Donald Duck, Back Pain, & the Reformation (New CT column)

Here’s my newest CT column – reaching to articulate something important (I think) about using our God-given capacity to understand and use symbols. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

When God Wears a Costume

Why we need symbols in order to see him.
Carolyn Arends

I was a teenager trying to entertain 2-year-old Laura as she squirmed in her high chair. Thinking myself a clever babysitter, I held up her laminated placemat, which featured a photograph of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

“Is this a picture of Donald and Daisy Duck?” I asked.

“No,” she giggled.

“Is it Goofy and Pluto?”

“Nuh-uh!” she squealed.

“Well, who are they?” I asked, gearing up for the inevitable right-answer celebration. But her reply caught me off guard.

“Strangers in costumes.”

Laura is grown now, but I’ve been thinking about the pragmatism she exhibited as a toddler. Her no-nonsense take on the world (at least the world of Disney) is a perfect example of what sociologist Philip Rieff and philosopher Allan Bloom both described as a “low symbolic hedge.”

I encountered this idea in The Shattered Lantern, a book by Catholic writer Ronald Rolheiser. If many Westerners have trouble perceiving God’s presence in daily life, then perhaps, says Rolheiser, the problem is that our culture lacks potent symbols.

The ability to use symbols distinguishes humans from other animals. Consider eating. All animals use food for sustenance and pleasure. But humans can employ candlelight, china, toasts, and blessings to imbue a meal with significance. Through symbols, eating can embody romance, friendship, honor, or celebration.

I must confess: I usually have neither the time nor the inclination to bother with such symbols. When, for instance, I eat on the run, my symbolic hedge is low; food is just fuel, and the day is just a succession of hours to manage or endure.

But Rolheiser warns that a low symbolic hedge drains the meaning out of experience. To illustrate, he imagines a middle-aged man beset by chronic back pain.

What does this pain mean? It can mean that he has arthritis, a medical symbol; or it can mean he is undergoing some midlife crisis, a psychological symbol; or it can mean that he is undergoing the paschal mystery, that this is his cross, a religious symbol. Or it might mean all three. The symbols with which we enter and interpret our experience can be low (suffering arthritis) or high (being part of the paschal mystery!).

God’s apparent absence in ordinary experience is intimately connected to the diminished height of our symbolic hedge.

I came to Rolheiser’s book because two friends—a Christian and a skeptic—had confessed to longing for a sharper awareness of God’s presence. Their failure to “feel” God left both women wounded.

The Shattered Lantern reminded me that sensing God’s presence is not the same thing as faith. God is near whether we feel him or not. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” Jesus declares (John 20:29). Saint John of the Cross famously wrote of the “dark night of the soul,” claiming that sometimes God withdraws his presence.

Still, John of the Cross noted that in other cases the problem has more to do with our “blindness.” Given that Jesus encourages us to seek in order to find (Luke 11:9), Rolheiser would have us cultivate a contemplative receptivity to God—trusting that, in general, we can sense his presence.

In a culture of narcissism, pleasure-seeking, and restlessness, that receptivity can seem futile. A low symbolic hedge is both a cause and a symptom of our problem. Where earth once seemed, in the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “crammed with heaven,” it now often appears as flat as a laminated placemat. Where the poet saw “every common bush afire with God,” we see only shrubs.

Our low symbolic hedge is, in part, a byproduct of the modern dogma that nature is all there is. But it’s also the fruit of our Reformation heritage, with its wariness of superstition. After all, Laura was right: Mickey and Minnie really are just strangers in costumes. It’s foolish to pretend otherwise.

CommunionBreadWineBut what about cases when there’s truly more than meets the eye? When bread and wine are not just food and drink, but emblems of a body broken? When baptismal waters plunge us into death and resurrection?

The ancient Israelites were not above raising the symbolic hedge when they needed to awaken themselves to God. In 1 Samuel 7, they pour out buckets of water to express repentance, and build “ebenezers” out of rocks to memorialize God’s provision and deliverance. Sometimes water is more than water, stone more than stone.

Much has been made of young evangelicals leaving “low” Protestant congregations for more liturgical churches. Maybe part of what they’re seeking is a higher symbolic hedge. What would happen if our worship enveloped them with biblically grounded symbolism? Certainly, we should remain wary of counterfeit “strangers in costumes.” But we must also help ourselves remember that we’ve been invited into the drama of a mysterious and wonderful gospel—a truth stranger (in the best possible way) than fiction.

6 comments to Donald Duck, Back Pain, & the Reformation (New CT column)

  • Maybe it’s not just a “higher symbolic hedge”, but a higher reality of grace. Then the bread and wine are not just food and drink, nor are they just emblems of a body broken, but are actually the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. It is where baptism now saves you. (1 Pt 3:21). The sacraments includes the symbols yet elevates them by grace to become what they symbolize.

  • Bushes, and trees, afire with waves of light reflecting off the shimmering waters of Silver Glen Springs, FL . . . Last week! A naural house of God, with a message to share and not quite grasped . . . But to be sought everywhere at all times. Thank you, dear Carolyn.

  • In times of worship, I don’t always raise my hands. But sometimes I am so moved by the song that I raise my hands; palms up to receive the substance of the song, palms down in adoration of the reality of a big God who loves us so much.

    Likewise, I don’t always kneel to pray, but when I do it helps to put my heart where it needs to be as I lift needs and concerns to the One who can meet those needs, whether they be tangible, emotional, or spiritual.

    I appreciate Brian’s POV, but for me, as I ingest the elements, biologically they become a part of me as they are digested and travel through my veins and the through the lifeblood of those I am partaking with. As the elements physically become part of us, I am reminded that similarly, we are the body of Christ much like the bread and wine is part of us. Be they mere symbols or the substance of Transubstantiation, this is the vision that floats through my head when the body of Christ partakes the elements together.

  • When we are going through time periods of what I call “spiritual
    dryness”, trials, or testings it feels like someone trimmed the symbolic hedge completely away. Insomnia is no fun either. So,
    St.Peter Damian and all the other saints out there in any realm
    throw me some semblance of restfulness through prayer. Amen

    Carolyn your music is nourishment for the soul!

    Thank You.

  • R.S. Nikchevich

    I very much appreciate Carolyn’s gift for conveying deep, paradigm-shifting insights in a highly accessible and winsome manner. The implications of this article are, not unlike the Kingdom of God, revolutionary. Yet, that God should chose to speak to our hearts and minds in symbols should hardly be surprising. For Christians throughout the ages, our understanding of reality begins with an acknowledgment that God is the maker of all things visible and invisible – of earth and of heaven. If all reality were, as a secular culture posits, observable with out senses, words alone might suffice to capture it. However, those of us who have recognized God’s grace in our lives, in whatever degrees and forms, know that is not the case. Symbols of God’s attributes and mercies pour out of art, nature, song, submission and worship, as well as our back aches and other life experiences. Symbols are also at the heart of His written story of scripture. For example, many of us struggle with the individual stories of the Old Testament unless we can see in them “types” or symbols of that which is fulfilled in Christ and His Kingdom – incarnation, sacrifice, victory and re-creation. Perhaps, we fall prey to the false dichotomy of believing that we must choose either word or symbol. For me, fear can be a greater bar to embracing the symbols of this life — there are some crosses in life that I know that I don’t want to see, nonetheless take up. Words, by contrast, are something which I can use to control a conversation or to try to put difficult situations into a proverbial box. Yet, Carolyn’s article gently reminds us words cannot fully control or describe, and that God invites us into His story on His terms.

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