) is semantically autonomous, that it forms the basis for metaphor, and that metaphor stands outside of it” (114). Lakoff and Turner suggest that this theory rides on two, often implicit, claims about the nature of language, meaning, and truth: First, the claim of semantic autonomy asserts that ordinary, conventional, or literal language is meaningful purely on its own terms. In other words, a statement is semantically autonomous if its meaning is not derived from some other statement from another domain of concepts or statements; in this case, a literal statement cannot be figurative because figurative statements, it is argued (in a circular fashion), derive their meaning through a deviation from literal language.

Second, literal statements are objective...

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