Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Importance of Symbols Part 1

photo by Garitan

I’ve been preparing to be part of a short term mission trip to the Philippines this November. One of the things that has really hit me is how different discipleship is when a majority of the people don’t read. Of course I knew intellectually about situations where this is the case, but all my practical experience is with the situation where bible study is right up there with prayer as a fundamental part of living the Christian life. A person who couldn’t read well was a special case who got extra individualized attention and special aids to allow them to fit into this paradigm.
But in the poorer areas of the Philippines, it’s those who can read well enough to study on their own who are the exception. So I’ve been thinking more about the importance of symbols and how they allow us to interact with new ideas.
One thing it has done is given me a new appreciation for how the medieval church used art. My reaction to this post really crystallized it for me, how different our relationship to sacred art is. We don’t need art to convey the basics of the story to us because we can always read it. I really started thinking about the implications of art as a primary teaching tool. Back then the skill of the artist was very important in making something that everyone could interpret easily. The art would also be very individual. In an era before photocopiers a specific visual version of a story might be unique to a painting or an area.
A can also see how easy it would be to fall into message drift. To focus on a martyr with an easily visually identifiable symbol rather than someone harder to make identifiable. I can totally see why there are more pictures of Catherine of Alexandra and her wheel than of Clement of Alexandria. But theological concepts and the mysteries Christ shared with us can also be hard to illustrate. I’m glad we have widespread literacy now to help the church hold onto these more firmly.