IVP - Addenda & Errata - Good Text, Bad Analogy

February 12, 2010

Good Text, Bad Analogy

Not long ago I heard a sermon series by a pastor of a tall-steeple downtown church. It was a series that took us through a book of the Bible. Throughout the series the pastor used an analogy based on one of his favorite sports, one that is outside the experience of most people. That in itself was not so deadly. But for the life of me, I could not see a consistent or compelling connection between this sport and the biblical book. The message of the biblical book seemed obfuscated rather than illuminated.

My editorial mind was so distracted by this fact, that I had difficulty focusing on listening. I also wanted to shout out, “The text itself is far more interesting than your analogy is allowing for!” (Rather like what I felt when watching a production of “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” shortly after studying and teaching the narrative intricacies of the fascinating biblical story.) “Your analogy is in fact constricting it!” It would have been cruel to point this out, though I wondered how many of my fellow worshipers were feeling the same disconnect. My wife was, I know.

And yet.

And yet I recently read David Brooks commenting on this point:

After Hitler came to power, the sociologist Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy emigrated to the United States. Rosenstock-Huessy began teaching at Harvard and converted his lectures into English. He noticed, though, that his students weren’t grasping his points. His language was not the problem, it was the allusions. He used literary and other allusions when he wanted to talk about ethics, community, mysticism and emotion. But none of the students seemed to get it. Then, after a few years, he switched to sports analogies. Suddenly, everything clicked.

“The world in which the American student who comes to me at about twenty years of age really has confidence in is the world of sport,” he would write. “This world encompasses all of his virtues and experiences, affection and interests; therefore, I have built my entire sociology around the experiences an American has in athletics and games.”

So sports analogies are good in America.

But while listening to the sermon series, what really worried me was the thought that I’ve probably done the same—as the preacher in choosing an activity or experience that is not widely shared and hinging too much of my point on it. Or, maybe as Rosenstock-Huessy, I’ve depended on literary or historical or other high-brow allusions (hey, it comes with the profession!). And then too, how often have I let authors do the same without pointing out that they might not be communicating well to most of their readers?

This has led me to propose some guidelines for avoiding these obfuscations perpetrated by personal interests. And since I’m one of the few people in the USA who didn’t watch the Super Bowl last Sunday (seriously: I was happily installing a bilge pump in a sailboat—if that doesn’t say it all!), I need to be particularly careful. So here is what I’ve come up with so far. Maybe you can offer some more.

  • If the analogy requires a good deal of explanation, and certainly if it threatens to submerge the point, forget it.

  • If the analogy is based on too specialized an experience or activity (even if it is a sport!), such that not many in the audience will have experienced or observed it, forget it.

  • If the analogy is likely to make some in your audience question your sanity in enjoying such a thing, reconsider it (unless you don’t mind setting yourself up for this kind of reaction).

  • If the analogy has to be forced to fit the subject and you hear that little voice in the recess of your mind suggesting that perhaps the connection is getting thinner and thinner, listen to the voice and abandon the analogy.

  • If the analogy requires more than one qualification for it to work, forget it.

  • If the analogy takes a fair amount of work to follow when you try it on someone, and the communicative profit is lean, forget it.

  • If you love the analogy so much that you will look for any excuse to talk about it, and sense you could be losing perspective, well just forget it!

  • If you are speaking (or writing) about a story—like narrative!—with all kinds of inherent intrigue, ask yourself why you are dressing it up in yet another story or analogy. Maybe retelling the story itself—more skilfully and imaginatively—will be more effective!

Posted by Dan Reid at February 12, 2010 10:34 AM Bookmark and Share


Let's also confess that for the most part, sports analogies are drawn from football, basketball, and baseball. They are pretty biased towards one gender's experience. -don't hear too much about women's figure skating.

On the positive side, there is something important about speaking of things in an "encultured" way. Sometimes academia presumes a certain form of western discourse that can only speak to itself.

...It's like those guys who just don't get that clownstep isn't a part of D&B. It's a diss, regardless of Pendulum. Yeah, those guys. So into the wobble they miss good breaks. Techstep FTW!

Comment by: erin at February 12, 2010 1:13 PM

Thanks, Dan. An excellent reminder. I might as well confess that I, too, did not watch the annual cultural ritual, but busied myself with a study of the history of theology by the French theologian Yves Congar. It was time well spent, though I did watch the commercials on Hulu.com :p

Comment by: Mike Gibson at February 13, 2010 11:34 AM

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