After my first blog post, a reader wanted some clarity on what I meant by analogy, especially regarding my concerns of redemptive readings of Gran Torino. I paraphrase the reader’s inquiry here:
As I understand your argument, Naaman, analogies lead to “good” interpretations, and one-to-one comparisons lead to “not so good” ones. Because Corkery uses a one-to-one comparison, it is a problematic reading. But couldn’t she argue that her work is an analogy? Just as Jesus suffered on a cross, we see Walt suffering in a cross-like form. Why is not that an analogy?
In this blog post, I want to take this question as a point of departure and offer clarification on two matters. I want to nuance a few technical details and name some larger issues I am trying engage within evangelical thinking.
In order to describe what I think I mean by allegory as a faith-learning integration strategy, I want to offer a parallel example regarding figurative language, both in definition and evaluation.
As an undergraduate English major, I was taught to think about some figurative language as the use of language that was rooted in the comparison of two things that are different. By way of example, two key forms of figurative language include metaphor and simile. A metaphor suggests a level of identification or identity between two items that are different. One thing is, in a non-literal way, something else. A metaphor would include this Shakespearian line Romeo speaks in Romeo and Juliet, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east and Juliet is the sun” (Act II, Scene 2)! A simile is a comparison that deploys the term “like” or “as.” From the same play, Juliet’s father looks upon her apparently dead body and says, “Death lies on her like an untimely frost” (Act IV, Scene V).
Identifying kinds of figurative language is easier, in some ways, than evaluating them. Clichéd or hackneyed language can result from a wide range of problems, so I will only list a few. The comparison might be too obvious or sentimental, or the two items being compared might be rooted too heavily in similarity. A strong instance of figurative language has an elusive quality to it. It is often rooted in a tension of similarity and difference that is not always apparent at first glance. Which is to say, good figurative language is fresh and insightful. It encourages us to see a situation or our world in new and fresh way. It might also be befuddling, strange, or puzzling. But even a strong example of figurative language has a shelf life. It can become clichéd if it is used too often.
I see the use of analogy and one-to-one comparisons mirrored in these reflections on figurative language. An analogy is more like a metaphor, where one-to-one comparisons (or allegories) are more like similes. I count James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree as deeply analogous. His conclusion is about the identity of the cross and the lynching tree. The cross was a lynching tree, and the lynching tree is a cross. This is different from the way Aslan plays for many readers. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe does not present Aslan as metaphor or allegory. Aslan is not Jesus in the way Romeo thinks Juliet is the sun or the way Cone thinks of crosses and lynching trees. Rather, Aslan functions for many readers as a Christ-figure. Compared to crosses and lynching trees (and against the protestation of Lewis himself), many readers understand Aslan as simile or as allegorical representation of Jesus. Aslan is like Christ in his death, resurrection, and salvation of Edmund. This difference between identification and likeness is a subtle and important difference, especially for Christ-figure interpretations. Christ-figures always lean on likeness rather than identity.
When I use the term “one-to-one comparison,” I am trying to name how allegorical thinking has become clichéd. For me, Aslan as a Christ-figure has not quite become clichéd, in part because of the unexpected and underused ways Lewis plays with the comparison. I am always struck by the Beavers’ comment about Aslan as a dangerous figure. When the girls ask if Aslan is safe, Mr. Beaver response, “Safe?…Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” I have always found this instructive, especially since, at least among evangelicals, we tend to avoid thinking of Jesus as a disruptive, dangerous figure. Unlike the now-clichéd “Juliet is the sun” metaphor, I can still use the Aslan-as-unsafe insight. For certain audiences, it still has a shelf life. It is not clichéd, at least not yet.
I do not think I can say the same thing of most allegorical readings of Christ-figures in films. Not only are they overused, but they also tend not to open up fresh insights into the world in which we live or a life of faith. For me, they fulfill the main requirement for cliché. I would say the same things about redemptive readings of Gran Torino. It is a weak allegory. I count the “Walt as a Christ-figure” insight to be a one-to-one comparison for three reasons. It is too rooted in similarities; it is part of a tradition that is overused; and this particular example fails to produce fresh insights into what we think redemption is or what we think about Christ’s person or work.
The critique of one-to-one comparisons should not suggest that an analogy is a technology of certainty. Analogies may lead to thicker readings. Analogies may lead to more ethical readings. There is, however, nothing built into analogous thinking that will guarantee this in each and every case. Analogy is simply my way of trying to name an alternative to one-to-one comparisons.
Moving Evangelicals into Thicker Territory
The term “one-to-one comparison” is also my way of dealing with what I take to be a larger problem among evangelical reflections on faith and learning. When I read Robert K. Johnston’s assessment of evangelical readings in theology and film and Annalee Ward’s critique of redemptive readings of Gran Torino, I think they both have honed in on a larger problem. These thin, unethical readings seem to me simply a symptom. As someone who grew up evangelical, I count myself as deeply familiar with thin, unethical readings. I heard them week in and week out at church, in Bible studies, in college, and in graduate school. I see them in my students, both undergraduate and graduate. In response, I am constantly struggling with two questions: “How did we get to the point where thin and unethical readings are acceptably Christian?” And, “What are the conditions necessary to produce thick, ethical readings”
As to the first question, I admit that it is far too broad to answer here in any detail, so I will only gesture toward the most basic diagnosis. I have found quite persuasive accounts of the ways modernistic thinking has infiltrated evangelical thinking. The work of folks like George Marsden (Fundamentalism and American Culture) and Mark Noll (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind) tell, for me, a story of decline. Christians have a tradition of thick, ethical engagement with the world in which they live. However, evangelical Christianity has taken on the most problematic features of modern notions of truth. We tend to think of truth in a stilted, static way, and, at the same time, our intellectual production tends to lack rigor and depth. This, of course, is not the whole story, but I think it is an indispensable part of how we got to this point. Modernist versions of truth and lack of discipline help partly explain how thin readings function as acceptable Christian readings.
By way of minimal remedy, I think there is work out there that we could resource in selective and thoughtful ways. Jeremy Begbie’s work in theology and the arts (Resounding Truth; Theology, Music and Time; Music, Modernity, and God) attends to the particularity of both artistic production and theological discourse. He weaves together specific and sustained attention to theological sources and nuanced attention to, in his case, Western music. What I have learned from him is rigor, carefulness, and patience. Integrative work is difficult work, and we should not be surprised that any gains won are hard fought. Analogy is simply one way to try to mirror what Begbie does best. If we can attend to particularities of different things and do so slowly, carefully, and with as much nuance as we can muster, then perhaps we can develop fresh insights into the world in which we live and our Christian faith. Those hard-won insights might likely have the same character as a good metaphor or simile—evocative, fresh, challenging, and, most importantly, timely. They have a shelf life.
Similarly, there is a fair amount of interest in exploring alternatives to a more modernist understanding of Christian thinking and engagement. The recent work of Jamie Smith aims to complicate our concept of “worldview.” Instead of worldview formation as intellectual assent, he uses terms like “desire,” “imaginary,” and “imagination” to give a richer account of how human beings are formed. This seems to be the main focus of his recent works, particularly Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom, and You Are What You Love. What I learn from Smith is that integrative thinking demands more than intellectual, worldview assent. It demands that we inhabit alternate imaginative horizons. In this way, good analogous thinking has an artistic character to it. Artists imagine alternate worlds, possibilities, and realities that are not always apparent at first glance. The best integrative work is similarly imaginative.
In terms of ethics, I have found that I learn most when I attend to those writers who are different from myself. Part of the reason I want to read James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree is not because I agree with every theological statement he has ever made. Rather, I attend to his work because his imaginative horizon is different from and more complex than my own. Which is to say, it functions like the best art. Cone demands from me reflection regarding a host of issues: what I think ethics is, what I think theology is, what engagement with the world looks like.
I would also say that the work by all of these authors points me back to Scripture. This is partly the reason I used the example from Paul on Hagar and Sarah in my first blog post. What I rediscover in Paul is how strange, bizarre, rich, improvised, thick, unexpected, pointed, and ethically charged the whole passage is. He is trying to meet a particular need in his community, and he uses a mode of interpreting Scripture that violates our modernist, evangelical notions of truth. But there it is, in the middle of the Bible, almost taunting me to take it up. So, what if we took it up? What if we thought more like Paul, like Cone? What would it look like for us? Would it be thicker than Walt as a Christ-figure? Would it be more ethically charged? More interesting? I don’t know. I hope so. I think it can be.
My term “analogy” tries to take stock of all this and perform two tasks. First, it tries to attend with rigor to the particularities of any integrative act. Second, it works toward an alternative imaginative horizon, one that yearns to see that which is not apparent at first glance. Analogy cannot do all this work. It is not a magic bullet. But I think it can help.
 As many fans of C.S. Lewis know, claiming that Aslan is an allegory for Jesus runs against Lewis’ own analysis and intention. When Lewis states the objections, it is important to note that he is using the term in a far more specific way that I use it in these posts. Lewis assumes allegory functions in a way similar to Pilgrim’s Progress. In Bunyan’s tale, the author allegorizes concepts or immaterial things as characters. The main character, Christian, encounters characters like Prudence, Obstinate, and Mr. Worldly Wisdom. According to this definition of allegory, Aslan is not an allegory, because Aslan does not represent an immaterial Deity. I am using allegory in a slightly different way, as a synonym of the phenomenon of Christ-figures. I do not think it is too much to say that for many readers, they experience Aslan as an allegorical Christ-figure, much to the Lewis’ dismay.