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Friday, September 6, 2013

Of Words and Symbols

Today I’m testing some of my math students on their ability to translate English phrases into algebraic expressions. I’ve been teaching them that there are a few key words and phrases that clue us in to how we should build a math problem. For example, when they see the words “less than” in a phrase they should remember to reverse the order of the information they’ve been given.

I’ve learned through my years of teaching mathematics that such lessons are some of the most valuable in the entire curriculum. Often students grow frustrated with the “alien” language of mathematics and suffer academically because of it. They do so much better when they realize that the language of mathematics is the same as the language of their lives. Once that fundamental connection has been made the students can rightly become little mathematicians.

The lesson I’m testing on today is precisely the intersection of words and symbols. This is the moment when students hopefully connect the English words with the algebraic symbols, recognizing that the latter are shorthand versions of the former. This is the intersection of symbol and meaning for them, a lesson that is crucial for their success in later mathematics and science classes.

Even more abstractly than algebraic symbols, though, our words and the icons we use hold tremendous power for people. We have perfected the ideas of “branding” and the development of logos to sell and identify objects and ideas. Flags, swooshes, and geometric patterns have all been employed as a shorthand version of identities or qualities in our world, whether they are good or bad.

Our words are also symbols. The sounds we make refer to concrete objects or intangible ideas and are communicated only insofar as the person to whom we are speaking understands what we mean. Our words both refer to and shape reality for ourselves and for those with whom we communicate. Such is the reason the Scriptures treat words and speech-acts as having so much creative and authoritative power. God speaks creation[1] ex nihilo, Jesus is referred to as “the Logos[2],” and the tongue is referred to as “a fire.”[3]

One of my mentors has been emphasizing over the last two years that Christians are to be “a people of careful speech.” He has been weaving this theme into sermons, committee meetings, and personal counseling events in an attempt to raise awareness among the congregation of how powerful words are and therefore how seriously we should treat them. His theme is similar to that of Marilyn McEntyre in her Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies in which she argues that our use of language is an expression of Christian stewardship.[4]

I would add to that argument that the symbols we use must be treated with as much (if not more) care as our words. Symbols do not have the benefit of paragraph explanation, nor can they communicate through body language. Instead, our symbols are silent and ultimately subjective. They have meaning only insomuch as the one observing the symbol ascribes meaning and understanding to it.

There have been movements among Christians throughout Church history both for and against the use of symbols in worship and in the context of Christian society. A prime example is the use of the Cross in Church architecture and worship. For generations Protestants eschewed the presence of the Cross as an icon because it was so closely associated with Roman Catholicism.[5] Crosses were prohibited in Protestant worship for a time because these symbols had come to represent something other than the crucifixion of Jesus - they represented a sectarian position and interpretation of theological foundations.

It is certainly obvious that the Cross has been re-appropriated by Protestants, especially Baptists. The near ubiquitous presence of crosses in our culture and Baptist churches proves that our opinions changed. Is it the actual symbol that changed, or was it the interpretive meaning that we gave it?

Two Baptist churches in Brandon, Mississippi are living out the very thing I’m writing about, that is, the relationship among our words, symbols, and the meanings we ascribe to them. First Baptist Church of Brandon, in partnership with Crosses Across America, is petitioning the City of Brandon for permission to build a giant cross along Interstate 20.[6] The city council is “blocking” the project because the structure would violate standing laws against tall structures in the city that are not billboards or signs. Interestingly, Brandon Mayor Butch Lee commented, “The cross is not a sign or a billboard; it’s a symbol.”[7]

The second congregation that has been on my mind is Crossview Baptist Church of Brandon. Their marquee on the side of Burnham Road reads, “What does Brandon need?” and “The cross is the answer.”[8] First, I have to assume that the question and answer are not referring to the construction of the concrete and steel cross at FBC Brandon. Secondly, I have to assume that the cross referred to is not a literal one upon which the citizens of the city would be crucified. I pray that Crossview is concerned with the need for the citizenry of Brandon to adopt a cruciform life of discipleship.

When it comes to our representations of the work of God we must exercise extra care. There are symbols so laden with historic and theological baggage that it seems we should abandon them and return to the plain, unadorned, and simple worship of our Baptist ancestors. But this is the easy way out, as tee-totaling always is. Instead, let us do the work of using the right words and the right symbols. Let us craft sermons and lessons that fill our churches with the meaning of the Gospel even as we learn to reflect godliness in our lives. Let us not place too much trust in symbols, though, even as we do not place all our faith in words. Neither a 20-story cross nor the carefully recited “sinner’s prayer” are substitutes for the convictions and transformations of the soul brought by the Spirit of God. Ours is the task of preaching the Word and forming the faithful into the likeness of Christ that they may be the true symbols of Christianity.

One final anecdote from my students may help to illustrate my point. I was speaking with my students about the relationship between language and symbols in math and I referenced the “Polo” symbol on one of their shirts. I asked, if you stitched that symbol on some other, cheaper shirt, would that make it a Polo shirt? The class all responded that yes, it would make some cheaper shirt a Polo. For them, the symbol itself was the object of value. They had no concept of the relationship between the brand (represented by the logo) and the quality or styling of the garment. For them, the symbol meant everything and their identification with that symbol was valued over all.

My prayer for the two Brandon churches and for Baptists everywhere is that we would allow symbols to be exactly what they are supposed to be - pointers, markers, and reminders of God’s grace to us. Further, I pray we would be practitioners of careful speech in our preaching and speaking lives. We must resist the devaluation of our words even as we resist the overvaluation of symbols.

[1] Genesis 1
[2] John 1
[3] James 3:6
[4] See McEntyre, Marilyn, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.
[5] For a great resource on how the Cross was treated as a line of division between Protestants and Roman Catholics in early America, see Smith, Ryan K., “The Cross: Church Symbol and Contest in Nineteenth-Century America.” Church History 70 no 4, 705-34.
[8] This was true as late as September 6, 2013.

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