Narrative, Symbol, and Ritual

Towards a reintegration of word and image

One of the reasons why the evangelical community has struggled with the arts is because it has devalued the role and significance of the visual. Colin Harbinson explores the nature of symbol, ritual and narrative, and calls for the reintegration of word and image.

By Colin Harbinson

Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519 The Last Supper 1495-1498

Inextricably Bound Together

Referring to the destruction of visual images during the Reformation, historian Will Durant noted that “truth” had banished beauty as an infidel. Commenting on the modern era, Brian McLaren observes, “Narrative, poetry, and the arts in general … took a back seat, or else they were asked to leave the car entirely to hitchhike on their own. Or they were brought along for their entertainment value but generally not as serious ‘front seat’ colleagues in the search for truth.” [1] Faced with the renewed importance of narrative, symbol, and ritual in our postmodern culture, the Protestant church—and the evangelical community in particular—must re-examine the role of the visual, and by extension, the nature and significance of the arts.

Respected Bible scholar and author Warren Wiersbe states that today’s sermon has become “a logical outline, a lecture buttressed with theology, that majors on explanation and application but ignores visualization.” He goes on to say that the “[i]magination is the image-making faculty in your mind, the picture gallery in which you are constantly painting, sculpting, designing, and sometimes erasing.” Our visual capacity is a necessary and inescapable part of our God-created humanity. Unless we comprehend the importance of reintegrating word and image, we will remain malnourished in spirit, the misunderstanding and mistrust of the arts will continue, and the process of symbol renewal—so essential for cultural transformation—will be relegated to irrelevance.

Narrative, symbol, and ritual are inextricably bound together—complementing, not competing with each other. Word and image find their ultimate expression and integration in Christ. While the application of this principle to the arts per se is not the explicit focus of this article, it is implicit throughout. For in order to have the substantive dialogue needed to move the church towards the recovery of a spiritually authentic and culturally vibrant imagination, there must first be a foundation of understanding to build on. Hence our current focus begins with a consideration of the role of narrative—of story.

A Dwelling Place

In ancient times, the ability of storytellers to memorize and recite stories, epics, poetry, and ballads made them a popular source of entertainment. They were also indispensable as the repository of the collective memory of a people. Sometimes the story would be “acted out.” When this was done with audience participation, it could lead to the development of ritual practices within the community. With the development of writing, the focus passed from the storytellers to the scribes, who would painstakingly gather and record the stories. Although no longer dependent on the memory skill of a narrator, storytelling continued to flourish alongside the written word.

All people have stories. Meta-narratives, the comprehensive stories that create archetypes or models for living, give framework and context to life. They create a “storyline,” a “sequencing” of events that gives a sense of meaning and coherence—a vision of reality. The Christian meta-narrative articulates not only a beginning and an end, but also a human mandate and a divine purpose. All of human history is moving toward the time when God’s original intention for His creation will be restored in Christ.

The visionary role of narrative is of particular importance to our discussion, for it has the ability to “articulate” a vision in a way that objective facts never could. A narrative empowers a vision for life by becoming a place where we can live. Hebrew literature has been described as a portable homeland for the Jewish people. Fulford, who refers to a meta-narrative as a “master narrative,” captures this sense when he says, “A master narrative is a dwelling place. We are intended to live in it” (emphasis mine). [2] When a story moves us, it draws us into itself and motivates us. It is a dwelling place. The more we live in it, the more it lives in us and directs all that we think and do.

Symbols Speak

The premise of the masterfully written Dictionary of Biblical Imagery is that the biblical meta-narrative “images the truth as well as stating it in abstract propositions.” [3]

One of the ways it does this is through symbols that bind us to the meaning of our story and allow it to break into the rhythm of our lives. This is where we now turn our attention, to examine how transcendent stories become immanent—how they are “fleshed out” within the context of our daily lives.

Symbols embody meaning. They point to something beyond themselves. They signify. Some symbols act as shorthand, reminding us of what we already know. Other symbols are used to signify something beyond our actual surroundings. It is this unique endowment, this distinctly human ability of “abstracting from the immediate situation, forming judgments and concepts, generalizing, imagining, and fantasizing,” [4] that enables symbolic communication. A symbol, then, has the ability to bring together very different forms of experience. It connects the knowable to what we do not yet fully know. It is a mixture of the unique and universal human capacity for symbolic communication, together with the ability of symbols to connect the natural with the supernatural, that gives weight to Zahniser’s contention that all cultures use symbols and ceremonies to bring life into harmony with faith. [5] When this happens, people are bonded in a significant way to their story.

To understand this link between narrative, symbol, and ritual it is important for us to have a closer look at how symbols “speak.” Symbols are powerful, because they are able to communicate “through all our senses and on many levels, to our thinking and our feeling, our memory and our imagination.” [6] Clare Gibson asserts that a symbol has many advantages over the written or spoken word: it transcends the barriers of language; its message can be instantly registered and absorbed. [7]

A helpful exploration of the way in which symbols “speak”—how they transmit their meaning—is Paul Ricoeur’s The Symbolism of Evil. He sees every authentic symbol as initially having three dimensions. It is cosmic (a thing in the world), oneiric (having to do with the psyche or dreams), and poetic (spoken of in words and songs). In other words, for Ricoeur, symbols are physical realities that impact our psyche, and are that “around which words and songs and names gather powerful meanings.” [8] These symbols resonate when the poets write and the balladeers sing. There is an association, a mood that is both created and recalled, that activates remembrance and unites emotional, psychological, physical, and cognitive levels of meaning.

Renewed Meaning

From earliest times, the sun and moon have been perceived by human beings as mysterious and awesome manifestations of the sacred. These powerful cosmic symbols evoked images and beliefs that have resulted in worship and sacrifice. However, because the meanings of symbols are assigned, they can also be renewed when broken and reshaped in Christ. This re-assignation process has profound implications for the transformation of culture, and the contextualization of the gospel within each unique cultural framework. Referencing Ricoeur’s work, Gordon Lathrop gives an example of how the pagan symbolism assigned to the sun and moon can be transformed by what he calls “biblical poetics.” When these primordial symbols are “surprised by God,” they can speak and mean in powerful, new, and revelational ways.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, at least, the poets speak on: the great lights, they say, and the days and the weeks they rule are … made by God … the sun of righteousness. But God is not the sun. And, for Christians, Sunday is the order giving first day now, chiefly because it is the day of assembly around the risen Christ, not the risen sun…. the new poetics say: “God made sun and moon!” [9]

The symbolism of these heavenly bodies has been transformed by the introduction of biblical poetics that “speaks” new content and new meaning. God and sun are not one and the same. God is declared the creator of the universe. This established, the poetics are allowed to speak on, as a symbolic reconnection is made, within a new framework of meaning. When “biblical poetics” are brought to bear upon an existing symbol, its physical properties and the sensations it evokes remain the same. Transformation is found in the new meaning that it acquires.

Conceptual Thought

We return here to our understanding of symbols as vehicles that unify vastly different realities. Religious language is fundamentally symbolic, because it points to the transcendent. Symbols connect people with, and bond them to, their story—their ultimate perception of reality. However, it would be a mistake to think that it ends here. Symbolism must be brought to a place of greater understanding that comes from conceptual thought. “Sacred concepts are inextricably linked with the symbols that express them.” [10]

When Ricoeur’s first three attributes of a symbol are satisfied, he allows a fourth dimension—the reflective. He states that, “a symbol is a complex of meanings that may give rise to thought, that might feed concept and doctrine.” [11] By linking symbol with thought and concept, Ricoeur has opened a significant door of understanding. Livingston concurs that “most ordinary religious language … is richly metaphoric and poetic in character. Yet, in literate societies, it does not remain at that level. The symbols … and stories require interpretation, elaboration, and commentary.” [12] Symbolism on its own can move and inspire, yet it can lack needed clarity. On the other hand, conceptual thought without a powerful symbol system will lead to arid ideology.

Narrative Re-enactment

Symbols “speak” in many ways and on various levels. They signify, mediate, and evoke individual and collective meaning. Rituals, on the other hand, allow us to experience our story through re-enactment. According to Larry Shinn, “rituals are symbols acted out.” [13] This performative aspect is an essential component of ritual. Something “happens,” something is “experienced.” Re-enactment is evident, for example, in communion. It is not insignificant that it is often referred to as the Lord’s Supper, for Christ himself is the paradigmatic model. Believers partake of the symbols—bread and wine—in a ritual reenactment of the biblical event known as the Last Supper, in response to Christ’s command to do this in “remembrance of me.” As we do this, we are “reminded” of our story, and connected and bonded to it in a special way.

Focus on the symbols within a framework of story recitation, moments of meditation, response, and songs of corporate worship allow the past, present, and future to come together in a powerful experience. Ritual reenactment enables the believer to experience, in some measure, the original paradigmatic event or meaning. This connection between knowledge about the story and experience of the story is found in the symbolic ritual of Shabbat. The Jewish people experience their story through ritual reenactment during their festive celebrations. Commenting on these festivals, Rabbi Eckstein describes Passover as a time when ”we retell the story and symbolically relive the events.” [14]

Rooted in Narrative

To understand Jewish festivals is to be faced continually with the critical link between story, symbol and ritual. Ritual practice is always accompanied by the reading of the paradigmatic event from the Torah. Eckstein states that “it is the Torah that guides the Jew’s path, shapes his character, and links him with ultimacy. The Torah is the lens through which the Jew perceives life and reality.” [15] It is this high view of Scripture that continually informs a symbolic and ritual practice that is firmly rooted in narrative.

When a paradigmatic story is not clearly connected to the symbol or ritual, the story loses its power. Meaning is replaced by meaningless ritual and empty tradition. When the form is present, but the meaning is absent, the form, not the meaning, becomes sacred and inviolable. When our symbols and rituals are self-referential instead of pointing to our story, they have become idolatrous.

Symbols and rituals must be continually contextualized within the story, or else their meaning will be weakened, or worse, forgotten. Zahniser puts it succinctly: referring to Christian discipleship, he says that symbol and ceremonies without teaching soon lose their reference to God; teaching without symbols and ceremonies soon lacks relevance to life in the world. [16] Symbols speak and rituals reenact in dynamic ways, because their appeal is to the totality of a person. A powerful symbol system, together with authentic ritual reenactment, will bind us to the meaning of our story and to our faith community. Without this, we will surely bond to other narratives—other meanings.

Reintegrating Word and Image

It must be stated clearly that there is no suggestion here that symbols and rituals in any way replace the regenerative and ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life. No amount of symbolic or ritualistic behavior can bring people into a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The significance here is the direct relationship between the story of a given people and the symbol and ritual system that bind them to it—and the powerful potential that symbols and rituals hold as tools for Christian discipleship. This brings us back to Ricoeur’s schema and Lathrop’s meaningful application that offers insight into how symbols “speak” and the way in which their meaning can be transformed.

Here Lathrop uses evocative and reflective language, even as he challenges us to recover what has so often been lost in Christian experience and worship:

The primary symbols of the assembly need to be recovered as full signs that readily evoke the cosmic, oneiric, and the poetic … But we are not about a new paganism; there is no great hope in our symbols … but rather in these greatly evoked and greatly broken in the poetics and grace of God. The recovery of symbols needs to be accompanied with a profound recovery of biblical catechesis and preaching, of mystagogy into the surprise of Jesus Christ. [17]

Neither word nor symbol is complete without the other. The new word in Christ—the biblical poetics—must be reflected in the renewal of symbol, ritual, and ultimate meaning. Lathrop points us again to communion and the symbol of bread as an appropriate metaphor of the reality and process of meaning-renewal. “The old cosmic, oneiric, and poetic references have been received and broken and reshaped. There is no salvation, finally, in our dreams or in our ancient symbols … but in surprising grace, God saves all that we are—our hopes and our fears and even our dreams and symbols and stories.” [18]

The Word is our ultimate reference point. As Christians, we too hold a high view of Scripture that should inform a symbolic and ritual practice that is firmly rooted in our narrative—our story. In Christ the invisible was made visible when “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory …” With the incarnation as our model, we must work towards the reintegration of word and image. To do so will bond us more significantly to our story, enrich our spirit, enhance our corporate worship, more effectively engage our postmodern world—and pave the way to welcome back the arts as “front seat” colleagues.

Dr. Colin Harbinson is the StoneWorks International Director. 


[1] Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian (San Francisco 2001), p. 17. [2] Robert Fulford, The Triumph of Narrative (New York 2001), p. 32. [3] Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, Ill., 1998), p. XII. [4] James C. Livingston, Anatomy of the Sacred (London 2000), p. 75. [5] A. H. Mathias Zahniser, Symbol and Ceremony (Monrovia, CA, 1997), p. 3. [6] Robert W. Hovda, “Symbol: The Language of Art and Liturgy,” Environment and Art Letter 2, 4 (June 1989), pp. 2-3, reprinted in Robert E. Webber, ed., Music and the Arts in Christian Worship, Vol. 4, Book 2 (Nashville, TN, 1994), p. 505. [7] Clare Gibson, Sacred Symbols (Rowayton, CT, 1998), pp. 9-10. [8] Gordon Lathrop, “How Symbols Speak,” Liturgy 7, 1 (Summer 1988), pp. 9-13, reprinted in Webber, p. 508. [9] Ibid., p. 509. [10] Gibson, p. 7. [11] Lathrop, reprinted in Webber, p. 509. [12] Livingston, p. 77. [13] Zahniser, p. 75. [14] Rabbi Eckstein, What Christians Should Know About Jews and Judaism (Waco 1984), p. 96. 15 Ibid., p. 25. [16] Zahniser, p. 68. [17] Lathrop, reprinted in Webber, p. 512. [18] Ibid., p. 511.

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