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  • Alicia Tan

Four Bowl Metaphors and the Christian Life

by Dr Calvin Chong

I recently wrote a short article about five metaphors to describe a variety of COVID experiences under confinement conditions. Metaphors help me to understand the world better, explain ideas clearer, and even inspire fresh imagination. In the words of Lakoff and Johnson,

Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally: our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness. (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 193).

On a recent excursion to the Noun Project icon hosting site, my search for “pottery” eventually led me to focus attention on bowls. As I poured over the almost 6000 bowl icons there, it dawned upon me that the variety of bowl icons found there offer an interesting set of metaphors to describe both the human condition as well as elements of the Christian life. Here I offer reflections on four types of bowls found in the site.

The first bowl image that caught my attention was that of a fish in midair attempting a jump out of a smaller bowl into a bigger bowl.

The two bowls represent for me the past and the future. Past situations can be very painful and dissatisfying, but they can also be very comfortable with deep emotional attachment. Future situations on the other hand can be deeply fulfilling, needed healing, or great abundance. Otherwise, they can come with accompanying pain, hostility, and soullessness.

To the places where memories of the past and imaginations for the future are shaped, we add the place of transition between fish bowls. The place which finds the fish suspended in midair is a place of risk, uncertainty, and fear. Those who venture there often find themselves in a state of lossness, loneliness, and liminal limbo.

When we reflect on scripture, we are reminded that God is not only present at places, but that he is also present in journeys. From the Patriarchs to Paul, we read of God’s present in dangerous and even disastrous journeys. But as the people of God, we are not just to watch out for ourselves, but also to watch out for strangers and aliens in place and on journeys. These persons, the foreigners in our midst who are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. They have a special place in God’s heart and He expects us to refrain from exploiting them. Instead, we are to offer them generous hospitality and to treat them with justice and respect (Lev. 19:33-34).

The second bowl image that stood out for me was that of a blue whale in a goldfish bowl. My first reaction to the image was an emotional one. How can a massive creature born to roam ocean highways be contained in a goldfish bowl? The sense of trapness, the inability to escape, having to live with basic liberties taken away from you–all these thoughts translated into gnarls and knots in my stomach.

Our recent live-out experience of movement restrictions has birthed in many of us deep empathy for blue whales in goldfish bowls. Many of us now have a deeper resonance with that metaphor. We understand experientially the distress, the frustration, and the mental-wellness challenges that come with lockdowns and confinements.

While acknowledging the dark side of living under jail-like conditions, I asked myself at the same time if doom and gloom were the only outcomes of lockdown and restriction. Instead of floundering, is it possible to flourish in tight, confined spaces?

Interestingly, Scriptures remind us that this is possible. In the second half of his ministry, the Apostle Paul was bound in chains, put under house arrest, unceremoniously transported to Rome in a ship’s hold packed with other prisoners, and then kept under house arrest in Roman confinement for the rest of his life.

Yet, under these conditions, Paul continued to preach the gospel and remained active in ministry. In fact, Paul’s most enduring legacy is in the letters he wrote to strengthen the churches he had planted. A lesser remembered detail is that a good number of these letters were written while he was in prison!

The third bowl image that captured my interest was the cake mixing bowl. In a cake mixing bowl, unlike and sometimes reactive ingredients are placed together in a very greasy environment. To top it off, the mix is subject to a process of whipping and scraping – all in preparation for an impending fiery crucible experience!

The bringing together of diverse ingredients in the cake mixing bowl metaphor reminds us how globalization has now introduced flows of people, innovation, and ideology to our doorsteps. The scale and scope of the mix is beyond anything our already multicultural, multilingual nation has ever previously experienced.

Cultures coming together do not automatically result in harmonious relationships and happy hybrids. In fact, experience tells us that cultural mixing often results in friction and opposition. Given this reality, we need to understand what global mixture entails. As cultural historian Peter Burke reminds us, varieties of situation produce varieties of responses and outcomes (Burke 2009).

In the context of church life, celebrating diversity, promoting unity, and mediating tensions across a mosaic of cultural and ethnic identities remains a challenge. However, the apostle John’s vision of a redeemed worshipping community coming from all tribes, tongues, peoples and nations should inspire the church to embrace an inclusive mindset (Rev 5:8-10; 7:9-10). Likewise, the apostle Paul’s point of the gospel dismantling previously dividing walls should also inform Christian mindsets and church practices (Eph 2:14-18; Gal 3:26-29).

The final bowl image I want to highlight is the kintsugi bowl. Kintsugi is a Japanese art form which takes a previously cracked bowl and painstakingly restores it not just to its original state, but beyond its unbroken ordinariness. The restoration process brings the broken pieces together and fills the gaps with seams of gold.

When you hold a kintsugi bowl in your hands, you cannot but feel that the restored bowl is so much more beautiful and valuable than it was anytime in its history. The image of a castaway object meticulously restored and conferred newfound worth is visual representation of the good news offering hope, joy, and peace. The sight reminds us of our Creator’s commitment, passion, and predisposition to restore and make beautiful. Nothing he has created is beyond repair–our human brokenness cannot be the final word as we navigate through the darkest moments of life!

Now while the work of restoration is accomplished only by the power of God’s Spirit, it is worked out in the context of community and relationships. It is for this reason that the Christian community is called to be the hands, hearts, lips, and legs of restorative hope. Through our words and deeds, we disclose as well as demonstrate the Church’s commitment to God’s plan for human wholeness and shalom.

Beyond the four bowl metaphors remain other bowl metaphors which relate to Christian life that I would love to share. My article word limit however doesn’t allow me to expound on others. The situation however offers readers an opportunity to extend the article with your answers to the question: “What other bowl metaphors can you offer which you or others can relate to?”

Dr Calvin Chong is Associate Professor of Practical Theology of Singapore Bible College.

Reference List

Burke, Peter. Cultural Hybridity. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2009.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980.


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