Why Ebola should not be a metaphor for unbelief

Metaphors are the balance beam of the gymnastics competition.

Image and words combine. The literal and figurative nod to each other, teammates and competitors alike. The word muscles are strong, the imagination precise, the confidence soaring as the writer leaps into a word performance that stuns the judges, the readers.

One fraction of a centimeter off, and even the strongest gymnast wobbles, stumbles, falls. The words fail.

Virginia Woolf writes that any successful essay should be “exact, truthful and imaginative.” The same might be said of a successful metaphor.

In the middle is the easy routine. Anyone can walk across a balance beam if she has two stable legs, just as most people, given the adequate vocabulary and adequate grammatical proficiency, can express an idea on a literal level.

Others can do more: a handstand or cartwheel, an overused image or an easy idea. Cliches are easy to perform safely. No risk. No gain. No imagination turning in mid-air, no surprises backflipping over the ideas. Why bother? She might as well lie down on the beam of cliched expressions and nap.

On one side, the writer falls into obscurity. It’s unclear what she means. There’s no precise image in the reader’s mind, and probably not in the writer’s mind, either.

On the other, the writer falls into inaccuracy. The image may be present in the reader’s mind, but it’s misleading (even if the writer doesn’t intend it to be). It’s untruthful.

For a metaphor to be truthful, it must illuminate something deeper within its subject, something we may have seen but not articulated, or may not have seen at all. For example, Maya Angelou writes,

“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.”

Touch the blade. See the rust. Watch the bare throat, the quickened pulse throbbing beneath her skin. Do you feel her vulnerability?

A good metaphor rips apart our perception of a thing and reveals the reality, bloody and raw and alive. When I read Angelou’s words, I sensed a deeper truth about relationships and race, and felt horror and sympathy for any black girl in this position. I hadn’t seen it that way before. I wanted to protect her. I hadn’t felt that way before.

Now compare this, from tweet by John Piper, a prominent pastor:

Yes, yes, let us give and pray and risk in the battle against Ebola. And yes, yes, even more against the Ebola of unbelief.

What deeper truth is revealed through this metaphor? Nothing.

It’s not even an accurate metaphor. Unbelief springs from within our own hearts, while Ebola is spread by human-to-human contact. I will never catch unbelief from another person; an Ebola patient’s body did not develop the disease from some cell mutation or birth defect or revolt of the body against itself. The comparison isn’t precise.

It’s a misstep as the tweeter reaches for the cliched comparison of a spiritual condition to a physical sickness. (Think of how many times writers refer to the “cancer of unbelief” or some other such spiritual word. It was meaningful about the time cancer was named. Now it’s a cliche.) Ebola was in the news, wa-la! it was the “Ebola of unbelief,” rather than the “cancer.”

Metaphors matter.

Language is important.

People can be hurt, physically hurt, when the medical terms, diagnosis, and language of suffering are flung haphazardly through our vocabulary. The urgency of the situation is lost. The suffering isn’t described.

It’s easy to ignore a suffering person when I don’t understand the need to act now.

When I was first diagnosed with depression, I heard a friend say, “I’m so depressed.” When I asked why, he described his “depression”: a bad day. Not suicidal thoughts. Not despair. Nothing that wouldn’t end after a day or two. He had appropriated a medical diagnosis (depression) to describe something that was definitely not a sickness.

My feelings weren’t hurt. What did hurt is that many, many other people had heard me say “I’m depressed” and believed he and I were describing the same feeling. We weren’t. I didn’t get the help I needed, in part because the word “depression” has been misappropriated and misused.

Think of how many times we’ve heard “oh, I could just shoot myself!” from someone who wasn’t suicidal but was aggravated with herself for a stupid action. Hearing it over and over and over lessons the impact of the words until we may not know when a person is using the expression figuratively or is in a crisis.

The Ebola epidemic is a crisis. It calls for immediate action.

“The Ebola of unbelief”?

That metaphor is no doubt intended to convey the dastardly nature of unbelief.

Instead, it minimizes the truth of the crisis, rather than revealing it. In those words, do you feel the pain of the sick, the heat of the fever, the smell of bodily fluids, the stench of decaying flesh, the agony in the marketplaces and schools and homes, the gloves and protective gear and isolation wards, fear clenching its grip around the human hearts? Do you feel compassion for the sick, sadness for the grieving? Do you feel moved to action?

Or do you feel nothing?

It’s a shame. Piper is a gifted communicator with a wide circle of influence. I disagree with his opinions on many issues, but I still respect him as my brother in Christ. He’s been given a gift with words and the gift of influence, and I fear that he is misusing it.

I read his tweet, and instead of seeing Christ and the call to love my neighbors, I’m busy watching the missteps and falls as his language falters. He jumps, and in landing, misses the beam entirely.

The words fail.

The truth is minimized.

And people continue dying.


(Tim Fall had an excellent post on John Piper’s tweet, one that takes a different approach than I do here.)


9 thoughts on “Why Ebola should not be a metaphor for unbelief

  1. Your insights into the power of words and particularly metaphors is outstanding, Laura. Either they lift the subject high for all to see more clearly or they are like a gymnast doing a floor routine by lying down on the mat and taking a nap.

    Thanks for the link back to my place too. we may have addressed the Piper tweet differently, but I like your take on it a lot.


  2. Thanks for writing this, Laura — it gives a different take from Tim’s, as you say, but both of you make great arguments: about using a case of human suffering to score spiritual points, and about the misuse of suffering-related language. The words and metaphors we use are important, and when we have worldwide influence we need to be even more mindful of that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m constantly dismayed by how carelessly some influential people speak or write. I’m sure it’s difficult to constantly guard one’s mouth (or fingers, in the case of typing!) but it’s necessary, especially for Christians. After all, we have the Holy Spirit helping us control our actions and words. Thank you for reading, Jeannie.


    1. I lost respect for him as a teacher over those comments, but I still have to respect him as a person and as my brother-in-Christ, just like I do for other Christians. I definitely read everything of his carefully, trying to discern what’s true (because truth can be found in strange places) and what isn’t.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Absolutely, no one can take away the dignity that God gave to each of us when we were made in His image.

        Nonetheless, as a person in a position of authority, as a man who so many look up to and listen to, John Piper is more accountable than others and anyone who condones abuse is showing such a lack of wisdom and a lack of compassion that I personally cannot respect him as a source of Christ-like teaching and wisdom.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This is such an important point to make about words. From what I have observed, words are regularly flung out into cyberspace by some leaders without any thought about what sort of impact they will make on other’s perception of God and the church. Maybe this misuse of a metaphor is an example of the type of carelessness that Jesus was talking about when he said we would give account for every careless word we speak or in this case tweet. The thought that I will give account to the Lord for what I write makes me tremble in my boots every time I post something.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been terrified by the power of my own words, too, and that’s often made me hesitate before posting a piece on my blog. (This is especially true when I suspect that my bipolar illness might be influencing my decision too much. I’ve seen at least one career ruined by a BP who spun out of control while blogging and made some very poor decisions before finally being forced to leave her field of work. It was sad.) I’ve recently taken down one piece that was scheduled because I was unsure of the wisdom of posting it, given some recent news events. So I understand!

      Liked by 1 person

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