Part 2: The Magic of Symbolism

“Her grandmother had spent her life accumulating those books. She was the one to teach Castalia that oracle writings held hidden power – having the ability to alter a person’s very nature.  Most held curses that seeping into the mind transmuted the thoughts. However, Cliewyn had been certain that if such evil works existed, then profitable, even healing ones did as well.  She had combed remote isles for even fragments of such lost lore and eventually amassed a collection beyond price.” (book in progress, The Feast of Ichor)

Just what is so powerful about symbols?

The answer to this question has blown my mind, and we’ll build to it over the next three posts. 

For starters, consider this: The letters that make up the words I am typing are symbols.  The words themselves are symbols, but their meaning is spiritual. Their meaning can excite emotions – making you resonate with passion or offence, comfort & joy, or fear & aggression.  The words do this as you receive their message and interpret it.

On a larger scale when a story is imbedded with cooperating symbols you likewise receive the intended message.  Your emotions and thought processes are impacted by the story as a whole.  In essence, you respond.  You may not be conscious of the degree to which you receive the message, but the message reaches you.  This is the power of story telling.    

On the most intrinsic level the function of a symbol is that it encapsulates a message.  The message is what has power because messages (and the acceptance of knowledge) are the basis of the transformation of the mind, which has an effect on the entire individual (Rom. 12:2).  

Now, do we tend to allow any and all messages to waltz right in and begin transforming us?   

C.S. Lewis answered this way:

“I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? … But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”

(As an aside, whenever I read this quote by Lewis I can’t help but smile at the connection to Rowling’s Harry Potter Series.  The Hogwart’s Motto is supposedly her favourite thing about the books.  The emblem greets you on the first page of every book and is inscribed thus: “Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus.”  Or in English:  “Never tickle a sleeping dragon”).

Symbolism & Rowling

J.K. Rowling accomplished much by disseminating Alchemy through a detailed, symbolic story.  Every person who reads Harry Potter vicariously participates in the symbolic journey of Alchemy, and gives ear to its teachings.

The Bible clues us in to how this sort of influence functions.  We say that the Scriptures wash a person (Eph. 5:26) and that faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10:17).  Is it possible that spiritual teaching in general has this affect (I Tim. 4:1)?  I believe that in HP we have a message going to work through these same means.

In the coming posts we’ll continue to investigate of how symbols function spiritually, but before going further we need to lay groundwork concerning Scriptural symbols.  

Symbolism in Christianity

God has always used stories to instruct us.  The greater part of the Old Testament is narrative.  Jesus taught in parables.  God has set an example of storytelling, which I believe gets at our humanity and gives dignity to the way we achieve truth.  Stories are also the perfect way to encapsulate a message and embed it with timeless symbolism (more to come on that in Part 5).  

Now, on a very basic level Christians observe the presence of symbols in Scripture. For example, we recognise “types of Christ.” These were individuals who foreshadowed Jesus such as David who was both a shepherd and a king.  We use the language, “The Living Word,” which is a reference to Jesus.  We believe that when God spoke at creation, Jesus – the eternal Word (John 1:1) was with Him, and that through Him all things were created (Col 1:16).  Furthermore, the book of Revelation is acknowledged by most to be almost entirely made up of symbols.  

Take a look at this example of symbolism from the book of Hebrews:   

For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and of goats, with water, and scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book, and all the people, saying, this is the blood of the testament which God hath enjoined unto you.  Moreover he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle, and all the vessels of the ministry…

It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.  For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.  -Hebrews 9:19-21, 23&24

This passage flat out tells us that the tabernacle on earth is a symbol of a Heavenly one.  I have to ask:  As a result of this information, have we sought to discover the meaning contained within the symbolism of the Tabernacle?  Or, have we taken what we are clearly told is a symbol, at face value, and not sought to interpret it? 

It seems that we are at least willing to tip our hat to symbolism, but then move on to what we perhaps consider the “deeper” study of Scripture:  pulling the theology out of its pages and patenting doctrine.  

By contrast, those who do look for symbolism (or more often metaphor) make speculative assertions that simply cannot be inter-subjectively (within the internal logic of Scripture – or from Genesis to Revelation) verified.  There is no proof to ground their ideas – even if they are enriching.  

And, in the end, the examples we have of symbolism are fragmented.  They do not work together (are not conducted by a known meta-narrative of symbolism), and are more akin to pins on a map.  

I suggest that there is more to the symbolism of the Bible than we have yet mined, and we’ll be seeing how very soon!

Symbolism & Biblical Interpretation

Here is an important caveat:  By directing attention to the symbolic nature of the Bible I am not referring to arbitrary metaphors that are open to anyone’s interpretation.  Legitimate symbolic interpretation must be verified from Genesis to Revelation, the same way all precepts of Scripture are.  Rigorous testing should be applied to our ideas about symbolism.  True Biblical symbolism has been purposefully and beautifully situated by God (Prov. 25:2), and it can withstand the most demanding tests of logic and reason. 

On a practical note, if you find that people (especially teens) are not interested in conversations about Christian doctrine, symbolism is becoming that bridge.  Most people are interested in meaningful conversation, but they need to hear from a Christianity that is simultaneously relatable.  You might be surprised how far an understanding of basic symbolism can connect you to people who currently reject the Modernistic form of Christianity.  

If you’re ready to open that pandora’s box, come back for Part 3  

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