|Thursday, September 4, 2008
SYMBOLS MEAN WHATEVER YOU THINK THEY MEAN
In a presidential election year we are inundated with the icons of the major political parties. The icons are symbols politicians hope will evoke certain images in the minds of voters. But symbols are slippery things and mean different things to different people. For example, the elephant or donkey associates a candidate with the Republican or Democratic Party. For republicans the elephant symbolizes the party of Lincoln, fiscal constraint, and lower taxes. For democrats the donkey symbolizes the party of Roosevelt, a New Deal, and concern for middle class “working stiffs.” This is how “die-hard republicans” and “yellow-dog” democrats understand their own icons. But each party understands the other’s icon differently: for republicans the donkey symbolizes a “tax and spend” liberalism, while for democrats the elephant represents the interests of “big business” and tax breaks for the wealthy. Icons symbolize different things to different people; there is no exclusive meaning for any symbol.
Religious symbols are likewise subject to interpretation. The most popular Christian symbol today is likely a cross. But some Christian denominations choose additional icons to represent their particular brand of Christianity. The Disciples, for example, use a chalice with an emblazoned cross (for the Eucharist), and Assemblies and others use a flame or white dove (symbolizing the Holy Spirit).
Oddly, none of these modern icons were used with these meanings by early followers of Jesus. Distinctly Christian archaeological data do not appear until around 180. Christians surely left artifacts, but for the first one hundred years or so they are simply not distinguishable from non-Christian artifacts. The earliest Christian religious artifacts pre-date the time of Constantine in the fourth century (313), and they suggest that the character of early Christian folk religion was different from the later public face of Christianity in the Roman Empire—or put another way, the religious ideas of Christian texts were less influential on Christians than was the popular culture. Here are the early symbols: the lamb, the anchor, the vase (not chalice), the dove (symbolizing peace), the boat, the olive branch, a standing female figure with hands lifted over her head (called the “Orante”), the palm or tree, the bread loaf, the Good Shepherd, the fish, the vine and grapes. These symbols relate to victory, peace, and security in adversity, not to a suffering savior. The fish symbol, which is not used as an exclusive symbol by any of today’s mainline churches, is thought to originate before Constantine. The letters of the Greek word for fish (Ichthus) form an acrostic for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior,” but not for the “crucified” Christ. A distinctly Christian cross only emerges after Constantine’s time, and dates from his selection of the Christian cross as his battle standard.
By far the dominant view in New Testament texts, however, is that the cross reconciles humanity with God (Eph 2:16). But not all early Christians understood the death of Jesus that way. For example, First Peter also thought that Jesus’ death provided an example of how Christians should live, and freed the Christian to live as Jesus lived (1 Pet 1:21-24) Some texts do not even have a “theology of the cross.” In First Thessalonians Paul does not mention the cross or the “crucifixion” of Jesus, but describes Jesus death, rather oddly, as a “killing” (2:14-15). The Didache (an early Christian text dated somewhere from 70-150) does not associate the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) with Jesus’ death, as the gospels do (Mark 14:22-25), but rather explains the meal as a celebration in which Christians are blessed “with spiritual food and drink, and eternal light” through God’s child Jesus (9:1-10:3).
So what icons should modern churches use to represent their faiths: the early symbols found in “Christian” folk religion, which celebrate life, or the later politically motivated cross, symbolizing the death of Jesus? Why couldn’t today’s churches use an anchor, an olive branch, or fish on their steeples rather than a cross? Or like Christians in the fourth century, it seems that churches are free to invent completely new symbols more in keeping with how they understand themselves in the modern world. Why not? Later Christians changed to the cross symbol.
Read More? See Graydon F. Snyder, Ante Pacem (Mercer, 1985).
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 2:54pm
Dr. Hedrick, Oops! I was mistaken. As you may have suspected, there are more symbols inside our chapel than you can shake a stick at--all in colored glass. I once was blind, but now I see. The most prominent artwork (up front) depicts Jesus as a good shepherd. Unlike most stained glass versions, this one has a wolf in it to illustrate the danger of being a sheep without a protector. Just keepin' it real. I am told that the sculptures I thought represented spirit were meant to represent faith and hope, respectively. I suppose that one of the beauties of symbols is that one person's spirit is another person's faith and hope. I understand that the sculptor learned that she had cancer, so she sculpted her goodbyes, only to pass through the danger zone unscathed. Do we thank the cancer for her inspiration? Our sanctuary also has small windows high along the right wall chock full of symbols that would capture the attention of Tom Hanks' character in the Da Vinci Code. There's a lamp, wheat, an hour-glass shaped vessel (chalice or vase?), a hand shaped like a 2-barrel gun (as best I can describe it, although I'm sure that's not what it is), a dove, a fish and a cross with the vertical line turned into a P (Does anyone know what that is?). Oh, and there's a cross with flames on the cover of the United Methodist Hymnal we use. Spiritus Sanctus. Love, Holly
Dr. Hedrick, You illuminate at every turn! Thank you for widening my theological vista! I'm trying to picture the Carmel Valley Community Chapel, the church I attend in California. Inside the building there are relatively few symbols to be found--maybe two sculptures depicting spirit--but, sure enough, we have that dratted cross outside on the corner of the lot. Thankfully, Jesus isn't on it, for if I were Jesus, the last thing I would want is to have my cruel, humiliating death immortalized. Unfortunately, that ugly death is still what comes to mind when I see a cross. I stopped going to "Good" Friday services several years ago as I began to realize that Jesus’ death was a tragedy that I didn’t want to relive annually—not even for the sake of getting to participate in beautiful music, which was the most compelling reason for me to be in that sad service. The sicko god that planned Jesus crucifixion was not my God. Such a formula for salvation is an acceptable foundation only for a dysfunctional relationship. To say that somebody’s gotta pay for the fact that we’re all human is sadistic—or masochistic, if you prefer, if the Three-in-One, essentially off-ed Himself. One might say that Jesus’ death was temporary, and mostly symbolic, but the idea that God condoned Jesus’ torture and suffering “for our own good” is poor parenting. It’s “twisted,” as my son B.J. would say. Ask any psychologist: anger displacement is no solution to the actual problem of the imperfections of humanity and punishment is not the tool of choice for reconciliation. The atonement paradigm doesn’t make sense to me anymore and I am so glad to know that not all early Christians understood the death of Jesus that way. I was pressured by my husband to join him at the theater for Mel Gibson's rendition of Roman barbarism and how poor Jesus died, but I held fast, as I did not believe it was where Jesus would have me go. Jesus’ life points the way and I see great enjoyment and purpose for the use of other symbols of our faith and hope. Here's something funny: As a member of our chapel's board of trustees, I worked with others on a new icon for our chapel stationery. We wanted to characterize our uniqueness. Someone had drawn a picture of the labyrinth we have in our front yard, with a dove in the middle as a symbol of peace. Shockingly, it looked like the bird was for target practice!
Charlie—as a protestant, I thought the modern cross symbolizes the risen savior, the victory over death, not Christ’s death, and the crucifix symbolizes the suffering Christ. The cross, in all its forms, is interesting. Look what happened to the swastika.