Symbols aren’t “Just Symbols”

In his book The New Testament and the People of God, NT Wright provides a framework for evaluating culture. In his context, he is providing a helpful framework for understanding the cultures of Jesus, Paul, and the early church, but this tool can also be used to understand our culture – or how culture works more generally.

His framework is simple. Any culture will have stories, questions, symbols, and practices that serve as entry points to understanding what that culture is all about. Noting that humans use stories to make sense of the world around us, Wright argues a fundamental function of culture is to provide just such a narrative. He goes on to say,

… from these stories one can in principle discover how to answer the basic questions that determine human existence: who are we, where are we, what is wrong, and what is the solution? All cultures cherish deep-rooted beliefs which can in principle be called up to answer these questions. (pg. 123)

In any culture, this story (and the way it answers fundamental questions) is embodied in cultural symbols, into objects or practices that serve as touchstones to reinforce and root us in the story, values, and practices of the culture. For instance, in Christianity, the sacraments of baptism and eucharist serve as symbols. They are embodied retellings of the narrative that fundamentally makes us who we are. In the same way, from the earliest days of the church, the cross has been used as a symbol in Christianity to call us back to our identity and values. These symbols serve to root us in our narrative, to remind us of the sorts of things we should value, do, and be. Holidays, ceremonies, family traditions, rites of passage, flags, statues, and memorials all serve within a culture as these kinds of symbols – and as such, they are formative.

All this is to suggest that our symbols are never “just symbols.”

Good or bad, they are never amoral “parts of our history.”

They are meant to communicate something about what a culture or people group holds valuable or sees as the way forward in the world. This is precisely why such symbols are created in the first place.

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Symbols aren’t “Just Symbols”

Being Human – Part Two

This is the second post in a series asking what it means to be human. In the first post, I argued that Genesis 1 defines humanity in functional terms – that being human is more a vocation than anything else. Genesis 1:26-28 sits at the heart of this claim:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.

Two times in these verses, God holds the creation of humankind together with the vocation of ruling as his representatives: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” It is in living out this vocation of ruling over creation that we serve as God’s image-bearers.

Here, let’s think a little more about what that might mean. Namely, we can find three relationships in the idea of being God’s image. I want to argue (and will do so at greater length past this post) that human flourishing is found in tending these relationships as God intended.

First, bearing God’s image necessitates a proper relationship with God.

This is the easiest, most difficult, and most important of the three relational dynamics involved in being human. We are created to represent God, to rule over what he has made, on his behalf. As such, our humanity is always connected to his being.

I’m going to lay this out without much explanation here, but we’ll come back to it later and give it more attention: Image-bearing language functions as priestly language. In ancient Israel, the notion of a priesthood was larger than the Levitical priesthood that officiated at the temple, conducted sacrifices, etc. In one sense, the Levites served as Israel’s priesthood, but in another sense, the entire nation was called to serve as priests (cf. Exodus 19:6). Israel’s call to be a “royal priesthood” is tied to God’s determination to make them his “treasured possession out of all the peoples” and a “holy nation” (vs. 5-6). Belonging to God, Israel was tasked with representing him by embodying a different way of life – God’s way of life – before a world that had rejected him. In the context of the Exodus narrative, Israel’s call was really a call back to the original human vocation rejected in Genesis 3. God was calling Israel back to what he had always intended humans to be.

Being with God and representing him in our way of life. This is the fundamental task of image-bearing, the fundamental task of being human. When we are as God created us to be, the human vocation is to reflect God’s character, glory, and purposes into the creation he has placed us over. Everything else flows from this dynamic.

Second, bearing God’s image necessitates proper relationships with one another.

This shows up in an obvious way in Genesis 1:26-28. The human vocation includes the call to “be fruitful and multiply.” That would necessitate human interaction. (This is a contender for understatement of the year, I suppose.) More broadly, however, God has more than marital relations in mind in this text. In Genesis 1, the creation of humankind is not an individual event and the call to bear God’s image is not an individual mandate. That is, God does not establish a human as image-bearers, but all humans. The task of representing God – filling, subduing, holding dominion – is something we do jointly.

Put another way, God intended humanity to be played out in community and for human flourishing to occur, the way we tend relationships within those communities is crucial. Succinctly, if our task is to represent who God is in every aspect of our life, this begins with the way his character and purposes shape the way we treat one another as we go about the human vocation together. After all, Jesus tells us the greatest commands are to love God and love neighbor (cf. Matthew 22:34-40).

Third, bearing God’s image necessitates a proper relationship with our environment.

Again, this is a summary post outlining themes we can take up in more detail later. But, the third relational dynamic in the human vocation is the way we relate to the world around us. (Depending on where you stand, you may have to do some work to disassociate this notion from political agendas on the right and left of the American political spectrum. It’s tricky! But this was a biblical topic well before it was a point of contention on talk radio.)

To look ahead a little, Genesis 2 provides another perspective (or perhaps additional information) on the account given in Genesis 1. Here, God is said to place humankind in the garden to “till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). While those terms – tilling and keeping – beg for more definition, their mere mention calls us back to an obvious truth of Genesis 1:26-28: Humankind was created to steward God’s creation. As with our relationships with one another, this relationship with our environment is built on our fundamental call to reflect who God is.

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There’s a lot more than can be said here – and we will want to say more, but we’ll stop with this summary for now. Humanity as Genesis envisions it is about representing who God is in our relationships with Him, with one another, and with our world.

Being Human – Part Two

Oikos 101 – What is Oikos?

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[For anyone who’s read my stuff for any length of time, you know I’ve done this before. (I’m also pretty sure I will do it again.) For me, and for those who participate in oikos with me, the whole process is fluid. We are a work in progress, and that will occasionally require restatement and development. So on occasion, I rewrite what I believe the basics of oikos to be about. It’s good for me.]

What is oikos? It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot lately, and I am the first to admit those of us that participate in oikos haven’t done the best job communicating with those who aren’t. So, pleading for your mercy, here goes nothing.

Oikos is the Greek word in the New Testament for household. In the ancient world, a household is bigger than the nuclear family we tend to think of. One’s oikos included their extended family, as well as any slaves, servants, workers, tenants, or business partners associated with the family. An oikos was a small community within the larger community of a town or village, and one’s oikos was inestimably important.

Why was oikos so important? One hint is in how we’ve come to use the word in modern English. Oikos is pronounced ecos, and as that pronunciation might suggest, it is the root of the English prefix eco. That’s ecology or ecosystem. One’s ecosystem is the environment in which they thrive and that’s getting close to what oikos meant to people in New Testament times.

Oikos was the context in which you did life. It was the context in which your identity and worth and purpose were formed. Oikos was the fundamental building block of ancient society. This truth ran so deep that the entire Roman empire was organized around this idea. The patriarch of an oikos was referred to as kurios or lord. Caesar was referred to as “Lord of lords,” by which the Romans meant he was the patriarch over all the patriarchs and Rome was the oikos to which all other households belonged. (Of course, the early church took this up and subverted it in some important ways.)

Oikos was the environment in which people thrived. And, when we talk about oikos in the context of our 8&H family, that’s what we’re talking about. Oikos is about developing intentional communities in which we can learn who we are in Christ and what life with him (and one another) looks like.

As we will say in the next post of this series, this means oikos is predominantly about discipleship.

Oikos 101 – What is Oikos?