It wasn’t long ago that my newsfeed was graced by two provocative image macros, each shared by a variety of different people. I want to share them with you today in order to reflect, critically, on what they mean, and to comment on a way that they are strikingly similar. The first image features a description of the “real” meaning of the Confederate flag. The second features the image of a priest describing a nonthreatening use of “Allah” in Christian worship. Here are both images now:
You may be wondering why it is that I think these two images are strikingly similar, and the reason lies in the logic they utilize to make their case, a logic I find deeply troubling among many of my fellow Christians. There are two components to their similarity.
1) Both images consciously ignore the fact that names have history. There is a reason, today, why we don’t name our children Adolf or Judas. There is a reason why Chernobyl and Hiroshima continue to make us shudder. These names, for varying reasons, carry with them the baggage of their narratives—baggage which distinctly inflects the meaning of the names. And herein lies the key we must remember—names point to a history, point to a heritage. The history of a name is the unveiled history of its character. They don’t exist in abstract; they carry narrative baggage.
This is what is so very crucial about the unveiling of the name of God in the Old Testament. Previously, He was a kind of idea—an El, a God, possibly among other gods. But after Moses He was known by His own self-designation, YHWH, I am that I am, I cause to be what is. From that moment on the dealings of the Israelites with the being named YHWH constituted a developing narrative of character. No longer would general terms be as suitable, because God had taken control in a striking way of His own self disclosure. Want to know about god (el) generally? You’re going to have to get to know YHWH.
So, when our priest claims that “Allah is just our name for God” there is a two-way sleight of hand. On one side, he is consciously neglecting the importance of God’s self-revelation in time through the narrative of YHWH’s actions. On the other hand, he is consciously side-stepping the narrative identity of Allah. Allah may have once meant ‘God’ in a vague and nondescript sense, but it can do so no longer, for in the machinery of Islam it has gathered to itself its own narrative baggage. Allah no longer means simply ‘god’ anymore than Baal means simply ‘god.’ As soon as it became a name it took on an accretion of historical data.
2) Both images consciously ignore the fact that symbols have a life beyond their etymology. I can describe in great detail the etymological meaning of the word Negro. I can talk about its links to the colour ‘black,’ how it represents a basic description of encounter between Caucasian and non-Caucasian persons. But no amount of explanation can overcome the fact that, within living memory, the word “negro” was used to exclude and marginalize, often visibly on signs like this one.
Decoding symbols and defining terms is important, crucial work, but we mustn’t neglect the fact that their use and application in history adds levels of meaning and determines their interpretation. No matter how one describes the Confederate flag (and, for the record, the description in the image macro is false), its use in rebellion, in the defence of slavery, and in the narratives of white power, render it ultimately reprehensible. The flag, like the word “negro” is an object of thought that, whatever its origins, now carries a symbolic weight beyond its ‘meaning.’ It is irresponsible, if not dishonest, to ignore that symbolic aspect.
The flag has a history, a narrative, and an accretion of symbolical significance. Allah has a history, a narrative, and an accretion of symbolical significance. No amount of equivocating can sidestep these difficulties. And yet both these images operate from the same basic premise: if I explain a thing a certain way, all its troubles disappear. The rhetorical claim is something like this, “Here. This is what this thing really means. So relax, it’s no big deal, right?” Formally, this is logical fallacy called “Cherry Picking”—it’s where you point to one data set (favourable) and consciously ignore or neglect the rest of the data (unfavourable). In the cases above, the authors point to certain data sets (re: Allah, Confederacy), and neglect significant other ones (history, symbology).
For me, this takes on an even more grievous slant, because in the hands of Christians—who are supposed to love the Word and what it means—it becomes a form, if you will, of exegetical abuse. I am reminded of something once said by Malcolm Muggeridge,
In the beginning was the Word, and one of the things that appalls me and saddens me about the world today is the condition of words. Words can be polluted even more dramatically and drastically then rivers and land and sea. There has been a terrible destruction of words in our time. (Muggeridge, The End of Christendom, 2)
Muggeridge’s words haunt me, echoing through my mind as I read, and listen, and observe the world. And nowhere do they grieve or astonish me more than when the Church, that great steward of the Word, participates in the destruction of its own sacred trust. Granted, it’s hard work to be faithful to the Word. The truth is that there’s enough cherry picking and equivocation in the world that, very often, the Christian message must begin with a proper definition of terms. But when we participate in these kinds of equivocation we discredit those places where we really do have a point to make about interpretation and misinterpretation. Abuse in one rhetorical field discredits us in others.
So let’s be critical of what we post and read, and let’s use our sacred trust—the treasury of the Word—wisely, faithfully, and with piercing clarity.