Friday, November 24, 2006

Groups and Symbols

Mankind is a symbol-displaying creature. Symbols are all around us. By symbols we communicate to others who we are, or maybe, who we would like to be. Jeans are jeans, but how one wears their jeans is a signal to others who we are or perhaps who we would like to identify with. If you’re young and slim you might get away with low-rise jeans. It’s a symbol that you’re young (or would like to be young) and that you are probably single. If you wear the elastic jeans, what my daughter’s call “mom jeans,” you’re symbol is much different from the low-rise (spoof on mom jeans can be found at ). If you’re from the inner city you might wear baggy jeans that look like they could fall down at any given moment. My class laughed at me one time when I showed up wearing pressed jeans. I couldn’t understand what the big deal was, in Texas well starched jeans is stylish (George Strait wouldn’t be caught dead without his pressed jeans). I think you get my point. Whether one is talking about clothes, hairstyles, colors, tattoos, cars we drive or religious symbols, people are walking signboards communicating something to the world.

Symbols also reveal how much we value group. If you have followed my blog for any length of time you are aware that I see the world in typographies classifying people and cultures in grid and group arrangement (individualistic, bureaucratic, hierarchal and egalitarian). Individualistic and bureaucratic environments are low group. Highly group oriented cultures are hierarchal or egalitarian. It is the latter two categories that are prone to wear symbols as an identification of what group they belong to. I used the Amish, Sikh, and Muslims as an example in my last post of groups that demonstrate their community and faith through the symbols they wear. These symbols do not just reveal their faith but who they are as a people. So strong are these symbols of group that it can be, and almost always is, an obstacle for people to make individual decisions. A Sikh man cutting his hair, beard and removing his turban is tantamount to denying his family and culture. (The great debate among missiologists is whether it’s even necessary for a person to put away his cultural symbols to be a follower of Christ?)

For Western Christians, who are for the most part individualistic and not group oriented, we have few symbols or our faith. True, as one reader responded, wearing a crucifix does not mean you are a follower of Christ, though under Soviet Russia it was a powerful symbol that that person was a believer. Having a symbol of a fish on the back of your car doesn’t make you a better Christian, or even a courteous driver. Wearing symbols does not make one holy or righteous. Jesus made reference to the hypocrisy of religious leaders of his day who loved to wear symbols and perform rituals but spiritually was as dead men’s bones. However, in some social context’s, symbols can make a statement to the society at large.

Whatever you wear today, it is communicating something. For individualistic societies symbols are neutral which reveals nothing much more than style and one’s socio-economic position. I agree, it’s not what we wear but how we behave that’s most important. Our verbal presentation becomes even more important because we certainly will not reveal much of our faith to others by our symbols.

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