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Destroying Symbols with Words

Over at his site Liturgy: Worship and Spirituality, Bosco Peters discusses some of the problems with trying to explain symbols, what he refers to as the “the heresy of explanation“:

“Rather than allowing symbols, gestures, and environment to communicate for themselves, many want to explain every symbol to within an inch of its life. The multivalent, multi-dimensional symbol becomes the private possession of the worship leader or text-author whose personal piety becomes inflicted on the gathered community destroying any complexity and reducing the symbol to a single dimension. Translating and explaining symbols into words implies that the words do the job better – and one wonders why the symbol is there at all. “

The problem of trying too hard to explain symbols always reminds me of a church that we love very much, but at least some years back had a practice of explaining, while giving a baptismal candle to the newly baptized (or their parents), “This candle represents the bond that exists between the church and the newly baptized.” Now, a burning candle is not really a very good symbol of a bond, and this was inevitably highlighted when the candle was extinguished as the family returned to their seats.

Then, the movie “A Mighty Wind” came out, which includes a scene where one of the musicians is performing a ritual for a sort of new age color religion, lights a candle and says,

“This flame, like all flames, represents the light and darkness.
It also represents the uncertainty of life and its delicacy.

It also represents a penis.”

Which is certainly a much fuller and more accurate exploration of the symbolism of a lit candle, but it also means that I have to work really hard to keep myself from laughing inappropriately whenever someone tries to explain the symbolism of an object.

Generally, I think that feeling a need for explanation of symbols or symbolic action is a symptom that suggests that something about the use or application of that symbol has failed. Explanation is unlikely to fix the problem, but the desire to explain may be a helpful diagnostic.

Addendum: For another interesting take on the issue of explanation in a Jewish ritual context, see Reb Zalman’s discussion on the seder:

“it is important that at each Seder there be a totally new reason for these things we do. Just because someone once in the thirteenth century gave a reason, why should that remain the only reason forever? There were very good reasons for that person’s understanding of the universe; but the Seder is bigger than that moment; it is that continuity, that covenant, that household of Israel that keeps going on in freedom. So your own reasons are vital.”

(Via Velveteen Rabbi.)

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Pamela Smith | April 6, 2008 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Phil, thank you for a new thread. If I thought about PS/HW/Easter any more, there was real danger that my head would explode.

    Saint David’s does an online Weekly Word written by various davidians; this week it was my turn and I had to write about COMMUNION. — destroying symbols with words, anyone? What I wrote can be read by the whole world at

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