Archives For Symbolism

Misinterpreted Symbols

October 31, 2013 — 10 Comments

finn planeFew symbols evoke the intense reaction caused by the swastika. Regardless of the color in which it is rendered, it is inescapably associated with the Nazi insanity of the Third Reich.

And yet, for millennia it meant something else. And even today, in many lands it is recognized as representing something completely different.

I recently read a fascinating article* about the 1939-40 Winter War between the Soviet Union (Hitler’s “ally” at the time!) and tiny Finland. The Finns fought valiantly, and although in the peace settlement they forfeited territory to the insatiable communists, they inflicted terrible casualties on the aggressors.

Finnish bitterness toward the Soviets, due to their invasion, led them to ally with the Germans once the nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union ended. Without any sympathy for Nazi beliefs, they naturally hoped to regain the land they had been forced to surrender in 1940.

Prior to the Finnish alliance with Germany, the swastika already served as the official symbol of their small but talented Air Force. Ironically, they had adopted it in homage to the Swedish noble who donated one of the first foreign planes imported to fight the Russians.

The plane pictured above is the modest aircraft donated by Count Eric Von Rosen. The symbols adorning it are based on his personal crest, which was in turn based upon ancient Viking runes. It represented good luck.

After the decisive defeat of the National Socialist Party, the offensive symbol was virtually wiped away. However, as one writer says, “Although de-Nazification was enforced throughout Scandinavia, it was taken rather lightly in Finland, where the symbol had become an integral symbol for their Air Forces.

This is understandable because in Finland, the symbol meant something completely different than the common association linked to Hitler’s mania.

This should serve as an important lesson for those of us who work with words (which in large part are symbolic). A meaning we may consider patently obvious might turn out to be missed entirely by a reader for whom the “symbols” mean something else entirely. In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis provides an entertaining illustration of this.

There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of “Heaven” ridiculous by saying they do not want “to spend eternity playing harps.” The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them.

All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. . . . People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.

The fact that we know the swastika has an ancient pedigree, and that it continues to mean something completely different than Nazism in some locales today, is unlikely to calm the minds of the vast majority of people who will never become comfortable with it.

Turning to Lewis once more we find a dynamic image that is perfectly apropos to our discussion of the swastika as a symbol. Symbols, he reminds us, are inherently powerful. Although written in a different context (“Williams and the Arthuriad”), Lewis could easily have had in mind the preeminent symbol of Nazism and the Holocaust when he wrote:

A symbol has a life of its own. An escaped metaphor—escaped from the control of the total poem or philosophy in which it belongs—may be a poisonous thing.

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* You can download a copy of “The Winter War” from Air Force magazine at this link.

Books C.S. Lewis Loved

April 23, 2013 — 21 Comments

csl booksThose of us who admire C.S. Lewis respect his words on many subjects, not least of which would include literary matters. He was, after all, both a gifted writer and a professor teaching related subjects at two of the world’s most prestigious universities.

In 1962 The Christian Century asked him to list the ten titles most influential in his professional and philosophical life. (Most of these are available as free downloads on the internet.)

1. Phantastes by George MacDonald

2. The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton.

3. The Aeneid by Virgil

4. The Temple by George Herbert

5. The Prelude by William Wordsworth

6. The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto

7. The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

8. Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell

9. Descent into Hell by Charles Williams

10. Theism and Humanism by Arthur James Balfour

The following year Lewis was interviewed by Sherwood Wirt, longtime editor of Decision magazine. (Decision is published by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and you can learn more about the publication here.)

During his interview, Wirt focused on spiritual rather than professional benefits from books Lewis had found beneficial.

Sherwood Wirt: What Christian writers have helped you?

C.S. Lewis: The contemporary book that has helped me the most is Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. Others are Edwyn Bevan’s book, Symbolism and Belief, and Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, and the plays of Dorothy Sayers.

Fortunately all of these titles are readily available for those who would like to explore works that influenced Lewis’ conversion and Christian growth. Let’s briefly consider them in the order Lewis cited them.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a prolific English writer. Just how prolific, one might ask. Well, he wrote approximately eighty books, hundreds of poems, hundreds of short stories and about 4,000 essays. His works continue to inspire many today, and merit contemporary reading.

Chesterton shared many of the same values as Lewis, and preferred calling himself an “orthodox” Christian rather than adhering to denominational labels. (In this he foreshadows Lewis’ invaluable emphasis on “mere” Christianity.)

The Everlasting Man was published in 1925 and ponders the universal significance of Jesus Christ. It was composed in reaction to The Outline of History, in which H.G. Wells paints Jesus as just one more political agitator in a political backwater of the Roman empire. Honestly, he does describe him as being remarkable, but mostly in terms of having a charismatic persona.

Lewis said that Chesterton’s Everlasting Man “baptised” his intellect, which is no small expression of praise.

You can purchase The Everlasting Man through normal channels or download a free text format version at this site. If you enjoy listening to audiobooks, you can obtain a free audio copy of the volume here.

Edwyn Robert Bevan (1870-1943) was an English philosopher and historian who specialized in the Hellenistic world.

In Symbolism and Belief, based on a series of lectures presented in 1933-34, Bevan discusses major religious symbols and metaphors. He illustrates how figurative language is best capable of describing spiritual truth. He argues that the greater precision offered by philosophical terminology is actually counterproductive in this quest.

The volume offers insight into the rationality of religious faith, although it concludes with his conviction that it ultimately boils down to a genuine encounter with God—“what actually causes anyone to believe in God is direct perception of the Divine.”

Symbolism and Belief is available for free download in a variety of formats at this site.

Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) was a German Lutheran theologian. He spent most of his ministry teaching at one of the most prominent seminaries in the world, the University of Marburg Divinity School.

In The Idea of the Holy Otto espoused the concept that the things of God were “numinous.” He defined this as a “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” The word itself was derived from the Latin numen which refers to divine power.

Otto explains how the numinous is a mystery (mysterium) that is simultaneously terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans). C.S. Lewis found the notion of the numinous particularly useful in his book, The Problem of Pain.

The Idea of the Holy: an Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational is available in multiple formats here.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893-1957) was a personal friend of C.S. Lewis. In a 1963 letter he wrote: “She was the first person of importance whoever wrote me a fan letter. I liked her, originally, because she liked me; later, for the extraordinary zest and edge of her conversation—as I like a high wind. She was a friend, not an ally.”

Sayers was an extremely successful English writer. Her versatility allowed her renown to grow as a poet, playwright, essayist and as a writer of popular detective mysteries. She was also a classicist, and regarded her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy as her finest work.

Fortunately, four of her plays are available in a collection available here. They include “The Zeal of Thy House,” “The Devil to Pay,” “He That Should Come,” and “The Just Vengeance.” And, although you can’t download the file, if you would like to stream the recording, an audio version of her famous “The Man Born to be King” is available here.