Metaphorical Reasoning, Frames, and Scenes

By Justin Rossow

Note: This excerpt is from pages 11-14 of Preaching Metaphor: How to Shape Sermons that Shape People by Justin Rossow. Minor formatting edits have been made.

Sometimes, a high level analysis can be helpful to see how metaphors relate to each other; and sometimes staying at the broadest possible level of analysis hides what’s most important.

So although we could correctly label John the Baptist’s, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:29) with the Conceptual Metaphor PEOPLE ARE ANIMALS, I think such analysis misses almost everything that’s important in the metaphor. The lamb in question is in a specific situation (of sacrifice) and not knowing the logic of that specific circumstance means getting the metaphor wrong.

That’s why I am glad that at least some in the field of metaphor theory have adopted the more specific language of Source Frame and Target Frame instead of the more all-encompassing Source and Target Domain. I still think “frame” requires too much explanation if you aren’t a linguist, so I have another suggestion; but before we get to that, let’s look briefly at what the experts mean by “frame,” because I think they are fundamentally right.

Consider this scenario: you walk into a specific building a little later than you intended. You are wearing nice clothes, as are all the other people you see when you arrive. One person in particular is standing at a podium and wearing a unique outfit. You wait for the person at the podium to tell you to be seated before you sit down. Who is the person at the podium?

Since this is a book on preaching, and preaching prototypically happens in a church, it would be natural for you to assume the building is a church and the person at the podium is the pastor. (Though if you have been preaching regularly for a while, the experience of showing up to a church service just a little late while people are already standing may not be an experience immediately available to your cognitive process. Believe me, for just about every other churchgoer, it is.)

If I told you that the person at the podium handed you a menu before asking you to be seated, the scenario shifts, and you immediately know this is a restaurant, and you are just a little late for your dinner reservation, and the person in the unique outfit is the maître d’.

All of the cultural and experiential information you know about walking into a worship service late (or arriving at a fancy restaurant for dinner) forms what linguists call a “frame.” The frame is the scenario that provides meaning beyond the meaning of the words themselves, meaning that arises from the situation the words suggest.

[Charles Fillmore, “Frame Semantics,” in Linguistics in the Morning Calm (Seoul: Hanshin Publishing, 1982), 11-138 is usually cited as the foundational theory for frames, along with Fillmore’s “Frames and the Semantics of Understanding,” Quarderni di Semantica 6.2 (December, 1985): 222-54.]

Part of what it means to be a competent speaker of any language is to know which words or phrases evoke which situations, and how those situations typically play out.

You don’t need a degree in linguistics to know what kind of scenario comes along with the sentence, “I only paid $20 for it.” You know how buying and selling works. You know about value and prices and sales. You know what the expectations are, and what the dangers are, and what kinds of things could or should be said next. In short, you understand the frame that makes that sentence make sense.

So a frame can contain a lot of possible or probable information, just like a domain, but a frame is a specific way to refer to the information as a scenario that forms a prototypical set of actions, expectations, objects, and evaluations. So I think those who have borrowed the technical term “frame” and used it to describe metaphor mapping are barking up the right tree.

[John Sanders, Theology in the Flesh: How Embodiment and Culture Shape the Way We Think about Truth, Morality, and God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), for example, uses the language of Source/Target Domain and Source/Target Frame in helpful ways.]

When we use metaphor, we don’t map from the width and breadth of one conceptual domain to another; we take the players, objects, goals, outcomes, and logic embedded in a frame in one domain and map that onto a specific situation or frame in a second domain. So while the broader designations of Source Domain and Target Domain may have their place, each domain contains a variety of frames, and therefore I find the language of Source Frame and Target Frame to be more helpful.


Except that adding the technical term “frame” (meaning something different than “frame” typically means in normal parlance) to the already technical designations of “Source” and “Target” is for me one technical term too many.

The point of using Source Frame or Target Frame is to capture the idea that a specific scenario within a broader conceptual domain is what actually does the heavy lifting in any metaphor. So we need a word that captures the narrative dynamic of the scenario (without suggesting that a full-blown storyline of some kind hides behind every metaphor we use).

My vote is for the word “scene.”

A scene captures part of a broader narrative without encompassing the whole storyline. A scene showcases dynamic relationships and possibilities, though much is often left unsaid. A scene organizes elements and characters into a meaningful whole, even if that meaningful whole is only a tiny glimpse of a complex interaction of relationships over time to which the scene belongs. We identify, categorize, and interact with objects in our everyday lives on the basis of possible scenes that belong to our cultural and experiential memory world: you naturally know what to do with a ball, or a door, or a glass or water because of scenes.

[More on this bit about objects and scenes when we talk about props as metaphors in Section 3. In a book about preaching metaphor, the designation “scene” also has this benefit: homiletics has begun to shift away from an emphasis on a sweeping narrative and begun to focus on more discrete narrative units called, you guessed it, scenes. See Alyce McKenzie, Making a Scene in the Pulpit: Vivid Preaching for Visual Listeners (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018).]

So from here on out, I will occasionally use the language of Source Domain or Target Domain when it is appropriate to be working at a very high level of analysis. Often, I will simply use the terms Source and Target all by themselves. But when it becomes important to designate the specific situational logic of a domain more carefully, I will revert to the language of Source Scene and Target Scene, mostly because I think those terms are closer to saying what I actually mean.

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