Before Henri Nouwen wrote the book that became his signature work, Return of the Prodigal Son, he went to The Hermitage museum in Russia and sat for whole days contemplating Rembrandt’s famous painting on the return of the prodigal son. He was given permission to bring a chair into the museum and he would sit for hours, studying the painting from various angles and letting it speak to him in his varying moods. The result was one of the finest commentaries ever written on both Rembrandt’s painting and on the meaning of that famous parable in the gospels.

What Henri Nouwen did with Rembrandt’s painting is what we need to do with a lot of the classical language of scripture, the creeds, and dogma. The language there is more iconic than literal, more the language of metaphor than of ordinary life, deep image rather than video-taped history. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t true or that it’s “Alice-in-Wonderland” mythology. It is deeply true, so true that we hang our very lives on its truth. But it is meant to studied, contemplated, meditated, knelt-before and prayed-with, rather than taken literally.

Allow me an example: Consider the language and image surrounding the death of Jesus as paying the price for our sins.

Scripture, our creeds, and our Christian tradition have a certain language around this. Among other things, we say: “He paid the price for our sins. We are saved by his blood. He paid the debt of sin. We are washed clean in his blood, the blood of the lamb. He is the Lamb of God who takes away our sins. He restored us to life, after our death in Adam’s sin. He conquered death, once and for all. By his stripes we were healed. He offered an eternal sacrifice to God. He is our victim. He opened the gates of heaven. He stripped the principalities and Satan of their power. He descended into hell.”

Accepting the truth of this language is one thing, explaining in within the categories and language of ordinary life is something else. About Jesus’ death, we have a language but we don’t have a vocabulary. We know its meaning, but we can never adequately explain it.

What exactly do we mean by these statements? How does Jesus’ death save me from being accountable for my sins? How does his death vicariously substitute for human shortcoming, including our own, through the centuries? Why does God need someone to suffer that agonizingly in order to forgive me? How does Jesus’ death open the gates of heaven? Why had they been closed? What does it mean that, in his death, Jesus descended into hell?

Literal explanations come up short here. The words are more like an icon, an artifact that highlights form to bring out essence. The language of scripture, the creeds, and our dogmas put us in touch with something that we can know but struggle to conceptualize and explain. It is meant to be grasped at levels beyond the just the intellect. It is a language to be contemplated and knelt-before more than a language to be understood literally.

Some years ago, Time magazine did a cover story on the death of Jesus. Among other things, they interviewed various people and asked them how they understood the blood of Jesus as washing them clean. One of those interviewed was JoAnne Terrell, the author of Power in the Blood? The Cross in the African American Experience. For her, the question of how Jesus’ blood saves us triggered a deep personal search. Sitting in a seminary classroom and studying the death of Jesus, she began having flashbacks: As a young girl she had seen her mother murdered by a boyfriend. She vividly recalled the blood-soaked mattress and her mother’s bloody fingerprints on the wall. And so her search was very much a search “to find the connection between my mom’s story and my story and Jesus’ story.”

For her, the language around the death of Jesus, its blood and heartbreak, became an icon to be contemplated for meaning. Like Henri Nouwen she began moving her chair around to look at it from various angles and to see how it spoke to her in her life-situation, to the blood in her own history. The language of redemptive blood gave meaning and dignity to her mother’s blood.

We cheat ourselves of meaning whenever we treat scripture, the creeds, and the dogmas of our faith as simple statements of history, newspaper accounts in literal language. They have a historicity and they are true, but the language surrounding them is not the language of the daily newspaper. They are anchored in history and we risk our very lives on their truth, but they speak to us more as does an icon than as does yesterday’s newspaper. Their language is meant to be contemplated, knelt-before, and absorbed in the heart as we experience more and more of life’s mysteries.

An atheist, someone once quipped, is just another name for someone who doesn’t grasp metaphor.