Friday, December 11, 2009

76. Symbols and the Construction of Community

Revisited a book I read a while back for the book I am working on about Apostolic Leadership. This guy is so thorough in his analysis about how symbols foster, maintain and hold community together, that it is sort of hard to find a good summary quote. Symbols are those clandestine meaning transmitters and they work in such an ambiguous way that when you stop to look more deeply into how they operate and what it is exactly that they do, you begin to see there power and presence on almost every corner. This quote is from Anthony Cohens book The Symbolic Construction of Community.

"Symbols are effective because they are imprecise. Though obviously not content-less, part of their meaning is subjective. They are, therefore, ideal media through which people can speak a 'common' language, behave in apparently similar ways, participate in the 'same' rituals...wear the same clothes and so forth, without subordinating themselves to a tyranny of orthodoxy. Individuality and community are thus reconcilable. Just as the 'common form' of the symbol aggregates the various meanings assigned to it, so the symbolic repertoire of a community aggregates the individualities and other differences found within the community and provides the means for their expression, interpretation, and containment. It provides the range within which individuality is recognizable. It continuously transforms the reality of difference into the appearance of similarity with such efficacy that people can still invest the 'community' with ideological integrity. It unites them in their opposition, both to each other, and to those 'outside.' It thereby constitutes, and gives reality to, the community's boundaries..."

An interesting question to entertain is, how does the symbol of the gospel function in this way? Symbols are fused with meaning by someone. The strength of symbols is that they can store and communicate multiple meanings at once. Their weakness is that meaning can get away from what produced the symbol in the first place. A good example of this would be the cross. Still a vibrant religious symbol in Christianity, it has been emptied of its original meaning and loaded down with centuries of domestication and cultural baggage. The most vivid display of this would be the prosperity gospel which manages to skirt the cross altogether most of the time, bypassing it for a direct line towards the resurrection, giving it a lopsided theology of naked power and naive triumphalism. Weakness and suffering, non-violent resistance and loving sacrifice seem to escape this particular ideology altogether. Instead, the prosperity gospel liquidates the meaning of the cross and shrinks it down to a purely transactional affair to secure personal salvation and forgiveness. It is a side note to the "power" of "abundant living." The current Protestant versions of the gospel have fallen into this same trap. This is quite a downsizing when compared to the massive implications Paul and other writers of the NT draw from this powerful symbol. Joel green and Mark Baker are quick to point out a foundational source of this tragedy in their book Recovering the Scandal of the Cross.
They say that part of the problem is the way in which we construe the human dilemma. Explanations of the solutions offered by the gospel are directly linked to how we understand the problem. Before Christ the human dilemma was understood within a broad spectrum of categories, including, social, physical, political, emotional, and psychological. The spiritual dimension is always present, but at times it is single voice among many. Explanations of the meaning of the cross need to first wrestle with the entire human situation in relation to God, creation and humanity. The fall reaches into every facet of our existence. It only seems right to expect the gospel, as the power of God for salvation, will speak to these categories. In fact it does. The word salvation is a medical term that is akin to the Hebrew version of shalom. Wholeness and harmony are intimately tied to the gospel, yet they are framed by a crucified messiah. A paradox indeed. The critical flaw in the prosperity gospel is that it approaches the human condition outside the framework of a crucified messiah. It is a contemporary version of the Corinthians "realized eschatology" which wants to live as though the new creation is entirely accessible in the here and now. We live between the times. We have experienced the power of the age to come, but the age to come still has yet to fully "come." We live under the sign of the cross, the spirit transporting the power of the new age into our presence, giving us a foretaste of what is to come. We have to acknowledge this tension. New life has begun, but it has infiltrated a cosmos still suffering from the brunt of the fall.

Apostolic leaders must learn how to embed the gospel in ways that reflect its multiple meanings, guarding and preserving its original potency to speak to the human condition in relation to God, people, systems and the creation.

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