Outreach and Containers

Conceptual Metaphors in Speaking of Jesus, Part 2

In part 1 of this blog, we considered the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR in the book Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism by Carl Medearis. This blog picks up where part 1 left off, with the discussion of a second conceptual metaphor that often guides our experience of the evangelism task, often without our intent or further reflection.

We experience the defining features and dynamics of containers in a variety of ways in our daily living. We experience our physical bodies as containers—we breathe in and out, we eat and excrete—but we also experience our bodies as discrete units inside certain larger containers as well: our bodies can be in or out of bed, in or out of a room, in or out of a house, a neighborhood, a city, a region, etc. Building on this physical experience, we conceptualize things like physical or emotional states as containers as well: we can be in or out of a deep sleep, in or out of love, in or out of a relationship, a contract, a social group.

All of these “containers” share common, essential features and conform to a basic logic related to our physical, bodily experience of objects in the real world. The necessary and sufficient attributes of any container include an interior, an exterior, and some kind of boundary.[1] This simple structure is powerful, in part, because it is repeated again and again in our daily interaction with the physical environment in which we live.[2]

The basic structural elements of any container—interior, exterior, and boundary—engender natural and obvious conclusions and expectations. For example, regardless of the kind of container, “everything is either inside a container or out of it.”[3] Simple enough. There is also a logic of containers within a container. Thus, if we know the grapes are in a Tupperware, and the Tupperware is in the fridge, and the fridge is in the house, we know unequivocally that the grapes are in the house; that’s the way containers work. (And, incidentally, that’s one of the basic moves of the Aristotelian logic of categories, sans fridge.)[4]

Going a step beyond the structural elements of a container, consider the basic situations in which we experience containers, the purposes or anticipated outcomes we have when we use containers, as well as the things that can go wrong.[5] Containers are good at keeping separate things separate (think candy in a candy store), keeping things safe or protected (a Zip-lock for your sandwich, a safe deposit box for your pearls), or keeping things clean, pure, or undefiled (the air-tight case for your Babe Ruth baseball, the tower for Rapunzel).

Who uses containers for these purposes? The one who uses the container is usually the one who wants to keep the candy separate, the sandwich fresh, or the baseball safe. What could possibly go wrong? The glass jar could break, the Zip-lock seal could fail, Rapunzel could let down her hair. In other words, boundaries can be crossed willingly or unwillingly, but their primary job is to keep in and out separate and to keep what’s on the inside safe. And what kinds of things prevent a container from failing? The strength and completeness of the boundary becomes the central feature of most any container.

Just as a basic logic flows from the fundamental structure of a container (you can’t be simultaneously in and out), so too do inferences arise from within these kinds of container situations. For example, if the refrigerator door is open, you intuitively know you should close it—not just because Mom said so, but because you know that a barrier (door) of a container (fridge) must be intact in order to do its job (keep the food safe and preserved). Also, if you see a blue jellybean in the red jellybean jar, you intuitively know it doesn’t belong there, and you might even be motivated to put it back where it belongs, because you know how containers are supposed to work.

That knowledge of how containers are supposed to work is part of the power of metaphor. When the CONTAINER domain becomes the source we use to think about or experience a target domain, what maps is not only the basic features of in, out, and the boundary between, but also the inference structures that know what is expected, what the container is good for, what boundaries need to be like in order to do their job, and a host of other relationships and expectations tied to our knowledge of what containers do and why.

Specifically, the conceptual metaphor SOCIAL GROUPS ARE CONTAINERS maps the basic structure and logic of CONTAINERS onto our understanding and experience of SOCIAL GROUPS. Within this metaphor, social groups have the same basic features of containers: they must have an interior and an exterior (you are either in or out of a group) and some kind of boundary. We know from experience that different containers can have different kinds of boundaries, some more permeable than others. It follows that we experience both open and closed groups, groups that are easier or harder to join (or to leave), and groups within groups within groups.

While these features and basic logic of the CONTAINER schema seem natural and obvious enough, conclusions based on these features and logic become a significant and usually hidden part of the inference structure of the SOCIAL GROUPS ARE CONTAINERS metaphor. If, for example, the group of people known as “Christians” is conceptualized or experienced as a kind of container, it is both natural and obvious in an almost simplistic sense that everyone in the world is either inside the container “Christian” or outside of it; a very static description with very little room for movement or growth. And, if someone is in a container labeled “Muslim,” they cannot at the same time be in the “Christian” container—unless the whole “Muslim” container finds itself inside the “Christian” container.

In other words, social groups labeled “Christian” and “Muslim” are either mutually exclusive or mutually inclusive without regard to the personal faith journey of any particular Muslim or Christian. These kinds of conclusions about Christians and Muslims will seem very obvious and natural to anyone who has SOCIAL GROUPS ARE CONTAINERS as part of their conceptual system.

The preeminent role of the boundary in the CONTAINER domain is also mapped onto the domain of the SOCIAL GROUP. So from within the CONTAINER metaphor, the boundary line or barrier between in and out naturally becomes the single most important feature of the Christian group. However that boundary line is defined—as a moral code, a theological confession, or a list of political or social issues—the boundary is itself the most important feature of any container. That inference, that the boundary is the most defining feature, will trump anything else that claims to be central as long as the group is being seen through the lens of the dynamics of a container. So even if you would place the person and work of Jesus “at the center” of your theology, as long as the Christian group is understood as a container, the most important part of being a Christian will remain the boundary lines.

Applied to the Church, other kinds of container inferences will also seem obvious and natural.

  • The boundary of the container exists primarily for the protection and preservation of the insiders: strong theological boundaries protect the Church.
  • What is separate should remain separate: someone who is a blue jellybean (Muslim?) does not belong in the red jellybean jar (First Church on Main?).
  • The only way to enter a container is to cross a clear boundary: entrance into the Christian group is often experienced in terms of crossing a boundary, however that boundary is defined: as a social or political position, a theological confession, or a moral code.
  • Rigid and fortified barriers are necessary in order to preserve the purity of those on the inside: shut the door, or the food is going to rot.

While the logic of containers is not inherently wrong per se, it is important to note that this is not the only way—or even necessarily the best way—to conceptualize the relationship between Christians and those “outside” the Church. In fact, while Medearis admits the Bible has a place for the language of “ ‘in’ and ‘out’ … A wheat and a tare. A sheep and a goat.” (75), he suggests that our dialogue with non-Christians is not the proper place to be using the SOCIAL GROUPS ARE CONTAINERS metaphor. Of course, he doesn’t say it quite that way, but that’s what he means; just look at the quotes below.

The language Medearis uses to describe how we typically imagine the evangelism task draws on the basic dynamics of containers, described above. Medearis is arguing that even if there is a place for a strong boundary line that divides in from out, that place is not in the act of speaking to others about Jesus. Chapter four of Speaking of Jesus is appropriately titled, “In or Out.” It begins this way:

Draw a circle on a sheet of paper. Or breathe on the mirror and make a circle in the fog. Inside the circle, make little dots and give them names. These dots represent the people whom you consider solid Christians. Maybe you’re one of them. On the outside of the circle, make some other dots. These dots are the ones whom you know are not solid Christians. They drink/smoke/cuss and maybe even kick their dogs. This diagram represents the idea of salvation many of us have. We live in the circle and, to bring others inside of it, we have to convince them to adopt our beliefs (63).

The image of the circle is shorthand for a kind of prototypical container which, like all containers, has an interior, an exterior, and a boundary. Medearis is dealing with the inference structures inherent in the CONTAINER metaphor: if we identify the boundary line as a list of propositional truths, then the only way to “save” an outsider—that is, get them across the boundary line—is to get them to assent to that list. The focus of our “outreach” becomes clearly identifying the boundary positions (theological or moral) from our position on the “inside” and convincing people to cross them. What gives us confidence regarding our status as “saved” is our relationship to the boundary line: we are obviously “on the inside.”

We want to measure, define, scrutinize, and secure our place on the “inside.” And then, with that template in place, we go out into all the world to make other people nervous about whether or not they’re in the circle (69).

The defining dynamic of the container is the opposition of interior and exterior; and the defining feature of the container is its boundary:

If we’re saved into the boundaries of a circle, we owe our allegiance to that boundary, and we’re going to try to bring others inside it (74).

In the CONTAINER metaphor, the boundary of the container protects what’s inside. But notice here that those on the inside also feel a sense of responsibility and even protection toward the boundary itself. This wouldn’t make sense in the context of a ham sandwich in the refrigerator, but it does make sense from within a warfare frame. In geopolitics, two social groups, an in and an out, are defined by a boundary line; attacking a boundary line between these nations or social groups is tantamount to an act of war. So the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor and the CONTAINER metaphor dovetail: if in the process of our discussion of the Christian faith you mess with my perceived container boundaries, I have every right to blow you out of the water! And to say that you started it!!

So Medearis is urging his readers to get away from the CONTAINER metaphor when speaking of Jesus with non-believers. But arguing against the concept of bringing people across the line of a circle does not mean that Medearis thinks there are no boundaries or no structure to the Christian faith.

And I’m not saying there isn’t a point at which people genuinely come into the kingdom. Jesus preached this. He said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). He wasn’t negotiating. He is the personality and exact representation of God. And there simply isn’t another way to get “in” besides Jesus (69).

Just to provide a moment of relief for you, the reader, I do think that the Scriptures teach a fairly clear “in” and “out.” There is a kingdom of light and a kingdom of darkness. In Christ and not in Christ (75).

This is good metaphor theory: it recognizes that more than one metaphorical perspective is helpful and that they aren’t necessarily supposed to go together—Jesus is both rock and shepherd, but not at the same time![6] So there is a place and time for talking about the Christian faith as a kind of container with a clear boundary and an obvious interior and exterior. Medearis’ point is that this image is not helpful in the setting of a Christian conversing with someone who doesn’t know Jesus.

In fact, Medearis’ severest critique of the boundary line is not that it doesn’t exist or that it isn’t important, but that it isn’t Jesus. Even if Jesus is at the center of the container you might label “Christian,” as long as it’s a container, the boundary will always be more important.

So Medearis promotes a different lens through which to view “evangelism” or “outreach.” To replace ARGUMENT IS WAR or  SOCIAL GROUPS ARE CONTAINERS, Medearis builds on the conceptual metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY. You can already see it in the quote above: there is journey along a way, movement through the person of Jesus into a container-like kingdom. At one point, Medearis explicitly replaces the CONTAINER metaphor with the metaphor of JOURNEY:

Instead of trying to define the line that separates the saved from the unsaved, we point to Jesus. We don’t have to “own up to” Christendom this way. We simply follow Jesus (72).

Like WARFARE and CONTAINERS, the domain of JOURNEY has a particular kind of shape, with a structure of expectations and inferences. Like WARFARE and CONTAINERS, the JOURNEY metaphor both highlights and hides important aspects of the mandate to disciple the nations. But Medearis is convinced, and I along with him, that the JOURNEY metaphor has more promise for the future of our witness than either WARFARE or CONTAINERS. We will look more closely at the dynamics of that Medearis is proposing in part 3 of this three-part blog.

[1] George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 272.

[2] Ibid., 267 refers to the Container source domain as one of the “relatively simple structures that recur in our everyday bodily experience.” Lakoff is building on work by Mark Johnson and borrows Johnson’s vocabulary of “kinesthetic image-schematic structure,” or “image schemas” for short, to label these basic structures inherent in our bodily experience.

[3] Ibid.

[4] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 380 ff.

[5] This consideration of what I would call the basic “narrative structure” of the domain of Containers is central to the thesis of my Ph.D. dissertation (Rossow, 2009). By asking basic narrative questions of the situation implied in the metaphor—who is doing what for whom and how—we are better able to describe the inference structure of the source domain and therefore the way in which the metaphor shapes our understanding and action. See also https://metaphortextworld.wordpress.com/the-basics/narrative-structure-and-metaphor/.

[6] See chapter 6 of my dissertation.

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.

5 comments on “Outreach and Containers

  1. […] « Before Biblical Images for Worship February 10, 2012 AfterOutreach and Containers: Conceptual Metaphors in Speaking of Jesus, part 2 July 22, 2012 … […]

  2. […] “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) non-Christians is much […]

  3. […] you’d like to explore that phenomenon a little more in-depth, check out the article Outreach and Containers. What’s important for our current discussion is simply the observation that we tend to make […]

  4. […] we have an idea of the way the disciples saw the situation: there is an US and a THEM, with an IN and an OUT, and clear boundaries—like food laws—that must be defended. The outsiders are enemies, and […]

  5. […] we have an idea of the way the disciples saw the situation: there is an US and a THEM, with an IN and an OUT, and clear boundaries—like food laws—that must be defended. The outsiders are enemies, and […]

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