The Prison of Symbols

In interacting with “Evangelical Is Not Enough,” I’ve briefly outlined four bands of thought that serve as tires to keep the car on the road of common sense as we head for the sunset stained mountains.

First, the Roman Catholic Church (which Howard represents) offers too narrow a definition of “catholic.” Second, we need to learn to ask the hidden questions.  Third, we should beware of straw man arguments that pit RCC worship vs. Protestant worship, since both can have poor (or rich) aesthetic values.  Finally, we know that true worship begins and ends with a humble heart.

Having beat around the bush long enough, it’s time to dive right into the heart, where it’s green, delicious, teeming with life forms, and often thorny.

Howard recalls the first time he entered a Roman Catholic Church, and the rich symbolism that struck his senses.  “It seemed that all the things that I had read about in the holy Scriptures concerning the majesty of God, the centrality of the Lord Jesus Christ, the mysteries of Creation and Redemption were suddenly on display here…did all these symbols–altar, candles, cross, and perhaps even the sumptuous windows–lean too far towards idolatry?  Certainly they had the effect of complicating and elaborating things.”

To have symbols or not have symbols, that is the question — right?  But Howard sees though the surface to the unasked question: not, “do we embrace symbols,” but “which symbols do we embrace?”  He relates, “When…I worshiped with a group of Christians who strove for a nonsymbolic simplicity…I noticed that here the table was placed in the center, with pews arranged around it, signifying the centrality of the Lord’s Supper…it is difficult to eliminate symbolism.”

Someone who strives to eliminate all symbolism typically ends up with a very ascetic, colorless existence, in which they become a symbol for all iconoclasts.

Howard notes that it’s impossible to even dress without invoking a symbol of some sort, and I agree.  Businessmen, goths, hipsters, stay-at-home moms, homosexuals, jocks, prom queens, geeks, farmers, cowboys and prostitutes all dress in a way that speaks something, either about themselves (“I am trendy,” “I’m a rebel”), or about their view of the world (“I place importance on wealth,” “Sex appeal is the highest ideal”).  But of all possible outfits, the one that screams the loudest is the outfit worn by someone who simply won’t be bothered with thinking about how to dress.

The woman who stands out in the crowd in her sunny indifference to fashion, and the man who looks sloppy and poorly dressed because the thought of matching his shoes to his slacks simply never crossed his mind, is the modern day evangelical church.  In a world that is literally a prison of symbols, we don’t even notice the padlock.

It remains to be seen if evangelicals should adopt the rich symbolism of our Church of Rome (and even Lutheran) forefathers, but the first lesson evangelicals should learn is this: symbolism is inescapable.  It’s time to consider the array of symbols that we’ve been unintentionally shouting from our amps and drywall ceilings.

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One thought on “The Prison of Symbols

  1. A person could pluck out one’s eyes so as not to be distracted by any of the symbols…:-) But no, you are right; symbolism is being created by and conveyed to our God-given senses all the time!

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