Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Simplicity vs Symbolism

I’m having some curious thoughts about my faith that I don’t know how to sort out.
A couple weeks ago I went to visit Sacré Coeur. Inside the massive church building is a wealth of artwork on the walls: in the stained glass, in statues, painted on the domed ceiling. But as I looked at it, I saw symbols, symbols, and more symbols. A lot of the art seemed weird to me. Less like depictions of Bible stories and more like scenes from movies such as National Treasure, Indiana Jones, The Skulls, and The DaVinci Code. The stuff I saw reminded me a lot more of secret societies than of any kind of a relationship with our Creator and Savior. I mean, a kneeling Pope holding a globe up to a massive and well-dressed Jesus, while a dude holding his head in his hands nearby watches and boats are filled with people and keys and shields and birds and robes and hats. And then all over the place there’s keys keys and more keys in different positions and combinations...

A relationship with God is simple right? It has to be. That’s a cornerstone of my faith.

Jesus showed up and told us to stop with all the religious junk and instead listen to Him, accept His Spirit, and simply follow it. That’s all there is to it, right?

Then I open my Bible up and read Exodus 25, 26, and 40. It’s where God gives instructions to Moses regarding the building of the early temple, and the ark of the covenant, and its place within the temple. I realize that Jesus brought a new covenant which rendered the old one, well, old and outdated. But these instructions that God gave are incredibly intricate, and somewhat cryptic. Things like the type of wood, exact sizes, gold all over everything in specific places. Where to put rings and tables and bread and curtains. Who can go where and do what. How to decorate the table, the lampstand, and the dishes. Exactly which rooms they should go in and when and how. It just seems a little weird. And very not simple.

But then later, Jesus comes along and lives an impossible life, does impossible things, and suddenly some old cryptic symbolism starts to pop up. What happens to the curtain that blocks off the holy of holies room in the temple when Jesus dies on the cross? We’ve all heard that sermon before. It’s torn in two and opened up. This signifies that with the death of Jesus we can finally approach God directly. There need not be an intermediary. That’s good news! And a fabulous picture provided by the fact that for centuries, man had to stay separated from God by this room, this curtain, which He very vividly tore at a very opportune moment. But back to Exodus (and many more places in the OT), the instructions are incredibly meticulous. I have to ask myself, why did God insist that ”Three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms are to be on one branch, three on the next branch, and the same for all six branches extending from the lampstand” (Ex 25:33)? A super-theologian could probably tell me. Or just a regular one who pays attention better than I in seminary class.

So here’s where I am: do I dive into all this symbolism, this stuff, this intricately woven story of epic proportions that God put down in the Old Testament, all of which points to the coming of Christ and all of which He reveals in His time to make sense (which is what I believe happened/happens, I can’t tell you with experiential confidence yet that every weird little thing God said in the OT has a future reason)? Do I jump in and consume myself with turning over every rock and figuring out every symbol? Or do I keep my life and my relationship with Him simple, “I listen, You lead, I follow”? Did God put all that stuff in there because He wants us to figure it all out? Or did He put it in there to wow us a little bit along the way?

I tend to fall back on a hiking analogy that raises a similar question. I love backpacking, hiking and exploring forests, gorges, mountains, and wilderness. The woods are so rugged, organic, and wild, aren’t they? Have you ever been deep into them, far removed from anything man-made, perhaps trudging along on trails wishing you could have a recliner with a cold drink and some pop-corn on hand, and then you look up and see something truly majestic? A vividly bright flower, a perfectly placed waterfall, an impossibly balanced boulder. Do you think sometimes that God puts stuff like that out there so that we’ll stumble upon it and say, “wow God, that’s just incredible”? Or do you think He puts it there and wants us to tear down the forest to find it? Of course, my wife reminds me, “if we’re not at least looking up, we may never see what God’s put out there.”

So what do you think? Do we keep it simple and focus on one thing (ps 27:4)? Do we wander along and stumble on God’s intricate puzzle pieces? Or do we do all we can to figure it all out, right now?


Anonymous said...

Son, your Dad's simple explanation is that all of that detail was there as a function of the time. Those people wanted and needed that detail. As we know our God is omniscient so all of those details also fit into his "grand" plan. I dont' need to know and understand all of that detail and symbolism.

Mom Sizemore said...

Yea, I, wow, have been in a deep study of Exodus, since my Kids SS class has been on Moses and all he did, and went through. So that got my intrest stirred up, and I started my own study. I have been asking myself the same questions you are asking. Having been to Europe, I have seen some of what you are talking about. It seems greater there than in the US.That age was very impressionable it seems, more so than modernday Churches. The greater your Building and Stuff, and fancier your robes and headdresses, the greater you, or your religion was.
At least thats the way it seems. But I don't know, Like I said I am still trying to figure out Exodus!!!!Wheww, I'm sure glad we don't have to do all that TODAY!!!!

Anonymous said...

Michael, I agree with your Dad. We don't need to understand why God called for all the symbolism and rituials in the days leading upto the First Comming of Jesus. All we have to do is accept Jesus, trust in him and spread the word. God will take care of the rest.
Dad Sizemore

Michael & Joe Joe said...

Well at least I know our parents read this now! Thanks for the thoughts and input. I guess in the end, I'm too busy with French to try and figure it all out anyway. But I don't think God really wants us to "figure Him out," so I might as well enjoy the ride and the little surprises along the way will only add to it.

Mike C. said...

I kinda think of these things like TVs (go with me for a minute). The essence of what you see doesn't change from a 13" black and white to a 60" plasma HD flatscreen. HOWEVER, one of them sure does give off a prettier picture with more amazing detail! Is understanding all the symbolism etc., necessary for our faith? No, but I'm sure however much you dig, you'll get that much more of an impressive, beautiful, detailed picture of our God!

Michael & Joe Joe said...

Thanks for the metaphor Mike. I get ya. I recently bought my first ever flat-panel tv. It's nice, but I fear that a bigger one would leave me sitting on the couch day-in day-out. And then how much would I miss out on outside?

Kara Joy said...

God makes each of us unique. Some of us have the ability to do the research, and have the understanding, the capability to figure out those questions. Some of us don't. Take me, for instance. I am not an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination. But for me, I don't have to understand all that symbolism to believe that God created the earth and everything in it, that Jesus is God's son and died on the cross for my sins. I believe God had His reasons for the detailed instructions. (One may have been an obedience thing). I also believe we're not meant and are incapable of understanding fully. At least not until we die and are with Him. Until then, we follow Jesus' instructions. That's my humble opinion anyway.

Michael & Joe Joe said...

Thanks Kara. Your opinion of humility is well taken!