Symbols point us to the mystery -- they try to make sense of it, to speak to what we cannot understand, to indicate what must be true.
The universe extends beyond what we can fathom and our minds reach to make sense of our existence, and we know, in a song, in a kiss, in deep laughter that there is something beyond us that lives within us, that is woven into the fabric of our being. The symbols point us onward -- to keep searching, to not grow complacent with the shadows on the wall but to stand up and shake these chains that we have willingly endured for so long. To go forth and discover the universe.
But the preacher is no longer interested in symbols because he already has the answers; all of them. There is no mystery left to be discovered. He has uncovered it all, in this day and age, in this place where he grows fat and rich in the neighborhood where he is safe as can be, he has uncovered it all. No need to go looking beyond the 45 minute monologue he shares each Sunday in a sanctuary that is not a sanctuary but a room, a performance hall meant for a crowd to watch performances. A great clean room with great big speakers and wifi, wifi!, but there is no symbolism here, only the reverse kind, the symbolism of a place that is uninterested in the mystery. And in such a place men can only die. Because the emotion conjured each week is not lasting; it’s not enough to point towards the place we long to go.
Only symbolism can do this for us. We need a guide. We need someone to show us what to look for, because the journey into our depths is not for the faint of heart. Courage is required. Faith is required. Obedience is required. Love, of course, is required. But none of these virtues are rooted in emotion, the shallow soil where seeds cannot grow.
But the preacher is not convinced - his stomping and hollering from the stage is meant to change your life, to shake you free from the addictions that grip you. And when it’s not enough to do so, the fault is your own, you, the son of Adam the daughter of Eve who cannot help but to be filled with death, you who must return to the performance for as long as you live. Emotion, not symbolism. That’s for them. Not for you.
Art, at its best, is symbolism, a flare stack on the horizon that shows us we are more than flesh and bone, more than beings of a time and place. The best art shows us that we are eternal—the deep longing called the human spirit is not easily quenched but also is not easily captured to be examined behind glass, to be spoken of from a stage. Who can make sense of man’s life and his place within the corridors of time? Who is willing to stand up and tell us the answers to the mysteries? The philosophers quote the ideas of dead philosophers, the preachers repeat the ideas of dead preachers. I wish to hear a new thing. I wish to hear from the eternal man whose spirit roams the depths of creation.
The spirit. It is a wild thing. It is a force that moves through time and space and connects most deeply with the One who does the same.
To be alive is to be eternal.
But the preacher stripped the walls of art and replaced it with sound panels. What good is it to point the mind and heart of man towards things he cannot understand? The story is simple. You are worthless, and in spite of this, the God who made you to be worthless sent his only begotten son to save you. We don’t need paintings to understand this, he says, we need you to shout and holler and lift your hands.
Once upon a time the congregants of the church faced east so their souls might be reminded of newness, a kingdom to come on the horizon, a strong east wind to split seas in half and guide the people through the deserts, the unknown. But the preacher doesn’t care where you face so long as you face him, the keeper of truth that isn’t complicated or nuanced but so simple even a fool could understand.
Once upon a time the subatomic elements of bread and wine were acknowledged as mystery -- the body and blood of a Jewish craftsman, the embodiment of the Son of God, now filling your own body and blood as you are also a son of God--but now it is an obligation, a cracker, grape juice, a word or two about conversion into the religion of emotion, the religion with all the answers.
Once upon a time the gates of the New Jerusalem were said to never be closed, but now the preacher offers a prayer, a flicker of belief, a decision born out of self-hatred to escape the fires of hell because the gates of New Jerusalem will indeed be closed to you unless you follow the equation he has set forth, even if your belief is but for a moment, your prayer but for a moment, your interest in salvation but for a moment, and you will be saved, you will be held in the gates of the city whose gates will be closed to all the others.
The open gate is a symbol too, blotted from the walls. Blotted from the hearts and minds of all who fall under the preacher’s power. The symbol is dead, just as he desires.
And the question we must ask is why.
Is he incapable of guiding us through the meaning behind the symbols?
Or is he desirous of the power to which they might lead us?
Because the very thing that makes them powerful also makes them dangerous.