Changing Signs of Truth
Christian communicators can find themselves caught between the church and the world as they seek to use signs that appropriately resonate with God’s truth. The difficulty lies in distinguishing between words and images borrowed from the original context of God’s revelation in the Bible and those signs invented to define God in later contexts. If Christians borrow signs from the world, can they remain truthful followers of God? Christian t-shirts sometimes use slogans from secular brands and twist their meaning to produce Christian messages. Borrowing from the “Got Milk?” advertising campaign, a Christian t-shirt asks, “Got Jesus?” Worship music that I hear in the chapel of the Christian university where I teach uses the tune of the song Hotel California. A Christian rock group changed the lyrics to fit the praise and worship scene. Although appropriating recognizable secular-cultural artifacts can make Christian tradition accessible to the newly initiated, at what point are Christian commitments violated? Some might find that the hedonism described in Hotel California makes the song inappropriate to use for Christian purposes, but Christians have long practiced appropriation from non-Christian cultures. Consider for a moment the doctrine of the Trinity. Downing points out that the word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible. Not until the fourth-century Council of Nicaea did it become a doctrinal sign to define the Triune nature of God. If it is not in the Bible, how essential is this word to Christianity? And if Christians seek to convert Muslims who see Trinitarian theology as sacrificing the essential one-ness of God, then shouldn’t Christians be willing to sacrifice non-Biblical aspects of theology to advance conversion?
Downing’s book takes seriously these issues as she wrestles with, and provides persuasive answers to, the question of how to act as a Christian communicator. Her account offers a tour through modern and postmodern developments in the fields of linguistics and critical theory that she believes can contribute to faithful Christian advocacy as well as an academic study of communication from an evangelical Christian perspective.
Downing focuses on the historically “changing signs” that have helped to define Christianity, noticing specifically how Christian signs in one moment may have been secular in another. For a simple example: although December 25 marked a pagan holiday at one historical moment, Christianity gave it new meaning in another. The purpose of the Christian communicator involves using profane and shifting signs on behalf of Christian truth that exceeds the surface level of semiotics: “...Christians might influence the flow of culture by changing their signs of truth. This does not mean it will call into question Christian truth itself” (21).
To describe the precariousness of choosing signs to claim for Christianity Downing uses the metaphor of a US quarter standing on its edge. She describes Christians as “on the edge of the coin” caught between the symbolic conventions of history and the demands of the present. The coin captures convention through the image of George Washington’s head, on one side of the coin, which has not been changed since it was drawn by John Flanagan in 1932. On the other side, the symbol of an eagle was replaced with images of states in 1999 as part of the State Quarter Program. Christians should likewise sit on the edge, balancing the truth they receive from the past with the need for relevant Christian messaging in the present. In Downing’s terms, this is a problem of (re)signing: “1. As Christians, we are resigned to essential truths revealed by God. 2. As communicators we recognize the need to re-sign those truths, generating fresh signs that make ancient truths meaningful to contemporary audiences” (22).
Downing’s tour through semiotic theory hits the right theological notes as she evaluates theory based on her Christian theological commitments. In probably her most important theoretical move, she emphasizes Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotics, a threefold notion of the meaning making that humans experience in relationship to signs: “representamen,” “object,” and “interpretant.” When coming across an “object” in the world, humans make sense of the tangible thing as a “representamen,” or sign. But some form of interpretive process is necessary to establish that meaning. Peirce uses the term “interpretant” to describe people who might read the same representamen differently. Take, for instance, the representamen “Trinity.” The object under analysis is the nature of God. Depending on what community you come from—Christian, on the one hand, or Muslim on the other—the interpretant will be different. Whereas a Christian community will most often see the Trinity as a legitimate sign of a singular God, a Muslim community might see the same sign as a polytheistic, and therefore inaccurate, account of God. The meaning of each sign thus depends on the community in which it is interpreted.
Downing embraces Peirce’s notion of signs and meaning as rooted in community. She argues that on one side of the coin sits those who seek to shed “Trinity” because it wasn’t included in scripture and, on the other, those who inaccurately argue that the sign “Trinity” was used in scripture. She advocates for Christians to sit on the edge of this coin, recognizing the Trinity as a construct of human history, but nevertheless a valuable reflection of a necessarily fallible human effort to define God’s truth.
Overall, Downing’s key contribution is her unwillingness to differentiate between serious engagement with the practices of Christian theology—like the question of the Trinity—and theoretical approaches to sign reading. By treating semiotics as a theological issue, while writing in a manner accessible to the newly initiated, this book can offer Christian communities academic lessons as they wrestle with questions of communication.
Jason Moyer is Assistant Professor of Communication Arts at Malone University.