I want to argue that metaphor is one of the chief agents of our moral nature, and that the more serious we are in life, the less we can do without it.

Cynthia Ozick, “Metaphor and Memory”

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 10:33-34 NRSV

As a professor and administrator at Christian universities, I have spent my entire career thinking about moral formation. The collective aim of our educational efforts, as I have understood them, is to graduate students who are not only highly skilled but also humane, students who had been invited into experiences, both inside and outside of the classroom, that habituate the theological and cardinal virtues—love, faith, hope, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The challenge, as I see it, is to create an institutional culture in which professors, staff, and students—all of us—are being formed not only to know the right things but to do the right things. More fundamental even than doing the right thing, however, is caring about the right thing. This, ultimately, is not solely a matter of the intellect or even principle; it is a matter of the heart. And justice, our doing and caring about the right thing, requires, first, the ability to enter imaginatively into another person’s world in order to feel and perceive injustice.

Because my areas of scholarly interest are literature and theology, my reflections on virtue formation have gravitated toward epistemological questions about how parable, poetry, and their building blocks of metaphor and analogy function theologically in ways other forms of knowing cannot. I have been concerned with how, in Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick’s wonderful phrase, literary forms can open “the inmost valve of the imagining heart” and awaken affective domains crucial to ethical action.[1] This seems particularly true when ethical action calls for more than Aristotelian transactional responses of distributive or corrective justice, namely the call for mercy, self-sacrifice, and obedience.

One of the foundational principles of our work at the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty is that to understand hunger and poverty, one needs proximity.[2] This was certainly true for me. For fifteen years, I lived in a neighborhood notorious for having the city’s second highest crime and poverty rate. Within one square mile were forty apartment complexes in which 80 percent of residents lived below the poverty line. The population was highly transitory, with only one in three children finishing the academic year in the same school where they began it. I came to be involved in a community-led, collaborative social services organization that brought to the table individuals—apartment managers, residents, school principals, city planners, local business owners—who were committed to tackling the toughest challenges in this neighborhood. Physical proximity opened my eyes to the complexities of hunger and poverty about which I knew nothing.

Yet, as I have come to understand these complexities better, several things have become clear. First, choosing proximity can be a luxury. Not everyone can (or should) pick up their lives and move—literally or through volunteerism—to be proximate to poverty and hunger. Second, proximity does not necessarily lead to ethical responses. Rather than awakening compassion, mercy, and action bent toward justice, proximity can and does lead, just as easily, to frustration, judgment, and deepened animosity toward one’s neighbor. Furthermore, zeal for social justice can be—and often is—motivated by the vices of envy, anger, imprudence, and intemperance that fuel an exclusionary intolerance as dogmatic as the intolerance which it decries.

What, then, is needed to become persons who see those facing poverty and hunger not as a problem to fix, tools in a political game, or passive agents in one’s quest for social justice but as fellow human beings?[3] The sort of proximity needed both to tutor one’s soul and lead to right action is found in the metaphorical memory of an imagining heart.


Metaphor—that figure of speech “in which one thing or state of affairs is spoken of in terms which are suggestive of another”—is an astonishingly efficient and generative cognitive instrument.[4] Its power lies in its capacity to bring together in two terms, whether implicitly or explicitly, entire semantic fields that animate each other and create new meaning. The idea of motion, of being “born across” into something new, is inherent in its etymology, as meta means change, phora means to be born or carried across. The contrast with so-called literal language can be illustrated with the following simple, if now clichéd, example:

  1. Juliet is nice.
  2. Juliet is the sun.

The two sentences share the same subject and verb. Yet crucially, the verb in sentence 2 (from Shakespeare, of course) connects Juliet not to a predicate adjective, as in sentence 1, but to another thing altogether. Suddenly, whole associative networks filled with the sun’s light, life, and glorious hues come pouring onto the page to remake Juliet.

Moreover, metaphorical language has several pedagogical advantages when it comes to moral formation. It sets in motion an open rather than closed cognitive process that invites inquiry and interpretation, and it appeals to both the affective and cognitive domains. In George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s phrase, a metaphor is “imaginative rationality.”[5]

As Martin Buber shrewdly notes in “The Education of Character,” when it comes to virtue formation, the attempt to do so by appealing only to principles can be problematic: 

I try to explain that it is wicked to bully the weak, and at once I see a suppressed smile on the lips of the strong. I try to explain that lying destroys life, and something frightful happens: the worst habitual liar of the class produces a brilliant essay on the destructive power of lying. I have made the fatal mistake of giving instruction in ethics.[6]

Rather than giving instructions in ethics, can metaphorical language and the macro-metaphors of the arts in general tutor one’s heart toward virtue? Is there a way to forge an empathetic imagination that heeds the prophetic call “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NIV).   

Cynthia Ozick’s brilliant essay “Metaphor and Memory” points readers to the Hebrew Scriptures for an answer. Ozick asserts that with the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, something new emerges in the moral imagination of the universe: metaphor.[7] Not the literary device—that had been around for a long time—but a function of memory that inaugurated a new moral code. Thirty-six times in the Pentateuch Israel is commanded to love the alien and stranger in its midst, “for you were aliens in Egypt” (Lev. 19:34 NRSV).[8] Hebrew Scriptures resound with the command to remember the exodus not so that Israel harbors bitterness but so that it never forgets what it is to be an outcast or a foreigner. Israel thus turns the concrete experience of slavery “into a universalizing metaphor of reciprocity” and converts the “imagination into a serious moral instrument.” Ozick explains: “There stands the parable; there stands the sacred metaphor of belonging, one heart to another. . . . Metaphor is the reciprocal agent, the universalizing force.”[9]

Oddly, however, Ozick omits from her quotation of Leviticus 19:34 its final sentence: “I am the Lord your God.” This declaration punctuates sixteen of the thirty-seven commands in Leviticus 19 alone. For the ethical imperative of Leviticus 19:34 is grounded not in the exodus but in the antecedent, in the covenantal relationship with Yahweh, which anchors Israel’s past to its present. The call to remember four hundred years of enslavement in Egypt is not merely a summons to remember the weight of its shackles; it is also a reminder to remember Yahweh’s faithfulness to hear the cries of the oppressed and bring about justice. Thus, the full tale of moral reciprocity necessitates that we both remember what it is to be an alien and outcast and become like the God who notices those who suffer under oppressive yokes and seeks their liberty.

Moreover, the past and present verb tenses (“you were aliens” and “I am the Lord”) put Israel’s history in dialogue with its present. Thus, generations long removed from slavery in Egypt are nevertheless held within a historical and ongoing redemption until eschatological hope is fulfilled. The Egypt experience reenacted in the Passover is, of course, then carried forward into the heart of Christian worship, the Eucharist. Each time it is celebrated, Christians fulfill Christ’s command given on the night of his final Passover celebration to “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). In short, the wellspring of biblical ethics is the spiritual discipline of remembering. Memories become metaphors animating, conjoining, and redeeming the disparate nouns of our lives to usher us into the love of God, neighbor, and stranger.


As I turn to considering the ways in which memory—our own or others’ memories acquired through the cultural artifacts of human experience, like texts, film, paint, music, and icons—grants us imaginative proximity to the past suffering of others, a few words of caution are necessary. Remembering a community’s history of enslavement is not the same experience as being enslaved just as my living among neighbors who struggle with poverty and food insecurity is not the same as being poor and food insecure. And just as the metaphor is never the thing itself (Juliet is not the sun), empathic understanding is not the same as lived experience. So, is ethical instruction by way of metaphorical memory just another prop of privilege? It can be.

Yet if the only way to know anything at all about our fellow humans (or about the world, for that matter) were through direct experience, navigating life would be extraordinarily difficult and painful.

Moreover, for those of us within the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is worth restating the obvious: the Bible is not a collection of proof texts but of literary artifacts chronicling the Jewish and Christian God’s history with and eschatological future for the world. The Bible’s deployment of poetry, history, hymns, and apocalyptic literature, to name but a few of its genres, show that they have power to impart truth in ways best suited for reaching the human heart. Future generations of Hebrew children did not have to be enslaved to be borne back into that terrible world through poetry and ritual. Likewise, we can discover something true about the upside-down economics of grace from the parable of the vineyard owner in Matthew 20:1–16 despite its being nonliteral.

Happily, we can and do learn through mimesis.[10] The arts—literature, film, dance, painting, music, liturgy—all have the capacity to add to our cognitive storehouse of memories through imitation or likeness. We learn from these arts through transference, the same cognitive process engendered by metaphorical language. I used to teach a capstone liberal arts course for university juniors and seniors that explored mimetic ways of knowing within their chosen disciplinary field. To illustrate the cognitive differences between analytical and mimetic ways of knowing, I asked my students to think of a time when a work of art—a song, a film, a novel—arrested them with revelatory insight, both familiar yet new. Their responses offer an example that can perhaps illustrate this mimetic way of heart learning.

On the day I posed this question, a social work major was the first to raise her hand. She explained that as a senior, she had completed nearly all her social work courses, so she thought she understood social work ethics. Recently, however, she had watched The Blind Side, a film based on the true story of Michael Oher’s impoverished upbringing, adoption by the Tuohy family, and subsequent career in the NFL. In a pivotal scene, the social worker assigned to investigate Michael’s case interrogates him about the family, sowing doubts about the wealthy, white Tuohys’ motives for adopting him. Did they love him as a son or just want to fulfill their fantasies of having an Ole Miss star football player in the family?

The scene struck my student. She knew the social work code of ethics but not until that moment, she shared, had she felt the moral weight of her vocation. My student was not impoverished or male or an athlete or a potential adoptee. Yet as she watched Michael’s stoic face darken with a growing sense of the family’s potential betrayal, she felt his agony. One human’s story of suffering tutored another human’s moral imagination. My student was within seconds borne across, into his pain, and changed.

All art forms can function parabolically, awakening the imagining heart to unknown places, minds, or experiences that are simply unavailable through direct experience. Importantly, the form, not merely the content, can precipitate an ethical moment. American author Annie Dillard’s work is some of the most challenging in this regard. Throughout her entire canon, Dillard has the narrative habit of engaging readers in the intellectual and spiritual work of her texts through various modes of the apostrophic voice, or the second person you. This is frequently through an editorial you, wherein the speaker addresses readers “when an evaluative judgment is to be provoked.” [11] It is an extradiegetic you existing outside the narrative world, namely the reader, that rends the imaginary narrative veil between narrator and audience to confront us squarely with an inherently ethical question.

Dillard uses this technique to powerful effect in her final work of nonfiction, For the Time Being, a complex, fragmented, dark meditation on suffering, wonder, evil, and justice. Itbegins with a frank, unsentimental description of children who are identified as “bird-headed dwarves” in Smith’s Recognizable Patterns of Human Malformation. Readers immediately discover they will be no casual overhearers of Dillard’s narrative. In the first paragraph, Dillard confides to an extradiegetic reader that the book is a “volume to which, in conscience, I cannot recommend your prolonged attention.” Yet that is exactly what she proceeds to require. For eight pages Dillard describes in graphic detail the pictures and characteristics of Smith’s human specimens, including two six-year-old bird-headed “dwarves,” perhaps only a foot tall. This is not a circus show, however. Rather, Dillard forces readers to consider these children’s lives and humanity by addressing readers as “you” repeatedly and directly: “And [the bird-headed dwarfs are described as] friendly and pleasant, but easily distracted. There is a lot to be said for children who are friendly and pleasant. And you—are you easily distracted yourself, these days?[12]  Dillard’s question in the apostrophic voice provokes an ethical moment. It seeks to humanize the children by turning readers’ gazes from the shocking photographs in Smith’s book toward readers’ own, equally distractable minds. The children’s alleged deficiencies are now reframed in terms of readers’ kindred frailties. What child, or adult for that matter, is not easily distracted these days?

Furthermore, Dillard places readers not only in dispositional proximity but also in physical proximity to the children: “If you gave birth to two bird-headed dwarfs, as these children’s mother did—a boy and a girl—you could carry them both everywhere, all their lives, in your arms or in a basket, and they would never leave you, not even to go to college.” Through the intimate embrace of a parent, Dillard closes the spatial and emotional gap between the children and the audience, refusing to allow the audience to pity from afar the children or the mother who gave birth, not once but twice, to children with the same genetic defect. Instead, through direct address, the audience momentarily becomes that person—“you” are the parent who loves and carries these children all their lives. Dillard also pointedly reminds the reader that “all the babies in Smith’s manual have souls” and that they “can—and do—receive love and give love.”[13]

As merciless, perhaps even coercive, as the apostrophic voice may seem in this passage, the text’s vocative call summons readers into proximity with others’ pain so that it might expose the poverty of our imagination regarding our shared humanity. Dillard’s choice of literary form precipitates an ethical moment, challenging readers to carry in their arms the burdens and beauty of another human soul and so a mysterious connection can be opened, one heart to another.[14]


What might be the way forward? If what I asserted at the beginning is correct, that proximity to suffering and injustice of any kind, parabolically suggested by “the alien who resides among you,” is insufficient to engender a moral response and that what is required is a rightly ordered imagination that can enter empathetically into another person’s world, then, as these brief examples illustrate, it seems the arts are indispensable agents of virtue formation. When our own history, or simply the limitations of a single human life, cannot furnish our imaginations with the memories needed for reciprocity, the stories, symbols, songs, and images that embody the history of others can function metaphorically, bearing us across and into their worlds in ways that are morally formative.

Of course, there are the dangers of mere emotivism. Entering another’s experience of poverty, hunger, injustice, or physical disability through the arts can be mere voyeurism or a fleeting emotional jag that never translates to becoming a just person or doing the just thing. Yet it is hard to see how right action can be sustained without arising from and being accountable to a rightly ordered imagination. As Iris Murdoch notes in “Vision and Choice in Morality,” “A man’s [sic] morality is not only his choices but his vision.”[15] Too often, approaches to addressing injustice that aim solely at fixing broken systems—and no doubt they need it—become shrill and brittle, and they can ironically perpetuate many of the vices they seek to quell. The long game requires not only pursuing justice but becoming just. Doing so requires not merely ethical instruction but fertile engagement of affective domains that inspires the imagination and schools the heart.[16]

The examples I have shared are not meant to suggest naively that if we all watch movies or read books about “the Other” humans will become more humane and the world will be bent toward justice. But then again, listening to the stories of the stranger and the alien among us is not a bad start. And so, this is not a conclusion so much as an invitation to think creatively and intentionally, not only about advocating for more equitable systems based on just principles but also about forming a moral imagination that can envision new ways of ordering our collective lives more justly.

[1] Ozick, “Metaphor and Memory,” in Metaphor and Memory (New York, NY: Vintage, 1991), 268.

[2] This idea took shape as the Baylor Collaborative’s executive director, Jeremy Everett, began community-level interventions to end hunger in Texas. Those efforts resulted in the Texas Hunger Initiative, which evolved into the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty. For a full account of his journey, see his book I Was Hungry: Cultivating Common Ground to End an American Crisis (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2019).

[3] I am conflating the terms social justice with justice as a virtue. However, I am assuming that social justice is a subset of justice, and both are concerned with equity or, to use Aristotle’s phrase, “proportions” and reciprocity (Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011], 5.96).

[4] Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1985), 53. The debates about what metaphorical language is and how it functions are long and varied. I adopt Soskice’s “interanimation” theory of metaphor in which two associative networks are linked by the two parts of the metaphor’s structure—what I. A. Richards calls the “tenor” and “vehicle” (The Philosophy of Rhetoric [Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1936], 93)—and animate each other to create something new. This theory, Soskice notes, “should regard metaphor neither as a simple substitution for literal speech nor as strictly emotive. Metaphor should be treated as fully cognitive and capable of saying that which may be said in no other way” (44).

[5] Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 235.

[6] Buber, “The Education of Character,” in Between Man and Man, trans. and ed. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1965), 105.

[7] Ozick, “Metaphor and Memory,” 277.

[8] Major sections in all three groupings of Hebrew Scripture—the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Writings—repeat this theme, rendering the memory of the exodus experience as metaphor in manifold poetical contexts including lament, prophetic judgment of Israel, celebration, and affirmation of God’s power. See Amos 2:7 and 10 for example: “They [Israelites] trample on the heads of the poor / as on the dust of the earth; / they push the needy out of their way. . . . / Yet . . . I brought you up from the land of Egypt / and led you forty years in the wilderness.”

[9] Ozick, “Metaphor and Memory,” 278, 278, and 279.

[10] Mimesis is a Greek term meaning literally “imitation.” Plato uses it disparagingly in Republic (book 10) to argue that the arts cannot be a source of truth, reasoning that because the only true reality exists in the realm of the Forms, mimesis is an illusion. The created world, as the “Parable of the Cave” illustrates, is merely a shadow or an imitation of its perfect originary counterpart in the realm of the Forms. Works of art, therefore, are twice removed from reality, mere imitations of imitations. Mimesis has since become a foundational theoretical concept in aesthetics, generally acknowledged (despite different theories of how it operates) as a transformational mode of human knowing. For a solid working definition, see Poetry Foundation Glossary of Poetic Terms, s.v. “Mimesis (imitation),” accessed March 31, 2023, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/mimesis-imitation.

[11] Bruce Morrissette, “Narrative ‘You’ in Contemporary Literature,” Comparative Literature Studies 2, no. 1 (1965): 4 and 6, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40245692.

[12] Dillard, For the Time Being (New York, NY: Alfred Knopf, 1999), 3 and 5.

[13] Dillard, For the Time Being, 5.

[14] For a much more extensive discussion of Dillard’s use of apostrophe, as well as the connection between Jewish theology and Dillard’s approach to creation, evil, and redemption, see my book, Kanitz, A Literary Shema: Annie Dillard’s Judeo-Christian Vision and Voice (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2020).

[15] R. W. Hepburn and Iris Murdoch, “Vision and Choice in Morality,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, 30, Dreams and Self-Knowledge (1956): 43, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4106662.

[16] Hepburn and Murdoch, “Vision and Choice,” 50. Murdoch notes, “Certain parables or stories undoubtedly owe their power to the fact that they incarnate moral truth which is paradoxical, infinitely suggestive and open to continual interpretation. . . . Such stories provide, precisely through their concreteness and consequent ambiguity, sources of moral inspiration which highly specific rules could not give” (50).