Saturday, October 3, 2015

How Metaphors Mess with our Minds and Destroy Lives

Messing with Malevolent Metaphors

Exploring the role of metaphors in Christian teaching about purity and sanctity.

As a child I learned that sin made my heart black. I learned this lesson by means of small plastic hearts dangling from a chain. Hearts are red, white and black. You start with a black heart. All have sinned. Red hearts mean Jesus' blood cleanses, White hearts are we're all cleaned up.

For many Christians, white is good, pure, clean and holy. Cleanliness is next to godliness.

Black is bad, evil, and linked to sin. We’ll never measure up—the good things we do are but filthy rags. Outer darkness is where you go if you die without Jesus.

So what's the problem with such metaphors? Is it possible that metaphors, which glorify whiteness and link blackness to sin influence, racist attitudes? Do religious metaphors guide our thinking about people?


My task this week is to teach a lesson at church about metaphors and morality based on the third chapter of Richard Beck’s book, Unclean. By chapter three—the one on metaphors— Beck has already reviewed the broad foundation of research on disgust and its link to morality. Since childhood we have learned to avoid that which is unclean, yucky, and disgusting and if something disgusting gets in our mouth, on or near our body, we forcefully reject it.

Early learning appears to occur when two events occur together. Sometimes the contiguity is helpful as in hot things burn. But at other times, the association suggests a false conclusion about nature. Unless challenged, two things that occur together are often thought to be causally related. And strangely, humans sometimes think causality is bidirectional.

Chen-Bo Zhong and his colleagues study moral psychology. They have illustrated the problem of morality and causality using an example of the beliefs of the Nuer people from South Sudan and western Ethiopia. One belief is that a woman’s adultery will cause a husband to feel back pain. And conversely, a husband’s back pain is evidence that his wife committed adultery.

Experiments in U.S. psychology labs reveal the often unconscious connection between various unethical activities and an irrational desire for physical cleansing such as when participants select mouthwash after lying.


So what’s the bridge between life experience and moral judgments? Beck's answer is metaphor. In Beck’s words, “The link between disgust and morality is mediated by metaphor (p. 33).”

There's been a considerable amount of research on morality and metaphor since Beck published his book, yet researchers continue to refer to the work of Lakoff and Johnson to illustrate how our early sensory motor experiences structure cognition, including the metaphors we use to organize thinking.

"The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another." (#60 158) (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980)

The idea of cognitive embodiment of morality is based on the words we use for that which is good or bad. For example, UP is good. We stand up when we are healthy and working. We lie down when we are tired, ill, or dying. Good things like heaven are up and the earth is down with hell even lower.

Things above us are superior and those below us are inferior. God is a Supreme Being who lives above us. Good people are on a pedestal. Being called to be a pastor or priest was said to be a higher calling. And those persons were held to higher standards of moral conduct. In their high position, they were considered closer to God than their congregants. And some were found to have feet of clay.

People who do not live up to certain standards or expectations must step down from their position. In some societies, inferior people bow before leaders. A more subtle embodiment can be seen in eye-contact that is made or averted depending on one’s perceived status. Politicians know that uncovering or even alleging sexual wrongdoing can destroy the progress of a competing candidate.

Evil is opposite to good and brings people down. Evil people cause good people to stumble and fall. Evil can be a spirit or force that acts like gravity to pull people down. We want the force to be with us and not against us. Good forces, like good people, appear white and evil is conveniently displayed as black—so we can tell the difference.

Face metaphors abound. We face our equals. We are shamefaced when we have done wrong. Our faces are saved when wrongdoing is hidden or pardoned or in some way not made public.

Dirt has its place. Dirt is of course the stuff of play and some dirt produces good food but dirt belongs outside. Dirt does not belong in a house. People with dirt floors are dirt poor—a very low position indeed.

People who know someone's sin have "dirt on them." As children soil their diapers, some adults "soil their reputations." Wet dirt is mud and alleging people have done wrong is "mudslinging."

Unclean people are “dirt bags” or pigs—animals that wallow in mud. People who tell jokes about sex have dirty minds that are also so low that their minds are in street gutters.

Dirt as a metaphor can be helpful because we can wash and be clean again. A shower can help people feel clean from wrongdoing. Baptism in water cleanses souls. We wash our hands of dirty matters. (Remember Pilate and Macbeth.) Oddly, a corpse is washed and clothed before placed in the dirt when given a proper burial.

Inside a house, dirt must be swept up or vacuumed up and placed outside so the house will be clean. Dirt should not be swept under a rug or hidden—it has to be outside. When leaders do wrong, new leaders are expected to clean house. The dirty rotten scoundrels must be removed. Wrong doing is to be exposed not covered up.

Fighting is a good thing for boys to do but a low blow is not allowed under the rules of correct fighting.  Like sex, fighting can be dirty or clean. Censors are mostly concerned about two things--sex and violence.

Metaphors of Salvation and Redemption

The biblical language of salvation makes use of metaphors and symbolic rituals to help people develop a relationship with a holy God. Christians are baptized in water and are thus symbolically clean. They are also metaphorically washed in the blood of Jesus--the sacrificial lamb.  Christians celebrate the salvation experience in the Eucharist-- eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus.

The newly redeemed can feel clean, forgiven, and worthy of helping others connect to God. They are on the right path headed toward a glorious reward. The cleaning process involves the expression of certain beliefs, confession of sins, repentance or turning away from sins, and participation in various rituals such as prayer, bible reading, baptism, and good works. 

New Christians are born again. Like babies, they are wrapped, protected, and nurtured. They are vulnerable to diseases. 

Like recovering addicts, the redeemed must avoid their weaknesses and former associates. And some are called to warn others of disastrous living.

On the one hand, we observe the joy of the one who is clean, guilt-free, and in relationship with a Holy God; on the other hand, we observe that happy, holy people are often distant from the tragic and downtrodden denizens displayed on city sidewalks.

The metaphors of salvation also mark the boundaries between those on the inside and those on the outside.

Some people are clean and some are dirty.
Some people are worthy and some are unworthy.
Some people are living in sin and some are not.
Some people are heaven bound and some are hell-bound.

Religious creeds divide large societies into small tribes.

And each religious tribe has different lists of that which is clean, worthy, and sinless.


Metaphors are important to negotiating daily life in any culture. Cultures vary in their tolerance for deviance. Some metaphors are helpful when they point out important similarities between what we know and what we do not know.

Some metaphors are harmful. Metaphors identify some groups of people as evil. Some people are marked for avoidance and others for destruction.

When Christians do not evaluate and rework the metaphors governing their morality, they will often teach others to alienate or destroy rather than love their neighbors.


Does the black and white language of sin and cleansing influence racism?
What metaphors encourage Christians to embrace those who are unChristian?
What additional metaphors identify people as unclean?
What metaphors identify the use of quarantine or containment strategies?
What metaphors encourage avoidance?
What metaphors encourage us to do nothing?
What metaphors suggest destruction of those who are evil?


"Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God" Jesus (Matthew 5:8)

“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”  Mahatma Ghandhi

“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”  Mae West

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