Sometimes I tell people I’m an E. K., an evangelist’s kid. I heard my father use the words born again all the time. By the time I was an adult, the term had lost any meaning beyond the idea of “coming to Jesus” or praying a prayer that led to spiritual change. Born again was a label for the moment of conversion, but I had never thought of it as related to the concept of birth itself.
That was until I was studying the Gospel of John for my PhD and became pregnant with my second child, my son, Atticus. I came upon that familiar story in John 3 where Nicodemus meets with Jesus to speak with him.
I was struck by how many times the words born or birth are repeated in John 3, in part because I was preparing for my own son’s birth. I was also surprised that scholars describe John as mixing his metaphors when talk of being born again (v. 7) turns into talk about the wind of the Spirit (v. 8). I had started rethinking how metaphors work and I wanted to know what was with all of this birth language, and were these actually mixed metaphors or were they something else?
The way we interpret metaphors has recently shifted. Where previously metaphors were understood as equivalent statements (for example, “the man is a wolf” could be made into “the man is aggressive”), metaphor scholars such as George Lakoff, Gilles Fauconnier, and Mark Turner now argue that it is as important to pay attention to how the metaphor speaks to us as what the metaphor means. In fact, the how often provides a deeper understanding of the what. If we say “the man is a wolf,” it matters that wolves are not only aggressive but also sly and known for trickery. Thus, it matters that the man is compared ...1
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