Story, Symbol and Spirituality

holy-spirit-doveOne of the reasons I value interfaith dialogue is that it helps me to see my own faith in new ways.

For example, in conversing with the esoteric community over the years one of the things that has been highlighted for me is how distinctive Christianity is in terms of its emphasis on story. Esotericists place much emphasis on symbolic correspondences. Christians, in contrast, place much more emphasis on story correspondences.

So, where esotericists draw extensively from various symbol systems, such as the major arcana of the tarot, the sephirot of the kabbalah, the elements of alchemy, etc, etc, Christians draw much more extensively from story collections, not only in terms of the New and Old Testament collections, but also in terms of hagiography and testimony. This is not to say esotericists are indifferent to story or Christians are indifferent to symbol; what I’m saying is, the emphasis differs. It really differs.

Nowhere is this more important in how we understand deity. In my experience esotericists relate to their deities primarily through their symbol systems and only secondarily through their stories, their mythologies. Indeed, for some esotericists their deities are symbols. This can be vary difficult for Christians to understand, particularly Christians from more iconoclastic traditions.

Why do I mention this? Because of its implications for alternative worship, for contextualised ritual. Because, if we’re committed to being in the world but not of the world, if we’re committed to engaging our culture without loosing our Christian distinctiveness, then we have to learn to use symbol more effectively without story become subordinate. But I’m afraid, from what I’ve seen and heard, that, this has not always been the case.

So engagement with the esoteric community has given me a deeper appreciation for story and its significance for Christian spirituality. I have learnt I need to learn more about stories. How does story work? How does story relate to drama, to sacred reenactment, to crisis ritual, to life as we experience it? In the New Testament stories for instance, there can often be multiple characters involved. Disciples like Peter, Thomas, Mary. Opponents like the Pharisees, Herod, Pilate. Ambiguous characters like Judas and Nicodemus. Others like the tax collectors and the crowds. And, overarching them all, God. How do their struggles touch our struggles? How am I sometimes a Judas? A Nicodemus? How can I engage with the story on the level of symbol? Is this story something I find myself in? When I pray, how do these stories inform me? In this visual, interactive, multimedia age of ours, its important that Christians, evangelicals in particular, relearn how to relate story and symbol in ways that are distinctively Christian.

11 thoughts on “Story, Symbol and Spirituality

  1. When you say “this has not always been the case”, are you thinking about worship which has lost the place of story, or worship that has missed the engagement with symbol?


  2. Matt this is really interesting. For me the key concept as to why +ty might emphasise story over mere symbol, is incarnation. When the symbolic comes on stage, is given breath, in the spacetime continuum – real life – it is transformed into story. For me, if symbol is a picture, story is a film.
    BTW have you received The Sout Project album of the very same name – Story?
    I’m busy posting a vid on YouTube, dealing very much with this, and will keep you posted.


  3. Evangelicalism was shaped by rationalism more than we like to think… I think this was a big factor behind rejecting the elaborate art of the more mainstream traditions… we study the scriptures with our minds instead of engaging with images with our hearts and emotions. Baby with bathwater stuff I think.


  4. Duncan,
    I think the “alternative worship” movement has enaged with symbol better than the “contemporary worship” movement, but it has not always fared better in terms of story engagement. That’s not to say I haven’t seen any good examples (as I have), but I’ve seen enough, say, less than good examples, for me to still question (a memorable one being an alternative worship leader, who shall remain nameless, waxing lyrical on the creativity of his projects but forgetting what most of them meant when actually asked). In other words, we rightly critique ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ worship songs as groundless emotionalism, but I am sure we can all think of a few “alternative worship” equivalents.


  5. Nic, precisely. The historic, incarnational foundations of Christianity makes it resistant to timeless abstrationism. The story can incorporate symbol, but symbol cannot full accomodate the story. I think that’s were esoteric Christianity and formulaic evangelicalism both go astray.
    And thanks, I received the Sout Project album yesterday. Was listening to it in the car this morning.


  6. I suppose I was thinking that Anglican cathedrals and high churches have a bit more decorative pizzazz than your average evangelical show (at least in the stained glass, candles, interesting altar departments)… but yes, compared to Catholic, Coptic and Orthodox traditions Protestant churches are pretty sparse.


  7. Indeed… I was raised in a Baptist church where the only “decoration” was a plain cross. By contrast, I used to enjoy going to an old Presbyterian church on summer holidays with gorgeous stained glass windows and much decoration… far more interesting for a young child obliged to sit and be quiet for an hour.


  8. I view esotericism as the direct experience of God through the use of an initiatory system which bit by bit achieves a deeper and deeper experience.
    Thus, words, symbols, stories are tools for the esotericist. They are means to an end; finding the direct experience of God.
    Then of course, if one is relating this to others, one needs words, symbols and stories again. Once again, they are tools.


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