Outreach and Warfare

Conceptual Metaphors in Speaking of Jesus, Part 1


The way we talk reflects the way we think. In fact, for contemporary metaphor theory, metaphor is primarily a function of thought and perception, and only secondarily a matter of words or language. In significant and ubiquitous ways, we live our lives in terms of metaphor. (Perhaps the seminal work in this regard is a book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson appropriately entitled, Metaphors We Live By.)

Because the way we think shapes the way we talk, cognitive linguists take the metaphors we use in everyday speech as evidence for the metaphorical structures that govern our thoughts and actions.[1] We not only say things like, “Our relationship is at a dead end,” we also typically conceive of “Love” in our culture as a kind of “Journey,” which is to say, we use the logic and inference patterns appropriate for a journey as we think about, experience, and make decisions about relationships. That’s why it makes perfect sense to “go our separate ways” in a relationship if we no longer “have the same goals in life.” I’m not saying it’s right—I’m just saying no-fault divorce makes sense in a culture where what we experience about Journeys is used to experience and evaluate Love relationships.

Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism is a book about how we talk to other people about Jesus, but more than that, it is a book about how we conceive of what it means to talk to other people about Jesus. The author, Carl Medearis, didn’t know he was doing metaphor theory. But in essence, that’s what his book is about. Medearis identifies the metaphorical structures we typically use when interacting with people outside the Church and then suggests we need a different set of inference structures if we are going to have any kind of lasting impact on the world around us.

Of course, Medearis doesn’t say this in so many words; he simply shows us how we talk about others and how our typical way of thinking steers us in the wrong direction. But if the way we talk reflects the way we think, then the speech patterns Medearis is noticing are merely the tip of a conceptual iceberg that shapes how we tend to think about, experience, and interact with non-Christians.

Because I think Medearis is fundamentally right, I want to make the conceptual metaphors implicit in his book explicit and available for further reflection. Conceptual metaphors are powerful, in part, because they are often hidden or assumed; understanding the way we tend to conceptualize the task of evangelism will enable us to think more critically about what we do naturally and obviously when speaking to other people about Jesus. By making the metaphors assumed by the book more explicit, I also have a chance to demonstrate the relationship between metaphorical expressions and the inference structures and cross-domain mappings that make these expressions possible.

With this dual goal in mind—to support Medearis’ work on “not-evangelism” and to give clear examples of the dynamics of metaphor theory—I will first identify and describe the most important conceptual metaphors that undergird Speaking of Jesus and then demonstrate from the text how these metaphors are employed. In order of appearance, these metaphors can be identified as ARGUMENT IS WAR, SOCIAL GROUPS ARE CONTAINERS, and LIFE IS A JOURNEY. These are not metaphors Medearis is constructing; they are already a part of our culturally-shaped conceptual system. Yet Medearis is employing them effectively in order to argue for a particular approach to people outside the Church. This blog post will cover the first of these metaphors with two more posts to follow.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, pioneers in the field of metaphor theory, use the conceptual metaphor Argument is War to help demonstrate that “metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action.”[2]  On the one hand, the conceptual structure of ARGUMENT IS WAR allows many different linguistic expressions to be used and understood.  In an American context, it is common to say things like, “Your claims are indefensible;” “He attacked every weak point in my argument;” or “I’ve never won an argument with him.” [3]


This common way of speaking, on the other hand, discloses a more fundamental perception of what is actually happening during an argument.  Contemporary Americans not only talk about arguing in terms of warfare, we also perceive, understand, and experience verbal arguments in terms of war.  We therefore act in ways appropriate to that metaphor.

In other words, if someone else makes a negative comment about my blog on metaphor theory, I will most naturally understand and experience that negative comment as an attack.In fact, it would be both natural and culturally acceptable for me to defend my blog post, perhaps even by launching a counterattack on the guy who fired the first shot. I may well have a psychosomatic response to the aggressor that would be most appropriate to physical conflict: my adrenalin levels and heart rate increase; I feel flushed and begin to breath more heavily; I clench my fists and jut out my chin and perhaps even curl my lip.

In all of this, my view of the person who made the initial negative comment will most likely be as an enemy.In the course of our discussion, I will seek to exploit the weaknesses of my opponent and I will try to shore up my own position or keep my adversary from discovering any weakness in my argument. My goal in all of this will not necessarily be mutual benefit or understanding; indeed, the most common goals for armed conflict—complete annihilation or absolute capitulation—will tend to be my goals for the outcome of that conversation.

So watch it! Don’t go criticizing my blog!Because for me and the people in my culture, ARGUMENT IS WAR! Conceptual metaphor does more than shape utterances; the inference structures of conceptual metaphors help to shape experience and actions as well. “Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war . . . It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing.”[4]

Though powerful—in part, because it seems so obvious or natural—there is no reason why the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR should necessarily shape the expectations, hoped-for outcomes, and experience of verbal disagreement.  Lakoff and Johnson suggest dance as a possible alternative metaphor to make their point.

If a verbal argument were structured in terms of dance instead of war, the expectations, evaluations, inferences, and rules of engagement would change. What would be acceptable and even obvious in an argument experienced as a kind of warfare would be unnatural and unacceptable in dance: attacking your dance partner would be unthinkable!

Indeed, the same weaknesses that warfare would invite you to exploit would become obstacles in the way of an enjoyable dance. Instead of both dialogue partners exploiting deficiencies in the thinking of the enemy, the natural and obvious move would be to get past any weaknesses on either side of the argument cooperatively, for the benefit of the whole. Structuring argument in terms of dance would change not only how an argument is talked about, but how it is experienced and evaluated: when the metaphor changes, even the rules and expectations change!

Changing from one conceptual metaphor to another—for example, moving from WARFARE to DANCE as the primary way of understanding a domain of knowledge or experience like ARGUMENT—changes perception, experience, language, and action within that domain. In terms of metaphor theory, WARFARE is the “source domain,” that is, the structure of relationships, expectations, and important players that serves as a basis for understanding a different domain of thought or experience.

The second domain in a metaphor (like ARGUMENT, for example) is called the “target domain.” The target domain is actually what the metaphor is about. Though there are important ways the target domain can impinge back on the structure of the source domain for the purposes of the metaphor at hand, no one would expect to learn more about useful tactics for warfare by studying the way we argue.[5]The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”[6]  The “one thing” being understood and experienced is the target (ARGUMENT); the “something else” in terms of which that one thing is understood is the source (WARFARE or DANCE).

Metaphor works by “mapping” the relevant elements of the source domain—including the ways in which inferences are made—onto the target domain. To stick with our example, the inference structure of WARFARE shapes the inference structure and experience of ARGUMENT in our culture. The shorthand for that mapping at the level of thought and experience is the conventional, “ARGUMENT IS WAR.” We wouldn’t typically say, “Argument is war,” in casual conversation, but the mapping referred to as “ARGUMENT IS WAR” shows up in the way we think, reason, and talk. Medearis provides a good example of how the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR shapes the way in which Christians experience interaction with others outside the Church.

ARGUMENT IS WAR in Speaking of Jesus

As Medearis describes how Christian people typically interact with non-Christians, the vocabulary he chooses repeatedly evokes the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. Although the list of quotations below is not complete, it serves to show how the metaphorical inferences in thoughts, perceptions, and actions are evidenced by the way we talk. I have bolded particular phrases where the metaphorical language is most evident, but metaphor here is not simply a matter of word choice. Instead, the words Medearis uses help evoke a conceptual structure that guides the way we think about others. I have also added some comments, where appropriate, to help clarify the metaphor dynamics at work.

I think that way often—more than I’d like to admit. Too often I try to win allies to my point of view rather than pointing to Jesus. I remember having lots of arguments with people of different perspectives. I exercised my tongue and my brain a lot in those situations. I fervently and (I hope) intelligently refuted arguments. I showed my mettle. I proved myself. I proved that it was more important to me to win an argument than to be like Jesus—compassionate and loving. Kind and patient (25).

. . . “How could anybody be so stupid as to believe in …?” and “How could a loving God let my mother die?” all the way to the intellectually put “The facts simply don’t acknowledge the existence of a God!” Because we’re “Christians,” we unfortunately feel we have to own up to Christendom. We believe that we are responsible for the entire history of Christian faith and that it’s our job to explain everything. Okay, so now it’s on. You flush, feel the heat rising up your collar. The theology nerves in your brain and chest send out the emergency signals. Battle stations! (39-40).

In the first quote, Medearis is using language appropriate to warfare (winning allies, showing your mettle, etc.) in order to describe how he at one time experienced interacting with non-believers. He was living by the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR.  In the second quotation, notice the description of the physical response to an evaluation of a situation based on a conceptual metaphor! Medearis’ description is a good example of how metaphor is not merely linguistic, but can even evoke a physical response appropriate to the source domain.

There’d be fifty students in his world history class, and easily half of us considered ourselves some type of Christian. We were prime targets. A strange ritual would begin: The room would almost physically change temperature. The air would thicken. The silence between declarations would speak with thunderous intensity. The professor would posture, pose questions, deliberate, and then level some withering conclusion at the establishment of Christianity. Christians. Us! (40).

But when injured, we change. Under fire from a hostile and misunderstanding world, we grow defensive, begin challenging and targeting different opposition groups, demolishing the characters and teachings of individuals through media outlets, pamphlets, and even sermons. It becomes very difficult to “love the sinner, hate the sin” when we hole up in a defensive posture (170).

Rather than extending ourselves to the other person, we tend to defend our position … (45).

In these sections, Medearis provides a great example of how a conceptual metaphor shapes how you experience reality and therefore what actions seem available and appropriate. If Christians feel like they are “under attack” it is quite natural to “hole up in a defensive posture” and begin a “counter-offensive.” The result is that, in most instances, before the first word is spoken, the typical metaphor structures we bring to a conversation with a non-Christian will cause us to start out in a defensive posture with a view to attack—not the best place from which to reach people with the Gospel!

So here we are—at this very strange impasse. Where both sides are actually trying to convince the other (and the onlookers) that they are the minority and in the fight of their lives against the evil onslaught of the other. It’d be funny if it weren’t so serious. This book is not about those so-called culture wars or the existence of real evil in the world, but it is about speaking of Jesus. And the questions we’ve raised here are these: Does it affect how we talk about our friendship with and faith in Jesus when we think we’re the underdog? And does it affect the hearing of others if they think we’re ganging up on them from our bully pulpit? The answer to both is certainly yes. The remedy: Stop playing the “our religion can beat up your religion” game. It’s the wrong game anyway, and as we’ve seen, no matter how you add up the score, we’re losing (102-103).

… this “us versus them” model of Christianity also misses the point? And that when you speak of Jesus from that paradigm, you are not only ineffective—you will also lose the game? (20).

Medearis is describing how, ironically, both Christians and non-Christians feel like they are losing the “battle”—which of course means that both subcultures are experiencing life in terms of ARGUMENT IS WAR. In these quotations, we also see a kind of metaphorical blend: Medearis is using language from both warfare and athletic domains. This blending of metaphors is not uncommon, and, in this case, the blend is particularly plausible because in our culture SPORT is also a kind of WAR.[7]

In the second quote, Medearis mentions both a “model” and a “paradigm” to reference a conceptual metaphor. Indeed, depending on who is using them, terms like “model,” “paradigm,” or “frame” can all be roughly synonymous with the structure of a conceptual metaphor. Recall, however, that what makes a metaphor a metaphor is the cross-domain mapping, the thinking or experiencing of one thing in terms of something else.

I used to get so frustrated until it dawned on me that I don’t have to defend or understand everything in the Bible in order to share my faith. Jesus is the point of the Bible. It all points to Him. I don’t have to be the Bible’s defense attorney. All I have to do is speak of Jesus and He will draw people to Himself. (89)

Another blended metaphor we could perhaps have expected: Medearis is keeping with the WAR theme but including language appropriate to a court of law. Because legal proceedings are a subset of arguments in general, we are not surprised to find warfare language in the domain of courtroom and both of them together applied to the specific target domain at hand, speaking of Jesus to other people.

When we make sharing our faith a war of ideals, we create casualties on both sides of the boundary. We fight an “us versus them” campaign trying to show that our religion, our logic, our reason, our theology is better than everyone else’s. After demolishing their beliefs, we try to rebuild a structure of proprietary mental acknowledgment. Think the right things, and you’ll have the magical bar code the scanners of heaven will accept with a beep (79).

Two things are important about the final quote in this section. First, notice that, although the conceptual metaphor has remained the same, the variety of vocabulary seems almost limitless. We’re back to ARGUMENT IS WAR, but “casualties” and “campaign” are new words expressing the same adversarial relationships and aggressive inference structures.

In fact, one of the arguments for the existence of conceptual metaphors in the first place is that they are able to explain why a seemingly unlimited variety of actual linguistic expressions are understood naturally and automatically in the same basic way.[8] In other words, you didn’t have to stop and do extra thinking because Medearis introduced the word “casualties.” The conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR facilitates the understanding of a wide range of linguistic expressions.

Second, this quotation blends together three distinct metaphors: ARGUMENT IS WAR, AN ARGUMENT IS A BUILDING, and SOCIAL GROUPS ARE CONTAINERS. “Demolishing” is certainly something you can do in warfare, but demolishing is also specifically related to a domain of building construction. The fact that AN ARGUMENT IS A BUILDING also exists in our conceptual system[9] means that Medearis can move from warfare to building construction when talking about argument and it seems natural and obvious. Both source domains (WAR and BUILDING) are commonly used to make sense of the target domain (ARGUMENT) and are consequently easy to blend together.

The term “boundary,” while also easily understood in context, points us in a different direction all together. Although countries and battle fields and geographic regions all have boundaries in our conceptual system, warfare is not the only domain in which we experience boundaries. In fact, one of the most fundamental metaphors in our conceptual system relates to our basic experience with a variety of containers. The particular conceptual metaphor evoked here could be called SOCIAL GROUPS ARE CONTAINERS. Because this metaphor is central to Medearis’ basic argument, it is worth exploring in more depth and will be the subject of the next post on this metaphor blog.


[1] This link between linguistic expression and cognition is central to Lakoff and Johnson’s methodology.  They state explicitly: “We can use metaphorical linguistic expressions to study the nature of metaphorical concepts and to gain an understanding of the metaphorical nature of our activities.”  George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 7.

[2] Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 3.

[3] Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] For more on how the target can modify the source for the purpose of mapping, see my discussion of the directionality of metaphor in chapter 3 of “Preaching the Story Behind the Image: A Narrative Approach to Metaphor for Preaching,” Ph.D. diss., Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (2009).

[6] Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 5, italics original.

[7]For more on the difference between blending and “mixing” metaphors, see Rossow (2009), 194-208. Sport and its relationship to War in our culture is touched on in Zoltan Kövecses, Metaphor: A Practical Introduction (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002), 75, for example.

[8] This is a basic component of the theory characterized by Lakoff, Johnson, and Turner; I just have to find the right quote . . .

[9] See Joseph Grady, “THEORIES ARE BUILDINGS revisited,” Cognitive Linguistics 8, no. 4 (1997): 267-290, for example.

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.

7 comments on “Outreach and Warfare

  1. […] part 1 of this blog, we considered the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR in the book Speaking of Jesus: […]

  2. […] and “outsiders” than either the WARFARE or CONTAINER metaphors we have seen so far (see Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog entry). The way Medearis suggests we think about (and talk to) […]

  3. […] Read the blog “Outreach and Warfare” paying special attention to the metaphor Argument is War and write some observations/reflections […]

  4. […] Carl’s pretty good at encouraging people to give up on winning the war with non-Christians and stop trying to beat people into submission / into the Kingdom. The whole concept of being in attack mode fits well within the cultural metaphor Argument is War, something you can read more about here: Outreach and Warfare. […]

  5. […] a THEM, with an IN and an OUT, and clear boundaries—like food laws—that must be defended. The outsiders are enemies, and rules of engagement […]

  6. […] a THEM, with an IN and an OUT, and clear boundaries—like food laws—that must be defended. The outsiders are enemies, and rules of engagement […]

  7. […] of the conceptual metaphors in Speaking of Jesus, see the three-blog series that begins with “Outreach and Warfare,” or for a perspective from the pulpit, see “How Speaking of Jesus Changed My […]

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