Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In Hoc Signo Winky

Constantine's vision of the cross was supposed to be an even bet and an intervention. Constantine was, supposedly, bribed by... his subconscious? God? the pagan gods? a cloud?... to convert to Christianity purely to achieve a military victory. If he marched to war under the banner of his own nation's method of executing criminals, he would win. He would triumph under the sign of capture, ignominy, defeat, and desecration. It's a radical thing, alright.

The oddity of Constantine's vision is deeper merely than the symbology, deeper than the curiosity of God offering a goody to a pagan. For those of you who do not know history, Constantine was fighting the other emperors of Rome for sole rule. Who would be Caesar? Well, the sign at Milivan Bridge said, "You will be Caesar under the sign of the cross." He converted to Christianity, and he won.

The additional oddity is that the Christian God would have to have behaved exactly like a Roman god to be the one behind the vision. In Jewish and Christian scriptures, this is not how God works. God does not go up to strangers and say, "Build me a temple, and I'll give you riches." Look at David in 1 Samuel 19 or thereabouts, you find that David asks God first whether he should do battle or not, just as Saul had. Later, you see prophets coming to tell David that he must do X or Y, by God's decree. In the Pentecost, and in the vision that comes to Peter concerning kosher food, the vision simply appears and gives revelation without any offers, without any enticements. It is a truth and a law and a command, not an either/or. There is no indication that they have to show or boast or wear something, that they have to signify, but more that they must do or believe.

The New Testament's signs seem to reveal spiritual states within the recipient.

On the other hand, one of my favorite pieces of Epic is the end of Odyssey, when Odysseus has to make amends to Poseidon by walking inland with an oar on his shoulders until someone says, "Hey, what's that thing?" At that point, he has to plant the oar, make a sacrifice, and create a temple to the wronged god. Now that is a pagan god. The logic is the logic of the agora: "You ruined my temple, and so I ruined your life. To get me to stop it, you need to give me a new temple where the people would never worship an ocean god: far, far inland!" Poseidon is bargaining for cult. It's quid pro quo.

For years and years, I've been bothered by the idea of signifying the invisible, of "testifying" in public without being asked. Let's be extremely clear, here, lest someone accuse me of even more heterodoxy than I already have. "Testifying" (I'm not fond of the term, as it has a pretty heavy gender bias in it, if we're frank and aware, and a woman's testimony would be untrustworthy) is something I have no problem with.

Look, I don't want to take any chance of maligning the Holy Spirit. Again: I have enough weight cast on thin ice of fire as it is. Constantine's vision may have come from the Holy Spirit as an act of Grace. That, unlike a vision of revelation, makes perfect sense. That the Spirit would use the man's own innate voice to get him to the point of making a decision, that it would get him to the brink, is possible, but it just doesn't seem like God to go around looking to add converts. Let's be manifest for once: Why does Jesus command his disciples to spread the word? Is it to swell the congregation? Is it to get more money? Since Jesus didn't have any money, rode a borrowed donkey, stayed in homes people loaned him, slept in public fields, and dressed in common homespun, it's not very likely that the Lord wanted a new Reverend Ike Cadillac. Jesus tells his disciples to "preach the good news of Kingdom of God," not to preach the good news of a new church with four new video screens and a dynamite youth leader and three services a day and a radio outreach and several books of fascinating sayings that are guaranteed to save your marriage.

Well, never mind that. I may be wrong about Constantine.

I feel a bit more secure, though, in my disquiet with Constantine's descendants. "By this sign, I will drive." The ichthus symbol, which was used by early Christians as a furtive form of identification during an era of persecution, has become an ubiquity on American roads. One website promises, of the symbols, that, when you see them, "You will smile (in bumper to bumper traffic), because Jesus loves you." That these symbols are affixed the the rear bumpers exclusively is telling, as the symbol is intended to inform the person symbolically and literally powerless and inferior that the vehicle ahead, superior, and advanced is driven by the forgiven. I have seen the symbol combined with other placards of controversy, such as, "Not perfect, just forgiven" and the evergreen "If it ain't King James it ain't Bible." However, the symbol has occurred most often solo. People who would never plaster their cars with bumperstickers will put the ichthus on, and always on the bumper.

I will leave aside the fact that it finds a home on the vehicles often decried by the pastors who organized What Would Jesus Drive?, because there is no class or race or sex that owns the symbol. It's everywhere. It's a visual assumption these days. In fact, it has become so automatic a device and herald that it has generated a wide variety of parody symbols, and those, too, have become so common as to have lost their meaning.

The folks at have the only answer I have seen for the purposefulness of the sticker. They suggest that, unlike every other bumper sticker in America, the ichthus is not there to tell the other drivers about the car owner, not there to identify, but rather to spread a message of healing to other Christians. I have to give them credit for their creativity, but I cannot quite believe that they are accurate. The ichthus sticker is an emblem of one's faith, a way of telling the poor schmo behind you, "I'm a Christian." From a way to identify and establish community in secret, it has gone to a method of boasting or taunting. It is a form of pride or antagonism. Is the agnostic or atheist behind you supposed to honk her horn, pull up, and ask to hear your conversion narrative? Is he supposed to see the sticker and be nicer to you, as a driver? Is he supposed to realize that there is an army of Christians, and his kind are outnumbered?

Further, what are you actually saying with the sticker? Are you saying that you are a Christian, or that you are devout? You tell me that you practice your faith in a way that I probably cannot share very easily. You tell me that you see faith as a matter of public action and political identity. I see my political identity as an outgrowth of my faith. Finally, is your soul something as fixed and clumsily two dimensional as a cartoon or cartouche? Does your soul flow from days of faith to doubt, piety to dullness, fire to chill? Is your faith alive, or is it a static accomplishment to be chalked up and then marked in chalk lines on the bumper?

Speaking of making the ineffable indelible, how different is the impulse behind the ichthus bumper sticker from the "Purity Ring?"

I went looking for an illustration for you. I found this: Generations of Virtue Purity Rings.

about that.

Generations of VIRTUE (see esp. #4 & #7). Yep... as Shamela would say, "He comes abed now, Mama. O Lud, my vartu! My vartu!" A generation of vartu would result.

Anyway, there are purity rings aplenty, and we need to maintain our Purity of Essence.

Now, of course, this "purity" and "virtue" are both references, not coded at all, to virginity. While the abstinence movement has a motto that is semantically and philosophically suspect ("True love waits"), as well as theologically null, they have learned exactly one lesson from previous attempts at genetic clamp down: they have chastity control for both male and female alike. Both boys and girls are encouraged to spend money on special rings that they can wear that will prove that they are virgins. Girls at school calling you a slut? Slip one of these on your finger, preferably from a fine jeweler, and you can show off your taste in jewelry, your class, and put those rumors to bed (but nothing else). Your son is hording stacks of Hustler, and his "history" tab on Internet Exploder shows Red Tube and other nasty sites? Weld this thing on the offending hand.

Let's assume, just for the sake of argument, that the children want these items. I have not been convinced of it, but let's make the assumption. If they do, their motives will come from the sort of true purity that the adult world has forgotten and cannot access.

However, whether the desire for the rings comes from the children or the adults, let's step back and think about what they are for just a second. They are visible emblems of hymeneal state! These are the most primitive, pre-industrial, bride-price, gauche, commodifying, reductions of the value of the person to a single experience that we could come up with. They turn a single event into the meaning of the girl. The boy can be "pure" again. He can wait some more. She, though, is testifying. She is advertising her virginity.

I find this vile. I find it a horrific thing to do to one's daughter, to see in someone else's daughter, to accept in social behavior. It is advertising.

"By this sign, you may conquer," it says. It reduces our young women to flaps of skin, to incidents, to accidents, to crimes, and then it slaps a sign on them, a seal.

I pray we return to carrying our signs in our hearts and living our faiths rather than advertising them.


Frank said...

The sign seen by Constantine was made up of the Greek letters chi and rho superimposed, not the cross.

The Geogre said...

Chi rho overlap was already, as I understand it, and I could be wrong, a grapheme for "Christos." However, from the legend, Constantine saw a sign saying, in Latin, "In hoc signo vinces," and Raphael's painting takes liberties.

I used that theme ("By this sign, you will conquer") for a series of puns, or I tried to, in my essay. I'm not happy with how it turned out. This is an essay that needs work.