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 to a wolf and not a bull or a bear, which are also aggressive but not necessarily clever.
Applying this to the Bible, we should not only value what metaphors in Scripture mean but also see these particular metaphors themselves as a gift from God to convey something valuable about who he is and what he is doing. In the case of “born again,” the conception of spiritual life in Christ as a form of birth leads us to think about how birth itself is like our own spiritual journey.
A universal human experience
Birth is a strange metaphor in Christian circles. We tend to think of birth as something that relates mostly to women. But because all of us were born, birth clearly applies to men and women alike. Similarly, metaphors about children apply to each of us because we have all been children at some point.
Modern birth is far less seen or experienced than it was in days of old. It happens in hospitals, often away from the eyes of the general population. In the case of planned C-sections, increasingly common today, even the mother might not see the birth itself.
In the ancient world, however, birth was an experience that impacted everyone. It happened inside homes that made the noise and struggle much more public. Neighbors heard it. Birth, in all of its loud messiness, was a family affair and even a community event.
It shouldn’t surprise us then that birth became a metaphor for a variety of other experiences in both the Old and New Testaments. German scholar Claudia Bergmann states that the ancients used birth to describe experiences of crisis—whether personal or communal.
Bergmann explains in Childbirth as a Metaphor for Crisis that “ancient Near Eastern examples show . . . that there was a tradition of comparing women giving birth to warriors in battle.” This happens in the Old Testament too. It may seem strange to us now, but the ancient authors of the Old Testament saw the crisis of birth—where women were close to death as they struggled to bring new life into the world—as parallel to the warrior’s experience of being close to death before victory in battle.