The signs and symbols of Christianity

The previous chapter introduced Christianity by sketching the range of ways in which Jesus was first understood and interpreted. This chapter continues the introductory task by offering a brief overview of how the Christian ritual and symbolic universe developed on the basis of these foundations - in particular, how it developed around the orthodox vision of the unique God-man.

What is presented here is very much an 'ideal type' - a generalization arrived at by singling out features common to the most influential types of Christianity and ignoring their variations. Although the signs, symbols, stories, and rituals described are those most widely shared amongst the different branches of Christianity they are made manifest in different ways. Christianity in the East, for example, places less emphasis on sin than the Western churches, whilst Biblical churches often give relatively little space to sacraments and liturgy and formal ritual in general, and some forms of Mystical Christianity do away with these 'externals' of religion altogether. In this chapter such differences will be downplayed; they are the focus of the chapters that follow.

According to the New Testament, the 'good news' is that a unique God-man has come to earth, revealed himself to the world, and offered to save all those who dedicate their lives to him. This only counts as good news, however, if you also believe in some very bad news: that human beings need to be saved from something, and are incapable of saving themselves. The more you emphasize the unique and indispensable role of the God-man, the church that bears his name, and those who speak on his behalf, the more you need there to be a problem so serious that only they can put it right.

The New Testament already had a name for the problem - 'sin' - but it was the theologian and bishop Augustine of Hippo (354-430 ce)

who breathed life into the concept by placing it within the framework of a story of immense power: the story of the 'Fall'.

Augustine's account had its basis in the Old Testament, in the n narrative of Genesis 3 which recounts how the first human beings, g.

Adam and Eve, were brought into being by God in an earthly a paradise, the Garden of Eden. Though they live in the closest S

communion with God, He forbids them to eat from the tree at the 3

o centre of the garden: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. §■

But Eve, tempted by the serpent, eats and encourages Adam to n do likewise. As a result, Genesis tells us, God removes them from i the garden:

'Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and live for ever' - therefore the Lord God sent him forth ...

Life east of Eden is very different from life in paradise. Adam must toil and sweat to cultivate a soil that bears thorns and thistles; Eve is condemned to bring forth children in pain; and both are destined to return to the dust from whence they came.

It was - and is - possible to interpret this story in a variety of ways. Therein lies much of its power. One obvious reading is that the story speaks of the infancy of the human race, and that the eating of the fruit represents not only loss of innocence but entrance

Death Medieval Depiction

3. Eve, the Serpent and Death by Hans Baldung Grien (c.1520-5). In this late medieval depiction, Eve enters willingly into a pact with the serpent (the devil) and with death; not only is she tempted, she is also temptress.

into adulthood - with the burdens that brings. Augustine interpreted the story very differently. For him it was bad news through and through. Adam and Eve should have remained in the garden forever, living in unquestioning obedience to the God who knew what was best for them. Their action is utterly sinful; not an admirable grasping at knowledge but a damnable disobedience. What is worse, and here Augustine moves well beyond what the original narrative supplies, their action has corrupted their very nature, and this corruption has been inherited by every member of the human race. (Augustine believed not only that Adam and Eve were the real, biological parents of the human race, but that their sin was transmitted by way of sexual reproduction.)

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