Analogies: Cultivating a “Thick” Strategy for Thinking Christianly about Communication (Part 1)
Naaman Wood, Ph.D., Redeemer University College ([email protected])
In this first post, the CCSN asked me to offer some reflections on faith and learning integration. As someone whose entire post-secondary education has occurred at Christian institutions of higher learning, I have been steeped in the faith-learning tradition. Despite this training, I have wondered of late if there is some unchartered territory for the ways we go about thinking at the intersection of Christianity and communication studies. So, in my first post, I want to review one particular integration strategy: analogy.
What is an analogy?
Simply put, an analogy is a way of seeing or a mode of interpretation that identifies profound similarities between two or more things, events, texts, images, or concepts that are, on the surface, quite different from one another.
Defined in this manner, analogies are nothing new to Christians; in fact, biblical authors use analogies to interpret the Scriptures they receive. This is what the apostle Paul does in his letter to the Galatians. In urging his Gentile readers to trust Jesus as opposed to some vain attempt to circumcise themselves (and therefore become physical Jews before God), Paul turns to a comparison between two very different things to make his point.
Referring implicitly to Genesis, Paul describes Abraham’s two wives: Hagar, a slave woman and Sarah, a free woman. Each of these women had one son: Ishmael, the slave child of Hagar, was a child born through the plans of human ingenuity, but Isaac was the child born through God’s promise to Sarah. In a bold interpretive move, Paul associates Hagar with the covenant God made with Moses on Mount Sinai, the covenant that gave Israel circumcision. Conversely, Sarah represents a free, spiritual, heavenly covenant of promise, the Christ covenant that includes Gentiles into God’s people of Israel. These Gentiles need not become God’s people through the Law of Moses, through circumcision. Such an act would be redundant. Christ has already circumcised them spiritually and, therefore, re-made their Gentile bodies into the promised children of Sarah. Although Hagar and circumcision for the Galatians could not be more different, for Paul, the similarities are profound and binding. Circumcision is tantamount to slavery for the Galatians. The Hagar-circumcision analogy is simply the means Paul uses to think through and articulate that reality. (EN 1)
For many of us, Paul interpretive method may strike us as unusual, strange, or even problematic. When I was trained to interpret texts, I was always taught to put primacy on the intended meaning of the author. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul’s use of analogy does not seem interested in the intended meaning of the original author of Genesis. In this way, Paul’s analogical reading of Hagar and circumcision for the Galatians poses a challenge to the way we normally interpret the world in which we live. That challenge, however, is part of the point of analogies. They offer us an alternative way of reading, and they are, as this example suggests, internal to the way Paul thinks about Scripture. He thinks of this mode of interpretation as a viable option when reading the world around him.
Analogy as an alternative to 1-to-1 comparisons
As opposed to Paul’s use of analogy, many of us (myself included) were taught to interpret the world and Scripture with a strong priority on what I call, 1-to-1 comparisons. In this mode of interpretation, the interpreter says something like, “Since the Bible says X, we do X.” By way of example, consider Acts 2:42-47. Luke tells us, “And all who believed were together for they had all things in common, for they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Now, a 1-to-1 interpreter might say, “Because the early church had all things in common, sold what they had and distributed it to those in need, this means that for us to interpret this passage faithfully, members in our church should sell investments, land, and luxuries so that we can meet the needs of those within our congregation.” This mode of interpretation focuses more directly on the content and plain meaning of the text and what those historically grounded, authorial intentions could mean for us today.
This mode of biblical interpretation often drives the manner in which we integrate our faith and study of communication. In fact, this was how I was taught to think about “redemption” in the music, movies, and television shows I encountered. Redemption, I was told, bore some direct relationship to Jesus, and I could see redemption in unlikely places the more attentive I became to the textual similarities between the gospel narratives and media narratives. In this manner, a text is more or less redemptive if it reflects certain correlations with what we know to be the Jesus story.
1-to-1 comparisons can take several forms, and two readings of the film Gran Torino illustrate this habit of integration in action. Religious studies scholar Diane Corkery argues that the film’s protagonist Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) may serve as a redemptive Christ-figure for some viewers because of the similarities between the film and the Gospels. She identifies several 1-to-1 correlations between the two texts: a garden setting, a final prayer, a cruciform pose, a willing sacrifice, an honorable death, and a metaphorical resurrection. (EN 2)
In an almost identical posture, Christianity Today draws explicit comparison between Kowalski’s sacrificial death and Jesus’. In the film, the protagonist willingly dies at the hands of area gang members in order to save his next-door neighbor from the gang’s retaliation. One Christianity Today critic wrote, “The symbolism of what happens [i.e., Kowalski’s death] points to loving sacrifice and the complete commitment of one’s life for the betterment of others.” (EN 3) Because Jesus gave his life so that we can live, the writer looks at Walt’s sacrificial death and sees in it a deep correlation to Jesus’.
Two dangers of 1-to-1 comparisons
Now, this mode of integration of faith and learning offers and will continue to offer many advantages. This approach takes Scripture and the world in which we live seriously. We should attend closely to both and bring them into meaningful conversation. It is also a perspicuous mode of interpretation. It assumes that the wisdom of Scripture and the Christian tradition is not reserved for experts or only those most educated among us. Anyone with a keen and patient eye can find these connections.
However, this approach has at least two downsides. Robert K. Johnston, one of the leading scholars working at the intersection of theology and film, names one problem “thin readings.” (EN 4) By thin readings, he means to describe a habit of interpreting media that exhibits “an overly focused concentration on the ‘facts’ of the text,” that is, on tight and rigid 1-to-1 correlations between theological texts and media. (EN 5) For Johnston, thin readings are prevalent among evangelicals and, by his account, have stalled integrative thinking. For all the good that the above readings of Gran Torino offer, they are, for my money, precisely the kind of thin readings Johnston warns us to avoid.
Aside from thin readings stalling faith-learning integration, thin readings pose an ethical danger to Christians. As communication scholar AnnaLee Ward has so aptly demonstrated in her own powerful interrogation of Gran Torino, this mode of interpretation can produce “a superficial read that misses . . . values counter to the kingdom of God.” (EN 6) That is, when we engage in thin readings derived from 1-to-1 comparisons, we run the risk of committing the same mistake Adam and Eve committed in the garden. We risk confusing the word of the serpent with the Word of God. We risk confusing the Jesus who releases the prisoner with the principalities and powers that breed corruption and imprisonment. We risk confusing the Son of God with the Angel of Light (see 2 Cor 11:14).
Analogy is one option by which we might avoid thin readings and, if we are careful, the dangers that follow. In my next post, I’ll have more to say on what analogies look like in action and what they can offer us as we attempt to think at the intersection of faith and communication.
(1) Within studies of theology and church history, I have not found any general consensus on the terms at play in this blog post. When I use the term “analogy” I am thinking, in part, about the processes of metaphor and the tradition of interpreting Scripture “spiritually.” By way of example for the latter, contemporary reflection on the medieval Four Fold Sense of Scriptural interpretation tends to use the term “literal,” “allegorical,” “tropological,” and “anagogical.” The latter three terms describe “spiritual” interpretation, or interpretations that show little attention to the letter or historical meaning of the text. My use of the term “analogy” tries to describe what I think is at play in spiritual readings. As a result, I gloss over certain subtleties of the tradition and, in this case, Paul’ interpretive method in this example. The apostle describes his own textual interpretation here as “allegory” (Gal 4:24). I see allegory as a sub-set of analogy. My overall point is, however, to ground analogy as a method of reading that is internal to the thinking of at least one biblical author. For more on these matters of interpretation, see Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
(2) Diane Corkery, “Walt Kowalski A Christ-Figure? Christic Resonances in Gran Torino,” Journal of Religion and Film 15, no. 2 (October 2011), accessed March 19, 2013, digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/jrf/vol15/iss2/5/.
(3) “The Ten Most Redeeming Films of 2008,” Christianity Today, January 27, 2009, accessed February 6, 2016, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/januaryweb-only/tenredeemingfilmsof2008.html.
(4) Robert K. Johnston, “Evangelicals and Film: What Moviegoers Can Learn from the Bible,” in Evangelical Christians and Popular Media: Pop Goes the Gospel, Volume 1, Film, Radio, Television, and the Internet, ed. Robert H. Woods Jr. (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2013), 56.
(5) Ibid., 52.
(6) AnnaLee Ward, “Gran Torino and Moral Order,” Christian Scholars’ Review 40, no. 4 (Summer 2011): 376.
Good insights here. Its good to see thinking of this order wherein faith integration takes shape in the way our positions are framed, explained and argued.