Harbored in the Event (of Unity) or, Inigo Montoya on Semiotics?

Harbored in the Event (of Unity) or, Inigo Montoya on Semiotics?

Who does not love Inigo Montoya? The accomplished swordsman possessed with avenging his father’s death at the hands of the six-fingered man often questions Vizinni’s use of inconceivable,

Vizzini: HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE.

Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Lately I have been working my way through Crystal Downing’s, Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication. I first read Leonard Sweet suggest that Christians, especially preachers/pastors, need to be good semioticians. Signs, signifiers, and the signified need unraveling for the novice. Downing does a great job, at least in my opinion.

changingsignsDowning provides a number of illustrations as to the way signs change and in turn influence either our perceptions of the way the world is structured or actually structures our consciousness of the world. Regardless of the way you think our awareness of the world is understood via language, the point is that over time signs shift meaning.

Take for instance white teeth. My wife loved this one when I relayed it to her. She is a dental assistant. And, whitening strips and whitening processes may be found in our house from time to time.

According to Downing, there was a time when people wanted black teeth. Don’t laugh. Black teeth signified wealth. Only the rich could afford sugar. The consequence of too much sugar and poor dental hygiene produced cavities, dark teeth. Those who could not afford sugar but wanted the status would apply pitch to their teeth to give the appearance they were wealthy.

Today the opposite is true. Only the wealthy may afford the cosmetic dentistry necessary to straighten and whiten teeth. Our celebrities, or those who want to project a different image in the public eye, may spend a great deal on their smile. Costly orthodontics and tooth bleaching help set apart the wealthy. The rest of us purchase whitening strips or less expensive whitening processes and may forego costly orthodontics thought unnecessary when we were children.

White teeth once signified poverty. Today they signify wealth. Downing tracks a number of these shifting signs.

You could say as these shifts take place we are left uttering Inigo Montoya’s line, “I do not think it [that word] means what you think it means.” Interestingly, Scot McKnight points to a book on Calvinsim he recommends. Essentially the blog post review suggests that today many who use that word, Calvinism, may not mean what they think it means.

In an even more interesting piece, Tom Nettles offers some thoughts on Arminianism which calls into question the way that label as been pitched around in the same way. Many who use the label may learn that it does not mean what they think it means. Something Roger Olsen has been pounding the table about.

These are but two illustrations among Evangelicals which, like white teeth, often shape perception and consequently /unity/. That is, unity may not mean what we think it means. Take Bart Barber’s post on the SBC as an illustration. His piece is another in an ongoing attempt to clarify what non-connectional connectionalism looks like.

Then there is my favorite lawyer. Natalie draws attention to the way language works in theological discourse. She points to the interesting, and apt, description that “men are people, women are women.” When we explore the way words, and so language works, we may discover that when we read Paul in the New Testament we still have trouble giving into the idea, “neither male nor female.”

Bill Kinnon experiences his springtime of discontent. Kinnon calls attention to a similar malady that could well fall under the Inigo Montoya critique. His closing reads this way,

Whether they mean to or not, they seem to be saying,

‘Screw the victims, C.J. believes the right stuff.’

Can’t we all just get along? Well, no.

The mashup of these varied pieces converge on the matter of unity. Can the SBC get along hosting Calvinists and non-Calvinists? Is it possible to think about anything other than Calvinism as pejoratively Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian? And, what difference does it make to the 63 year-old in your congregation who loses his job to sequestration? Nada. Nothing.

What does matter is that when we talk about unity, exactly what do we mean? Harbored in the event of unity is often a sinister commitment to maintain the status quo even if it means necessarily suspending belief. Let me illustrate.

Over lunch I was asked how to navigate a sensitive issue in a local church. If one is convinced the Scripture points a particular direction, is it better to let that go in favor of keeping the peace, maintaining unity? Harbored in the perceived notion of unity is the sinister notion that keeping the peace is better than the freedom that would come to certain members of the Body.

Let’s use a for instance. If a local church determines the role of deacons is not gender specific, is it worth the risk to unity to proceed? Even more, if a local church understands the Scriptures to point to the office of deacon as open to men and women, is it worth the risk to peace to move forward?

It is thought that the lack of contention equates to peace. Peace is a perceived sign of unity. If one group of people in the church is disadvantaged in the name of unity, that does not obtain peace.

Is it possible that harbored in the event of unity is the acknowledgement that when Jesus brings freedom it will mean liberty for all and not just some? It is more than nuancing the difference between unity and uniformity. What is necessary is to decide what is meant by unity and whether or not the health of the church requires a (re)signing of that word we use that may not mean what we think it means.

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  • Dale Pugh

    Interesting follow up of yesterday’s discussion. I smiled when I read the title. :-)

    • http://toddlittleton.net/ Todd Littleton

      Dale – after yesterday I thought you might like the title. I began this piece last week, long before I had thought of yesterday’s post. But, it seemed good to finish it up as it offered, I think, a bit more of what is at work in Downing’s book.

      As always, thanks for taking the time to comment.

      • Dale Pugh

        I’ve been ruminating on this, Todd. I heard John McArthur in a video talk about young Reformed pastors who practiced “Arminian” behavior. I was a little surprised by his use of the term in specifying behaviors as being unbiblical (Arminian) or biblical (Reformed/Calvinist), and I see this at work in the current debate. There is a definite temptation to misuse words to make a point. I need to get this book, I think.

        • http://toddlittleton.net/ Todd Littleton

          Dale, you point out the problems with language. Underneath the move, at least in my opinion, is a grab for power or authority. If I assert that this position, Reformed/Calvinist, is equal to biblical then I have raised a particular interpretive grid to the level of a singularity. While I believe a person should have confidence in their interpretation, I believe this sort of move shuts down dialogue, creates theological arrogance, and in its most sordid forms assumes to declare “this is God’s vision.” The fact that the bible itself does not make these things crystal clear should signal a great call to humility not hubris.

          And, you rightly note that this is the real intersection of the current debate. I do not believe it is really about a chosen theological position. It is more about the person making the assertion.

          I hope you do get the book. If you do, reply here again or send me an email with your thoughts.

  • David Phillips

    We’re almost in an era where everything has to be defined. The reason for that is that we all have a slightly different understanding of what a word means.

    We’re in an age of dissonance, where plurality has disrupted a socially understood meaning for many words. Or at least our dominant understanding of our language is being disrupted. Until the reframed, culturally accepted understanding of our language develops, I wonder how we cannot be in a constant state of dissonance.

    The real issue is going to be how we handle the subtleties of our transitioning language in a multi-ideological culture. For a while, acceptance will be localized until a grand, almost universally embraced understanding occurs.

    Until then, chaos and frustration will continue, and unity may be elusive. There are competing ideologies wrestling for the controlling understanding of language, and that will mean some will become discounted or minimized in the process. Blood will be spilt and feelings will be hurt. Unfortunately, it’s the nature of a reconfiguring ideological framework.

    • http://toddlittleton.net/ Todd Littleton

      David,
      I wondered if you would weigh in. Downing, after all, does reference Burke.

      Pluralism may be a culprit. Do you really think even with blood letting and hurt feelings we will return to a controlling social narrative? Your reference to ideological frameworks will require of those frameworks to have some currency. Don’t we witness competing empty ideologies?

      I doubt we will every face a controlling narrative in a pluralistic environment. We will have to work for unity from a different posture. No?

      • David Phillips

        I think if we are talking evangelicalism, I am concerned that apart from a revival, we may not see a overarching social narrative again. And ideologies will be localized – and I should have defined that – not necessarily as geographic, but in some other way. Even that will cause problems because you will essentially have an intermixing of systems, and that will create one of 2 scenarios: either something will come along and bond them the together or there will be a complete collapse of it all.

        If we’re talking Western culture, I think the same thing could happen.

        The hard part is predicting if or when a unifying force could arise that brings a center to the disparate systems, allowing them to coalesce together.

        Could it happen? Yes. Is it plausible? It’s highly questionable.

        I’m not a predictor of the future, but I’m concerned that plurality will tribalize societies and migration will become more prevalent. We’re already seeing that as people and businesses are migrating because of localized taxes and governmental regulations. If that becomes more common (and not just based on taxes, etc), the splintering will be very real and things could collapse into chaos.

        If a society (religious, national, or other form) exists, it will have an overarching ideology. Future societies may be much smaller in a plural culture as a result, and a grand narrative may never exist again. Even in a Christian context, the center that holds pluralistic christianity together may be very slim, consisting of only a few fundamental truths.

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