Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Richness of Symbolism

As I have been reading the Old Testament and preparing new posts I thought I might take a moment to take about symbolism and metaphor. The Bible is filled with symbolism as is most religion and this adds to its richness. Sometimes we think of metaphor as less potent than objectively verifiable facts; the stories of the Bible are somehow threatened if we label them as “metaphorical”. This dejected response sounds something like: “you mean it’s only a metaphor?” But the symbolism of the Bible is not only metaphorical it is profoundly and powerfully metaphorical. Whether a certain story is literal or not may not be the most important issue. Maybe Eve was literally created out of Adam’s rib, but without an understanding of the symbolism behind this the power of the story is lost. Symbolism can be a very helpful way of expressing religious concepts that regular language cannot effectively relate.

In her book The Case for God, Karen Armstrong said: “Religion is hard work. Its insights are not self-evident and have to be cultivated in the same way as an appreciation of art, music, or poetry must be development” (page 8). I can relate especially to the reference to music. Music is also hard work and can only be mastered (in my opinion) through an emotional and spiritual appreciation. Even music with no overt religiosity can be spiritual for me. To give an example of the power of music, think of its role in film. If you have seen The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, think of the scene in which Rohan is being sacked at Helm’s Deep and lies on the brink of annihilation. Théoden and Aragorn ride out to meet death and glory when they look up the hill to see Gandolf and the riders of Rohan ready to descend and save their kin. The armies fall down the hill, the sun rises, and hope is restored. If you are like me, you have the soundtrack playing in your mind as you remember this scene. The music is what gives it life. The music gives it emotion. Much like the music in a film, the symbolism of scripture animates and enriches it.

I give this post as a preface to later treatments of the Bible such as the Creation, the Garden of Eden, etc. The symbolism in these stories is powerful. I don’t mean to disparage the scripture in any way by addressing its symbolism. To the contrary, the symbolism of the Biblical narratives is what makes them so moving for me.

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