Preaching in the 21st century: Metaphors and ideologies

by Cláudio Carvalhaes

“Metaphor has the extraordinary power of redescribing reality.” — Paul Ricoeur

“Ideology is a ‘representation’ of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” — Louis Althusser

I propose to talk about preaching in the 21st century, prayerfully considering two words: metaphor and ideology. Why these words? My response employs the same liturgical words we utter when we come to God in prayer:

We come, not because we ought, but because we may,
not because we are righteous, but because we are penitent,
not because we are strong, but because we are weak,
not because we are whole, but because we are broken.

In the same way, we must always come to our task of preaching in prayer, totally dependent on God for preaching is a task that is always beyond us. In prayer, we consider our words.

Preachers must learn not only how to read the Bible but also to see how people read the Bible, as they also need to learn to read people, contexts and situations. This multiplicity of readings takes us to bifurcations and crossroads, dead-ends and sidetracks, as we try to map the unmappable, the kingdom of God. Thus the preacher must have eagle eyes to see the ways in which our reality shapes and defines who we are and even what we can be. Also, the preacher’s theology must be grounded in a gospel of grace and liberation that can investigate and unravel this reality in order to help people see in ways that allow them to find their own history and their own self-determination. Briefly, then, ideology is a way to create — and at the same time hide — reality and metaphor, a way of helping us re-create reality according to a perspective based on God’s radical love.


When the French philosopher Louis Althusser says ideology “is a ‘representation’ of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence,” he is saying that what we live is not what our lives actually are, but rather a misrepresentation of our reality, already a disconnection from what is real. As a representation, the ideology is not only a form of a lie but also an abyss separated from what reality actually is and what we hope it might be. Too confusing? Let me give you some examples: » When we think that individual lives are more important than the collective, that each individual is responsible for oneself only and that government funds for the poor are a trap, we live under the imaginary sense that these are the real conditions of our existence. However, this very sense ends up setting up one individual against another, making us mutual enemies. Society becomes a fight for space, where the most powerful and the most able to adjust to the circumstances will be the ones to receive its worth and have the rights to continue to live. When we live imagining one thing and living another, we are living under a certain ideology.

  • When we say that black people are lazy and that they don’t want to study or work because there is enough opportunity for all, we think we are responding to the facts of reality when in fact, we are actually blind to the ideological reality that tries to hide the 300 years of slavery and overt and covert racism that has allowed our society to mostly trash black people and support white people. When we skip the true reality by inventing a representation of a false reality, we are certainly living under a certain ideology.
  • When we say that Mexicans and Latinos (or any immigrants) are rapists, that they bring diseases and drugs to this country, or when we label all Muslims as terrorists, we are creating a reality that does not exist in order to excuse ourselves from being the ones doing these very actions and imagining a false reality that stigmatizes these peoples, actions that also help create laws that push these people away from society. When we do that, we are living under a certain ideology.
  • When we sanctify any kind of law without critical thinking, we are allowing those in power to do whatever they want for their own purposes by calling it a defense of American values, while in fact, those very values of freedom, equality and diversity are being utterly destroyed through these laws. When we do this, we are living under a certain ideology.
  • When we don’t have a critical sense of the daily news, we end up agreeing with those who control mass communication. We end up supporting the rich, those who shape the very ideology of our time, against the poor. When we do this, we are living under a certain ideology.
  • When we see black people being killed by police brutality, black churches being burned and the current prison system holding more black people in jail than during slavery, and when we don’t speak about it in our churches in a sustained way, we must know that are living under a certain ideology.

The ideology of our society runs deep under our skin and daily lives, shaping who we are, where we live, what schools we choose for our kids, whom we vote for, to what social class we belong, which laws we want, what we eat at the supermarket, what church we go to and even how we worship. However, we can only perceive the pervasive presence of ideology when we start to think more critically about our own reality and how that imaginary reality is far from the real reality we live in. We start to think about the power of ideology when we start to think from the perspective of the poor, when we assume that God’s imago Dei is in every single human being on earth, when we see God’s creation with the same respect we have for any other human being. Thus, preaching in the 21st century must involve reading reality with deeper eyes and seeing the ways in which we are part of a system that perpetuates inequality, privileges the few and destroys the majority.


When we see the forgery of our realities, our work as Christians is to understand our faith as:

  • Being Christ in the world and doing Christ’s mission in the world;
  • Receiving God’s grace and offering God’s love to the world;
  • Being fed by God’s presence through each other and feeding others as we are demanded to love our neighbor as God loves us;
  • Living in communities, in a collective historical event, like the African Ubuntu philosophy where the individual is only possible because the whole group is and not the other way around.

In these movements, we as Christians offer a break in this evil status quo of our reality. We offer a countercultural perspective to the world, becoming an alternative to this individualistic, unequal and unjust empire that sometimes still calls on the name of God just to protect itself, but is speedily marching to hell. In this living of a new alternative to the world, preachers are to create metaphors for Christians to live in this world. The Bible is filled with metaphors for God and Christians: God as a mighty fortress, Jesus as a hen, Christians as traveling people without a country. Jesus is a master of metaphors, using parables to describe his reality. In this way, we can also understand French philosopher Paul Ricouer’s definition of metaphor: “Metaphor has the extraordinary power of redescribing reality.” This means we need to reinvent reality.

Thus, the work of the 21st century preacher is also to create metaphors to help Christians gain critical lenses from which they can see the distance between the reality they imagine and the one they actually live. This happens through the critical reading of the Bible — from the margins, together, a reading that is never neutral but always proposes a reality that can mirror the justice and equality of the kingdom of God. This collective reading is ideological as well but grounded in an ideology that is marked by the imago Dei in every single human being, especially those who are disgraced by our societies. The point is not to deny the ideology, but instead to create ways in which many metaphors can helps Christians read the Bible and live the gospel from the perspective of the poor instead of the perspective of the rich. One example is how farmers in Brazil are reading the Bible. Sewers of hope against the big agribusiness, they read the gospel under three major themes: memory, rebellion and hope.

Liberation theology in Latin America has also created a large metaphor, even an hermeneutic key, to read the gospel. If we are to look at reality from God’s eyes, they say, we must see that God’s love has a logical preference for the poor, which means that God is primarily on the side of those who are naked, abandoned, hungry, homeless and in prison (see Matthew 25:31-46). This metaphor gives us lenses to read the Bible from the perspective of Jesus, who was poor, who had almost no possessions and who was born as an undocumented immigrant.

As preachers preaching in this country at this time, we must create ways to help our people to deal with racism. We must create forms of reading the Bible that will engage with the black community against white supremacy, that will assume the racial construction of this country, that will create the conditions of the possibilities for the black and white people in this country, including browns, yellows and every other people to live in a just world.

Heralds, ring shouters, storytellers, hosts of God’s love, decolonizers, anti-imperialists, sewers of hope, racism dismantlers, signposts of hope, singers of justice, prophets, fire igniters, tricksters and so on. What are the new/old metaphors for the people of God to honor God, to fight the present ideologies of death, to honor people and to find ways to live the gospel of life with courage?


Preaching for the 21st century must be a collective event and not an individual one anymore. Preaching is a combination of collective and critically reading our reality, seeing the gap between what we live and what we imagine we are living, getting deeply involved with the poor and dismantling the ideological political economic apparatus of control and destruction that structures our lives under signs of justice while it continues to undermines our lives. We face these systems by using metaphors that put the gospel on the side of the poor. Language and action, faith and worship, Bible reading and many other sources, prayers of mercy and shouts of justice, a powerful ideology of the gospel in metaphors that place us all on the side of the poor and the side of life. All of these things bursting both from our pulpits and our streets, feeding each other until we lose the capacity to know where God’s love comes from.

Preaching in the 21st century will start by reading the gospel from the places of hurt and injustice. From there, we start to make sense of the Bible and our own contexts.

Preaching in the 21st century will empower our spiritual lives and spiritual practices and take us to the streets protesting the social life that affronts this very spirituality grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Preaching in the 21st century will make us all know of the slavery and history of racism against black people of this country; we will not allow ourselves to stop talking about it until blacks have the same rights as white people.

Preaching in the 21st century will work from a complex net of issues that are all inter-correlated and make sense of it all: the destruction of our ecology, racism, patriarchy, heterosexuality, militarism, colonialism, sexual violence, social class struggles and so on.

Preaching in the 21st century will comfort the uncomfortable and make uncomfortable the comforted. This preaching will annoy us to the point of us asking: “Can we really be Christians?”

Preaching in the 21st century will help create autochthon movements of faith and justice; it will engage the liturgical sources of our faith along with the thousands of other symbols of liberation around the world; it will honor other people’s faith and will teach us to fight for their well-being. This preaching will restitute others’ dignity and give us language for new prayers, worship and daily protests.

Preaching in the 21st century will find metaphors to continue the demand Jesus asked of Peter: Feed my sheep and from this strength we will go forward on behalf of the God who has a clear preference for the poor!

Preaching in the 21st century will make it clear that at the center of this gospel is the love of God, the redemptive gospel of Jesus Christ and the radical presence of the Holy Spirit! Otherwise it will be preaching about ourselves.

Are you ready to preach in this 21st century?

CláudioCarvalhaes01192014r-portrait-web-12CLÁUDIO CARVALHAES is associate professor of homiletics and worship at McCormick Theological Seminary and a PC(USA) teaching elder within the bounds of the Presbytery of Southern New England. He is the author of ”Eucharist and Globalization: Redrawing the Borders of Eucharistic Hospitality.”