Symbolism

Because I had the time to do so, I spent many hours yesterday in front of a television screen, watching various 9/11 ceremonies around the country.  What struck me about these events – whether they were carried out in a field in PA, Ground Zero in NYC, the Pentagon, or right here in our area, in Mather Field outside of Sacramento – was their highly symbolic nature.  President Obama bowed before a wreath in front of the Pentagon.  Mather Field spent many thousands of dollars in a symbolic gesture of putting a couple dozen jumbo transport planes into the air to prove how quickly it could be done in an emergency.  The last televised ceremony I saw was a couple hundred firefighters climbing the stairs to the top of the tallest highrise in Sacramento (up and down numerous times until they had reached the number of flights in the World Trade Center buildings that toppled on 9/11/01).  Obviously, symbolism is extremely important to us.

As a reader, writer, and writers conference attendee, I know that symbolism is of utmost importance in our works of fiction as well as nonfiction.  Well written symbolism tugs at our hearts, enlivens our imaginations, and evokes images of past and even future events.  The best works of literature use symbolism to good effect.

And what about our daily lives?  Just this morning I received an email from my dear friend Nancy, who wrote, “I have lighted a candle each day as a reminder of the Lord’s daily presence.”  That candle is not only a visible reminder of our Lord’s daily presence during an especially stressful period in each of our lives, but also a brilliant symbol of her loving and supportive friendship toward me and my family.

In the Bible, symbols abound.  Reading Michael Card and Scotty Smith’s book “Unveiled Hope” (about the book of Revelation) recently has helped me to visualize what the heavenly throne room of God looks like in vivid detail.  Envisioning that great room, I am awed to realize the striking similarities in symbolism between it and the instructions given to Moses for the building of the temple in Jerusalem, with its angelic beings cast in precious metals, bulls and rams horns, priestly garb, and the like.

Quite obviously, symbolism is extremely important to God.  Not because He needs it…but because He knows we do in order to really “get” the whole story of the Bible—the story of humanity’s fall in Eden and full redemption through Jesus-the-Lamb’s sacrificial blood on the cross.

Yet walk into most Protestant Evangelical churches today, and it’s hard to miss the fact that symbolism is all but completely absent.  Many churches have a cross or stylized dove in some central place within their sanctuaries, perhaps a table (often not called an alter) from which communion is occasionally served, but that’s about all.  Ministers wear suits, or as is often the case in California, casual (sometimes Hawaiian) shirts.  There is nothing in the sanctuary or meeting hall to remind visitors or the congregation of our (embarrassing?) pre-Reformation history, where symbols abounded.

For years I blinked not an eye at the explanation for this, that as post-Reformation Evangelicals, we take the “high road” of eschewing symbols (particularly those found in the more traditional or liturgical churches) in obedience to the first two Commandments, to avoid worshiping other gods and, particularly, making an idol.

But in our desire to maintain purity and piety in worship, I am starting to think we Evangelicals have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.  How can we possibly call “bad” (something to be avoided) what God very obviously considered good…good enough for the Temple where his Spirit dwelt in Old Testament days, which I have been told in scholarly books was a replica of sorts of God’s own throne room in heaven?  How can we keep out of our places of worship symbols that ought (and would) remind us of our faith and of Whom we believe, and the great heritage of Christ-followers who have lived before us, when the moment we step outside of our churches, we embrace symbols in every other area of life?

Is it time for a dialog in our churches about where they/we stand on this matter?  I, honestly, would like to see this happen.  With our churches languishing, let’s bring back some of the symbols of our faith – ancient symbols they are – that will help us and our guests to understand God’s story of salvation as we attempt to retell it Sunday after Sunday.  Let’s revive some symbolism in our places of worship.

4 comments on “Symbolism

  1. Symbolism and metaphor – both are so important to help us talk about and grasp at those truths that are too big for us to comprehend now. And yet these are often suspect and marginalized. Our culture is so literal: nothing can be true unless it can be measured or described or explained. There is so little room for mystery. It seems that this attitude has rubbed off onto our churches as well, at least in the Evangelical, protestant churches that I’m most familiar with.

  2. I’ve had some of my protestant friends tell me I’d make a good Catholic because of how much I like and enjoy symbolism. It brings awe to worship. It doesn’t distract me. I don’t feel I’m “worshiping the Golden Calf”. Although I agree with some moderns’ emphasis on God’s look on the heart and not the exterior, it seems to license casual, ho hum, lukewarm worship. But I must admit, I often choose the comfort of the padded pew over the feel of the hard floor on bended knees. My church has a large wooden cross up front. I wish it were more rugged. The LORD’s Table used for communion is always present, though most often empty. Perhaps before bringing back symbols, I would like to bring back silence…silence as the organist calls us to an attitude of worship. I need silence to allow me to leave all thoughts outside, except “I’m in HIS house…is HE here? Do I hear your voice LORD? How can I thank you enough for your grace, mercy and peace this past week…and on and on”.

    • Gini,
      I COMPLETELY agree with you in all respects. I believe in the Evangelical “message” that emphasizes the ability to have a personal relationship with God, so all the more reason that my inner senses long for the symbols that make this even more real and accessible for me. And I would agree with you about silence…too often what Evangelical churches consider silence is a few moments without words but filled with instrumental music, not the silence of the universe. I could be wrong, but I would consider true silence also to be a symbol. A symbol of the God who created everything out of nothingness, whose language often is silence, filled with the deep inner peace of His presence.

  3. Catholic symbolism abounds…in droves. I love it. Denise, you are a fabulous writer and philosopher, and you deserve every success. God bless you!

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