Taking Semiotics to Church: A Review of Crystal Downing’s Changing Signs of Truth
Crystal L. Downing. Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012.
Crystal Downing offers an entertaining and anecdotally rich account of how an otherwise highly specialized and esoteric form of linguistic science can be deployed theologically to reframe perennial problems in the relationship between Christianity and culture. Drawing on the long-running but rarely discussed background influence of semiotics on postmodern philosophy, Downing distills some of the more straightforward and essential themes from within that tradition and cites them to address a variety of familiar and persistent church-world issues, from the meaning of biblical terms to styles of worship.
Anyone looking for some profound re-visioning, or revisiting, of more weighty philosophical or theological questions will be disappointed with this book. It is one part primer on the theory of signs and sign functions, going back to the early-twentieth-century inventor of structural linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, and four parts storytelling, assembling a wide variety of homely and personal vignettes to illustrate the fundamental concepts for a lay readership. One immediately gets the feeling of listening to an engaging undergraduate teacher at a Christian college who is saying to young people: “You don’t need to be buffaloed by what they tell you in church about how this doctrine or that tradition can’t be questioned. After all, these are just the conventional signs that Christians, for this particular time in history, are using to communicate a certain truth of faith.”
Downing coins her own term to express this process by which Christian discourse alters the context in which signs function: she calls this process re-signing. Linguists, of course, associate this process closely with the natural evolution of language itself. Indeed, Downing’s book would not be that consequential if we were simply dealing with the types of phenomena philologists, for instance, who track and document on a routine basis. But here we are dealing with the language of what Christians regard as sacred texts. According to Downing, the force of tradition tends to blind Christians to the historical relativity of the words and syntactical constructs they use in communicating, not only within Christianity but also when they engage in the apologetical enterprise of using signifiers that are meaningful only to believers to persuade unbelievers.
Downing introduces the problem of signs, along with the academic discipline that addresses it, largely for the pragmatic purpose of promoting more effective Christian evangelism and better-informed faith commitments. The book, she declares in the opening sentence, is aimed at “Christians who want to change the world” (loc. 54, Kindle edition). The task of evangelism, or apologetics for that matter, in an increasingly interconnected and multicultural world becomes impossible without a certain sophistication in interpreting cultural messages and meanings or without an understanding of how those forms of signification are communicated routinely among interlocutors and interpreted by those who do not necessarily share the same context of understanding. When contemporary evangelical Christians privilege certain types of faith language as sacrosanct and inerrant, even when they appear in translation from the original biblical texts, the cultural chasm between believer and nonbeliever grows ever wider.
Meanwhile, the obduracy among Christians about how signs operate and how words and phrases actually serve to communicate in our complex intercultural venue has contributed to a conflict within the church itself. Downing rues the fact that emergent Christians are constantly trashing canon, doctrine, and tradition while traditionalists return the favor by ruthlessly attacking the new wave of Christ-following millennials as succumbing to the siren song of relevance and confusing faithful witness with immersion in the fashions of pop culture. Over the past decade, the culture wars have turned Christianity into an internally decimated landscape, and in her book, Downing vows “to turn these swords into plowshares, negotiating the antagonism between Christianity and culture, as well as among Christians themselves” (14).
Downing, it should be noted, adopts this approach only as means for relativizing, and thereby analyzing, the semiotic chains that Christianity has invoked to make sense of its own historical experiences. In his On the Teacher, the first systematic work of Christian semiotics, Saint Augustine dealt with the same sort of issues. Augustine insightfully grasped how the flux of signs and signifying relationships in both our verbal and non-verbal communication serve no serious evangelical purpose unless they are accompanied by an awareness of the procedures by which we interpret both texts and circumstances. Our strategies of interpretation, in turn, remain rudderless without the “illumination” of the Spirit. Even while relying on the trendy, and at times recondite, discourse of contemporary post-structuralist philosophy, Downing has not gone much farther than Augustine.
In short, semiotics is a valuable instrument for discerning the subtle interworkings between what H. Richard Niebuhr, whom she admires, dubbed “Christ and culture.”1 But it should never be used as a blunt instrument. Re-signing, in the sense of tracking and taking confidence in the play of signs over time, as a hermeneutical gambit is not the same as when we are “resigned to essential truths revealed by God” (loc. 144, italics in original). Culture can never contradict revelation, which of course renders the well-established modernist historical-critical method of re-signing the deeper meaning of biblical texts and the ancient faith message moot.
Changing Signs of Truth is a valuable contribution to the academic and semi-academic literature on cultural semiotics, if only because it portrays in a thorough and engaging way the glaring problem of how language is intertwined with culture and, more importantly, how language evolves over time. Interestingly, the same kinds of points Downing makes about contemporary Western culture would be a no-brainer for missiologists having to contend with the challenges of making the gospel intelligible to non-Westerners. It is a genuine sign of our current age that the controversy over language and culture has come down to whether the meanings of religious terms are somehow set in stone, as the more orthodox instinctively assume, or whether they are simply episodic types of language games, conditioned and rendered contingent by present-day attitudes and practices.
The view that these meanings are set in stone, as I have remarked extensively in my earlier work The Next Reformation (2004), relies on a pseudo-universalistic and hyperrationalistic version of epistemology that is neither biblical nor ancient but thoroughly modern, dating no later than the late eighteenth century. The notion that they are merely historically contingent amounts to an uncritical and inconsistent form of intellectual laissez-faire fostered during the late industrial era by social scientists who somehow fell under the delusion that they were in the business of solving classical problems of theoretical knowledge, when in fact they were merely substituting a naive descriptivism for what used to count as a philosophy of knowledge.
God will undoubtedly not allow the future of Christianity to endure as an interminable mud fight between shallow inerrantists and smug liberals. But in the meantime, readers will take away from this little book some genuine insights in how to rise above the fray.
1. See Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1956).
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver. He specializes in continental philosophy, the philosophy of religion, and the theory of religion. Raschke is an internationally known writer and academic who has published numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. His latest book, The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (2012), looks at the ways in which major trends in continental philosophy over the past two decades have radically altered how we understand what we call “religion.” Raschke is also a permanent adjunct faculty at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and has been a visiting scholar and lecturer at the University of Vienna.