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by Colin Harbinson

One of the reasons why the evangelical community has struggled with the arts is because it has devalued the role and significance of the visual. Colin Harbinson explores the nature of symbol, ritual and narrative, and calls for the reintegration of word and image.

Inextricably Bound Together

Referring to the destruction of visual images during the Reformation, historian Will Durant noted that “truth” had banished beauty as an infidel. Commenting on the modern era, Brian McLaren observes, “Narrative, poetry, and the arts in general … took a back seat, or else they were asked to leave the car entirely to hitchhike on their own. Or they were brought along for their entertainment value but generally not as serious ‘front seat’ colleagues in the search for truth.”1 Faced with the renewed importance of narrative, symbol, and ritual in our postmodern culture, the Protestant church—and the evangelical community in particular—must re-examine the role of the visual, and by extension, the nature and significance of the arts.

Respected Bible scholar and author Warren Wiersbe states that today’s sermon has become “a logical outline, a lecture buttressed with theology, that majors on explanation and application but ignores visualization.” He goes on to say that the “[i]magination is the imagemaking faculty in your mind, the picture gallery in which you are constantly painting, sculpting, designing, and sometimes erasing.” Our visual capacity is a necessary and inescapable part of our God-created humanity. Unless we comprehend the importance of reintegrating word and image, we will remain malnourished in spirit, the misunderstanding and mistrust of the arts will continue, and the process of symbol renewal—so essential for cultural transformation—will be relegated to irrelevance.

Narrative, symbol, and ritual are inextricably bound together—complementing, not competing with each other. Word and image find their ultimate expression and integration in Christ. While application of this principle to the arts per se is not the explicit focus of this article, it is implicit throughout. For in order to have the substantive dialogue needed to move the church towards the recovery of a spiritually authentic and culturally vibrant imagination, there must first be a foundation of understanding to build on. Hence our current focus that begins with a consideration of the role of narrative—of story.

A Dwelling Place

In ancient times, the ability of storytellers to memorize and recite stories, epics, poetry, and ballads made them a popular source of entertainment. They were also indispensable as the repository of the collective memory of a people. Sometimes the story would be “acted out.” When this was done with audience participation, it could lead to the development of ritual practices within the community. With the development of writing, the focus passed from the storytellers to the scribes, who would painstakingly gather and record the stories. Although no longer dependent on the memory skill of a narrator, storytelling continued to flourish alongside the written word.

All people have stories. Meta-narratives, the comprehensive stories that create archetypes or models for living, give framework and context to life. They create a “storyline,” a “sequencing” of events that gives a sense of meaning and coherence—a vision of reality. The Christian meta-narrative articulates not only a beginning and an end, but also a human mandate and a divine purpose. All of human history is moving toward the time when God’s original intention for His creation will be restored in Christ. 33 The visionary role of narrative is of particular importance to our discussion, for it has the ability to “articulate” a vision in a way that objective facts never could. A narrative empowers a vision for life by becoming a place where we can live. Hebrew literature has been described as a portable homeland for the Jewish people. Fulford, who refers to a meta-narrative as a “master narrative,” captures this sense when he says, “A master narrative is a dwelling place. We are intended to live in it” (emphasis mine).2 When a story moves us, it draws us into itself and motivates us. Story is a dwelling place. The more we live in it, the more it lives in us and directs all that we think and do.

Symbols Speak

The premise of the masterfully written Dictionary of Biblical Imagery is that the biblical meta-narrative “images the truth as well as stating it in abstract propositions.”3 One of the ways it does this is through symbols that bind us to the meaning of our story and allow it to break into the rhythm of our lives. This is where we now turn our attention, to examine how transcendent stories become immanent—how they are “fleshed out” within the context of our daily lives.

Symbols embody meaning. They point to something beyond themselves. They signify. Some symbols act as shorthand, reminding us of what we already know. Other symbols are used to signify something beyond our actual surroundings. It is this unique endowment, this distinctly human ability of “abstracting from the immediate situation, forming judgments and concepts, generalizing, imagining, and fantasizing,”4 that enables symbolic communication. A symbol, then, has the ability to bring together very different forms of experience. It connects the knowable to what we do not yet fully know. It is a mixture of the unique and universal human capacity for symbolic communication, together with the ability of symbols to connect the natural with the supernatural, that gives weight to Zahniser’s contention that all cultures use symbols and ceremonies to bring life into harmony with faith.5 When this happens, people are bonded in a significant way to their story.

To understand this link between narrative, symbol, and ritual it is important for us to have a closer look at how symbols “speak.” Symbols are powerful, because they are able to communicate “through all our senses and on many levels, to our thinking and our feeling, our memory and our imagination.”6 Clare Gibson asserts that a symbol has many advantages over the written or spoken word: it transcends the barriers of language; its message can be instantly registered and absorbed.7

A helpful exploration of the way in which symbols “speak”—how they transmit their meaning—is Paul Ricoeur’s The Symbolism of Evil. He sees every authentic symbol as initially having three dimensions. It is cosmic (a thing in the world), oneiric (having to do with the psyche or dreams), and poetic (spoken of in words and songs). In other words, for Ricoeur, symbols are physical realities that impact our psyche, and are that “around which words and songs and names gather powerful meanings.”8 These symbols resonate when the poets write and the balladeers sing. There is an association, a mood that is both created and recalled, that activates remembrance and unites emotional, psychological, physical, and cognitive levels of meaning.

Renewed Meaning

From earliest times, the sun and moon have been perceived by human beings as mysterious and awesome manifestations of the sacred. These powerful cosmic symbols evoked images and beliefs that have resulted in worship and sacrifice. However, because the meanings of symbols are assigned, they can also be renewed when broken and reshaped in Christ. This re-assignation process has profound implications for the transformation of culture, and the contextualization of the gospel within each unique cultural framework. Referencing Ricoeur’s work, Gordon Lathrop gives an example of how the pagan symbolism assigned to the sun and moon can be transformed by what he calls “biblical poetics.” When these primordial symbols are “surprised by God,” they can speak and mean in powerful, new, and revelational ways.

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