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Metonymy and Metaphor in Religious Language

Both Christians and Muslims view their own sacred text as authoritative. However, different Christians and Muslims will conceptualize that authority and how it works in different ways, and the analysis of metaphor and metonymy in the language of believers can provide a window into these differences. The extract below is from a recorded conversation arranged at the University ofBirmingham in 2011 between Iain, a male British Christian in his twenties working as a self-employed businessman, and Adi, an Ibadhi Muslim student in her twenties from Oman studying in the United Kingdom (both names are pseudonyms). The meeting began with an activity where the participants had to share why they thought the other participant was certain about their beliefs. They were then encouraged to share their answers and discuss them.The extract begins with Iain explaining what it means to him to say that the Bible is the “living word of God”. The topic arose as a result of a preceding discussion about the role of their respective sacred texts in consolidating their sense of certainty that their own religion is based on truth.

The MIP was used to identify metaphorical lexical units (indicated by “MR”), and Biernacka’s procedure (see Section 4.1) was used to identify instances of metonymy (indicated by “MY”). The conversation has been divided into three sections below: the first section is Iain’s initial discussion of what the Bible means to him, followed by Adi’s request for him to repeat his explanation; the second section consists of Iain’s reformulation and elaboration of his earlier comments; and the third section covers Adi’s response in relation to how she views the Qu’ran.

  • 1 Iain: like I believe the Bible isn’t just a book with words in it
  • 2 I believe it’s the living [MY/MRJ word [MY] of God, hmm
  • 3 and it has significance every day of your life
  • 4 not just, you can find, you can read one scripture
  • 5 and it’s amazing how many times scripture is relevant to your life at that particular time
  • 6 Someone else will come and give [MR/MYJ you that scripture
  • 7 and say, you know, this is a scripture that I had for [MR] you
  • 8 and you read it and you’re like wow
  • 9 and sometimes they don’t even know what’s going on in your life you know
  • 10 and the more things like that that happen
  • 11 and the more things like that that you see [MR]
  • 12 the more certain that you become of God’s involvement
  • 13 do you see |MRJ what I mean?
  • 14 I don’t know if the Qu’ran
  • 15 if you believe that in the same way [MRJ

Iain begins by placing the Bible in a special category separate from other books. He defines the Bible as “living” and then classes it as the “word of God” rather than just the words of God. This is of course a well-known description of the Bible within Christianity, and can be traced back to verses like Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”.

Modern Evangelical Christians often assume that the use of“the word of God” in this verse refers to the collection of books that came to be referred to as the Bible, and they use it in capitalized form in other contexts to refer to Jesus as the Son of God (see John 1:1). This phrase is therefore often used metonymically by Christians (as it is by Iain in this conversation) to stand specifically for the Bible, and not just some conception of the words of God in general. Evangelicals also often refer to the Bible as the living word of God in the sense that the words are taken up by the Holy Spirit and applied to people’s lives in a personal way (as Iain explains in line 24 below).The Bible is also sometimes construed as alive in the sense that God is perceived as a living being whose word is just as relevant now as when first written. This is a good example of an instance where sensitivity is needed on the part of the analyst when examining how ancient texts are understood by the people who quote them.

In Iain’s discussion, the word live can be interpreted in two ways. First, the complete phrase “the living word of God” can be understood metonymically as standing for the relationship between an inanimate static text (that was spoken by God) and the living divine entity that actively applies it to each individual. Second, the word “living” can be understood as personification. By construing the word of God as a living being, Iain highlights its potential to remain as crucial and relevant as when it was first produced. However, line 24 provides good evidence that Iain is viewing the complete phrase metonymically, though he may also be simultaneously operating with both overlapping conceptions.

“And it’s amazing how many times scripture is relevant to your life at that particular time/ Someone else will come and give you that scripture” illustrates a more subtle use of figurative language in that scriptures are being viewed as possessions that people have and which are then given to someone else, when in fact they are merely showing them the text or providing them with the reference so that they can look it up. The underpinning conceptual mapping here is the conduit metaphor, where meaning is viewed as an object being sent by the speaker and received by the person listening.There is also a part for whole metonymy at play, because the references to having a scripture for someone and giving it to them are shorthand forms for a specific sequence of actions and accompanying language. Specifically, it refers to a pattern in which religious believers constantly interact with scripture, seeking analogies between the content and events in their own lives.

The conceptual metaphors bible verses are possessions and bible verses are gifts suggest a very specific set of circumstances. This is especially the case when the action of giving someone a scripture takes place when the receiving Christian was already thinking about that same scripture. This is then perceived as a clear marker of the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit and the conception that the Bible cannot be reduced to a static text or system of ideas. This perceived supernatural element also connects to a strong emotional dimension for Iain, captured in his use of“wow” in line 8.

There is also a suggestion here that the Bible has different levels of meaning for some Christians, with an objective general meaning that is true for everybody everywhere and a personalized, highly contingent meaning that is precisely tailored to provide an answer to a specific situation. These are not viewed as distinct from each other, but as different degrees of focus and interpretation regulated and validated by the perceived work of the Holy Spirit.

  • 16 Adi: Or if it’s
  • 17 Hmm, maybe I misunderstand
  • 18 would you repeat it again?
  • 19 Iain: OK, so to me the Bible isn’t just an overall book, a history book
  • 20 or this is how God wants you to live your life
  • 21 it’s—the normal Christian term is it’s the living [MR| word [MYJ of God
  • 22 but basically it’s like an active [MR/MYJ thing
  • 23 so when you read scripture
  • 24 the Holy Spirit reveals [MRJ things to you sometimes that you wouldn’t see [MR] without reading it
  • 25 I’ve read the Bible before I was a Christian and it didn’t mean anything to me
  • 26 but reading the Bible after becoming a Christian
  • 27 it has a completely different dimension [MR| to it
  • 28 and, uhh, what I was saying with
  • 29 is it the bit with people giving [MR/MY] you scriptures that

This second extract begins with Adi asking Iain to repeat what he has said. In response, Iain reformulates his earlier comments by emphasizing that the Bible is not just a history book or a collection of rules for how people should live. He then repeats the phrase “the living word of God” and clarifies it by referring to the Bible as “active”. Again, this can be interpreted in two ways: as a metonymic representation of the relationship between the static text and the work of the Holy Spirit; or as a figurative personification of a text that is conceptualized as always relevant and applicable.

Iain consolidates this by explicitly referring to the work of the Holy Spirit in helping Christians to understand the meaning of the text in a way that wouldn’t be possible just by studying it. This is figuratively described through the use of “reveals” and “see”, both underpinned by the seeing is understanding conceptual metaphor. The suggestion here is that there is a level of meaning in the Bible which is hidden to the unsaved human mind and can only be revealed by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.

Iain goes on to describe this through the use of a spatial metaphor where the Holy Spirit reveals another dimension of significance when reading the Bible. The conversation continues with Adi’s response.

  • 30 Adi: Well, we have, we have the copies of the Holy Qu’ran
  • 31 of course in Arabic
  • 32 we
  • 33 that sometimes we find some of the words difficult
  • 34 but we look them up in the dictionary and understand them
  • 35 we try to know the history of some of the verses
  • 36 because some of them came [MR] because of something happened during the life of the prophet
  • 37 and, it’s like, when I read them
  • 38 and I guess this is the case of most who are Muslims
  • 39 we believe that
  • 40 we feel that it is not just telling us about maybe the other people or other religions or other prophets or something historical
  • 41 but also comes [MR] to give [MR] us solutions to what happens in our lives
  • 42 it’s like it gives [MRJ us rules to
  • 43 that show [MR] us how to behave with ourselves and with others

Adi’s response suggests her conception of the Qu’ran is very different from Iain’s conception of the Bible. There is no allusion to a new supernatural dimension of understanding that occurs after conversion. Instead, her focus is on the need for study to improve one’s understanding. She does use personification to figuratively represent the Qu’ran as moving toward people and providing them with solutions and rules (“comes to give us”) in addition to revealing to them how they should behave. Note that, here, verses from the sacred text are not conceptualized as the possession of individual believers who give those verses to others, but rather as a personified entity that “gives” itself to its readers. This language emphasizes a more objective conception of the Qu’ran’s meaning compared to Iain’s more personalized and contingent conception of the Bible’s meaning to him.This sense of objectivity is further consolidated by a lack of reference to emotional involvement. For Iain, it is the Holy Spirit that makes the Bible’s meaning directly visible (“reveals”), whereas for Adi, the Qu’ran provides rules that then reveal (“that show us”) how people should behave.

Analysis of the metaphorical language in a conversation can reveal both clear and subtle differences in how two individuals experience an important aspect of their religion. However, applying the results of this brief analysis to nil Christians or Muslims is problematic. For example, far more data would be required to establish how widespread this combination of the conceptual metaphors bible verses are possessions and bible verses are gifts is in Christian practice. More investigations would also be required to establish whether similar figurative language is largely absent from typical Muslim discourse.

In order to demonstrate how multiple sources and contexts can allow a more complex and nuanced understanding of how believers view an aspect of their religion, it is useful to compare Adi’s conception of the Qu’ran to an explanation provided in an online Muslim testimonial by Wehner (2010).

Around this time, I started to read the Qu’ran at home. My husband at the time (I have since divorced him) did not like my interest in Islam. When I would read the Qu’ran, I would do so in private without his knowledge. At first, I felt that I was doing something blasphemous. I remember being very scared that God would be upset with me. I thought to myself how can any book other than the Bible be from God? I tried to listen [MR.] to my heart [MR/MY], and it was telling [MR] me to read. Some of the passages of the Qu’ran felt as if they were written just for me. I found myself sitting there and crying many times.

(Wehner 2010)

In this extract, “heart” is identified as metonymic in that it appears to stand for the emotional and instinctual center of her being. “Heart” is also identified as metaphorical in that it is being personified as something that tells you something and can be listened to. At this particular point in the testimonial, the Qu’ran is not being construed as a technical work that requires study to understand. Instead, the emphasis is on a perceived resonance between the text and the emotional center of a person, and on how that person felt inexplicably compelled to read it despite her negative preconceptions. The writer then goes on to add an even more powerful subjective and emotional element by describing how the words of the Qu’ran appeared to match her precise situation so closely that it made her cry.This matches other sources that talk about extreme emotional responses to reading or listening to recitations of the Qu’ran (Shepard, 2014) in addition to sources that stress the perceived beauty and aesthetic value of the language.

Analyses of conceptual metaphor and metonymy can be useful in providing a window into how believers view and practice their beliefs. Although analysts must be careful not to overgeneralize the results, divergences in the ways Iain and Adi approach their respective sacred texts are worth noting. Iain, as a Christian, feels led to share a Bible verse that is then perceived as supernaturally providing an answer to a very specific set of circumstances. The nature and development of particular strands of Christianity seem to have motivated the development of this way of approaching the Bible. Adi seems somewhat confused by this practice and instead emphasizes the need to study the Qu’ran so as to understand how to live.

For both, their use of metonymy offers a potential window into how they think

about doctrine and religious experience.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. In ancient Chinese texts, the term jiinzi, literally “son of the prince”, referred to someone of noble birth, but Confucius used the term to refer to a person who exemplified the virtuous conduct befitting such a person (Olberding, 2012). In this case, does Confucius’s reinterpretation of the term involve metonymy or metaphor?
  • 2. Can you think of other similar instances in which a traditional term is reinterpreted as a step in launching a new philosophical or religious movement?
  • 3. Make a list of place metonymies from a religion with which you are familiar. How does physical space come to stand for the objects within the space or for the rituals performed in the space?
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