Those of us who have learned to read between the lines, to understand that there or symbols of a greater truth which abound, that our sacraments, teachings and other tools of the Church serve us more than the momentary rites which they too often become, have waited patiently for such a book, and indeed, a certain modern recognition, something Crystal L. Downing brings.
Much as been written about semiotics, with the researcher apt to find many introductions to the discipline available to him or her, but none that I know of from the Christian perspective, or rather, how Christians specifically can make use of semiotics. This is not merely a “this is it” book, but a “this is why and how” book. We have forgotten, almost as a whole, the use of signs in the Gospels, specifically John and his intermittent Signs Gospel. Semiotics is not a discipline all to itself, but entertains connections to other fields as well, notably linguistics and mimetics. The field is not absent of pioneers and adventurers, many of them familiar to us already. John Locke identifies the discipline at the beginning of the 17th century. Ferdinand de Saussure codified the first bible, so to speak, for semiotics. Umberto Eco and Daniel Chandler, in the recent modern era, continued to push the discipline further and develop, as Eco more roundly did, semiotics for everyday use. And then there is Peirce. But, before them, and sometime after the Signs Gospel, Augustine unknowingly combined semiotics and Christian doctrine to produce his doctrine of the sacraments. Building on this rich history and interdisciplinary approach, Downing has given us, both modern semioticists and Christians, an evolved push.
There is no better book available to the Christian audience, nor likely to be anytime soon, to teach them that we have to evolve our communication and our understanding of why this is important than this singular volume. Through word plays that while some may find a bit too much Downing brings to light the rhythmic possibilities of using words to communicate, to actually communicate, concepts and signs. What words would you use to describe a book about the philosophy of words? Whatever I do use, they will simply not be enough. We are talking about a view that utilizes the best in linguistic studies, the philosophy of truth, signs, and even the Trinity. Everyone comes down to the way in which we interpret the reality around us.
How can Christians make use of the brightest minds in linguistics and the philosophy of semiotics? Downing takes us through the maze of how these verbal doctors have introduced us to a higher level, perhaps esoteric, way of thinking about that which goes into our mind, comes out of our mouth, and is perceived by others. She instigates a new way of thinking about sins, and uses the Trinity to do so, in that Downing has masterfully realigned the gifts that we give and take when dealing with others, calling upon the Holy Spirit as the interpreter. Before she gets there, however, she takes us through the history of thought in this area, and in what may be a surprise for some, finds truth even in those who “rightly pass for an atheist.” Further, why do we need to worry about representation, gifts, and exchanges when we are sharing the Gospel? Maybe this is not a book for those who have yet to understand that our words are mere symbols we inherit and in turn (re)create or those who believe that simply “preaching the Gospel” is enough. I suspect, however, that it is exactly for them. Yes, linguistics and semiotics may involve some tongue twisting along the way, as sometimes her attempt to allow us to read phonetically does in our head, but we have to remember that John uses the Word for Jesus. Evangelicals often call Scripture the “word of God.” Yet, we do not think about what words mean.
Because of that, we often forget that words have etymologies and in fact, as Downing reminds us, so do our theologies (words have futures too). Yet, we secure them, from this side, as if they are always unchanging and needed protection of the dastardly deeds of evildoers, while those on the other side (those who formulated the theologies) would ask us why we haven’t progressed them further. This is always the underlying point of the book, a point which like a volcano finally explodes and consumes the remaining chapters of the book. How do we, after acknowledging that words are pictures and sometimes, those pictures aren’t what we mean, transport the message of the Gospel? To the Muslims, the Trinity is polytheism. To the Christians, it is the best way, after long consideration, to explore the relationship between the Father and the Son and the Spirit. To some, it is a pointless exercise in futility. Downing takes this (among other Christian doctrines such as the Eucharist and atonement theories) doctrine and shows how to re-present Christ with the Father, recognizing that our words carry with them baggage that we may not know. Her writing is, I suspect, significantly part of the book. Make no mistake, that she is a master wordsmith, so to suggest that her images are too lengthy or tedious is to, I believe, miss some of the things she is trying to get at. Don’t miss the images she is trying to present. For her readers who do not know her in person, we are introduced to her through the written word. Perhaps this reviewer is making too much of it, but her becoming known through the book helps to take her end goal to a rather enlivening level.
Of the thousands of books I’ve read thus far, there are only a few that surpass the momentary need or give us more than a glint of greatness, and only a bare minimum of the few that move past this level are actually deserving of the pride of place given to them. This has to be one of those that deserve more than a passing glance or a generational glare. This is one of the rare books in modern theological publishing that will outlast its author by any considerable time. She gives a history of semiotics, from the earliest days to the current trends including semiotics in cultural and political theory as well as religious linguistics. Through it all, she constantly reminds you of what she has written already, and moves your forward gently enough. This is not just an introduction to semiotics, but a deeply insightful and theological book about wording the Word.