Metaphors of Progress and Reform–be careful when you are right

We all work from metaphors or operating “paradigms” about what we think is happening around us. We take the data we see and try to clump things together. Like making a mud ball or snow ball (pick the climate that matches your world) we try to push things together to make them stick and when they do we have something of “weight” or merit to give meaning to our data points. We test these out by “throwing” our ideas or metaphors into conversations. Some are more bold at this then others so conversations can be easily distorted by some people’s metaphor building than others.

Staying in meaningful conversation with a metaphor and people with other metaphors is a difficult but rewarding task. It is letting their metaphor irritate, even bring you to change your mind (repentence), and let that process grow your thinking.

Metaphors guide our living…to interpret the past, read the signs around us, and project our directions for the future.

Metaphors around change are especially powerful.

I see two groups of metaphors of change in my world:

First, are the hipsters and reformers: we all need to change really fast and get with the times or you will die. That metaphor of change is the revolution.

The other dominant metaphor is: Things have changed for the worse. Get back to the original and early days. This is change that goes back to tradition or origins. That metaphor of changes is faithfulness.

I see compelling truth in both. I get tired of the radical revolutionist discount my spiritual and religious heritage and suggest structure gets in the way of progress and I also get tired of those who don’t want change.

I am trying to look for metaphors that help us see God at work in NEW ways, NEW places, and NEW groups while respecting the past contributions.

One helped me think about this. It is basically the view that progress is like planting a field crop. There is an overall direction of the change that is productive. However, each stage requires something new even as it builds on the past.

7 Stages metaphor of Progress

  1. Pilgrim It-Someone a long time ago left a bad land and triedto get close to a new Land. You benefit from their initiative.
  2. Purchase It- Someone spent their money for a future reality or harvest you benefit from but they may have never seen.
  3. Prepare it-clear the trees and rocks
  4. Plow it-break up the crowd and get it ready to receive
  5. Plant it-
  6. Foster it up (fertilize, water, weed and pest control the plants)
  7. Pick it-harvest what you planted

If each step is see as part of a whole, then I think current generations can look back and realize that the generation that went before made a contribution.

This gives us a frame to respect the role of the past in where we have gotten but also not stay in the previous stages but ontinue to work for the next NEW step and even reject the past as no longer offering usuful solutions.


That is my point.



Here is the longer version of that argument:

Metaphors are stories we tell ourselves and others to  but haven’t figured ways to see their vision for change in the others vision of a different type of change.

They guide decisions and risks. They can be oppressively negative or unrealistically distortly sanguine.

This precarious world of meaning making gets us through life…most of the time.

Some do this metaphor creation process better than others. Doing this better is not tied to formal education. In fact, formal education might limit our metaphors and limit our horizons of metaphors. It might only make us good at perpetuating the dominant but dying metaphor.

Age also doesn’t always dictate how well we do this. Often the young are better at seeing a new metaphor and seeing how it explains more of the past and presents a stable direction for the future better than the older. Sometimes the passions and lusts of the young distort metaphors and create a rebellion that has no good direction. Sometimes the old resist new metaphors to their own destruction. They can’t see that God is doing a new thing and that it has already been going on and He would like to get more on board the new metaphor (Is 43).

Women and men equally can do metaphors, although their different experiences and roles in relationships can bring different views of a situation.

Some, because of personality, skepticism, or what I call training in reading statistical charts see better the essential data they are dealing with. They have, as a statistician told me, better crap detectors. They understand the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 Errors (and so can you from reading (

Some have this uncanny intuitive ability to see stories in the data, to hear or feel a summarizing way of data analysis. Others have better ways of arranging data in graphic ways or have more diverse or useful experiences to liken the data to past experiences. Or they read more words that give them more key phrases or specific verbs to corral words into a metaphor.

What is clear is we all come to the clumping process with what we have…books, traditions, experiences and trial-n-error to help.

Ideally, we kick our metaphors through the whole process of “learning” outlined in the four of Kolb’s Learning  Style areas (see wiki explanation of learning styles

This allows us to experience life with our metaphor, reflect on it and grab other ideas to tweek it and then try it out more, even experimenting or testing hypotheses from our metaphor.

The “build yourself a metaphor” method is very crucial for surviving life. It is like the building of the Ark by Noah….it takes a long time but it can save you from many floods—overwhelming catastrophes or feelings of being separated from God.

But like the building of the Ark, its best to build metaphors in a group. In fact, I would say, apart from some special divine revelation to a prophet who has been confirmed by God and community, THE ONLY way to safely build a metaphor is while in community.

(I have seen too many people go “off the grid” in their pursuits of odd conspiracy theories that I am convinced community can save you from rigidity, stupidity and even suicide. The Waco Branch Davidian stories of the world remind us that we not only need a community, but also interaction with other communities to keep sane.)

Like the Ark we should have a similar desire to come up with a water tight metaphor and ideas that can help us be faithful to the data and truth and will get us through future situations. It should be God breathed in that we see the Spirit of God at work in this building.

Because metaphors are not only trying to explain the past and present but also trying to predict the future, we need to start working on a metaphor before it gets to the drastic point.

And because it takes belief and knowing to step into a metaphor, there is a role of persuasion in promoting a metaphor.

To review: Metaphor building is about making sense of the past to better understand the present and the future and is best built in community that is guided by the Spirit. The way metaphors get built are by conversation: either on the web or in a shared hearing and seeing space (face to face). Often, we are working on a metaphor and we lob it into a conversation and it falls flat or at other times it gets kicked around and then out, or it gets kicked around and changed, matured and utilized to bring community and learning.

Further: metaphors not only carry data, but values. It is only human to try to group data together to make meaning. In fact, if we are not doing that we are probably not getting everything we can out of the data or truth around us and not being prepared for what is ahead. But as we all know values guide what we see as valuable to add to the data of importance part of our metaphor. Metaphors rebirth our values. We can really group things together in ways that are partial, silly, and even detrimentally wrong. (Again, I am reminded of those who survived Waco’s David Koresh compound and I have stories from my own foolish decisions in the past that make me sensitive to the easy warping influence of wrong thinking and wrong groups. So when I say community, I am more expansive than just your insider group).

So, this metaphor making business is essential, life giving, future preparing and best when done in community and full of potential stupidity.  But to not risk the stupidity you may never have the joy of surviving the flood of catastrophe.

Herein lies the tension: make metaphors to pull together disparate data and values into a package of meaning but be careful as that meaning may leave data and values out that might be helpful to your learning or explaining your learning or even your future survival.

I have been amazed at this process in my own life and realize that gathering lots of voices—diverse perspectives—can really help me do metaphor building better.

I have realized this recently when wrestling with why I don’t like to hear either extreme liberals or extreme conservatives but at the same time when I am forced to listen to some of their verbal diarrhea, I see why building metaphors together is still a safe way to do it.

That is one of the points made by Jonathan Haidt in his Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

He notes how liberals tend to mix (1) CARE and (2) FAIRNESS with ideas of (6) LIBERTY with their metaphors about goodness and ethics, and downplay the other important moral value areas: (4) LOYALTY,  (5) SANCTITY (PURITY), and (3) AUTHORITY.

Conservatives tend to factor all these six together but by doing so don’t make CARE as central and dominant and reinterpret fairness as not just about a universal equal distribution but also about just results or earned results.

So a metaphor will not only group data but often glue that data to value and attitude issues which help to create meaning and certain understanding of what should be or of what “righteousness” should exist.

Haidt’s work has helped me see my blind spots and take serious the need to engage those different from me in metaphor building.

With a continual reference not only to those around me now, but to those who have authority to speak to my time, most notably the “cloud of witnesses” in the old testament and new testament and in Christian history.

So metaphor creation is a backward, upward, outward conversation that forms a story or witness of what is happening.

Let me illustrate.

I have struggled all my life with ways of relating tradition to innovation, especially religious and spiritual issues. It is a real struggle for me dating to my teen years when a new innovative thought came into my religious community and many spoke against it. While I was at first charmed by it, I later went with tradition, and burrowed my mind so far into tradition I became insular and isolated and, stupidly dying on the inside and outside.

Then I swung too far the other way.

So, I have had personally a hard time building metaphors that were stable over time and with changes. I still struggle, but I am a little better at moving between new light and “old school” religious practices trying to build some good ways to handle new stuff without through the baby out with the bath water.

But I still struggle and that was apparent over the last several years of trying to understand what is happening in my religious community with metaphors of change and progress.

I have colleagues and friends who are amazingly reform focused. They want to reinvent the church yesterday. They want to change education. They make such passionate and charismatic appeals my heart is fired up. They say we are already decades behind and if we don’t change right away, we are going to die. In fact, they hold up corpses of dead bodies and say….look man, we are dying, already dead. We have got to change—radically. Awake. Awake. Arise. Arise. Change is about repentance, repenting our old ways.

Then I have other friends who say, we have to go back to the old ways, the traditional ways and rebuild our church from the old stones. Change is about repentance of our new ways.

Reading Haidt has convinced me probably the best future is figuring out how to mix these metaphors into a new substance.

Personally this comes to my mind when I Can be brushing my teeth in an old fashioned bathroom while reading my emails on an iPhone. Old and new get blended all the time.

Why can’t messengers of future progress figure out how to do that in my religious community.

Is 43 has been about the old God doing new things but also about a new God doing old things, because the past has always been new and the new has always had a past. (I tried to edit that several times and don’t know what it really means but still like it so I left it for you to disagree with or understand better than I can).

So, recently, trying to deal with a metaphor that is quite condemnatory of our leaders, I came up with a potential unifying metaphor.

These reformed minded see in the story of King Saul a reminder that the current structure and forms are stuck and they have resisted the new king David. The spirit of the witches of fear and cowardliness have taken over the leadership and we are paralyzed at the battle with the Philistine. There is a lot of reasons to find that metaphor to be absolutely true. Progress will come by following the new king.

But, equally, there is so much tearing down of the past, its irreverence almost feeding into a anarchy, a modern religious French Revolution, that has no respect for order, authority, structure, loyalty, and purity. (Once again, reading HAIDT has helped me since the conservatives and Eastern cultures concern).  Progress will come by following the old ways.

I was ruminating about theses two equally compelling calls and came up with this metaphor.

I see God as working to build a kingdom and that progress in his kingdom, like growing plants has stages, each of which requires different types of work.

7 P metaphor of Progress

  1. Pilgrim It-Like Abraham they leave just because they believe God or their own angst that their is a better place.
  2. Purchase It- These people actually make investments related to secure “land” or material to allow future planting.
  3. Prepare it-clear the trees and rocks. This is the steady work of re-purposing a group or church.
  4. Plow it-break up the crowd and get it ready to receive
  5. Plant it-
  6. Foster it up (fertilize, water, weed and pest control the plants)
  7. Pick it-harvest what you planted

Seeing a past and future by seeing where we are at in the 7 steps or stages of growth–change–it easier for us to give attention to the present with a greater willingness to respect the past and be open to the future.

The biggest challenge is transiting well between roles and the conservatives see importance of some roles and the liberal emphasis others.

If you are plowing still when you should be planting it will irritate those at that stage.

But if you are not thinking about the end product, the need to harvest, and you are stuck on the basics of plowing, and plow and plow and plow, in a rigidly obsessive way, you want get a harvest.

So, the question is can we all be working the steps at different stages and at the same time. Jesus did envision a time in which the

Behold, the days come, saith Jehovah, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that soweth seed; and the mountains shall drop sweet wine, and all the hills shall melt. Amos 9:13

It seems if we can mix our metaphors and understandings to see God at work in all these processes seems to be the day in which a great harvest will come. Diverse metaphors simultaneously pruning and guiding actions that lead to “sweet wine” of unity and love.

I am hoping we get that vision—where we see our selves simultaneously as Saul’s moritified by the past, as well as see how we can rebell in sacrilegious ways against systems and structure designed to save us from our souls.

I went through a cracking of my church when I was a teen, when the Fordite-Traditionalist debate sent us each into our corners of narrow-headedness.

I see that about to break again on my church. I pray God my mind is ready, by God’s power and grace, to prevent that cracking from taking more causalities.

Can we come up with a better metaphor to keep the dialogue together to keep the crazies from splintering off again and again into their insularity and wise “stupidity” (which means they are right in many ways but wrong because they can’t see the whole as well without the other half being their).

Three points:

  1. Your metaphor could win an argument which will kill essential conversation. Its safer to work to export your metaphor to one that is more unifying.
  2. Your metaphor should be held loosely, promoted as one options, and when possible you should explain the benefits of an OPPOSING metaphor.
  3. Asking questions using the metaphor might be safer for everyone involved then sharing it. It might also be safer for you as your metaphor might be where God is taking us but if you share it you may be killed (which is often better than dying together because you didn’t have the right group metaphor).

Conclusion: keep building metaphors. It is the only way to live. Building bad metaphors can really really kill you and those you love.

Find ways to get your metaphor through the Kolb learning cycle—tried out, read about with conceptual depth, repositioned and tested by practice and trial and error.

Share by listening. Conversation facilitates the sharing of our interpretation of data and events as it allows us to organize the data quickly, link it to values and then package it in a simplified form to share a “whole vision” of meaning with others in more concentrated ways. So metaphors often show what data we most notice and the value assessment and evaluations we make of that data and event. Getting it out where others can see how we are crafting our metaphors can help get some help tweeking those from becoming crazy ideas.

As we mature, there is some growth in how we manage the tension of meaning making, and enough wasted or detrimental metaphors in our past can make us us more cautious about our favorite metaphor. However, we have to build our metaphor and have some confidence that what we are seeing is creating some legitimacy in our views such that we should share what is in our mind.

For some, that appears to be double-minded behavior, waffling on our own meaningful metaphor even as why we wonder what we area missing.

I call it humility: which is what has raised my concern about both the reforms and the traditionalists in my circles. Sometimes they don’t see how partial their views can appear to the rest of us trying to piece together our metaphors.

For me, this humility has become one sign of maturity that I think both the old and the new need to survive their metaphor building.

All this puts us back into community, where we dance between speaking up and listening up, where we practice some stronger self-esteem and speak our mind and at the same time try to tame our hubris to really lean into the conversation to hear what others have to say.

It is dangerous both to the conversation and to our own psyches if we can’t creatively test our metaphors with an alternative metaphor or especially with our enemies, even as we work to protect our delegate metaphors from “beastly” views that try to conform views instead of recreate them.

Our “metaphor” contains some blinding views that lead us to miss crucial insight. Keeping that in mind is “walking humbly” with God (Micah 6:8), which is the only way to keep us growing, morally, spiritually, intellectually, and socially.


2 Replies to “Metaphors of Progress and Reform–be careful when you are right”

  1. Duane: I like this metaphor paper. In the being informed by the past and changing in the future and the seven steps of cultivation of metaphor, I thought of crop rotation, keeping the landscape of our ideas and views fresh, dynamic.

    Too, I appreciate what you say about yourself in your description at the end. Very well put about the return of Jesus, that pre return judgment and the positive way we can experience both.



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