The Brazilian Metaphor LIFE IS A BATTLE

Editor’s Note

This article–the first by guest contributor Samuel Fuhrmann–is an excellent example of applying the metaphor theory proposed on this blog to both theology and culture. Samuel notices the way people talk (and think/evaluate/make decisions) in his Brazilian culture and uses these observations to think about how our theology can be preached and lived out in that particular context. As you read, notice how Samuel gets to the conclusions he makes. Pay special attention to the way he handles the inference structures in the metaphor. And enjoy a well-thought-out, well-written project on metaphor, theology, and culture!

–Justin Rossow


Pastor, I need your help! I have been through great trials in life and not been able to overcome them. I know I have to „continue fighting‟ – I have to „fight‟ for the future of my family – but I just cannot see a way to overcome the difficulties and temptations I’ve been through.

This hypothetical plea for help from a parishioner to his or her pastor illustrates a common situation experienced by Brazilian pastors constantly. “To continue fighting” is a particular Brazilian expression, a metaphorical utterance, to say that life is not easy, that a person needs to overcome the bad things in life, even the person’s own weakness, in order to continue living and to achieve his or her goals in life.

In such a situation, in which a parishioner comes to his or her pastor and asks for help, comfort and strengthening, it would be better not to respond to such a plea by only saying this: This is how life is because of sin (meaning the original sin), but I have good news for you: Christ has died on the cross to forgive your sins; he has already gone through the worst difficulties for you! So, go in peace!

Although such a response would be theologically right, it might be incomplete or even out of context, for the parishioner, in the given case, would be talking about the Christian life while the pastor about salvation. If this is the only response to such a plea, then the parishioner might infer that he or she is alone to overcome the daily difficulties, or even that to overcome them is his or her part in the salvation process.


Given this, the purpose of the present paper is to show how the Brazilian conceptual metaphor LIFE IS A BATTLE might render the proclamation of the Gospel in Brazil and how it can be useful for speaking of the Christian life. A description of how such a conceptual metaphor is identified will precede my attempt to propose a way of speaking of the Christian life to Brazilians. This description will be the first section of the present paper.

It is important to be clear on how we use battle imagery in our thinking and speaking, because confusion between narratives (salvation and the Christian life) might create also theological confusion. The present inquiry is therefore relevant not only for Brazilian pastors and theologians, but also for others who pay attention to the distinction between justification and sanctification.

A proposal for speaking of the Christian life to the Brazilian culture will be developed in the second section of the paper. This paper will require from its readers a basic prior knowledge of Metaphor Theory, which has been well explained by Justin Rossow in “Preaching the Story Behind the Image: A Narrative Approach to Metaphor for Preaching,”[1] as well as of the discoveries of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By, whose main idea is that “metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action.”[2]

Identifying a Conceptual Metaphor in the Brazilian Culture

“Metaphor is a tool so ordinarily that we use it unconsciously and automatically, with so little effort that we hardly notice it.” [3]

In presenting a study about how people read poetry, George Lakoff and Mark Turner have shown that the metaphorical language used in poetry is not beyond ordinary language and that great poets use the same “tools” (like metaphor and metonymy) which we use in our daily conversations. The difference in using such tools resides in the fact that poets pay careful attention to and study them, while we use these tools “unconsciously and automatically,” as described in the above quotation.

This idea of metaphorical language as unconsciously and ordinarily used, which Lakoff and Turner have proven by presenting different metaphorical linguistic expressions in ordinary language, is also evidenced by a Brazilian way of speaking about life. Hardly noticing that they are using metaphorical language, Brazilians talk about their lives in terms of a battle, in which whoever wants to continue living should never stop fighting.

In their daily conversations there are many linguistic expressions in which fight, battle, struggle, victories and defeats serve as ways of describing a person’s view of or situation in life. According to Zoltán Kövecses in Metaphor in Culture: Universality and Variation, “metaphorical linguistic expressions make conceptual metaphors manifest.”[4]

The following list demonstrates some daily Brazilian linguistic expressions used when people talk about their ordinary lives. These expressions identify a conceptual metaphor for life in the Brazilian culture. Each expression in its original language (Portuguese) within the left column is followed by a translation into English within the column on the right side:

Linguistic Expression Translation
– A vida é feita de vitórias e derrotas  Life is made of victories and defeats
– Vai à luta!  Go ahead and fight for it!
– Não desista de lutar [5]
 Do not give up fighting
– A luta continua  The struggle continues
– Você tem que encarar as batalhas do dia a dia  You have to face the daily battles
– Este cara é batalhador  This guy is a fighter
– Não está morto quem peleia  Whoever still wrestles is not dead yet
– A morte venceu esta batalha  Death has won this battle
– Estou lutando por uma vida melhor  I am fighting for a better life
– Estou lutando pelo futuro da minha família  I am fighting for the future of my family
– Esta pessoa venceu na vida  This person has won in life

All these metaphorical linguistic expressions are possible because there is a metaphorical concept in Brazilian thought by which people process their understanding of life. According to Lakoff and Johnson, “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”[6]

In the present case, then, Brazilians understand and experience life in terms of a battle. And, on the basis of the above linguistic expressions, we are in a position to also affirm that LIFE IS A BATTLE is a conceptual metaphor in the Brazilian culture. Such a conclusion is based on, and thus has to be seen in light of, the cognitive linguistic approach to metaphor developed by Lakoff, Johnson and Turner. According to Rossow’s explanation of their approach, “metaphor is primarily a matter of thought and experience and only secondarily a matter of language.”[7]

This approach is helpful for the present paper because it allows us to think of the above metaphorical utterances in terms of correspondences between two conceptual domains which reside in people’s thought, and not only to think of words and their referents or signifiers and their signifieds. These are some correspondences between the two conceptual domains of life and battle:

  • A person leading a life is a fighter/ soldier. 
  • His purposes are survival, protection and a better life for his loved ones. 
  • The means for achieving purposes are hope and fight. 
  • Difficulties in life are enemies to be overcome. 
  • Counselors are commanders.
  • Plans are strategies. 
  • Professional success is victory.

Another relevant aspect regarding metaphors is their connection with narrative contexts and their structures.[8] To say that a person fights for the future of his or her family, or that he or she should go ahead and fight for his or her goals in life, places this person within implied narrative relationships proper for a soldier, who has to fight for the best of his nation. Such relationships could be helpfully visualized by the use of the structuralist Actantial Model developed by A.J. Greimas,[9] as suggested by Rossow.[10] The narrative roles and relationships that shape the inference structure of the metaphor LIFE IS A BATTLE can be plotted on Greimas’ model (see below).


This is the implied narrative relationships of the Source Domain of the BATTLE metaphor put into Greimas’ Actantial Model. A second step to be taken here would be to map onto the Target Domain of  LIFE, on the basis of the correspondences of the two domains listed above. However, since the goal of the present paper is to provide a way of thinking of and experiencing not life itself, but the Christian life in terms of a battle, the mapping onto the target will be made in the second section, as we develop our proposal for speaking of the Christian life (see Part 2 or this blog).

What is important here is what the model helps to clarify, that is, the positions occupied in the narrative, the who is doing what for whom and how, to put it in Rossow’s words.[11] This way, the actantial positions in the model are helpful also for understanding and clarifying the distinction between the biblical narratives about salvation and the Christian life. For, in the salvation metaphors most central to Lutherans, “we/us” are always the Receivers and God the Subject; in a narrative about the Christian life, however, the Christian will sometimes be the Subject and God (Jesus or the Spirit) the Helper. This is what will be approached in the next section, as we map onto the target domain, attempting to suggest a way of speaking of the Christian life.  

See Part 2 of this blog, “The Christian Life if a Battle,” forthcoming.


[1] Justin Rossow, “Preaching the Story Behind the Image: A Narrative Approach to Metaphor for Preaching,” Ph. D. diss., Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (2009).

[2] George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (2003), 3.

[3] George Lakoff & Mark Turner, More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor, Chicago: University of Chicago Press ( 1989), xi.

[4] Zoltán Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture: Universality and Variation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2005), 8.

[5] The word “luta” is the noun “fight”, while the term “lutar” is the verb “to fight”, in the infinitive form.

[6] Lakoff & Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 5.

[7] Rossow, “Preaching the Story Behind the Image,” 254.

[8] Ibid., 34. Under the heading Narrative Approach to Metaphor, Rossow develops the second chapter of his dissertation by exploring the connection between narrative and metaphor. Although this connection had already been noticed by preachers and writers, it had not been deeply explored yet. Rossow provides an advanced study on the subject and shows the benefits of this connection for preaching (which neither preachers nor writers had done before).    

[9] Daniel Patte, “Structural Network in Narrative: The Good Samaritan,” Soundings 58 (1975), 229. According to Greimas’ structuralist model, it is assumed that every narrative has a structure which consists of a Subject communicating an Object to a Receiver. These three actants are also accompanied by a Sender (usually implied), a Helper (who helps the subject to deliver the object to the receiver) and the Opponent(s) (who try to hinder the delivery of the Object to the Receiver). These are the “actantial positions”; they form a basic structure that is found in every narrative, from a structuralist point of view.

[10] Rossow, “Preaching the Story Behind the Image,” 44. See footnote [7], above.

[11] Justin Rossow, “Preaching Metaphors We Live By,”  https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/preaching-metaphors-we-live/id468118579?i=117881938 (accessed on February 09, 2013).

About fuhrmanns2013

Samuel Fuhrmann is a Brazilian Pastor who is currently going to school at Concordia Seminary - St. Louis, pursuing a PhD degree. He has served as a Pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil (IELB) since 2010. He received his bachelor's degree in Theology (2007) from the Lutheran University of Brazil - ULBRA, and his MDiv (2010) from Seminário Concórdia - São Leopoldo/ Brazil. Samuel and his wife Vivian thank God for all the blessings he has given to them.

2 comments on “The Brazilian Metaphor LIFE IS A BATTLE

  1. […] the first part of this blog, we took a look at how the Brazilian culture thinks about, speaks of, and experiences LIFE in terms […]

  2. […] metaphors in his Brazilian culture and applied what he learned to preaching in this article: The Brazilian Metaphor LIFE IS A BATTLE. A Deaconess getting her Ph.D. worked with metaphors in hymn texts and came up with this paper, […]

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