Gospel Analogies

In his Rhetoric, Aristotle taught that analogies such as metaphors and similes function as ways to “get at something fresh” (as one translation puts it). They have a cognitive, teaching function that could be used to instruct and persuade an audience if used correctly.

One of the ways this worked, Aristotle taught, was when there is a disconnect between what you as the teacher/orator/whatever know and want to express, and what the audience knows, an analogy such a metaphor is likely the best way to get the point across. By taking something familiar to the audience and likening it to something the audience doesn’t “get”, you create understanding because the audience has to draw connections between the familiar thing and the “fresh” thing.

The danger, of course, is that the audience might misinterpret or draw the wrong conclusions. The parables in the NT function as extended metaphors/similes in the Aristotelian sense, and sometimes people can draw odd conclusions from them (like those who use the parable of the sower to argue for strict predestination).

My favorite way to teach the use of and problems with analogies/metaphors/similes is a scene from the first Shrek movie:

SHREK: For your information, there’s a lot more to ogres than people think.
DONKEY: Example?
SHREK: Example? Okay, um, ogres are like onions.
DONKEY: They stink?
SHREK: Yes. No!
DONKEY: They make you cry?
DONKEY: You leave them out in the sun, they get all brown, start sprouting’ little white hairs.
SHREK: No! Layers! Onions have layers! Ogres have layers! Onions have layers.
You get it? We both have layers.
DONKEY: Oh, you both have layers. Oh. You know, not everybody likes onions. Cake! Everybody loves cakes! Cakes have layers.
SHREK: I don’t care… what everyone likes. Ogres are not like cakes.
DONKEY: You know what else everybody likes? Parfaits. Have you ever met a person, you say, “Let’s get some parfait,” they say, “Hell no, I don’t like no parfait”? Parfaits are delicious.
SHREK: No! You dense, irritating, miniature beast of burden! Ogres are like onions! End of story. Bye-bye. See ya later.

Shrek has only one thing in mind: layers. Onions have layers, so do ogres. Donkey, on the other hand, draws all sorts of interesting and irrelevant connections in this analogy, even though Shrek intended none of these comparisons.

Now, there are quite a few analogies used in churches, usually to teach children, that get a lot of flack from the ‘Nacle intelligentsia. Ridiculed as idiotic and/or dangerous, there seems to be a lot of smug “we are so much better because we would never use such lame analogies in our teaching” going around. And, frankly, often it’s justified. There are a lot of odd analogies that get used in church, and many deserve to be abandoned.

But I’m also afraid that we may just be too much like Donkey, and read bizarre, unintended connections between the analogy and what was intended (as well as what actually gets taught). I’m going to revisit two for now, but what I want this post to be is one where commentators don’t post quick “oh, I hate this analogy because it really just teaches kids to drop acid” and leave it at that. I would prefer thoughtful ideas that go beyond knee jerk reactions. Assume anyone who reads your comment doesn’t agree with you (but still likes you), and spend some time justifying your reaction.

Analogy one: Sin is like pounding nails into a board and repentance is like pulling them out.

My comments: This is usually the most abused gospel analogy. It really has two parts, and most of the objections come from the second. However, there are problems with both parts, as well as (often overlooked) strengths.

In the first part of the analogy, sin is represented as nails in a board. We are the board, apparently, and driving nails into the board does damage by creating holes in the board. This does a good job of illustrating the damage sin causes. Sin is dangerous, and we should always keep in mind that even a little sin causes harm to us. Of course, the problem is that sometimes nails need to be driven into boards. Most houses are built on the principle that its sometimes a good ideas to drive nails into boards.

The second part becomes more problematic. We repent, the nails get pulled out. What’s left is a visibly weaker board with a lot of holes in it. Yet, the idea of repentance is that the Lord remembers our sin no more, and the sin will no longer keep us out of his kingdom. On that level, the remaining holes seems very problematic.

Yet – Yet, repentance does not wipe away every possible trace of a sin. If you burn someone’s house down, repentance isn’t going to rebuild the house. If you get your 16 year old girlfriend pregnant, repentance won’t make the pregnancy go away. People who become addicted to (whatever), even if they stay clean, often never lose the cravings. David could not bring Uriah back, not matter how much godly sorrow he experienced. Etc. On that level, the holes that remain in the board illustrate that, even though we can repent and be right in the eyes of the Lord, sin causes lasting damage. That’s why President Kimball often said that, despite the thoroughness of repentance, it would be better to have never committed the sin in the first place.

In this case, I would say that the analogy is an okay one (though there are better ones out there), but if used, it needs to be done with several qualifications and caveats.

Analogy two: Faith is knowing the sun will rise. Faith is knowing the light will come on when you turn on the light.

My comments: despite semi-official endorsement from the Primary songbook, I don’t like this one very much. The brother of Jared had faith no more when he “knew” something for sure. The sun rising and the light going on when I flip the switch are directly observable phenomena that I can see over and over again. Often the things I exercise faith in give me no immediate, observable feedback. I likely won’t “know” (in the same way I know the sun will rise) until after I’m dead, if then.

However, the analogy isn’t totally bad. Most of us really don’t know HOW the actual mechanism behind the sun rising/lights turning on. Heck, David Hume has already shown us how it’s really impossible to know anything for certain. For many of us (and especially children) the sun rising, etc. is a mystery. It really is taken on faith.

I don’t like the analogy, but I can see how it would work for children, so I don’t object to it (too much).

Add your own critiques of the above, or other gospel analogies. Just recall, I don’t really want one or two lines that say “that one with the kid and the bridge blows chunks” – explain why it’s not so good, please.

Fire away.

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About Ivan Wolfe

Ivan Wolfe teaches rhetoric at Arizona State University. He has a PhD in English from the University of Texas - Austin, and a BA and MA in English (with minors in Classical Greek, Music, and Philosophy) from BYU. He has several credits on various Christmas albums aimed at the LDS market, several essays in Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series, and various book reviews in academic and popular venues. He also competes in Scottish Highland Games and mud run/obstacle course races, and he can deadlit over double his bodyweight (his last PR was over 500 pounds). He is currently married to Lisa Renee Wolfe. He has six kids and four stepkids.

12 thoughts on “Gospel Analogies

  1. It seems clear to me that repentance and faith in the Atonement combine to remove all eternal consequences of sin.

    It’s not at all clear to me that these principles have any particular power over the temporal consequences of sin. That’s not their purpose.

    It’s up to the sinner and his community to ameliorate the temporal consequences of sin. The arsonist can help rebuild the house — indeed, we rightly expect it of him as part of the repentance process. The fornicator can marry his girlfriend, if in a position to do so, or can encourage her to give the baby up for adoption. Again, we rightly expect this of him as part of the repentance process.

    And it is a process. It takes time. Sometimes it takes a lifetime.

    But time is irrelevant in the eternities in which the Atonement is sovereign.

  2. I find Boyd K. Packer’s debtor/creditor analogy to be a very unfortunate way of teaching the atonement, yet the LDS church has even produced a short film dramatizing the story. It reduces a powerful idea to a mere transaction, yet another quid-pro-quo of the business world. It conjures up images of a deity who employes a panel of “celestial accountants,” busily tallying up your ever-increasing “debt,” so they can one day present you with the amount due. It reduces the idea of a redemptive messiah to yet another savvy businessman or mafia boss, out to be duly paid for his favors. It places the focus of a spiritual life on what one *does*, rather than on who one *becomes*.

    When I’ve commented to LDS friends about this “transactional” teaching of the atonement, they have almost always objected strenuously. Then I remind them of Packer’s analogy, and they almost always admit my point.

  3. Ivan, I think analogies are only really unfortunate when the listeners themselves try to stretch the analogy to cover their own pet ideological constructs. Especially when the stretching makes the analogy say things that are actually untrue doctrinally.

    Nick’s example is a good one. It shows how an Elder Packer’s analogy – perfectly instructive and acceptable in limited context – is easily misapplied to reinforce common Mormon misunderstandings of the nature of the Atonement and grace.

  4. Seth: I agree with everything but the “only” part – I think they can be unfortunate when they’re really bad or insipid. And there are just plain bad analogies.

    Nick: I think Seth said it better than I could, so I’ll defer to him.

    Kent: Good points, though rebuilding a house isn’t always the same – it will never be the original house. I could make several similar points for your other examples, but since I think your overall point is correct, I’ll demure.

  5. Ivan,

    I love this post. Analogies are no end of problems and for some reason everyone seems to love them. My own theory is that we prefer to think in analogies because it allows us to be very intellectually sloppy while thinking we are being brilliant. I tend to dislike even good analogies because we get so comfortable thinking in terms of the analogy that we can forget to discover what lies behind the analogy.

    An example of this is the repentance analogy of being “washed clean” from our sins. To be sure, it is a good analogy and is used a lot in the scriptures. However, when we try to be explicit about what constitues the “stain” of sin, and how such a stain is “washed away” by repentance, we find out that a lot of disagreement and confusion lies just beneath the surface of a statement we are all totally comfortable with. I personally believe that the “stain” of sin exists only in our characters, and the “washing clean” only happens as we develop a character that is no longer inclined toward that sin. Thus, the atonement is there to help us and enable us to change; in this way it washes us clean. I have found that this idea meets with resistance by those who think in terms of the analogy only. Pretty much all analogies having to do with the atonement are problematic because the atonement is too complicated to perfectly align with any single analogy, and we cannot help ourselves from extropolating upon the analogies farther than is warranted. And yes, that one with the kid and the bridge blows chunks…

  6. Pretty much all analogies having to do with the atonement are problematic because the atonement is too complicated to perfectly align with any single analogy, and we cannot help ourselves from extropolating upon the analogies farther than is warranted.

    Is there any way to discuss “atonement” outside of analogies and metaphors?

    Ransom: analogy/metaphor
    Redeemer: analogy/metaphor
    Payment of Debt: analogy/metaphor
    Washing/Cleansing: analogy/metaphor
    At-one-ment: analogy/metaphor

  7. I once drew an analogy between the Atonement and gauge fields in particle physics. I imagine there are maybe a hundred persons in the entire Church for whom this analogy would be meaningful.

    For me it was profoundly meaningful.

    I suspect greenfrog has hit the nail on the head: We make analogies about the Atonement because it’s the only way we can make any progress understanding it.

  8. After reading Cosmic Jackpot and understanding very little I could see how if Christ has power over all the forces, energies, particals and matters it would be simple for Him to Atone for out sins. I can think of many analogies in quantam physics that would help better understand how the Atonement could work. I hope I can some day receive some revelation to help me better understand the Atonement without going though what He did. But I think going through life riping experiences that teach us how and why it was nessary.

  9. The only clear description of the atonement (sans analogies) that I find clear is that offered by Blake Ostler. His books are seminal and profound.

  10. KW: agreed. Ostler’s books are amazing.

    Kent: I once heard a chemist use different chemical states like “covalent bonds” to explain relationships among people and the gospel. It was fairly basic stuff, and despite not being very scientific (other than basic 101 classes), I found the analogy rather well done and moving.

  11. Is there any way to discuss “atonement” outside of analogies and metaphors?

    I think Blake’s work is great. Since self-promotion is usually tolerated in the ‘nacle, I might also point out that my article on atonement theory does not rely on an analogy to explain the significance of the atonement.

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