Posted by: Dan | June 9, 2005

The Symbol Gap

Psychic numbness is possible, says Lifton, because of a “gap of symbols,” meaning that a community lacks adequate symbols to mediate and communicate the horror and brutality of its own life. Thus where symbolic life in a community is thin, lean, or one-dimensional, violence can be implemented, accepted, and denied with numbed indifference.
~ Walter Brueggemann, commenting on the writings of Robert Jay Lifton [Jude, have you read anything by this guy?] in Theology of the Old Testament.

Tom Wright argues that Jesus, following the prophetic tradition, was a master of reworking symbols in meaningful ways (cf. Jesus and the Victory of God). Jesus was capable of taking the dominant symbols of the religion of his time and manipulating them in ways that made them come alive in urgent and often radically new ways.

If the contemporary Western church is to be transformed it must encounter people who, like Jesus and the prophets, are capable of rediscovering the power, and significance, of rich religious symbols that have now been reduced to trite and kitschy icons.

Similarly, if the church hopes to be a community that lives peaceably, if it hopes to live in the midst of all the darkness, blood and violence of reality, it must — as Lifton implies, and Brueggemann affirms — rediscover the symbols that it has to deal with the horror and brutality of real life. As Christianity has become a religion of a class of people who are committed to faking life, a people committed to maintaining an image that says everything is alright, all the time, symbols that speak of things not being okay have lost their meaning (as many people have pointed out before me, the cross was an instrument of torture, not a piece of costume jewelry [cf. esp. Martin Hengel's work on crucifixion]). Until the church regains the power of its symbols, until the church lives honestly in the midst of reality (cf. Jon Sobrino's Where is God?) violence will continue to be “implemented, accepted, and denied with numbed indifference.”

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