Semiotics and Change Dynamics in local churchworld

AlexrichardsondesignOk, be prepared for the deep, complex and challenging.  I'm still processing these thoughts that I have been entertaining based upon an insightful book, Changing Signs of Truth by Crystal Downing. Change and Transitions in ministry involve so much more than mission statements, programs and knowledge of the dynamics of organizational realities.  

Semiotics and Church Transitions and Change

Semiotics is the Study of signs/processes.  At first you may wonder, “what is important or significant about a study of Semiotics?” but let me assure you, so much of what we do and how we communicate has to do with signs and symbols.  In addition, culture communicates through signs and symbols (both verbally and non-verbally).   All signs take their meaning from a particular culture or sub-culture in which they embedded.  One author wrote, “the less we understand how signs work, the more powerfully they can control us” (Crystal Downing, Changing Signs of Truth). A sign is something that stands for something else.  In many respects, Jesus followers in contemporary culture are called to Re-Sign, to retranslate the signs and symbols of the “good news” of Jesus.  Here are some examples:

Examples of biblical signs = Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “you have heard it said…now I say.” In the Old Testament, “a sign” referred to the Word of God.  In Luke, the angels “re-sign” a sign by quoting the angels when they say, “and this shall be a sign for you…” referring to Jesus’ birth.  Or how about the “X.”  It can represent a “multiplier” (2 x 3 = 6), an erotic film or book, OR the Greek letter “chi” which over time came to be a letter used to refer to Christ. 

Example of the Cross as symbol.  In the second century in Rome, Christians did not use crosses to depict faith.  In the Roman catacombs there are no crosses because early Christians saw the cross as ICON not a symbol.  The Cross was an icon which depicted the gross and horrible death of Jesus. What DID appear as a sign or symbol was Noah’s ark.  It appears 41 times because Noah’s ark was a symbol of the victory of Christ’s exit from the tomb.  It was a story that acted as an Index pointing to the resurrection.  Only when early Christians were able to re-interpret the cross and “re-sign” it was the meaning of the cross transcendent of the actual gruesome death of Jesus.   

Example of the Lord’s Supper.  To some, the Lord’s Supper is an icon that “signs” one to understand or remember Jesus’ sacrifice.  For others, the Lord’s Supper is beyond sign, symbol or icon but a NEW experience of the presence of Jesus (sacramental theology).

My contention or thesis in the study of Semiotics is that communication and even the resistance to or embracing of change in local churches is not simply a matter of management or leadership but also a matter of VERBAL and NON-VERBAL communication.  For example, for centuries the pastor or priest was a “sign, icon or symbol” of the presence of the church/Jesus in marriage ceremonies.  In the 21st century, more and more weddings are being facilitated by non-clerical people thus “re-signing” or reinterpreting the presence of church or spiritual presence.  This change, though subtle, is profound in implication.  Another has to do with clerical leadership in worship utilizing liturgical dress.  As much as the pastor attempts to communicate collegiality and approachability, the “sign” of the robe/alb communicates something different.  For many, the presence of clerical garb is a barrier or distinguishing factor that presents a barrier between the worshipper and worship leader.  Signs and symbols are powerful in terms of communication and impact. 

What other signs/symbols do we utilize in the ministry of the local church?  How might there be a conflict in past/present understandings of those signs?  How might they actually be impeding or promoting faithful ministry?

Here are some more technical definitions of Semiotics:

  • As soon as the brain connects with an object – representamen
  • As soon as the person interprets the object – interpretant
  • Experience MOLDS our interpretant and Communities SHAPE our interpretant. 

A Collateral Experience is a previous acquaintance with what sign denotes. All of us have previous experiences with signs.  A good Communicator knows that collateral experience affects perception and actually “translates” any sign into an index, symbol, or icon.

  • An Icon is a likeness or physical resemblance of an object that helps us visualize an object (think, photograph).
  • An Index is a sign that points to what caused the signs origination (think, camera that takes the photo or is responsible for the photograph).
  • A Symbol is a human construct that looks nothing like ideas or things they represent but capture the essence of the sign. 

Most people interpret signs:

  • Emotionally – there is an initial awareness or intuition that is NOT learned that sets up personal meaning.
  • Energetically – there is a marked effect that a sign has on person – e.g. how different color roses effect a person or what they communicate to a person.
  • Logically – there is a growing personal conceptualization of a sign overtime that a person owns.

There are many theological signs or symbols that are LARGER or richer in meaning beyond simplistic understanding.   Examples…

For example, the Trinity.  The transcendent Trinitarian reality of God’s nature is a core teaching of Christianity but ALSO is God’s immanent work and presence in the world/ministry.

For example, the REFORMATION.  The Reformation reality is a sign that is “stuck” in the 16th century communicating a hearkening to the past without embracing the biblical concept of TRANSFORMATION.  You would be hard pressed to find the concept Reformation in the bible whereas you will discover the transformational power of the Spirit (effect of ruach or pneuma). For example, the Apostle Paul was not a reformation theologian despite being “owned” by Reformers and Reformation scholars.  Paul’s theology of grace was one that embraced a transformational power and purpose. In other words, personal life change is always implied in Paul’s letters. 

For example, there is a real life problem with a theology (sign) of the cross and grace perceived as the “free acceptance” or “no strings attached” faith gift which as a mode of redemptive communication actually demotivates or pulls plug from an ACTIVE OR ENGAGED faith.  Yes, Jesus has DONE for us through His grace but He is also DOING something in us through His grace and spirit.  Grace can become trapped in a past experiential mode without releasing a follower of Jesus to pursue grace in the moment for new life.  Remember, signs, icons and Symbols speak louder than words.  Often one sign images authoritarianism and compliance vs. personal ownership and accountability.  Being a Christian in not static concept.  Salvation was never meant to be a one-time event but rather a process of transformation.  Transformation is the dynamic concept of becoming like Jesus.  One aspect of theology that was “lost” in western (roman) Christianity through Church history was the concept of theosis (Orthodox).   Theosis is seen as a sancification process where the believer participates and cooperates with and in the grace of God.  The spiritual “aim” of Orthodoxy is mystical union with God (true sacramental mystery of “God Himself is discovered within me” ).  The word is “enhypostatic – Jesus is “personally formed in me" (ongoing experience of sanctification through grace).  "Theoria" is the Orthodox version of sanctification which is a vision of God and God’s glory (illumination) whereby we come to know and embrace our TRUE imago dei.

In Semiotics the concept of Abduction means literally to place “a coin on its edge.”  There are two sides of coin that must be maintained to create a healthy balance or what Semiotic scholars call, “Coinherence.”  Instead of looking at all of spiritual and ministry reality as an “either/or” or “good/bad” dualistic proposition, Semiotics teaches a “both/and” strategy.  For example:

1 – Our embedness in language and culture

2 – Our embrace of the transcendent nature of Jesus Christ

1 – Our tenacity in formulating individualized assumptions

2 – Our robotic adherence to authority that trumps the individual 

1 – God’s truth

2 – Our understanding/interpretation of that truth

1 – Individual subjectivism

2 – Abstract objectivism 

Again, “Coinherence” battles duality.  There is no right/wrong or good/bad. There is no one side of the coin or the other whether they be in ethical response to relationships, theology, practice or even personal and corporate change. Instead of saying, “we must adhere to church history for contemporary practice OR we must re-sign or transform contemporary practice by serious study and application of the bible, Coinherence says, “we can do both.” Instead of listening to political commentary at the expense of sermonic challenge, again Coinherence says, “we can do both.” 

There are a few imperatives in understanding and implementing change to which Semiotics can speak. 

  1. In understanding the signs of the culture we must be students of “Context.”  Once we understand context (a common location, shared knowledge of the situation, shared evaluation of situation) we will grow in our understanding of that context and be able to be strategize on change.  In other words, CONTEXTUALIZATION is critical (Christians placed in different contexts will see and endorse different signs – speaking in tongues vs penance; immersion vs. sprinkling; beautification vs. bible memorization; icons vs. flags in church;
  2. We must avoid the arrogant mystification of ourselves as more enlightened than people in past.  Past lessons can teach us anew.  – we have to understand others in their contexts in order to have been relationships and dialog.  We have to see why different Christians at different times and places understand truth differently
  3. Even so, we must avoid naïve idealizations of the past as more authentic than the present
  4. We must recognize that all humans, past, present, and future communicate out of embodied contexts.
  5. We must work toward incarnational dialog with those who differ from us.
  6. We must be committed to becoming over being…growth vs. survival.
  7. Openness to the other also must include openness to otherness Establishment of the non-negotiable of community. 
  8. Pluralism (not religious pluralism but Body of Christ diversity) has got to be seen as a gift.

Here’s another Semiotic reality – Ironically, the word tradition is etymologically related to the word treason.  The Latin root tradition of the word contains connotations of betrayal and is closely related to words like traitor, defector or turncoat.  The word Tradition’s best connotation is “the handing over” of truth to the next generation where the former no longer controls thus allowing for change and new interpretations.  

Since the dynamic of communication is critical in the process of change and transition, a working knowledge of Semiotics will aid a leader or leader team in understanding complexities and paradigms associated with that process.  

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