My blog is not a place where I typically engage academic questions. I do plenty of academic writing for my classes and, currently, my senior capstone, so I do not plan to start now. But, since academic conversations often inform practice, sometimes those conversations need to be addressed. I want to talk about the relationships between Hyper-realism, Sacramental Theology, and Semiotics. What formal education I do have (in my three years as an undergraduate student) is mostly concentrated in analyzing written texts, both Biblical and otherwise. As I discuss this topic, keep in mind that I don’t know very much. My concern here is not to make a technical argument, but is, instead, to discuss the effect that certain academic understandings have on liturgy. By liturgy I mean the way in which worship is done and thought about.
What brought this to my mind was a sermon I listened to by J.R. Vassar. While running on the treadmill, I tend to listen to sermons. For the past two months, I have been catching up on the sermons from The Village Church in the Metroplex. One reason this is good is because Matt Chandler yells when he preaches, and that helps me run. The Village reads the Bible a bit conservatively for me and they are adamant about the way gender roles work. For instance, all of the elders are men. And, of course, they are very low church and make use of electric guitars and such during worship, which isn’t a problem so much as a preference issue. Really, though, I love the heart, intent, teaching, and practice behind Matt and The Village. No church, other than Beltway in Abilene, has so shaped my understanding of God. No other church, including Beltway, has so taught me what the Gospel looks like in real life. I’m sort of hoping that I end up at grad school in DFW so that I can start going to The Village.
Anyway, as I was working my way through the podcast I came to the break between Habakkuk part 6 and Habakkuk part 7. The space is filled by four stand alone sermons, the first of which is titled “Hyper-reality and the Bread of Life” by J.R. Vassar, the pastor of Apostles Church in New York City. Just looking at the title of the sermon, I thought he was going to address a high sacramental view of the Eucharist and then dress it down in favor of some sort of low church memorialism by concluding that a sacramental understanding is hyper-real and, therefore, obscures the meaning behind the symbol.
I was wrong. He took it a completely different direction by arguing that the disciples had a hyper-real vision of Messiah, and that Jesus challenged that view in John 6 by refusing to give a sign and by declaring himself to be the Bread of Life. It was a great sermon, but as I ran I thought about the discussion that could have happened. It would have been a lot nerdier, seemingly less relevant, and far more interesting.
Something is hyper-real, as far as I understand things, if it doesn’t truly exist in the form being depicted and yet tricks people into thinking it does exist in that way. Movies are one example of this. The airbrushed, bikini clad woman on the cover of a magazine is another. The Matrix is probably the best example that I can think of. A hyper-real object obscures and distorts the reality upon which it is based (what actually exists) and therefore creates unreal expectations in people. So, I am a wizard and I will have friends that are as good as Harry Potter’s friends. Whoever I marry one day needs to look just like the bikini babe on that magazine. Is it possible for Neo to fly when not hooked up to the Matrix? The realities behind these examples are distorted. The idea of Woman is distorted to mean bikini girl. The idea of School is distorted to mean magical school. J.R. Vassar pointed out this breeds a contempt for the mundane, for the ordinary. “I’m not going to settle for walking when I can fly!” “I’m going to have a wife that looks like bikini babe, not a normal woman.” “Ordinary boarding school! Are you kidding me? Buy me a wand already!” His point is that this enhances our consumerism and that, as a consequence, we have hyper-real visions of the Christian life. The assumption here is that meaning is structured.
Structuralism is a system of thought that was brought to the fore with Saussure’s investigation into linguistics. “Language, for Saussure, is a structured system of conventional signs…The atom of language is the sign, which is functionally split into two parts: a signifier (sound-image) and a signified (concept), brought inseparably together like the two sides of a sheet of paper.”1
The meaning produced by the sign, however, is arbitrary. For example, there is no logical reason why the sound made when the word leaf is said has anything to do with the green things that grow on trees. In this, then, it is convention that holds together meaning. It is not that leaf has no meaning, but that the meaning is arbitrary.
St. Augustine made a similar point when he argued that smoke was a natural symbol for fire. If you see smoke, you know there is a fire. In terms of semiotics (the study of symbols), hyper-realism means that the signifier obscures the signified. So, for instance, a symbol for woman, a picture on a magazine cover, distorts our assumptions about the nature of an actual woman by airbrushing her so that she is ten pounds lighter and is free of all blemishes.
So, what on earth does this have to do with Sacramental Theology?
The way most modern evangelicals talk about the sacraments (which, for our purposes here, will be confined to the Lord’s Supper and Baptism) is by borrowing the language of the Reformers and calling them “outward signs of inward graces”. This formulation was useful to the Reformers in their attempts to break the hold that Rome had on the people. If the sacraments are just outward signs, and what is truly important is the inward grace, then you don’t need some big ceremony surrounding the symbol. It has no intrinsic power. This meant that people could stop going to priests to get the sacraments, and therefore the grace, because the grace wasn’t imputed by the sacrament, just testified to by it. In fact, most modern evangelical churches won’t even call the sacraments “sacraments”. Instead, they use the term “ordinance.” The word “sacrament” implies that it carries the sacred with it, that it has some sort of intrinsic holiness. An ordinance is just a command. The name implies that we do these things because we have to, not because they have intrinsic meaning.
Our modern understanding has created a separation between the physical and spiritual. We prize the spiritual over the physical. You won’t find this demarcation between the spiritual and the physical in the Bible. Paul calls the Lord’s Supper true food and true drink. Peter talks about baptism for the remission of sins. We want so hard for physical things to be signs for what’s really important, spiritual things, but they are both inextricably tied together. Jesus is somehow mysteriously present in his Supper, and true forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit are somehow mysteriously present in baptism. For, as Sassure taught us about semiotics, the signifier and the signified are like two sides of the same sheet of paper. That is how symbols work. You cannot separate them. Getting close to smoke means you are getting close to fire. Calling the Bread a symbol of Christ’s body does not distance it from Christ’s body. Calling the baptismal washing a symbol of the washing away of sin does not distance it from the washing away of sin.
I suppose I see two dangers. The first danger is the one that the Reformers responded to. They responded to a hyper-real understanding of the Bread and Wine. In this view, the signifiers, the Bread and Wine, distorted the signified. The two became conflated. The Bread is interchangeable, in a literal since, with the Body. Same with the Wine and the Blood. We mistake the signifier for the signified. We begin to worship, to venerate, to solemnly eat the Bread and drink the Wine as if we had pieces of flesh and cups of blood from Calvary with us. This view is unhealthy. It creates unreal expectations. Every time we take Communion we think we are swallowing Jesus.
The other danger, though, and one that I think is just as bad, is having hypo-real view of the sacraments. In this view, the sacrament is prized only as an aid to assist in getting to the real thing, which is abstract. The Bread only matters insofar as it helps you realize that Jesus is essential to life or helps you picture his broken body which then helps you apprehend the abstract truth that he died for you. The Wine only matters insofar as it helps you complete a mental exercise in which you thank God for letting Jesus’ blood spill, which the Wine sort of looks like, so that you could live. In a hypo-real view, the sacraments are just memory aids. This is the view that so many of our modern evangelical churches take. At Beltway, Communion is off to the side to be taken when and if you feel “led” to take it. It doesn’t impute any sort of grace but, instead, assists you in reflecting on grace. This distorts communal identity and promotes individualism as well as a narcissistic soteriology. I privately eat the bread and drink the cup so that I can thank God for saving me, rather than corporately partaking in the sacrament so that we affirm, as a body, the salvation story we share in Christ.
I vote for a via media, a middle way. We affirm the sacraments as bearers of grace, though we don’t understand how it works. We recognize that they are signifiers, though we understand that they are inextricably connected to the signified. We take the sacraments seriously as conveyors of grace, but we do not obsess over them as the means of grace. The sacraments, then, remain mysterious. Incidentally, the few times I have felt like this via media has been taken has been when taking Communion with a small group of people in someone’s house. In such an intimate setting, the Bread as the symbol of the Body and the people as the Body are highlighted.
Do you agree? When have you felt most connected to the Body of Christ? How does your church or small group do Communion? Do you like it? Dislike it? Let me know in the comments below.
1“Ferdinand De Saussure.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. 957-59. Print.