Technological Symbolism Over Substance
by Rick Shrader
Postmodernism’s pragmatic instrumental view of language is why image is everything in our culture. Language is not neutral but a tool by which those in power or in control of the media can manipulate and construct reality.1
Timothy Phillips and Dennis Okholm
I believe it was Confucius who said, “When words lose their meaning, people lose their liberty.” History is full of examples of tyrants and other manipulators who changed the course of nations by redefining words and concepts. That’s why I was interested when I saw an article entitled, “Juliet and Shakespeare’s Other Nominalists.”2 Nominalism is a centuries old philosophy that says there are no universal truths outside one’s own perception of truth (just because I can think about you doesn’t prove you exist except in my mind). The author of the article is pointing out that Shakespeare wrote in light of the ideas circulating in his time. In that day, Juliet’s proposal that Romeo change his name (because, after all, “What’s in a name: That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”) was a way of proposing that nothing that existed outside the two of them really mattered. There were those nominalists in Shakespeare’s day who first removed anything eternal from their existence, then anything outside their empirical world, then anything outside their own mind. Reality was reduced to the “nominal.”
Young says, “Nominalist epistemology is a step in the direction of postmodern liberation from the constraints of political and religious hierarchies.”3 We have a generation of Romeo and Juliets today who care about nothing outside themselves. We have spent thirty years educating them in this self-centered philosophy that nothing really matters but them. Why should we be surprised when a skin-head shoots a black man “because he was in the wrong place”? He doesn’t really exist anyway!
The Christian point of view is vividly seen in the Book of Hebrews. There we see the tabernacle of the Old Testament as an earthly representation of a heavenly tabernacle; the earthly priesthood as fulfilled in a heavenly priesthood. That is, living by faith is living with a constant realization that the universal exists. God’s sphere of existence is out there too. In fact, we are instructed to look for that world at the expense of this world (and never vice versa). Nominalism is at complete odds with the biblical view of life and faith. Faith is the ability to see much more than inside one’s own world.
The writer of Hebrews addressed a unique problem. Whereas the temple trappings and symbolisms were supposed to remind them of God, they were keeping them from seeing Him by faith. It was easier and more enjoyable, not to mention more acceptable, to worship with the sights and sounds of the temple than in the plain, simple service of the Christians. That is, the symbols and the sounds of the place can either serve as a reminder of the God we worship, or they can become the god we worship. In the Jews’ case, the temple was their worship. They had become nominalists in the sense that they reduced their worship down to the place and experience, but it was not connected to anything outside themselves.
There was a time in history when the Greek Orthodox Church stressed so much the beauty of the Byzantine architecture and church buildings, that their icons became idols. “On the surface this conflict, which raged for over a century, was a disagreement over the use of icons. But at a deeper level it was a disagreement over which things were sufficiently sacred or holy to deserve worship.”4 It was what I call “worshiping worship.” Gene Veith calls it “a conceptual shift of focus away from the object of art to the person of the artist.”5
We see the potential for modern nominalism all around us today. The elaborate structures have been replaced by electronic sights. The stained-glass windows have been replaced by rear-screen projectors. The moment these keep us from faith rather than helping our faith, they are icons that have become idols. How else could I explain the phenomenal growth of the local Unity Church due to an aggressive use of electronic, high-tech methodology, even though their doctrine denies the existence of a personal God? Their worship service is virtually the same as many evangelical churches but evidently that is all many people are seeking—the worship experience. Francis Schaeffer described modern man this way: “The tragedy is not only that these talented men have reached the point of despair, but that so many who look on and admire really do not understand. They are influenced by the concepts, and yet they have never realized what it all means.”6
In reading a recent article about church technology,7 the author states, “As more churches attempt to reinvent themselves as relevant institutions in a society driven by images, speed and information, technology has become an increasingly important worship and marketing tool . . . . The trend is feuled by the convergence of paradigm shifts in both religious worship expression and technology.” The article gives advice to corporations which can learn what works and what doesn’t in attracting people to their product. Neil Postman is correct when he observes that this “Technopoly” only “blocks the way to such consideration by beginning with the question of how we should proceed rather than with the question of why.”8
The Brazen Serpent was first an implement, then an icon, then an idol. The process caused a whole nation to miss their Messiah. Praise God for its implementation when it was a tool that gave people faith but cursed it was, when it became an idol for worshiping worship, a technological symbol that had lost its substance.Notes: 1. Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis Okholm, Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1995) 14. 2. R.V. Young, “Juliet and Shakespeare’s Other Nominnalists,” The Intercollegiate Review, Fall 1997. 3. Young, 21. 4. Bruce Shelley, Church History In Plain Language (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995) 147. 5. Gene Veith, Jr., State Of The Arts (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991) 93. 6. Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (Downer’s Grove: IPV, 1968) 33. 7. Dave Zielinski, “Churches Go Hi-Tech: Delivering Presentations from the Pulpit,” Presentations Magazine, December 1997. 8. Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of a Culture To Technology (New York: Vintge Books, 1992) 171.