Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

It's only words

This, by the way, is fascinating.

Write the word "Jesus" on a piece of paper.  Now put that piece of paper on the ground and stomp on it.  Sacrilegious? Blasphemous?  An assault on religion?

Or an exercise in the power of symbolism?

"Jesus," after all, is merely the Anglicization of "Joshuah", based on the transliteration of the Greek


Ἰησοῦ

into Latin (Iesu).  And written on a piece of paper, it is just ink on paper; a series of squiggles that means no more than that set of Greek characters, unless you know how to read those characters.  If I wrote the name of "Jesus" in Chinese pictographs, would it be more or less sacrilegious to stomp on the piece of paper?  How about if I used the Greek characters?  When is this disturbing, and why?

Semiology is the study of signs, of signifiers.  It wasn't until I studied semiology that I even noticed that "sign" is a "signifier" (somehow the pronounced consonant in the latter covers, at least to me, the connection between the two ideas).  A "Sign" was always something on a roadway:  it told you to stop, or yield, or what that name of the business is.  To recognize a sign signifies, is to recognize something new; and it is to recognize the importance of symbol.

If I stand in the pulpit in my black Wesleyan robe, it signifies I am a preacher in the Reformed tradition.  (Well, it used to; now it just means I'm a pastor, whatever that signifies.).  If I wear an alb, it should signify my humility and connection with the working class; but if I wore blue jeans and a t-shirt and maybe some work boots into the pulpit, it would signify that connection far too clearly, and few congregations would welcome me.  Most would feel I was not showing them, or their pulpit, the proper respect.  Symbols do matter to us, even when we don't realize they are symbols.

Which is what makes this story so fascinating.  First, it comes from a textbook:

"This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings. Have the students write the name JESUS in big letters on a piece of paper. Ask the students to stand up and put the paper on the floor in front of them with the name facing up. Ask the students to think about it for a moment. After a brief period of silence, instruct them to step on the paper. Most will hesitate. Ask why they can’t step on the paper. Discuss the importance of symbols in culture."
Now, of course, "stomp" is a charged word.  It is, itself, a signifier, and it signifies disrespect.  But even putting your foot on a piece of paper with a word on it can be disrespectful, so the signifier "stomp" relates the outrage of those passing on this story from this Florida college classroom.  And I've repeated the term here intentionally, because this story is all about outrage and where it comes from. Because the instructor in this case has been put on leave, having faced a number of death threats.   There are even allegations he threatened a student; allegations I find a bit unlikely, but I don't know the instructor, so who knows?    So what is the story here?  That a teacher went atheist-crazy and told his students to "Stomp out Jesus!"?  No.  The instructor was trying to get the students to consider the power of symbols.  He might have drawn a flag on the piece of paper; that would have been no less controversial. It would also raise the same question:  is the drawing of a flag the same thing as a flag?  Is the name "Jesus" the same thing as the central figure in Christianity?  Or, in the terms of semiology:  is the signifier also the signified?

What if you told the students, instead, that it was the name of a Mexican male?  Pronounce the word with the Spanish "J" instead of the English one?  Is that better?  Why, or why not?

My sympathies are with this instructor.  Teaching is hard enough without facing this kind of vitriol.  I won't link to all the hard-right web sites which have brought calumny down on this teacher.  The college, to its credit, is supporting the teacher:

“As with any academic lesson, the exercise was meant to encourage students to view issues from many perspectives, in direct relation with the course objectives,” said Noemi Marin, the university’s director of the school of communication and multimedia studies.

“While at times the topics discussed may be sensitive, a university environment is a venue for such dialogue and debate,” Marin added.
Of course, the takeaway from this story at that link, is this:

 The university did not explain why students were only instructed to write the name of Jesus – and not the name of Mohammed or another religious figure.
Even after quoting the language of the proposed assignment I provided above, the article writer insists on missing the point.  "Jesus" is a much more powerful symbol in American culture than "Mohammed."

The real question is, what does "Jesus" symbolize?  

Addendum:  I should point out that Sharia law insists you cannot defile the holy Koran in this way (the way described above).  Any Koran, just as any sheet of paper with "Jesus" on it can somehow become holy.  And the Governor of Florida (which is where I really sympathize with the poor teacher) thinks the laws of America (since he speaks as a public official, which means his words carry some weight of law behind them) mean a piece of paper with the letters "J-E-S-U-S" cannot be treated this way, either.

Just sayin'......

9 Comments:

Blogger rick allen said...

This question comes up at an interesting time for me, since I am presently reading Hillary Mantel's "Wolf Hall." I don't know if it's swum into your ken. It, and its sequel, have won the Booker prize in Britain, telling the story of Thomas Cromwell (possibly soon to be a major motion picture).

Thomas Cromwell has conventionally been understood as a villian, an enabler of Henry VIII's murderous reign. A few decades back, G.R. Elton, in his "England under the Tudors," presented a more benign picture of Cromwell, as the inventor of modern England in his use of Parliamentary procedure as a means of revolutionary change.

Ms. Mantel has now presented us with a Cromwell who is sympathetic, compassionate, forward-looking, and sceptical. He is contrasted with Thomas More, who is presented as bigoted, cruel, arrogant and irrationally stubborn. I have not yet reached the end of this first volume, which concludes with More's death. But my wife, who read the book before me, was much impressed with the fictional Cromwell's argument that More should have just taken the oath and lived, because, after all, it's only words.

Of course I understand the appeal. Stomping on the word "Jesus" is not repudiating one's faith. Unless words are not just words, but have meaning beyond the ink and paper. How, really, do we express our faith, confess it, without ink on paper, or vibrations in the air, or electronic patterns on a monitor? Was the Word that was in the beginning "only a word"?

10:32 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Or was the word "logos," a sign that signifies much more than ink on paper?

The students weren't really being asked to "stomp on Jesus," they were being asked to think about what symbols are, and why. It's a fascinating and highly relevant question.

Just now, to some portion of the population, guns and gun ownership are signs, not just possession of objects. Guns signify something to these people which they have never signified for me. What is this symbol, that it must be held so holy (undefiled)? That's the same issue at play in this controversy: why are the letters "J-E-S-U-S" holy, so much so that they cannot be defiled?

The issue is not that words are unimportant. The issue is: how are they important to us, and why? And even: do we dare examine that issue?

11:06 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Addendum: I've been teaching in a private high school for almost 10 years now. I don't think I've had one class that would have had any compunction about stomping on a piece of paper with "Jesus" written on it, had I asked them to.

I'm not sure that means anything, but I just wanted to pass it along.....

11:12 AM  
Blogger rick allen said...

One can always abstract in thought the sign from what is signified, but in ordinary practice the honor shown to the icon means honor to whomever is therein signified. At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow.

Of course the poor teacher shouldn't have been threatened. But he certainly showed naivite in thinking that his choice of object to demonstrate the distinction between sign and signified wouldn't be understood as either hostility or provocation to those who do revere the name of Jesus.

There is, of course, the stance that nothing is sacred, or, what amounts to the same thing, that everything is holy, and that therefore nothing is specifically more holy than anything else. It's an idea that strikes me as more inhuman than illogical. Veneration of particular things can of course become superstitious. But I consider that, in this society, a much lesser risk than the possible entire loss of the sense of the sacred.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Of course the poor teacher shouldn't have been threatened. But he certainly showed naivite in thinking that his choice of object to demonstrate the distinction between sign and signified wouldn't be understood as either hostility or provocation to those who do revere the name of Jesus.

Sorry, but: assuming facts not in evidence.

In the absence of an objective report from this classroom (I've only found the rather inflammatory statements of the one student interviewed by Fox News in the link in the post), I'd fall back on the opening and closing lines of the quoted assignment:

"This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings.....Ask why they can’t step on the paper. Discuss the importance of symbols in culture."

I'm not convinced there was an order to step on the piece of paper. I assume it was more in the nature of a lesson in symbolism, and was meant to provoke discussion about why some things become symbolic and take on "emotional meanings." An object lesson in semiotics, in other words.

And since the school is supporting the teacher, I don't find that interpretation too out of line.

I had much more challenging lessons in symbolism and fealty to them in seminary, btw. One doesn't learn much if one won't get out of one's comfort zone and explore the boundaries of what is "acceptable," and why those boundaries are there. Doesn't mean the boundaries are wrong; but exploring them won't make them dissolve, either. Or explode, for that matter.

11:32 AM  
Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

In my experiment in this area, my Great Skepticism of PZ Myer's "Great Desecration", I asked the assembled PZites who were outraged that I expressed doubt that the "host" in his photo diorama had ever been consecrated, I asked if they'd support PZ Myers if he'd called for the desecration of items sacred to various groups. I believe I said a Torah or a sacred object of the traditional Lakota religion. From that exercise I found that not all "symbols" are seen as equal candidates for "desecration". I also pointed out that the frantic and outraged reaction of the atheists proved that even to them it wasn't "just a cracker".

It's certainly a stupid assignment, as if they couldn't have learned what there was to learn from discussion. Are students so bored and unsophisticated these days that they need this kind of stuff at the college level? Do they do dioramas too?

I'm conducting another attempt at an experiment about another sacred symbol of atheism today. So far, no results.

http://zthoughtcriminal.blogspot.com/

12:38 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

It's certainly a stupid assignment, as if they couldn't have learned what there was to learn from discussion. Are students so bored and unsophisticated these days that they need this kind of stuff at the college level? Do they do dioramas too?

You'd be amazed at how hard it is to engage the average college classroom in a discussion.

I vividly remember a Psych 101 class I took (for an elective; I had a ton of 'em to spare in my degree plan). It was in a lecture hall, and during the lecture a student ran in from one side, shouting; another student ran in, shouting at the first, there was some kind of altercation (it was decades ago, you understand), and then both ran out.

Our professor then asked us to report what we had just seen. There were, of course, several reports, some broadly contradictory, and few with any relevant details.

It was an excellent object lesson in perception and memory, one I've never forgotten (though I remember almost nothing else about that class, except that 'instincts' do not apply to human beings. Which is another controversy for another time....)

2:20 PM  
Blogger Jordy said...

Reminds me of "Silence," by Shusaku Endo - there it's a picture, not the written word, being stepped on - but still, I love the idea that Jesus, who already bore so much for our sakes, would be fine to endure a little stepping.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Mouse said...

I think, as described, this is an EXCELLENT exercise in the importance of symbols. It would be ugly if the teacher bullied or coerced the students into completing the exercise, but from the description I'd imagine that any student with scruples about the desecration ("desecration"?) would be permitted to abstain. And here, the word "Jesus" on the paper isn't so much a symbol of Christ or Christianity - it's a symbol of that symbol, of deeply-imbued symbols in general.

8:33 AM  

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