Friday, December 10, 2010

Signs and symbols

We had the privilege of seeing U2 on Thursday evening. We had “standing” seats, which meant we were on our feet for hours. The pain was well worth it.

It was one of two concerts in Brisbane as part of U2’s 360 degrees tour of Australia and New Zealand. The stage rig was immense, and filled half a football pitch. Within the rig a large circular screen was hung, rather like a gigantic upside-down lamp shade, for the visuals, which included live footage of the band and a collage of other signs an symbols.

I loved it, but I took special interest in the religious imagery. U2’s iconic song “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”, which was originally written against the backdrop of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, was now performed against a backdrop of gun-toting, burka-wearing Jihadis. Bono, U2’s charismatic lead singer, conveyed messages of support for Aung San Suu Kyi, whilst a couple of dozen young men and women placed illuminations bearing the candle and barbed wire logo of Amnesty International around the ring of the stage. Desmond Tutu’s beaming face appeared on screen with a brief message of hope. The message was clear – this was Rock’n’Roll with a conscience, with an overt spirituality, politically aware.

Something struck me during this audio-visual extravaganza; the saturation of visual imagery. I’m not objecting to it per se, but I couldn’t help striking the contrast.

The world of visual imagery is something that I’m kind of tuned into, but kind of not. For me, the imagery makes no sense unless it comes with some sort of narrative. I’m the kind of person who will go through an art gallery and read all the plaques next to each painting to see who painted it, what was their context, and what they saw that compelled them to try and capture it in their creations. In other words, the symbol means nothing to me without the back-story.

Incidentally, this is where many of the New-Agers and Gnostics lose the plot. They argue that the meaning is in the symbols themselves, rather than the back-story. For example, they will get into all kinds of silliness about Christmas and Easter, as if the festivals themselves held more meaning than the Christian back-story that they are now used to convey. No, the “true” meaning of the Christian celebration of Christmas and Easter is not found in the pagan festivals that might have preceded them; it’s actually found in the stories of the Nativity and the Passion that have been passed down to us in the Bible.

Which brings me to the contrast I found with the U2 concert. The U2 concert was expertly filled with visual imagery, but the Christian Gospel is concerned with an audible imagery (I’m struggling to think of an English word that conveys this idea). The Gospel is not so much something that is “seen”, it’s something that is “heard”. It’s message is conveyed to us through story (predominantly), or teaching, or saying, or singing. For believers in the ancient near-east, where only 5% of the population could read and you had to find a specialized scribe to get anything written down, the Word of God was a constant voice.

Without radio or TV, the people would fill their lives with talking and singing, which is something they still do in places where the radio and TV have not yet penetrated to the saturation that we experience in the industrialized west. So, Paul enjoins the first Christians;
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
(Ephesians 5:18-20). I don’t think Paul is telling the believers to sing where they normally wouldn’t. Rather, he is telling them to change their repertoire to a Christ-centered Gospel. If Paul were writing today, he’d be saying something like “Change your football-chants to hymns of praise to God”.

Another aspect that should not be overlooked is that Paul, and the other NT authors, do something more than urge the believers to take up this new audio-imagery; they provide the reasons for doing so in their analysis of the Christian Gospel. These songs come with a deep and satisfying theology. The audio-imagery comes with an extensive audio back-story.

One place where the contrast between audio and visual imagery is pronounced is the Book of Revelation. Consider the following;
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man…’Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.'
(Revelation 1:12-13 and 1:19-20).

If I were a film-maker I’d have tremendous difficulty filming this scene, and that’s perhaps why Revelations has never been presented on screen. The problem is in how you arrange the furniture. At first, the “son of man” appears to be walking among the lampstands; then he appears to be holding them in his hand. Clearly, John is not trying to convey a visual image here – it just cannot be imagined. What he is trying to do, I believe, is to convey a story (an audible image). The Lord of the Church walks among the lampstands, as the LORD God did in the garden in Genesis 3:8; the Church is His creation and His domain. He also holds the lampstands in his hand, meaning that the Church is His special possession and it is upheld and protected by Him.

I loved the imagery and spectacle of the U2 concert. However, for it to have meaning, I need more of the back-story. The visual imagery is fine for an evening of entertainment, but I need more of the audible imagery and symbolism for life in the “real world”, and this is why we cannot model our Church services on a U2 concert. There has to be an explanation, but, thankfully, that is exactly what the Church has been doing, more or less faithfully, for 2,000 years. Maintaining this audible tradition, in my view, will sustain the Church for the next 2,000 years, and beyond.

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