13 Quotes on the Power of Metaphor to Subtly Shape Belief

Have you ever been stumped with trying to find a good image to go with an idea?

Maybe you’re a teacher or preacher, or you’re leading worship or designing a business presentation. You don’t know what image to put with your idea, so you Google your concept and look through a bunch of lame images and just get frustrated.

Early in my life in ministry I encountered the challenges of trying to develop visual imagery for worship settings. (My context was a big projection screen in a worship service.) Religion has long been dominated by systematic thinking.

Though rigorous theology is important, I observed that when communicating ideas, people tended to be more interested by what poets have to say about God than what lawyers have to say. I began to see that the best images are visual metaphors. So I began advocating for the use of visual metaphors in church life.

Now, I’ve found in James Geary’s I is an Other, the best exploration of metaphor I’ve ever read. I is an Other gives us a deep dive on why metaphor works in connecting with people, and creating meaning, and how the choice to dismiss metaphor is a risk to our aims to influence others.

This is true regardless of your discipline. Geary states:

Metaphor is most familiar as the literary device through which we describe one thing in terms of another, as when the author of the Old Testament Song of Songs describes a lover’s navel as “a round goblet never lacking mixed wine” or when the medieval Muslim rhetorician Abdalqahir Al-Jurjani pines, “The gazelle has stolen its eyes from my beloved.” Yet metaphor is much, much more than this. Metaphor is not just confined to art and literature but is at work in all fields of human endeavor, from economics and advertising, to politics and business, to science and psychology.

That metaphor can have influence in a variety of fields is kind of a new idea, relatively speaking, because. creating rational arguments has long been considered superior to creating poetic ones:

For centuries, metaphor has been seen as a kind of cognitive frill, a pleasant but essentially useless embellishment to “normal” thought. Now, the frill is gone. New research in the social and cognitive sciences makes it increasingly plain that metaphorical thinking influences our attitudes, beliefs, and actions in surprising, hidden, and often oddball ways.

Geary acknowledges the imprecision metaphor creates, and the problem this posed for an era of thinkers who sought an absolute Truth:

Metaphor got up so many philosophical noses because it seemed so imprecise. Comparing your beloved to a red, red rose might be fine if you’re writing a poem, but these thinkers believed more exact language was needed to express the “truth”—a term, by the way, distilled from Icelandic, Swedish, Anglo-Saxon, and other non-English words meaning “believed” rather than “certain.”


Even the word “literal”—derived from the Latin litera, meaning “letter”—is a metaphor. “Literal” means “according to the letter”; that is, actual, accurate, factual. But litera is, in turn, derived from the verb linire, meaning “to smear,” and was transferred to litera when authors began smearing words on parchment instead of carving them into wood or stone. The roots of linire are also visible in the word “liniment,” which denotes a salve or ointment. Thus, the literal meaning of “literal” is to smear or spread, a fitting metaphor for the way metaphor oozes over rigid definitional borders.

The way metaphor works is through creating compelling points of comparison and contrast. By paralleling an unknown concept with a known one, metaphor invites its recipients to map their knowledge onto a new idea. Geary notes that:

the Arabic word for metaphor is isti’ara, or “loan.” … A metaphor juxtaposes two different things and then skews our point of view so unexpected similarities emerge. Metaphorical thinking half discovers and half invents the likenesses it describes.

This process is better known as creativity, or the playful process of having ideas with original value, in its true essence. It is in the comparison that we discover new possibilities.

After hundreds of years of constant use, this comparison has become something of a cliché. But the metaphorical thinking that enabled the equation to be made in the first place is the essence of creativity in the sciences as well as the arts. Whenever we solve a problem, make a discovery, or devise an innovation, the same kind of metaphorical thinking takes place.

And in a nineteenth-century text:

In The Foundations of Science, Poincaré set out his general theory of ingenuity. Based on his own experience as well as his interrogations of other mathematicians, Poincaré concluded that great creative breakthroughs occur unexpectedly and unconsciously after an extended period of hard, conscious labor.

More importantly, metaphors aren’t just a literary device to occasionally employ like an arrow in your rhetorical quiver. Metaphor is actually foundational to our very language.

Three-fourths of our language may be said to consist of worn-out metaphors.

If you listen to brain researcher Iain McGilchrist, it’s actually 100%, but we just lost track of the etymological root of the other quarter. That’s because

The Indo-European root *weid, meaning “to see” became *oida (to know) in Greek, *fios (knowledge) in Irish, and words like “wit,” “witness,” “wise,” and “idea” in English, all of which originally connoted some sense of understanding as vision. In Aristotle’s metaphorical mathematics, the equation is written: Seeing = knowing.

All knowledge comes from roots in our five basic senses. If a person can’t taste, touch, smell, see, or hear it, they cannot truly know it.

Further, visual metaphors, such as I use in church communication – and advertisers use in selling products – create an additional layer of connection by making these metaphors more visceral and immediate through the use of sight and sound technologies. As Geary notes,

“The test of a true metaphor,” the eighteenth-century English essayist, poet, and politician Joseph Addison observed, “is whether or not there is sufficient detail for it to be painted.” People consistently rate metaphors with vivid, concrete imagery as most memorable, in part because most people recall pictures much better than words. Cicero, too, remarked on the visual aspect of metaphor: Every metaphor, provided it be a good one, has a direct appeal to the senses, especially the sense of sight, which is the keenest . . . Metaphors drawn from the sense of sight are much more vivid, virtually placing within the range of our mental vision objects not actually visible to our sight.

It’s frightening to realize the power of visual metaphors in communication.

Decision-making researcher Paul Slovic and colleagues asked business students in a securities analysis course to evaluate industry groups represented on the New York Stock Exchange. The students saw imagery and affective evaluations for each industry group and then reported whether they would invest in companies associated with each group. Groups with the coolest, most alluring affective profiles (the computer and technology sectors) received the most investments, even though they were among the poorest actual performers.


During the 1979–1980 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team provided optimum conditions for the study; players wore blue uniforms for the first half of the season and black uniforms for the second half. The team’s penalties averaged eight minutes when they wore blue and twelve minutes when they wore black. The players may have indeed committed more infractions while wearing black uniforms, or the referees may have merely been more wary and watchful of them in darker jerseys. Either way, the color’s metaphorical associations are strong.

Realizing this doesn’t make me want to run from communication, however; it makes me want to try even harder to utilize it with integrity and create a model for others to do the same. Knowing which metaphors to use is the key. This requires, in my mind, both theological education, professional skill, and market knowledge – the latter being the least understood. For example, Geary cites

StrategyOne, a marketing consultancy, polled about a thousand Americans, trawling for their deep metaphors about life. People often use metaphors to describe their lives, the StrategyOne survey stated, before going on to ask: “Which one of the following do you think best describes your life?” Respondents could choose from about a half dozen metaphors, such as “life is a journey,” “life is a battle” and “life is a play.” Most people, 51 percent, chose the “life is a journey” metaphor. 11 percent felt life was a battle; 8 percent said life was a novel; 6 percent said it was a race; and 4 percent were sure it was a carousel.

There are many more quotes than I can cite here. If you want to communicate to create understanding, I encourage you to read this book.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).