How Do We Understand Symbolism?
A revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. Christ made it known by sending it through his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the witness of Jesus Christ, including all that John saw. Favored is the one who reads the words of this prophecy out loud, and favored are those who listen to it being read, and keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (Revelation 1:1-3, CEB translation)
For the past five years I have had the honor of teaching Acts, Epistles and Revelation at Course of Study School at Perkins School of Theology. Revelation is the only book we spend two days on, and we do so because people are so confused by it. Invariably, every summer, at least one person asks me, “How do we understand all the symbolism in this book?”
It’s an important question with no clear answer. The struggle with understanding the symbolism is in the very nature of symbols. Symbols are meant to represent concepts larger than themselves. They do the heavy lifting of language, allowing us the means to describe on some level huge concepts like truth and beauty and the Holy. Because they are carrying so much meaning, they are very much shaped in their interpretation by the understanding of the people who encounter the symbols. The problem with that reality is that we cannot predict what people will encounter those symbols, and we cannot assure that they will interpret the symbols with the “original intention.”
So for me, the important thing to teach my students is how symbols work. I like to do this first by showing how a symbol in Revelation changes meaning across time and culture, and then by sharing with them some examples of how symbols are used today. It seems appropriate to do the same thing here.
Malleable Symbols: The Eagle
An eagle appears three times in Revelation: 4:5-8, 8:13, 12:13-14. Now even within Revelation the eagle serves different purposes. It is one of the creatures at the throne. It screams woes to the earth. It rescues the woman who has given birth to the child (or she sprouts eagle’s wings anyway). Those are the literal appearances of the eagle. How are they to be interpreted?
Well, if we put the eagle in its Roman context, the eagle represented Jupiter/Zeus/the highest God. It also represented the emperor of Rome. It also, though, represented Christ. Interesting. If you were vested in Roman power, you might very well read this story as if you are part of the heroics of it. However, if you were Christian, you would probably read this understanding you were no longer beholden to Roman power because an even higher God – Christ – is in charge now and will destroy the oppressive empire (which is more accurately represented by the dragon who tries to kill mother and baby).
We will return to the fact that symbols can have dual meanings in a single context in just a minute. I want to take a moment and make this relatable to our context by saying that birds are often used as symbols. Christianity looked to eagles, but also used peacocks to represent the surprise of the resurrection. I have always thought we should use a phoenix to represent Christianity. In our current context, a phoenix is interesting because so many people associate it with the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars, since the phoenix was their symbol. So, if Christians used a phoenix today in our context, it could very readily carry the double context of resurrection – since the phoenix perpetually rises from the ashes – and the context of rebelling against a corrupt and evil empire who has turned away from protecting the vulnerable in the interest of preserving and protecting power. Again, interesting.
Much of Revelation relies on corporate comprehension, in particular the worship scenes. There is an assumption that those who hear this story will have an understanding of what is being said through symbols that are probably present in their concrete lives, and particularly in their worship contexts. However, their use in a vision gives them new, weightier meaning that lifts the everyday up in a new way so people see it differently and are moved to new action.
We have symbols with us today that have become so commonplace we don’t even reflect on their meaning anymore. Let’s take one that is ever-present in my life right now: the UMC cross and flame. This one is getting a little more attention as our denomination looks toward an uncertain future. So let’s take a moment and recall what it represents. The presence of both a cross and a flame link Methodist faith to Jesus and to the Holy Spirit. So we have at least two elements of the Trinity in our corporate logo. Then, the fact that there are two flames is representative of the two denominations that joined to form the UMC in 1968: the Methodist Church and the United Brethren Church.
You know how I know that? Not from umc.org. I know that history from Wikipedia. When I searched for information on the cross and flame on umc.org, I found a page that allowed me to download official graphics, and I found a page that listed all the restrictions on the use of the cross and flame in order to avoid copyright violations. Now why would an organization whose focus is the free and generous sharing of the Gospel be so protective of their corporate symbol? Well, it is because symbols and their meanings are inherently difficult to control. The corporate body wouldn’t want anything unacceptable or challenging to be said with the symbol that represents the whole. Yet as a student of literature and culture, I can go ahead and tell you that as challenges to the whole get more and more intense, people will get more and more creative with the use of the symbol, and they will do so to convey meaning. They will create excess meaning. We have already seen people replace the red in the flames with rainbows, and this is likely just the beginning. For instance, it is conceivable as more and more people talk split that people will separate the two flames, which will no longer represent the two denominations of the 1968 merger, but instead will come to represent the divergent directions of Methodists. Some will do things like take the flame, tip it in a different direction and use it to represent following the Holy Spirit in a new way and toward new ends, ends that do not represent the brokenness of the past, even as the use of the symbol represents the past that gave birth to such movement in the first place. And no matter how much the corporate body will want to control the use and meaning of that symbol, they will be unable to. There aren’t enough lawyers in the world to control the creative human and divine spirit.
Symbols of Resistance
Which brings us to the last point I will make about symbols here, and a point that makes symbols hard to understand in Revelation, or at any point when they are removed from their original audience. Symbols are often meant to convey calls to revolution right under the nose of power. Christianity has certainly historically used such symbols. Think, for instance, of the fish symbol that marked house churches in the Roman empire. It was a simple fish. As far as the Romans knew, a fisherman or fishmonger lived there, or someone who liked fish décor for that matter. However, for Christians the fish represented a declaration of faith in Jesus. It did so because the Greek spelling of fish, ichthys, provided the first letters of words that declared their faith in Jesus: Iesous Christos, Theou Yios, Soter (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior). Now, this was not a simple proclamation of belief. It was actually a call to resistance. The Roman Emperor was understood to be the true son of God. To declare someone else was (especially a criminal that Rome had put to death) was nothing short of revolutionary. It was absolutely thumbing your nose at established power and saying that you were following another. It was a risky act. But it was also, to some extent, a disguised act. Those in power may think they know what you are saying behind the symbols, but if they confront you then they risk either planting seeds for an idea that wasn’t there or admitting that they know there is reason for revolution. That meant even a servant in the house of a governor could display the symbol without the governor recognizing what was really being said right under his nose. But others would get it. And others would join the resistance.
And that is the last challenge of understanding symbolism that I will discuss today. Many of them are written as something called hidden transcripts. Hidden transcripts appear to say one thing to the public, but for those who are savvy, for those who have followed the clues and have knowledge to understand what is really being said, those public declarations say something else entirely. They say, “I am done following a corrupt and contaminated empire that is more interested in preserving power than in serving the greater good.” In this case, the declaration is that the Holy Spirit has birthed something new, something the empire can’t contain, something that wholly rejects power as it is, and that recommits to following the one who called us to fish for people not privilege. And above all, you can burn us down, over and over, but we follow a God of resurrection, and we will rise again.