Facts and Metaphors: Reflections after Reading Joseph Campbell

Shawn Tucker teaches Humanities at Elon University, and might contribute completely true, non-fake news stories to the Mormon Tabernacle Enquirer. He and his wife live in North Carolina and have four children.

There seems to be only two kinds of people: Those who think that metaphors are facts, and those who know that they are not facts. Those who know that they are not facts are what we call “atheists,” and those who think they are facts are called “religious.” ― Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, p. 48

I have succeeded in not cheating on my wife. I have never had sex with anyone outside of my marriage. In fact, I didn’t have sex with anyone before I got married. Those are facts. They may not seem like important facts, unless you are my wife. Or maybe if you are my children. Or maybe if you are me. For me, these facts mean that I can make promises with others and keep them. They mean I can have principles and stick to them. All of the good old virtues—temperance, justice, fortitude, courage, faith, hope, love—could be connected to these facts. Oh, and one last thing. These facts show dangers and pain I have avoided, like STDs as well as potential despair, loneliness, and post-coital feelings of emptiness.

Why do I bring up these facts? I bring then up because these facts are the results of metaphors. These facts are facts because of a series of metaphors that I use to conduct my life, to make decisions, to establish priorities and values, and to make meaning. Furthermore, these metaphors bring with them a very satisfying sense of right and wrong, of justice, love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace. These metaphors give life to my relationships, to my church service, to my job, and to my day-to-day living. But here’s a persistent question: do these metaphors point toward transcendent, real things?

Sometimes I believe very strongly that these metaphors do point toward something real, something transcendent. I believe that there is a loving creator God, a Sky Father and a Sky Mother. I believe that They love me enough to send a Savior as well as inspired people like prophets and my parents. I feel close to God; I feel that They are listening and attending to my prayers. I feel like rituals make Them real for me. Rituals connect me with Them. I believe that a Man was born miraculously to refugees, to social outcasts, and that that Man championed the cause of outcasts. His teachings overturned oppressive systems. His teachings inspire me today. I believe that He shows the way, to use Martin Buber’s language, to say I-You in the place of saying I-It. The story of His death and resurrection has power and influence in my life. When I’m weak it gives me strength. When I error it reassures me of the power and possibility of change and forgiveness. I experience Jesus as personal and real. His life changes, transforms, conditions my life. This complex set of stories, of metaphors, seems to hint toward something vast, loving, and encouraging.

Now I will tell more facts and then I will tell two stories. In 1987 I decided to go on a mission. From May 1 to July 31, 1988, the National Gallery of Art had an exhibition of the work of Paul Gauguin. I learned about this because a friend from high school, Rich Bowen, volunteered at the exhibition. During those months I was in my first areas in Chile. In October of the next year, 1989, Nine Inch Nails released Pretty Hate Machine. This music came out toward the end of my mission. None of these facts, in isolation, are all that important, but let me tell two short stories related to them.

The first story is that in the summer of 1989, when I was working in my third area, a wonderful man we lived with decided to join the church. I had worked with him and prayed for him for months. One night, while he was still struggling with the decision to get baptized or not, as I praying for him, I felt God ask me if I would be willing to give up all of my pre-mission “stuff”—music, clothes, art, etc—in order for him to have an extra portion of the Holy Ghost. This request was horrifying for me. While I was okay setting aside that “stuff” for a mission, I anticipated returning to it after my mission. Furthermore, to give it up would be to give up a very, very large sense of who I was. God was asking me to give up my identity, myself. I felt like I was being asked to die. Luckily, my connection, friendship, and love for Mauricio, the man struggling with the decision to be baptized, won out. I told God that I would give up all of that stuff, and give it up permanently, if it meant Mauricio would get more of God’s influence via the Holy Ghost. When I made this decision, I felt momentarily empty, and then almost immediately filled with light, love, joy, faith, strength, and purpose. In the space that that “stuff” had occupied, God poured in Himself. God became a more central part of my life, my identity, my sense of who I am. It was joyous, miraculous, and life-changing.

The second story is what could have been. It is an imaginary story. I could have stayed home or gone to school near home. That would have given me a chance to attend or even help out at the Gauguin exhibition. I would have been very interested in that exhibition. Gauguin’s art is based on the idea that Western and/or Christian morality take away from life. Gauguin left the “Christian” world to live a full, rich, and artistic life in Tahiti. That life was free of sexual constrictions or regulations. Gauguin painted this rich, full life. He also lived it, having sex with many (underage) women. He spoke glowingly about the abundant color, richness, and commitment-free sex he enjoyed. This would have been very powerful for me, very persuasive. Nine Inch Nails’ music would have also been powerfully persuasive. The music is compelling and rich, and although very different artistically from Gauguin’s art, it would also have been, I believe, very persuasive in my life. Both Gauguin’s art and Nine Inch Nails’ music would have compellingly persuaded me to distrust metaphors about God. That art would have encouraged me to trust very different metaphors.

(Sorry to say it this way, but) at the end of high school two roads diverged in the woods. I took the path marked by metaphors about God, and that has made all of the difference. The difference is facts, facts about what I have done, what I have not done, what I do, and what I don’t do. The difference is a very different sense of who I am.

Honestly, I still struggle with the question of God’s factual existence. I just don’t know. But I believe and I trust these metaphors and the power that they have had in my life. They are richly rewarding and satisfying, and they seem to point toward, to hint at, something overwhelmingly caring. And they make my actual, factual life better.


  1. I really appreciated this. Thank you. This felt like a better written version of my own internal monologue.

  2. Anon for this says:

    I am not sure that it is fair, or even true, that not having experiences that I was raised to believe would be mistakes makes for a better life. I think that being happy with the choices you have made is one thing, being sure that you are living in line with metaphors that make you feel comfortable with your life choices is a similar thing, but being sure that you are better than a you that might have made different choices after different experiences seems simply judgmental of those who had different experiences.

    As a read this several times, I was left remembering a testimony that was given by our bishop’s wife when I was a young woman. She testified that all of her children had been kept safe and we’re in happy temple marriages because she and her husband had taught them correct principles and they had followed them. At the time her testimony felt wrong to me. When several years later she made similar comments about the safety of her children because of correct principles taught and followed in a Relief Society lesson on chastity, I fully rejected the idea that rape victims simply hadn’t been taught the right things or followed the commandments well enough. I had to leave the room to keep myself from speaking out then, because I had promised not to share the stories of other survivors from my rape support group. It would be several more years before I was ready to out myself as a rape survivor in public settings. Even longer before I would talk openly about being a survivor of childhood incest. I have never told the woman, who spoke with such conviction about the protection her children received that her daughter had been raped and hid it from her family because of her fear that she would be rejected by them.

    I’m not going to ever be able to tell her why that daughter left the church, but I do know that the certainty in making statements about the perfection of the way they raised their children was a source of great pain for her daughter who was sexually assaulted. What I have committed to do is to speak up when I hear or read things that seem to falsely equate good luck with right choices.

  3. Allison says:

    I have read this twice and find that I don’t make the connections. Are you saying that if you don’t believe in metaphors then you are not religious and therefore you have no morals and would then follow the path of Gauguin? That it is only your metaphoric belief in God that keeps you following the codes of moral conduct? What am I missing?

  4. [Agreeing with Anon for this, I think, but not with the same experience] Equating good luck with right choices (or, I would add, bad luck with other choices) is pernicious. I like the argument that mataphor is powerful with real life consequences. But the final move toward consequentialism is a mistake.

  5. PassTheChips says:

    Please elaborate on how NIN’s music would lead you to distrust metaphors about God.

  6. Allison,

    Maybe the OP can clarify if I’m misinterpreting, but my interpretation is not that if you don’t believe in metaphors, then therefore you have no morals — but rather that, for the author, one reason he still finds value and truth in the metaphors he has was because they were the particular thing that grounded him in his morals when the other metaphors he would have found compelling at the time (and would likely have pursued) would have led him to different morals.

    Like, it’s not that the only two options are Gauguin and the church, but that for him personally, he probably would’ve gone Gauguin if it were not for the church.

    Anon for this’s comments resonate with me here:

    I think that being happy with the choices you have made is one thing, being sure that you are living in line with metaphors that make you feel comfortable with your life choices is a similar thing, but being sure that you are better than a you that might have made different choices after different experiences seems simply judgmental of those who had different experiences.

    Shifting focus of my comment to the opening poster…

    I think that the church and Gauguin are perhaps extreme examples. Like, anon, I think being happy with the choices you have made is one thing (and I am happy that you’re happy.) But, to me, I don’t think the only two options are Gauguin and the church, and I don’t think necessarily that the church’s metaphors necessarily promote good morals and that all other metaphor systems necessarily promote bad morals.

    I don’t want to get too disaffected on this, but I think that for someone who fits a lot of Mormon boxes (heteronormative, white, socioeconomically well off, decently educated male), then maybe there’s not a lot of issues for the morality that Mormon messages point to.

    But for me and a lot of other people, I think, “If LGBT Mormons such as myself had not been raised in Mormon metaphors, then would we have as much baggage about our sexuality?” or even, “Should we have this much baggage about our sexuality.”

    If Mormonism and its worldview are factual and true, then someone can argue, “Well, yes, LGBT people should have baggage about their sexuality because that sexuality is objectively, factually disordered.” They may be incorrect on the facts, but if we could point to facts, then at least potentially, someone could say, “That’s just the way things are.” Regardless of how you feel about gravity and regardless of if you would like one day to fly, that’s just the way it is.

    But if this is just a metaphor, and it doesn’t have objective factual grounding, then we can challenge whether that metaphor is healthy or useful, especially given what costs it comes at.

  7. I was raised in the church and considered myself a dedicated member. I resigned my membership when the church denied children who had a gay parent. The century long policy denying blacks from the temple and the ghost of polygamy and issues with the LGBT were just some of the reasons it felt morally wrong for me to remain. I wanted a more inclusive church and after my deep dive into the history, I was offended that I had not been told the TRUTH. I have been married 46 years with my husband being my one and only sexual partner since I was married. I still live the word of wisdom and my lifestyle has not changed. In short I still have good values and standards because it is the way I prefer to live and I have more faith in science than religion. I am happy for you, but I want you to know that I feel like a better human being since I left because I see the world in a more loving way. My live says “we” and not us and them.

  8. I’m not a particular fan of Gauguin’s artwork. But I do love Van Gogh’s. When I enjoy a visit to an art museum, that doesn’t mean that I endorse the various artists’ lifestyle. When I visit Mount Vernon and Monticello, it doesn’t mean I endorse slavery. Van Gogh lived a troubled life. I’m not going to boycott his exhibits because he struggled with sanity. The key is to find the beauty.

    You need to be careful when you start boycotting. You can come up with perfectly defensible reasons to boycott the LDS Church. There are things in Joseph’s and Brigham’s lives which cause people to avoid the Church. Neither lived a perfect life.

    I’m not familiar with the music of NIN. But I love a lot of the music from the 60s and 70s. That doesn’t mean I endorse extreme life styles, or drugs, or the like. It just means I find pleasure in the music.

    This point of this post is a long way from my personal version of Mormonism.

  9. Jadis of Charn says:

    Please elaborate on how NIN’s music would lead you to distrust metaphors about God.

    Yes, please do. Regarding Pretty Hate Machine, I find “Terrible Lie” and “Sin”, in particular, to be quite God-positive and faith-affirming. In fact, I listened to them both on headphones, cranked to 11, to get pumped up before speaking the Deplorable Word and destroying every living thing in my world.

  10. I really like this concept. It’s a concept, I had a hard time with for a long time. There’s power in the myth. BS. There’s power in real facts. I believed religion only had value in the sense that its origination stories and scriptures are literally and factually true and its doctrine accurately describes knowable absolute truth. But what do you do when you lose all that literal belief? Is there nothing left? It took a few years for this nuanced way of viewing religion and the world to kick in, but it’s a good fit for me now. I now understand faith a lot better. Faith to me is “acting as if something were literally/factually true.” Some say they know. Some say they believe. Try acting “as if” something were literally/factually true, when you don’t even believe it. That’s a real leap of faith. The fruits are good. I don’t know if Alma is right that it proves the hypothesis (literally/factually) true. But something is happening.

    I believe strongly that by living the Christ-centered LDS life, I’m better for it. OK let’s be real I’m not that good at it. But over a lifetime, of doing my best in my own way, I see a difference. I’m more committed to marriage and family. My thoughts and motivations are a little more altruistic and less selfish. I take time to worship and practice reverence. I live a little bit more connected to a community. I’m involved with something that is trying to be a “mighty power for good”.

    You took a risk illustrating that in your life, because in these matters, someone can always be offended that your opinion of morality invalidates theirs. I understand Anon’s point above. But I appreciate you taking the risk to offer the personal example. And I believe you are right, at least in terms of how it worked for yourself. But I really liked how you showed how the power of a metaphor can work in real life, pragmatic ways.

  11. Shawn Tucker says:

    Gwp: Glad it resonates with you.
    Anon for this: First and foremost, I’m very sorry about your painful experiences. I’m sorry that my post may have added to a burden of pain. Additionally, I’m sorry for those who cannot be honest about their experiences and pain with their loved ones.
    I don’t quite know how to say “looking back, I am happy with some of my life choices based on some metaphors as opposed to others” without simultaneously seeming to say that others made the wrong choice and are therefore less happy. I didn’t want to judge others or their choices (or happiness) by the standard of my own choices. I think that that is the definition of self-righteousness. I’m sorry that this came off as self-righteous, and I appreciate you saying something.
    Allison: I’m sorry that this is unclear. I actually think that all of us live by metaphors. I think it is just the way humans are wired. Metaphors and other stories help us make sense of our experiences. They help us place ourselves in time and space, they help establish the nature of our relationships, and they are closely tied to our values. In fact, the notion of “moral codes” is a metaphor—good and bad are matters of laws. An interesting TED talk that explores the nature of metaphors is Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s TEDX talk “The Art of Changing Metaphors.” Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXC3-ZFkhDo&t=64s Something else that might help is David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water.” He doesn’t talk about metaphors specifically, but his idea that everybody worships is tied to the idea that everyone chooses what has value and, by extension, everyone chooses what metaphors they will live by. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CrOL-ydFMI
    Christiankimball: How does one talk about metaphors having real life consequences without evaluating those consequences? And how does one evaluate consequences without making judgments and value judgments? I don’t want to assert some sort of absolute, objective correlation between all consequences and choices made based on metaphors, but I do seem to discern some real life consequences resulting at least in a small part from some of my choices.
    PassTheChips and Jadis of Charn: I know that a common way to understand this album is in the context of the painful end of a (rather unhealthy?) relationship. Looking back, I believe I would have listened to it through a Nietzschean lens, or at least how I understood Nietzsche at the time. I would have experienced the music as asserting that the notion of God is an oppressive terrible lie caused in part by unreasonable or foolish expectations. I also anticipate I would have found that the record uses powerful, compelling music to combine sexuality and the religious experience of being justified, purified, and sanctified, but in a way that contrasts sharply with an experience meant to unite two people or to unite souls with God. It is, instead, a trip through the nicest parts of hell. I will also say that, looking at the music now and in a critical manner, I don’t find it as compellingly persuasive as I think I would have as a less critical adolescent. That said, I’m sure others could experience the music quite differently.
    Andrew S: excellent clarification—thank you.
    Yes, Gauguin and the church are rather extreme examples. Of course those are not the only 2 options.
    I believe that seeing Mormonism with an emphasis on its metaphors actually opens up space for great discussions. For example, we use the family metaphor a lot. We describe Heavenly Parents and spirit children. But one by-product of this metaphor is that anyone outside of a traditional family or marriage could feel very marginalized. If we switched metaphors and talked about how we are all part of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), then differences are not just validated, but they are celebrated. Emphasizing the metaphorical nature of beliefs could clarify their limitation and could encourage humility, faith, and greater respect for others.
    Churchistrue: thank you for taking time for such kind words.

  12. Jadis of Charn says:

    Shawn, here on Earth I am essentially powerless as compared to my existence on Charn. Yes, I’m seven feet tall, and I won’t hesitate to bash a policeman’s head in with an iron bar, but for some reason I appear to have failed to convey this thing you call ‘sarcasm’ over the Internet! What a miserable world is this.

  13. Not a Cougar says:

    Churchistrue, how far do you take your stance of faith as action in reliance on known myth? At some point, doesn’t the weight of evidence against the myth become so great that you cannot overcome the cognitive dissonance created by acting in faith on the myth?

    My related concern is that you run into people willing to use such faith for personal gain; for example, Paul Dunn telling whoppers for the Lord. It didn’t seem a problem to him to tell outlandish tales so long as they were faith-promoting and moved product. I was too young at the time to know anyone who had their faith shaken by the revelation that he was disfellowshipped, but, just in this thread, you have stories of members feeling lied to after they discover what is taught in Sunday School doesn’t always jive with the historical record.

    Sorry if I’m hijacking the thread. Feel free to ignore if that’s the case.

  14. Q: “how does one evaluate consequences without making judgments and value judgments?”
    A: With paradox and contradiction.
    From a commentary on “The Road Not Traveled”: “the speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.”

  15. I think Shawn’s playing to a tough crowd. The OP resonated with me — I’ve had some of those same feelings and conclusions. I’m glad I’ve (mostly) followed the path prescribed by the church’s teachings, and clearly my choices have significantly affected where I’ve ended up (though I don’t deny I made those choices in circumstances, fortuitous or otherwise, beyond my control). But when I look at people who’ve lived lives completely different than mine, and who’ve made choices contrary to my set of values, I’m not totally convinced they’re all less happy or successful than me. At least, right now. So objectively, I do agree with the comments that suggest I don’t know how satisfied I’d be if I’d made other choices. Likewise, if I were to suddenly change my worldview, it’s not unlikely to me that I would suddenly be dissatisfied with the choices I’ve made. For example, I’m married to the bride of my youth. But if it weren’t for the Church’s influence, I’m sure I wouldn’t be. At this point, I’m deeply grateful I didn’t divorce, and I could write something very much like the OP. But if I had divorced, how could I be sure I wouldn’t be happier with another woman? I’m pretty sure my children wouldn’t be happier, but would I? How much of my current satisfaction is self-fulfilling prophecy, so to speak? That isn’t clear, but I’m positive that part of my satisfaction with my current circumstances comes because I still hold that same worldview, and therefore, whether or not that worldview (in particular my beliefs about the afterlife) is grounded in reality matters a great deal.

  16. Not a Cougar. I get this cognitive dissonance question a lot, but I don’t think it applies. I think the disconnect is the following. For example, I don’t believe the BOM is historical. Yet, I believe it’s inspiring and can lead me to God and teaches good principles. I am acting in faith “as if it were literally true.” I am not suppressing evidence that it’s not historical. I’m not pretending to delude myself that it is an ancient book, because I’m acting in this faith. I believe it’s not historical, and while I’m giving you a sermon on the beauty of King Benjamin’s address, I will tell you I don’t think King Benjamin existed. I also don’t think the Paul Dunn example applies. I won’t tell lies. I’m not condoning anyone who has told lies. But I could easily share a Paul Dunn story with my kids, while highlighting the fact the power is in principles of the story not the actual facts of the story, and tell them he got in trouble for exaggerating his stories.

  17. Shawn Tucker says:

    Jadis of Charn—sorry to be so dense. Yah, reading it now, it is clear that your comment was sarcastic. Funny!

    Wow, thanks for the comment’s y’all. I had not thought of this in terms of a self-fulfilling prophesy. That is an interesting view. I can only anticipate that you could be very right; I would probably look back on any choices I had made without regrets. How can one really know if one’s path was better than another path? Of course the outcome cannot be a measure of the wisdom of the path.

    One point-of-departure for me in thinking this through was David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water.” I find his idea about the value of worshiping a “God-type think” to be very insightful. My experience persuades me that, as he says, “pretty much anything else [would have eaten me] alive.” Of course I don’t know that for sure, but elements of my experience, like those explored in the post as well as others, seem to corroborate what Wallace asserts. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CrOL-ydFMI)

    I would like to add that this is my experience. So many of the people around me, to put it the way I have been, live their lives by different metaphors. I admire and respect them. Those metaphors have had a powerful, positive impact on their lives. I don’t think that all metaphors that one lives by are equal or equally valuable. I agree with Wallace that one can worship or live by metaphors that are destructive. But I also certainly don’t believe that one set of metaphors is right for everyone. Finally, I prefer to listen to people and their experiences and conclusions about the value of the metaphors they use to make meaning of their lives.

  18. Sandi Payne says:

    Awesome writing, Shawn!

  19. Excellent article and much food for thought.

    It is a fact I never cheated on my wife and it is a fact that I never was intimate with another woman before marriage. But it had nothing to do with following metaphors.

    I was chaste but not by choice. I was born into a certain hard-core Mormon family with a certain physical appearance and personality. I couldn’t or didn’t know how to get a girl to do that with me. I never successfully even dated once as a teenager. I was picky, borne out of insecurity which was part of the picture. Almost all of the women I was attracted to would have nothing to do with me. These are facts borne out of experience. I could easily have joined the throngs of those in perpetual single-hood and felt it was honestly not my fault.

    It was a numbers game. About 1/3 of the Mormon guys went on missions. About 2/3 of the Mormon girls wanted to marry a return missionary. I went on a mission. Not realizing it would enhance my marriageability but because I actually thought God wanted me to do it. That later allowed me to attract women about twice as high on the social ladder as I was. Even then it was difficult and I was lucky to find one girl crazy enough to marry me. I married at age 31 after dating only 3 women more than once. I never “dumped” a girlfriend, it was always me getting dumped. Almost all of those years in my 20’s I was trying to date at least once a week, often unsuccessfully. Not like I had any other choices.

    I found Mormon dating culture to be dysfunctional and unauthentic. I don’t think it works that well. In comparison to the raunchy American culture it appears somewhat better from our perspective but that only masks the problem. I do think this is the result of distorted metaphores but on so many levels. We need to do a better job of giving young people realistic expectations and teaching them how to meet and date each other. It has to be more than keep your pants zipped.

    If larger numbers of Mormon youth don’t marry each other, we are doomed to a slow decline over a few generations. We are not that welcoming to interdenominational couples either. For too many, women especially, it is a choice of no spouse or a non-LDS spouse who is going to want to “ride the horse” before buying it. The challenges don’t end with the wedding.

    No marriage and strict chastity leads to no children for God to work with in the next generation. Marriage outside of the faith does result in the possibility of future generations. But not if our church culture is hostile to those not raised in a home modeled closely after the MTC.