Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christianity’s Neglected Cultural Weapons - Signs and Symbols

I recently interviewed the accomplished artist and teacher of icon carving, Jonathan Pageau. He is also one of the co-founders of the excellent Orthodox Arts Journal. Some will be aware that he has been gaining an increasingly high profile in social media - it doesn’t do any harm when Jordan Peterson regular retweets you! He has been posting movie reviews and talks on his YouTube channel, and they are gaining interest from a wide and increasing audience that includes many non-Christians and even atheists.

I wanted to know why.

What he is doing, he told me, is analyzing the culture, and especially movies, in terms of the symbols of the Christian faith. As an iconographer, he is conversant in traditional symbolism, a field that is called “iconology” (in contrast to “iconography”, the creation of the images.) He explains in the interview that his analyses are based on the premise that traditional Christian symbolism is not arbitrary, but appeals to something that is part of our nature, and which is placed there by God, so that we might have faith and see Him in all that is beautiful and good around us, especially in creation. The interconnectedness of all things forms a network of relationships in the cosmos; this allows us to make the mental leap to grasp the truth that all the created order relates to something greater and uncreated, but invisible, which is, of course, God.

Christian symbolism powerfully stimulates this facility in us, precisely because it participates in the natural symbolism of creation, perceived at the very least as its beauty.

Many successful filmmakers use it, often unknowingly and instinctively, to make a connection with their audiences. If he is right (and I think he is) then what he is explaining is something that could be used consciously and, if done well, even more successfully, both to increase viewing figures for films and to evangelize the culture. While it might be possible to do this cynically, the more that it is distorted or used for wrong purposes, the more its power is undermined. It is like a charism; as soon as we try to misuse it, it disappears. The reason that Jonathan’s message resonates with atheist and believer alike is that they recognize the pattern of interconnectivity as something that reflects an underlying truth. Jonathan’s YouTube channel, called The Symbolic World, is here; I encourage you to investigate.

Two points that will be of interest to NLM readers: he graciously told me that we were the first to feature his work anywhere, and as a result, eight years ago, he obtained a commission from a bishop which was the endorsement that launched his career as an artist. Furthermore, he explained that the inspiration for the Orthodox Arts Journal was the approach to writing about Catholic culture and the liturgy that was being used by the New Liturgical Movement!

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