Monday, December 3, 2007


Symbolism is all around us, all the time. We hardly notice most of it. The red-dot for hot and blue-dot for cold on the faucet. A "+" for louder and "-" for softer on my speakers. The golden arches that beckon me to have greasy french fries for lunch.

Symbols are a language and as a language they are dynamic, that is, always changing. Sometimes symbols, like words, change in meaning quickly (within a generation) and other times quite slow (over centuries). Less than 100 years ago the words "cool" and "hot" referred to temperature. "Gay" was lighthearted.

An example of a symbol taking on new meaning is the cross that is commonly called a "swastika." Prior to the Nazis adopting it in 1932 as their symbol, it was a design used for centuries in art and architecture throughout the world. It was basically benign, but sometimes it had religious connotations - such a symbol for a sun god. Often it was considered a sign for good luck. I've seen it woven into (very old) native American blankets.

Nowadays no one in their right mind would consider decorating their home with swastikas. Sure, one could argue it is just a geometric design and was a sign of good luck for centuries before Hitler got a hold of it. But if one sticks a swastika on one's door the neighbors are not going to come to the barbecue and social services is going to take the kids away. :-)

Cymbals, the percussion instrument, are much like symbols. When played at the right time and with the right amount of force they add to the musical piece. They are a part of the whole body of work. They serve a different purpose than the woodwinds, the brass or the strings. No more or less important. The trouble with cymbals is that if they are not played right, especially when played at the wrong time, everyone notices -- and it detracts greatly from the musical number.

We need to take care when playing with cymbals....and with symbols. We need to understand what the symbol is saying to other people about our faith, not just what it means to us personally. Symbols, after all, speak volumes without words.

No comments: