From the Psalter:
Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;
the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 12:1 (NRSV) – April 30, 2014.)
I am given to hyperbole. I know that. So, apparently, was David (the superscript to this psalm attributes it to David), as the first verse of today’s evening psalm amply demonstrates. I’ll bet he got into as much trouble (or maybe more) because of that as I get into!
Hyperbole is defined as “an extravagant statement or figure of speech not intended to be taken literally.” The problem is that some don’t understand a hyperbolic statement to be something “not intended to be taken literally.”
Hyperbole can be handy in conversation and public speaking. For example, I can tell you that I am so hungry I could eat a horse. You know very well that I can’t actually do that, but you get the message that it’s been a long time since I’ve eaten. Picking up your luggage, I can complain that your suitcase weighs a ton. Of course, it doesn’t, but you know I think you’ve packed too much. Hyperbole is useful shorthand, but it is risky. When one is speaking, perhaps, tone of voice can indicate the meaning, but in writing — absent tone of voice, facial expression, body language — there is a real risk of being misunderstood. The risk is greatest when one’s audience is unfamiliar with the writer.
Hyperbole, as it happens, is the language of theology. In Works of Love the Danish theologian-philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote of the need for hyperbole in Christian rhetoric: “The more learned, the more excellent the defense, the more Christianity is disfigured, abolished, exhausted like an emasculated man, for the defense simply out of kindness will take the possibility of offense away.” With religious subjects, argued Kierkegaard, it is sometimes more important to shout than to offer a reasonable discussion. Because the world assumes that Christianity has triumphed, he suggested, the theologian must use hyperbole as a rhetoric that makes the impossible both practical and necessary, that will draw attention to itself in order to point away from itself to the mystery of God.
Karl Barth, too, was given to hyperbole. In the preface to the second edition of his The Epistle to the Romans he warned his readers not be seduced by the contagious enthusiasm of his hyperbole, asking them not to receive the book with either “enthusiasm or peevishness.” He knew that his exaggerated critique of the church could be (and, indeed, was) found to be both exciting and irritating.
So if I express myself with hyperbole, with exaggeration, with rhetorical overstatement . . . I find myself in good company, as liable to be as misunderstood as David, as Kierkegaard, as Barth, as many other prophets and theologians. Not that I count myself in their league! If I am in their company it is only in the way a child may be in the company of adults, an apprentice in the company of masters, a mortal in the company of eternals. (How’s that for hyperbole?)
In any event, I have to keep that in mind: I’m given to hyperbole and that is risky business. I hope my readers will keep it in mind, too, otherwise their heads will explode! (No, they won’t. I’m just demonstrating my tendency to be hyperbolic.)
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.