Goodbye Symbols?

When Stearns wrote about waiving goodbye to Christian America and saying hello to true Christianity I cannot help but to reflect on whether we can separate symbols and belief. Stearns’ arguments have their merits. Surely, nominal Christianity has always been the opposite of authentic Christianity, and as America now actually moves out of it one may naturally think that the time has come for people to finally consider the Christian faith without needing to be conversant to its symbols.

However, things may not be as straight-forward as it seems. Firstly, as Christian America converts into Secular America, new symbols will be adopted. Entering into a typical corporate culture entails the adoption of its cultural elements, including that, among others, the ‘belief’ in free-market capitalism, the ‘ritual’ of certain shopping exprience and  no less, taking on of the symbols of the said culture. For example, if the symbol of the cross, in general, represents the Christian faith, the symbols of some logos, like that of Google, or that of the Guy Fawkes’ mask symbolise deeper meanings too. People simply move from one culture to another, or in the typical postmodern pattern, pick-and-choose from a variety of cultures to form their own very private culture or grouping together with the like-minded to form a sub-culture. So strictly, people do not move from Christian America into a neutral ground, but will be or have been absorbed into other culture(s) in the process. This is typical of the postmodern condition, where people are exposed to various cultures and have largely skeptical towards a self-proclaimed, fix meta-narrative.

So leaving Christian America may actually mean entering into secularism, which in turns, means new symbols embraced. It is of course true, that Christians have always keen to adopt symbols of the world. In so doing, Christians relate those symbols to certain values which they cherish. In other words, it is an attempt to Christianise symbols. Obviously the Roman form of execution, the cross has been Christianised. A more interesting example would be the obelisks. This Egyptian symbol can be observed at various ‘Christian’ places, no less at the centre of the St. Peter’s Square.

Thus, I am not convinced that as we waive goodbye to Christian America, we would then be welcoming the true Christianity. What follows would be a time when Christianity embracing and ‘Christianising’ new symbols, as it slowly taking another cultural form. One example, is the change of church architecture, where new symbols replace old ones. Some may bemoan the disappearance of the cross as the centrepiece of the design but one must scrutinise the reason for our displeasure. It is not enough to just say that ‘it used to be there, right at the centre of the front’. Instead one must scrutinise the reason for the concern – is it due to our concern that we may lose sight of the symbol which reminds us of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross? What does the cross mean to us? I believe the majority evangelicals, which follow the tradition of a deep appreciation and belief in salvation by grace through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, would find the cross a symbol which is able to best capture this belief. However we can argue that God’s creation and Christ’s resurrection should have no less significant in the whole grand story of God’s redemption of man. Should then we have symbols for them in place of the cross? So maybe the cross is emphasised because the evangelicals find it meaningful in relation to their belief. If the evangelicals and the reformed churches emphasise the cross, surely the Pentecostal and other newer churches which put more weight on other aspects of God and His mission, would adopt other symbols. See example here.
Stearns authored the book:


One thought on “Goodbye Symbols?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s