Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Da Vinci Code Comments III: Symbol Theft

One of the things that Christians believe is that there is not only personal spiritual good in the universe, but personal spiritual evil as well. As Augustine of Hippo argued in his famous book, The City of God, in 413 A.D., demonic spirits are often behind the spiritual phenomena experienced in pagan and idolatrous religions. As Don Richardson has argued in his book, Eternity in Their Hearts: Startling Evidence in the Belief of the One True God in Hundreds of Cultures Throughout the World, the God of the Bible has placed cultural keys—hints about truth about Himself in His plan for salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection—in cultures around the world. Sometimes these keys are even in a culture’s own pagan religion. They are ideas that help them understand and contextualize the gospel when they finally hear it. When you combine these two facts, God’s use of pagan religions to set people up for the revelation of biblical truth and the use of pagan religions by spiritual evil, you end up with a strange mixture of components in false religions. Some of this complexity is tied up with the entire world of symbols.

There are a finite number of geometric and representational symbols available for use in human art and architecture. We are familiar with only so many familiar geometric shapes such as the square, the triangle, the spiral, the star, etc. We know the plants that we are familiar with—the rose, the lily, the acorn. It is only natural since human beings enjoy the use of symbols and codes in communicating (a propensity which may come indirectly from humanity being made in the image of God since He too seems to enjoy symbolism and hidden meaning), human beings would appropriate whatever natural and geometric symbols exist. When they do so, these symbols often take on different meanings. For example, the swastika or hooked cross appears not only as a symbol for the Nazi party, but with quite different meanings in the artifacts of American Indians and ancient China. Many symbols have been charged with an entire host of meanings. These meanings are often contrary to the impression given by the Da Vinci Code. The meanings are not always expressions of the divine feminine. Or the masculine for that matter. Symbols can be given different kinds of meanings and sometimes no real meaning at all. As Freud is reported to have said “sometimes a cigar if just a cigar.”

Another phenomenon enters into the problem of symbols in religion. Since God is genuinely at work trying to prepare humanity for the revelation of the good news about Jesus Christ in the Bible, He sometimes lays symbolic keys in other cultures that will help people understand the Bible when they hear it. At the same time, evil is at work in the world attempting to co-opt, pollute and dilute the symbols that it very well knows God has or will appropriate.

The danger of symbol dilution is probably why God gave strict instructions from the time of Noah onward that human beings were not to drink or eat the blood of animals. This not only prevented cruelty to animals—eating them while they were still alive—but it also meant that human beings would not dilute the powerful symbol of blood as an atoning sacrifice and God’s planned ceremony of Christian communion in which wine is a symbol of the blood of Christ. This is also why another creation of evil, the legend of the vampire, is blasphemous. The idea of an evil supernatural creature that lives by consuming human blood is a dilution of the communion symbol.

Because God’s plans have been laid out well from ancient times, and because the devil is very clever, there is sometimes an apparent question as to who appropriated which symbol for what first. Yet this should not prevent the Christian use of symbols that have at one time or another been used for pagan purposes. Nor should it automatically then be assumed that when Christians use a rose or fleur-de-lis or a trefoil that they are referring to the pagan image rather than to the Christian meaning. Yet this is exactly what the Da Vinci Code does. It would assume that the millions of roses appearing in churches and cathedrals throughout the world are references to Mary Magdalene. In fact, this is not so. In the Song of Solomon, an ancient Old Testament book rejoicing in romantic love between a husband and wife, there is a famous verse in chapter 2, verse 1, “I am the rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.” Because Christians have understood the relationship between a husband and wife as a symbol of the relationship between Christ and the Church, they have taken these references to the rose and the lily as symbols to refer to Christ Himself or possibly to the Church. There is a famous Christmas carol, “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming,” that refers to Jesus as a rose. There is a famous hymn that describes Jesus as the lily of the valley. It is worth remembering too that flowers are not inherently feminine. They have both pistols and stamen. So the belief that the appearance of roses or lilies or the representational versions of them, the five-petal rose and the fleur-de-lis, are somehow representational of Mary Magdalene or of goddess worship is simply not true.

Symbols can be influential and fun. But one has to be careful about mistaking things in this area. And one needs to be careful not to take it all too seriously. Medieval stone carvers were creative men who enjoyed their craft and took great joy in the solemnity, the fun and the humor they could express through carved stone. It is a grave disservice to their legacy to claim that they were pagan goddess worshippers.

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