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Home » Book Reviews

BECAUSE YOU BEAR THIS NAME by Bonnie Howe

Submitted by on March 25, 2010 – 10:57 am2 Comments

How do 21st-centurty American Christians read a 1st-century text and have it speak to them authoritatively?  How can the Bible be more than merely “one source among many” for Christian ethics?  Bonnie Howe uses insights into metaphor’s place in the human cognitive process to describe how Christians can (and do) understand (and misunderstand) the meaning of a scriptural text like 1 Peter.  Howe demonstrates in what ways metaphor serves to guide and constrain ethical thought and action—both in the biblical text and in the lives of contemporary readers.  Cross-cultural similarities as well as important differences in the patterns of metaphorical language, thought, and action serve as the means by which Howe hopes to help contemporary Christians engage the ancient text in a very real and potentially transformative conversation.

In order to facilitate our encounter with the text, Howe takes a cross-disciplinary approach.  She begins with a brief history of the hermeneutics of metaphor to show how and why the view of metaphor as a peripheral, poetic, and (merely) linguistic device has held sway in one form or another for so long.  Howe then turns to recent developments in cognitive linguistics which describe metaphor as a common, everyday conceptual tool that shapes not only how we speak but how we think, act, and even experience the world around us.  Howe describes the dynamics of metaphor mapping across conceptual domains (ala George Lakoff and Mark Johnson) and the “embodied” nature of “primary” metaphors (ala Lakoff, Johnson, and Joseph Grady) as well as cognitive blending from multiple “input spaces” (ala Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner).   That all sounds rather complicated—and indeed, it is—but it is also arguably the way our minds work in everyday, ordinary circumstances as well as when reading and interpreting a text like 1 Peter.  Howe ends the first half of her book by bringing ethics and biblical interpretation into the discussion, specifically by looking at two “analogical” approaches to ethics and the Bible.  Howe finds both strengths and deficiencies in the work of William Spohn and Richard Hays, raising questions from a cognitive linguistic perspective on metaphor.  Howe’s careful critique calls for a more fully developed theory of metaphor in Christian ethics and biblical interpretation.

In the second half of the book, Howe turns to an analysis of 1 Peter as a whole, using the cognitive linguistic tools she has already described.  The payoff is well worth the theoretical discussions which necessarily paved the way: when the metaphorical rubber finally hits the exegetical road, it’s quite a ride!  Bookended by thoughtful chapters on the reading process itself, Howe’s approach to the text of 1 Peter is reverent and stimulating, faithful and challenging at the same time.  Throughout she is careful to do metaphor analysis in terms of the Greek vocabulary in order to deal with the text on its own terms.  She is also sensitive to the cultural setting of this New Testament epistle; she brings out subtleties based on divergent cultural understandings of things like slavery, moral accounting, household dynamics, or fatherhood.  At the same time, Howe also grounds Peter’s metaphor system in common human experiences to make it easier for contemporary readers to engage the text.  Howe writes: “The trick is to become aware of the competing (modern) metaphor schemas and framings that we bring to the reading.  If we are to enter the authorial audience, we must try on the 1st-century versions, let them come to the foreground” (205).  This she does repeatedly with great success.

As a whole, Howe’s work is convincing in its basic arguments and approach.  The interdisciplinary nature of the book is one of its most compelling features.  Such an intentionally expansive approach, however, means some of the discussions remain necessarily broad.  I suspect experts in the fields of ethics, cognitive linguistics, or exegesis might find nuances with which to quibble, but each of those fields will also benefit from the careful reading and analysis Howe presents.

Any weakness in Howe’s approach seems primarily to be inherited from the cognitive linguistic theories with which she works.  A focus on the larger conceptual dynamics of metaphor tends to downplay the unique dynamics of individual texts in their specific contexts.  Though Howe is expressly concerned with reading the text carefully, the tools she is using are occasionally too broad for the task at hand.  (Her treatment of the exile metaphor in 1 Peter, for example, though at times brilliant, includes some inferences which may be appropriate at a more general level of cultural knowledge about exile but don’t seem to fit with the particular argument of this particular text.)  The only way to fine-tune the approach Howe is suggesting, however, is to do more of this kind of careful analysis not only of the culturally-embedded metaphors of the biblical text but also of the metaphors embedded in our own lives and cultures.

Howe’s work is motivated by the observation that the biblical text has often been marginalized as too far removed from our present situation to be of much practical (or ethical) use.  For Howe, there is a way past the “ugly ditch” separating biblical text and the lives of contemporary readers.  Metaphorical concepts are grounded in common human physical and social experience.  Metaphor can also shape language, thought, and action trans-culturally in similar ways.  Howe finds in these dynamics a common ground between scriptural text and contemporary Church which invites further consideration.  Howe’s work also introduces analytical tools and raises textual/interpretive questions extremely relevant to anyone interested in engaging the Scriptures.  It should be commended not only to Christian ethicists, biblical scholars, and professors, but to parish pastors, deaconesses, and all congregational leaders, for, as Howe notes, “Our choices and actions are rooted in the inferences we make based on the understandings and experiences metaphors evoke and express. … Responsive reading of 1 Peter entails noticing the metaphors Peter suggests Christian ought to live by, and it means taking responsibility for our choices as we accept or reject his message, as we do or do not faithfully bear this name” (356).

Justin Rossow

2 Comments »

  • Nathan Esala says:

    Sounds like a book I need to read. I think cognitive liguistics has a lot to add to our hermeneutical approach. I have played around with employing Lakoff and Johnson and Fauconnier and Turner to Pauline metaphors in Galatians and have found the approach helpful (though at times I feel I am drowning trying to grasp things). I concur that the danger of cognitive linguistics is that it overrides experiencing the text as text or as story or discourse or what you call the specificity of individual texts. So it cannot be used in isolation but the arguments for how we actually think and how powerfully metaphor works cannot be avoided and indeed are part of actually attending to the text rather than our own preconceived cognitive models. Thanks for the review!

  • Nathan Esala says:

    Sounds like a book I need to read. I think cognitive linguistics has a lot to add to our hermeneutical approach. I have played around with employing Lakoff and Johnson and Fauconnier and Turner to Pauline metaphors in Galatians and have found the approach helpful (though at times I feel I am drowning trying to grasp things). I concur that the danger of cognitive linguistics is that it overrides experiencing the text as text or as story or discourse or what you call the specificity of individual texts. So it cannot be used in isolation but the arguments for how we actually think and how powerfully metaphor works cannot be avoided and indeed are part of actually attending to the text rather than our own preconceived cognitive models. Thanks for the review!

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