People As Symbols

One word. #Linsanity.

Two words. Unexpected #Linspiration.

Three words. Asian American baller.

And after a week of media hoopla and six games’ worth heroics, we don’t really know him. Ethan Sherwood calls him boring. And now I get it. Jeremy is just a symbol. My Asian American brothers at Next Gener.Asian Church are going absolutely bonkers about him, asking what does #linsanity say about Asian American Male Sexuality and how this moment relates to the Civil Rights Movement, etc. But we’re looking at the projection, the image of the man, more than the man himself.

Symbols are really important. Every movement and memory has symbols associated with it. They become the post-it flags to the whole of the event. For instance, if I said, Reformation, your mind retrieves several symbols: a picture of Martin Luther with portly cheeks with a muffin top hat; John Calvin with a thin, gaunt face and magician’s beard, etc.

These buzzwords, clippings, and images help us remember significant parts of history. And they can change, but usually they are significant because they are not only significant in retrospect, they are significant now, in the present. And the funny thing is that people aren’t always aware of what is symbolically important in the now. We think we know, but we’re not sure. Some things get left behind or forgotten by the masses, but remembered by only a certain few. Sound familiar?

The Christian movement as a post-Judaic/post-rabbinical phenomenon was a blip. Remembered and propagated only by a few, one of the elements of telling the story was making sure there were tangible symbols to the faith. The crucifix; baptism; eucharist, fish, and shepherds, etc. These were all ways of distinguishing it from Judaism because the symbols were different.

You have to know how important these symbols are and what they mean in order to understand how to hold their gravity in the present. Which is why the council of Jerusalem was important. That’s why Chalcedon was important. I wonder if these symbols have a limited effectiveness date. Not to say that baptism has limited effect (as a symbol), but in a pluralistic society that idolizes individualism and esoteric communities, I have to ask if traditional symbols are simply losing their effect because they contain less meaning. But I digress.

Here’s my point: Who and what are the symbols for Christian reconciliation in our midst? Jeremy Lin is on one hand, just a basketball player, who’s had a number of good games for an undrafted player. But the dimensions of Lin being Asian American and Christian have made him a symbol with some would say, missional and reconciliation capacity. In other words, suddenly the symbol has power that the man himself doesn’t have. People are impressed by the humility, determination, and even the faith of Jeremy Lin. The symbol at this point has the capacity to become an icon. And those that are partial to that symbol, meaning Asian Americans, 3rd string ballers, Ivy Leaguers, etc. suddenly can see where Lin’s life might be pointing and to whom.

This is why you need to look at yourself in symbolic terms. This is why your church, my church being monocultural, monoethnic, or whatever, it symbolizes something and you need to know what. It conveys a message that either supports or subverts what I say or how I live. People are not just people or projects or problems. Their lives are symbols. This is why photography and the visual arts matter, because sometimes we see in those symbols and in those images something far deeper and meaningful.

Christian reconciliation needs to be aware of the symbols we project. How much of it is co-opted by merely people of goodwill? What does it say when our churches are homogenous and seeking only to grow in a particular class or political persuasion or theological bastion? What does it mean when we keep our local neighborhoods at arm’s length? And if we are discovering so much about how shocked the League is about Jeremy Lin and how he persevered rather than wither away on someone’s bench, what does that say when we are a culture unfamiliar with perseverance and anonymity?

Four words: Knowing. God. Live. Differently.

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About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come. View all posts by David Park

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