the metaphors we use: discipleship: a perfect copy of Jesus, or is it in the genes?

May 23, 2008

We cannot do other but use metaphorical language in our search for God. We find the use of metaphors in the Bible. And although I’m no anthropologist, I think I might be right in saying that metaphors was part of our thinking about spirituality since the first time the spark of God tingled the imagination of humans.

Metaphors can break open new perspectives on God, on religion, spirituality, and actually on many things in life. Metaphors can also be dangerous. Maybe it’s exactly because of the power of a metaphor that it can be so dangerous. Dominic Crossan use the example of Hitler’s use of metaphors when talking about the Jews in a video clip I once saw on Youtube. Hitler didn’t start out by saying that the Jews should be killed, no, he started by saying that the Jews are cockroaches. Once this metaphor was part of the thinking of the German people, the obvious question would then be: “But what do we do with cockroaches?”. OK, obviously this is a great oversimplification of the Holocaust, but you get the point.

I attended a seminar by Alan Hirsch yesterday. I tried blogging about it yesterday, but couldn’t. I must say, although I like Alan’s way of doing things a lot, the seminar was greatly disappointing. It sounded like a constant critique against scholarly theology and all church traditions (he spared the Orthodox people yesterday, but everything from Fundamentalists, Catholics, Pentecostals to Emerging got it). And although I think critical conversation is absolutely necessary, combining this with an approach which claim to have the all the core truths intact (although bypassing the creeds, church fathers, church traditions etc), and will provide a model which will grow the church tremendously and saying that this will only happen if you kill the traditional churches… although I see the critique, I didn’t see critical conversation, because I couldn’t hear the other voices, the voices which he was critiquing yesterday.

He’s use of one metaphor maybe illustrate this very well. It’s also significant, because although I could see weak points in his argument, and even ask some questions to point this out (I think), I couldn’t critique his metaphor, although I had a feeling something was wrong. Only this morning when I was in the shower, and suddenly thought about another metaphor, did I find a way of reacting.

The metaphor was that discipleship (according the him the most important part, beside the belief that “Jesus is Lord”, of what made the early church successful), is like (yes, I know using “like” might mean that it’s not a metaphor anymore, but the way in which this picture underlies much of what he said make me think it’s more metaphor than comparison) a photocopy. If you make a copy of a copy of a copy, after a few copies it would be unreadable, you have to make copies of the original the whole time.

Thus, in discipleship we are to copy Jesus, and not copy other people. We are not to copy church traditions, teachings, mentors etc. We should copy Jesus. Well, if anyone know Alan, and think I’ve missed something, please let me know, but this is how I understood him. But come to think of it, he didn’t mention Paul saying “Imitate me as I imitate Christ”. But OK, didn’t think of that yesterday.

The metaphor seem to work. I mean, we all know that a copy of a copy of a copy result in a very bad copy, in something unreadable. But in nature this doesn’t seem to be the case. A plant, planted from the seed of a plant, planted from the seed of a plant… doesn’t result in an imperfect plant. Any living organism, being born from an organism, which was born from an organism… doesn’t result in an imperfect organism. Even a human, being born from a human, which was born from a human, which was… you get the picture. Actually, making “perfect copies” is the worst way of bringing about new living organisms, whether plantlike of animal like. The way of nature seem to be to mix genes, to learn from different sources, and this result in keeping us “fully human”. Inbreeding is the fastest way of getting mutations, which would bring something about which is not human, or whatever kind of organism you are working with. Inbreeding can also result in extinction very quickly. In The hidden Connections, Fritjof Capra explains this process beautifully.

These two metaphors (another metaphor on the same kind of thing is the baseball metaphor used by Tony Jones) open up very complex (sorry Alan, if ever you read this, but I still think things are very complex, although I agree that the statement “Jesus is Lord” was the central statement of faith for the early church, and thus agree with a lot of other things you are saying) questions. Roger formulated the one in one of the discussion sessions yesterday: So do we read Jesus through the eyes of Paul, or Paul through the eyes of Jesus?

We read Jesus through the eyes of Paul, and of the gospels, and of the New Testament, and the early church, and the church tradition. We cannot do anything else. We cannot get behind our sources (the New Testament, with different books being of differing value in our search, and for some also other sources like Q, Thomas, and other early church documents which do not rely on the New Testament as source), we have no direct contact with Jesus’ preaching. This is not to say that there is no relationship with Jesus, Jesus as God, as the personhood we belief in. But we have no direct access to the human Jesus. We look at Jesus through the eyes of our own preconceived ideas, our tradition, the New Testament.

Only in community I think can we be challenged to look past our preconceived ideas, to challenge our biases, to critically discuss the New Testament documents, weigh them, and sometimes even see their biases and start painting a picture of Jesus which might be closer to the historical Jesus than what we were taught by our tradition. But still we are limited to our sources. We cannot know something apart from our sources. We belief that Jesus was the revelation of God, that we can see something of God if we can see something of Jesus. But we get to the revelation of Jesus through the New Testament, which most Christians would also consider a form of revelation.

Another one would be whether the idea is to make perfect copies of Jesus. Is there only one perfect copy of Jesus, which mean that in the ideal world all people would think in the same way, since they would be the perfect copies of Jesus? Or maybe, this time playing around with the alternative metaphor. Is there certain genes that make me “Christian”, or even “imitator of Christ”, and that these same genes, organized in different ways, can result in different ways of imitating Christ, but which is still an imitation. Oh, and just for interest sake, as far as I understand this, a flaw in the gene in one generation does not mean that the same flaw is for ever etched into the species, over generations genes can be again be “corrected”. In bacteria there is even the capacity to get genes from another organism in the lifetime of the bacteria, which mean that genes is not necessarily final after birth. But OK, maybe I’m pushing the metaphor too far myself right now.

OK, this is a long post, but in summary: This post bought together a lot of my thoughts. One: Truth is relational, only in relation do we arrive at truth. We need the wide base to get a healthy theological gene pool. Yes, sometimes the organism, the church (seen as broadly as you possibly could), may work out genes which is considered dangerous. But one person cannot decide to get rid of this gene, this can only happen relationally.

Two: We need to understand things historically; we need to understand the history of our genes. In this way the function of a certain gene, which might have disappeared in one generation, can reappear again. The gene is still part of the organism, although we might not see it at a specific moment, or it might not manifest in a specific generation. But we are limited to our sources, we don’t have a “perfect copy of the genes of Jesus”, we only have a window onto the early church and there perspective of Jesus, from this we learn.

Three: We need to listen to different theological traditions. Not only the historical ones, but also emerging theologies (not only those identifies with the emerging church, also third world theologies and other non-western voices).

Four: One of the things that may come out wrong with my use of the metaphor is that the organism would always be fine. No, I think the organism can sometimes malfunction greatly; the organism would not always be perfect. Sometimes the organism needs to pull on it’s great gene pool of many generations to help it survive in a certain time, to help make corrections to it’s current organization of genes…

But hey, truth is relational, it happens in community. So how about you critique my organization of genes (memes?), help me see where I’m missing it, where my metaphors are helpful, what the limits of the metaphor is, where I’m pushing it too far.

3 Responses to “the metaphors we use: discipleship: a perfect copy of Jesus, or is it in the genes?”

  1. Reggie Says:

    It was good to meet you in person. Strongs


  2. […] OK, so I’ve struggled to understand Alan Hirsch ever since I met him. And really, I actually right-out disagreed with him, although I obviously join him in choir singing that the church should become more […]

  3. michaelrowancurle Says:

    Great metaphor! I’d like to have a go with it:

    I’m wondering… when Jesus said “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth…” was He speaking to his disciples then, or to His disciples through all time? What I mean is, the organism (the Church) must reflect its genes according to the pressures it experiences. And yet… if it sells out completely to a specific adaptation in order to overcome a temporary problem and loses (or sufficiently suppresses)other key genes, it can easily become extinct! That’s why I agree so strongly with you about point 1 and 3. The Spirit of Truth has been constantly revealing key truths to all the Church traditions, as these truths become crystallised in the theology of the tradition in question, it tends to become THE essential truth. Cross pollination (teachable discourse)between the traditions is the only way that all these “truth genes” can be held in the Church universal. As uncomfortable as it may seem, I believe denominationalism is here to stay and for good reason… now if we can only learn to actually listen to each other without trying to change each other.


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