I have been described, with flattery and contempt, as inflammatory and as one who lends himself to exaggeration. I have never given this much credence, because I know that the only thing I know for a fact is that I know almost no facts. In college I made great marks from listening to lectures and writing about concepts, but in the classes that demanded detail and a true grasp of the facts, I faltered. I have no knack for details, and I can rarely defend an argument against someone who has an intimate knowledge of a subject. I don’t have intimate knowledge of subjects, only intimate relationships with my ideas and concepts. I can read the first page of each chapter in a textbook, listen to the lectures, and I will shout the message from treetops. Though, it is not usually worth more than about 85% of the class grade.
I am in good company, however. I am not the only person in history to skip the details in order to beat the message over the heads of the listeners. As a matter of fact, Al Gore has been doing it for decades, and I applaud him for it. Politicians dating as far back as the origins of politics have engaged in this manner of delivering meaning and intent. Probably the prime example is Jesus, who used his metaphoric megaphone to shout his messages, which may indeed have been intended as whispers to his companions. Jesus engaged in some of the most dynamic uses of literary principles, but his least understood and most commonly misinterpreted was hyperbole.
Hyperbole is that concept that allows us to amplify our content. I can shout without raising my voice. It is great. As a matter of fact, raising your voice tends to take away from your message, where hyperbole gains attention for it. It is not an effective tool for argument, because it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But it is not supposed to. It probably starts more arguments than finishes them, but the successful wielder of hyperbole doesn’t engage in arguments, he or she only shouts a message. It is not persuasive or formal in nature, it is personal and conversational. It is misused sometimes to convince or persuade. It is best used to make a point, and that is a different beast entirely.
Jesus was the master of hyperbole. He engaged in metaphor and allegory, in parables and legal discourse that bordered on satire. In fact, there are something like 200 different types of figures of speech represented in the Bible, and most of these have been neatly categorized and evaluated. There is disagreement about where the lines are all drawn, for sure, but Jesus’ most mysterious messages were those times when he put his megaphone right in his followers’ faces and shouted, with intense amplification, things like “Just follow me,” or ”Love each other,” or “Trust God.” He was grossly misunderstood, as people, then and now, stand around and scratch their heads and wonder what he was talking about. Should we hate our mother and father? Should we pluck out our eyes?
That happens to me all the time (misunderstanding, I mean, not the eye plucking.) The real problem comes when you are using hyperbole that is not tested and accepted as standard rhetoric. If you say “Man, it was raining cats and dogs,” you are, in my book, clichéd and dull, but you are not likely to be considered inflammatory. If you say, “Own nothing. Evaluate everything,” or “Jesus was a homeless Jew, not a middle class American Republican,” you are likely to be laughed at, if not stoned in the public square
These days, some people choose to write in all caps or put six or eight exclamation marks at the end of their sentences. I don’t fool with all that. Hyperbole is my megaphone of choice.