By Austin Jacobs
Recently in our series on Ruth, we have considered Boaz’s kindness to Ruth, a Moabite woman living in Judah with her mother-in-law. Ruth responds to this kindness by asking Boaz, “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?”
Boaz replies, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me. . . . a full reward be given to you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”
This answer gives readers a glimpse of Boaz’s conception of God as protective, not unlike a mother bird who hides her children from harm. Such an image of God affects the way Boaz chooses to treat Ruth as the narrative progresses.
In her book Wearing God, Lauren Winner explores metaphors for God that enable us to meet God in new, perhaps unexpected places. As is the case with Boaz, these metaphors not only shape our posture toward God, but also influence the way we relate God to others.
“We have truncated our relationship with the divine,” Winner asserts, “and we have cut ourselves off from the more voluble and variable witness of the scriptures, which depict God as clothing. As fire. As comedian. Sleeper. Water. Dog.”
Although most of the metaphors that Winner points out are intended to enhance our theological imaginations, Winner also allows the metaphors to direct how she experiences them viscerally. Winner writes, for example, of reading Paul’s instruction to the Galatian church to “put on Christ” while she is at a department store, seated among clothing racks and at the entrances to dressing rooms.
Elsewhere, Winner describes her introduction to this practice, which she learns is called “dislocated exegesis,” when she hears 1 Corinthians 13 read aloud outside a detention center. A text she had come to regard as “trite” and “hackneyed” because of its ubiquity at wedding ceremonies acquires new meaning when she hears it read in an unexpected place, unsettling her understanding of Paul’s words about love. “Dislocated exegesis makes intuitive sense to me,” Winner writes in an article in The Christian Century. “Where you read changes how you read.”
Winner’s insights lead me to wonder how a renewed willingness to imagine God via the rich variety of scriptural metaphors (and in an array of places) might broaden my conception of God’s daily activity. What, and more importantly, whom, might these metaphors direct me to see anew? If, like Boaz, I notice God as a caretaker, how might this direct me to relate to someone who is between jobs or processing the death of a parent?
A short story by Carson McCullers provides a striking example of how expanding the scope of our imaginations can shape our affections. In McCullers’ story, a man is seated in the corner of a café hunched over his beer. He beckons a boy at a nearby table to join him before offering him some unbidden advice.
“Son, do you know how love should begin?” he asks. The boy shakes his head, and the man answers his own question: “A tree. A rock. A cloud.”
He goes on to explain, “For six years now I have gone around by myself and built up my science. And now I am a master. Son. I can love anything. No longer do I have to think about it even. I see a street full of people and a beautiful light comes in me. I watch a bird in the sky. Or I meet a traveler on the road. Everything, Son. And anybody. All stranger and all loved! Do you realize what a science like mine can mean?”
The man in the story has committed himself to learning to see his surroundings as lovely. Winner seems to be advocating for a similar reorientation of our theological imagination. In addition to understanding God as shepherd, bread, or mother hen, Winner beckons us to widen the range of our metaphors for God to include more of the dynamic yet often overlooked images conjured in scripture. In so doing, we open ourselves up to re-thinking whom and how we love.