As a youngster, I always enjoyed reading Peggy Parish’s Amelia Bedelia books—the tales of an earnest, hardworking maid who didn’t understand figures of speech and who always took her employers’ commands literally. Tell Amelia to make the bed, and she’d construct a new frame and mattress for you. Tell her to weed the garden, and she’d fill it with weeds.
Today, many in the media are a bit like Amelia Bedelia when it comes to Christian terminology. Lacking familiarity with our religion’s use of figurative language, they become confused when we speak words that seem rather absurd when taken literally.
Unlike Amelia, who always assumed her employers must have had their reasons for issuing an odd-sounding command and who never accused them of being crazy, many in the media respond with cynicism and condescension when figurative Christian lingo sounds insane to them. One recent example of this has been CNN’s Kathleen Parker chastising Ted Cruz after assuming that him urging the body of Christ to rise up and support his presidential campaign was somehow a call to exhume the literal body of Jesus from the grave and get him stumping for the Texas senator.
As Mollie Hemingway noted, this embarrassing eruption of ignorance could have been avoided had Parker taken approximately 37 seconds to read Romans 12:1-5 and realize, “Oh, in Christianity, the body of Christ doesn’t just mean the physical body of Jesus, but also is a figurative way of speaking about the Church.”
Since Republican candidates are prone to lure values voters with Bible speak during primary season, this type of gaffe is likely to happen again, if not with Parker herself then certainly with other angry Amelia Bedelias in the media.
So to help prevent any more embarrassing and unjustified tongue lashings from those who don’t understand Christian imagery, let me explain a few other figurative phrases from the Bible that might pop up this election cycle and offend the untrained ear.
1. The Bride of Christ
This is another way the Bible speaks about the church. While “the body of Christ” language highlights the importance of each individual Christian who belongs to the church, “the bride of Christ” language is meant to show us the nature of Christ’s love for the church and how that self-sacrificing, sanctifying love is manifested for us, as St Paul describes in Ephesians 5:25-32.
This term, however, is only semi-figurative, meaning that, mystically speaking, Christ’s true bride is in fact the church, which is why Christians don’t believe Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene or any of the other 700 Marys mentioned in the gospels during his time on earth performing miracles, teaching, and dying and rising again.
So next week, if Marco Rubio tells Iowa voters, “My goal as a husband is to love my wife Jeanette the way Christ loves his bride,” it might be tempting to call the Florida senator sexist for not mentioning the name of Jesus’ better half. But don’t give in to this temptation. Instead, turn off your Amelia Bedelia ears and you’ll hear that Rubio is simply saying he wants to be so faithful to his wife that he’d give up his life for her, just as Jesus did for the church.
2. The Armor of God
This language, from the next chapter in Ephesians, describes spiritual warfare, the idea that Satan and his demons are trying to destroy believers’ faith and rip them out of the hands of the God who redeemed them. Just as a warrior puts on physical armor to withstand the assaults of his enemy, so Paul encourages Christians to put on the spiritual armor of truth, righteousness, readiness, faith, salvation, the word of God, and prayer. You can tell this is figurative armor because it’s hard to stab people with prayers.
So if Chris Christie wants to chip away at Cruz’s evangelical support and urges fellow believers to put on the armor of God with him to fend off Satan’s Obamacare assaults, it would be fine to criticize him for forcing Paul’s spiritual language into the political arena. But you won’t do yourself any favors if you accuse him of wanting to build a bifröst to heaven to raid the Almighty’s armory at taxpayer expense.
3. The Lamb of God
When John the Baptist declared Jesus to be “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” God didn’t go full Lonely Island and scream from heaven, “My Son is not ovine!” He didn’t scream that because he knew John wasn’t speaking of a literal lamb but identifying Jesus as the fulfillment of a figurative promise in the Old Testament.
John was saying that, when Israelites would sacrifice a lamb without spot or blemish to atone for their transgressions, God was promising them that he would one day send his sinless, perfect Son to shed his blood for the sinful, imperfect world and to make mankind’s sins no more. Therefore, the “lamb” spoken of here isn’t of the standard baa baa black or white sheep variety.
So if a fifth-place-in-Iowa Ben Carson tells the media that, after speaking with the Lamb of God, he’s decided to bow out of the presidential race, remember this. I know “Ben Carson Consults with Divine Livestock and That’s Why You Should Thank God He Won’t Be President” is a headline that would win the accolades of your average Vox reader who also struggles with Angry Amelia Bedelia Bible Comprehension Disorder, but to those who possess a passing familiarity with biblical imagery, you’ll end up sounding a bit doofy.
4. The Stump of Jesse
This language comes to us from Isaiah chapter 11. Speaking to the Israelites reeling from God’s wrath manifested through the conquering Assyrians, the prophet comforts them by essentially saying, “I know God has torn apart this nation that was once ruled by King David, the son of Jesse. But one day, God will raise up the messiah from the rubble of that kingdom to restore you. One day a shoot shall come forth from the stump of Jesse, and in him you will find your salvation.” Therefore, to Christians, the stump of Jesse is not a literal stump but another one of our wacky metaphors.
So in the offhand chance that Donald Trump tries to engage Christian voters by saying that he can make America great again just as Jesus did for the stump of Jesse, keep in mind that he would be employing figurative language. Don’t plop yourself in front of a CNN or MSNBC camera and say, “That idiot Trump must be confusing the New Testament with a fever dream he once had where Jesus reattached John Stamos’ severed arm on a ‘Full House’ episode.”
Rather, if Trump claims he can do for the people of America what Jesus did for the people of Jesse, you’ll just have to settle for accusing him of having a messiah complex—unless, of course, you’re fine with the average Christian taking you as seriously as the average first grader takes Amelia Bedelia and her poor little hyper-literal mind.