Figurative Language for teaching: Allegory

After a little break from going through the parts of figurative language, I’m back.

We’ve covered the simile, the metaphor, and personification. I particularly enjoy looking at some of the great preacher’s use of these linguistic tools, so I’ve included a paragraph from language-master Charles Spurgeon and contemporary preaching-poet John Piper in some of the posts. Hopefully these refreshers will help salt up your language as you teach.

Here’s the lesson on allegory. Delvin writes:

An allegory (from the Greek allos, other, and agoreuein, to speak), is a form of expression in which the words are symbolical of something. It is very closely allied to the metaphor, in fact is a continued metaphor.

Allegory, metaphor and simile have three points in common, –they are all founded on resemblance. “Ireland is like a thorn in the side of England;” this is simile. “Ireland is a thorn in the side of England;” this is metaphor. “Once a great giant sprang up out of the sea and lived on an island all by himself. On looking around he discovered a little girl on another small island near by. He thought the little girl could be useful to him in many ways so he determined to make her subservient to his will. He commanded her, but she refused to obey, then he resorted to very harsh measures with the little girl, but she still remained obstinate and obdurate. He continued to oppress her until finally she rebelled and became as a thorn in his side to prick him for his evil attitude towards her;” this is an allegory in which the giant plainly represents England and the little girl, Ireland; the implication is manifest though no mention is made of either country. Strange to say the most perfect allegory in the English language was written by an almost ignorant man, and written too, in a dungeon cell. In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan, the itinerant tinker, has given us by far the best allegory ever penned. Another good one is The Faerie Queen” by Edmund Spenser.

* * * Application for Teachers* * *

I would caution teachers to be careful with allegory. It is a tool best used in the realm of the written word, and not as much as the spoken word. If they are used, they should be short and illustrative. They should fill in the white spaces; they should season the meat. Never allow them to serve as the main course of a service. Spurgeon said it in a previous post:

“Illustrate richly and aptly, but not so much with parables imported from foreign sources as with apt similes growing out of the subject itself.”



Figurative language for teaching: Personification

We continue again today in looking at different usages of figurative speech that are helpful for the teacher/preacher. We’ve already looked at the simile and the metaphor. Now, our interest is in personification.

Joseph Delvin, our teacher on the subject, and the writer of the free ebook How to Speak and Write Correctly, says this:

Personification (from the Latin persona, person, and facere, to make) is the treating of an inanimate object as if it were animate and is probably the most beautiful and effective of all the figures.

“The mountains sing together, the hills rejoice and clap their hands.”

“Earth felt the wound; and Nature from her seat, Sighing, through all her works, gave sings of woe.”

Personification depends much on a vivid imagination and is adapted especially to poetical composition. It has two distinguishable forms: 1) When personality is ascribed to the inanimate as in the foregoing examples, and 2) when some quality of life is attributed to the inanimate; as a raging storm; an angry sea; a whistling wind, etc.

* * * Application for the teacher* * *

John Piper is a notable preacher who often uses personification. He describes himself as “romantic rationalist”, and his books and sermons often reflect his poetical inclinations. For example, take this section from his book, Don’t Waste Your Life:

Affliction raised his sword to cuff off the head of Paul’s faith. But instead the hand of faith snatched the arm of affliction and forced it to cut off part of Paul’s worldliness. Affliction is made the servant of godliness and humility and love. Satan meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. The enemy became Paul’s slave and worked for him an even greater weight of glory than he would have ever had without the fight. In that way Paul– and every follower of Christ– is more than a conqueror.

Instead of saying something like: God used affliction to grow Paul’s faith, and that makes us more than conquerors– Piper creates the image of a battle scene. Affliction is raising its sword. Faith, pinned against the ground, not only escapes the attack but uses it for his benefit. Intangible concepts are given concrete actions, and in doing so an image is created. Personification resurrects what could be a dry dead concept into a living battle scene that captures the mind.

When thinking through concepts, think of scenes that capture truths. Give truths life by ascribing personhood to them. Make justice stare unflinchingly. Make love into a relentless prince. Make mountains cry out for mercy and forests rejoice over grace. Take the dust of your dry language and breathe life into its nostrils, and behold a living sentence.

Figurative language for teaching: the Metaphor

Click here for more information on this series I’m doing on figurative language for teaching.

Next, the metaphor.

Joseph Delvin writes:

A metaphor (from the Greek metapherein, to carry over or transfer), is a word used to imply a resemblance but insatead of likening one object to another as in the simile we directly substitute the action or operation of one for another. If, of a religious man we say, — “He is as a great pillar upholding the church,” the expression is a simile, but is we say, — “He is a great pillar upholding the church,” it is a metaphor. The metaphor is a bolder and more lively figure of speech than the simile. It is more like a picture and hence, the graphic use of metaphor is called “word-painting.” It enables us to give the most abstract ideas form, color and life.

Our language is full of metaphors, and we very often use them quite unconsciously. For instance, when we speak of the bed of  a river, the shoulder of a hill, the foot of a mountain, the hands of a clock, the key of a situation, we are using metaphors.

Don’t use mixed metaphors, that is, different metaphors in relation to the same subject: “Since it was launched our project has met with much opposition, but while its flight has not reached the heights ambitioned, we are yet sanguine we shall drive it to success.” Here our project begins as a ship, then becomes a bird and finally winds up as a horse.

* * * Application for the teacher* * *

Use metaphors. If you want some example of some great metaphor, read some Spurgeon. I’ll give you a teaser:

Beware of those extremely popular compilations of illustrations which are in every Sunday-school teacher’s hand, for nobody will thank you for repeated what everybody already knows by heart: if you tell anecdotes let them have some degree of freshness and originality; keep your eyes open, and gather flowers from the garden and the field with your hands; they will be far more acceptable than wither specimens borrowed from other men’s bouquets, however beautiful those may once have been. Illustrate richly and aptly, but not so much with parables imported from foreign sources as with apt similes growing out of the subject itself. Do not, however, think the illustration everything; it is the window, but of what use is the light which it admits if you have nothing for the light to reveal? Garnish your dishes, but remember that the joint is the main point to consider, not the garnishing. Real instruction must be given and solid doctrine taught, or you will find your imagery pall upon your hearers, and they will pine for spiritual meat.

Figurative language for teaching: the Simile

Here’s the first post in a series about using figurative language for teaching. Click here for the introduction to the series.

Joseph Delvin writes:

The simile (from the Latin similis , like) is the likening of one thing to another, a statement of the resemblance of objects, acts, or relations; as “In his awful anger he was like the storm-driven waves dashing against the rock.” A simile makes the principal object planer and impresses it more forcibly on the mind. “His memory is like wax to receive impressions and like marble to retain them.” This brings out the leading idea as to the man’s memory in a very forceful manner. Contrast it with the simple statement– “His memory is good.”

Sometimes simile is prostituted to a low and degrading use; as “His face was like a danger signal in a fog storm.” “Her hair was like a furze-bush in bloom.” “He was to his lady love as a poodle to its mistress.” Such burlesque is never permissible. Mere likeness, it should be remembered, does not constitute a simile. For instance there is no simile when one city is compared to another. In order that there may be a rhetorical simile, the objects compared must be of different classes.

Avoid the old trite similes such as comparing a hero to a lion. Such were played out long ago. And don’t hunt for farfetched similes. Don’t say– “Her head was glowing as the glorious god of day when he sets in a flambeau of splendor behind the purple-tinted hills of the West.” It is much better to do without such a simile and simply say– “She had fiery red hair.”

* * * Application for teachers * * *

I think, as in writing, the teacher ought to think through beforehand ways to communicate truth that grip. Oftentimes, in the moment, the simile just isn’t there. I imagine that there are some people who can create majestic similes on the fly– Spurgeon was otherworldly in his skill to do this– but must of us can’t, and so in our preparation we must think hard about concrete imagery that rightly communicates truth.

Read the Psalms and you’ll see how powerfully this kind of imagery is used: “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs for you, O Lord” and “Will you be angry forever? Will your jealousy burn like fire?”

Or even in the prophets: “Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” Did not Peter grab our attention when he reminded us that our adversary prowls the earth like a roaring lion?

Think hard about grace, think hard about holiness, think hard about wrath– and do your best to find a way to communicate it with force. Let your words be like well-driven nails that drive home truth– to the glory and honor of our great God.