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How Metaphor Theory can Structure a Sermon


1) Explore the Source Domain

Metaphor works by mapping relationships, characteristics, and inference patterns from the Source Domain to the Target Domain. By introducing elements of the Source Domain at the beginning of the sermon, the preacher does two things. First, evoking some key features of the Source Domain causes the hearers to bring other aspects to mind as well. The preacher has primed the pump for the associations and inferences metaphor interpretation requires.

Second, the heart of the proclamation is presented early on, but in a veiled way.

The preacher is already guiding metaphor interpretation by choosing to include some aspects of the Source Domain while excluding others. The relationships, expectations, intended outcomes and other dynamics essential to the sermon itself are already highlighted in the Source Domain, though the hearers don’t see their significance yet.

At this point in the sermon, most of the development should be spent on characteristics or relationships that will find relevant correspondence in the Target Domain. These may come from either the Source Domain as it is described in the biblical text or from the way the hearers typically experience the Source Domain in their everyday lives. In fact, multisensory details from the experience of the hearers can help evoke the richness of the source domain even if these details are not intended to map later on.  The primary focus, however, should remain on the dynamics most central to the cross-domain mapping.

2) Map onto the Target Domain

Once the Source Domain has been sufficiently explored, the preacher helps the hearers see how the dynamics of the Source play out in the Target. There is no particular order or recipe that will be right for every metaphor, but the basic elements described by a narrative approach to metaphor help shape how the mapping takes place.

Imagine the preacher standing in the midst of the narrative relationships that shape the inference structure of the metaphor and helping the congregation move from one relationship and expected outcome to another. Like a tour guide amazed at the beauty of the art in the room, the preacher moves from one aspect of the metaphor to another, pointing out details the hearers just can’t miss. Who is doing what for whom? What is the intended dénouement? What could possibly go wrong? How will what is wrong get set right?  The work done with the Source Domain in the first part of the sermon pays off now. The hearers see and understand how relevant aspects of the Source map onto the Target and they even begin to consider their own mappings, especially ones that align with the narrative relationships described by the development in the sermon.

In this section of the sermon, key words and phrases from the exploration of the Source Domain are repeated in the context of the Target Domain. These refrains may make some mappings explicit while others will remain implied. The purpose of this part of the sermon is not to list details or characteristics that map, but to use details and characteristics to explore how the relationships and inference patterns found in the Source suggest a way of understanding the Target.

3) Invite the Hearers to See Reality through New Eyes

Metaphor shapes how we experience and live out our lives. Once the sermon has helped the hearers begin to understand how the relationships in the Source map onto the Target, the next step is to help the hearers see how the inference patterns of the metaphor would affect their everyday lives. It’s almost as if the preacher is inviting the hearers to trade in their current sunglasses for a new pair: everything looks a little different and it can take some getting used to.

As with the second movement of the sermon, words and phrases from the development of the Source will find their way into this description of the hearers’ lives. The sermon will often contrast a typical response to a common situation with a new response suggested by the metaphor. At this point, describing not only sights and sounds but thoughts and emotions helps the hearers try out their new sunglasses. Again, the emphasis is not on details in isolation, but on how inference patterns in the metaphor lead to new or different inferences or actions when applied to a real life situation.

These three elements of metaphor theory provide not only a shape but an order to the sermon: only once we have explored the Source can we map onto the Target, with the result that we can then invite the hearers to see reality through the inference structure suggested by the metaphor. At any time during the sermon, however, it may be necessary to establish not only what the metaphor highlights, but what it hides.

4) Test the Limits of the Metaphor

Since all metaphors both reveal and conceal important aspects of any Target Domain, the preacher may find it necessary to explicitly explore the limits of the metaphor in the sermon. What the metaphor is NOT saying may be just as important for the faith and lives of the hearers as what it is. Sometimes even the biblical authors import the dynamics of a second metaphor to help make the right inferences or prevent the wrong inferences from being made. Sometimes the Bible not only ignores but overtly modifies relationships or structure inherent in the Source Domain in order to make the right dynamics possible in the Target.[v] Sometimes the apostle Paul will overtly state a fairly reasonable but wrong inference from a metaphor mapping and state explicitly why it is wrong. But this way of treating metaphor mapping is not unique to the Bible; it’s how metaphor works. Sometimes the sermon will require a clear expression of what DOESN’T map so the right inference structure can be maintained. This negative function may not always be necessary, but when it is, it can show up within any of the movements of the sermon or as a discrete movement all on its own.


About Justin Rossow

Justin writes and talks at the intersection of Scripture, culture, and metaphor theory. As founder of Next Step Press, he helps people delight in taking a next step following Jesus.

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