Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication
Reviewed by Christine A. Colón, English, Wheaton College
Recently, I read a post by a Christian blogger who, in response to harsh criticism, was trying to defend his use of language regarding women’s roles in marriage. He argued that he never meant to victimize women with his words and then tried to defend himself by providing fuller context for his comments and by demonstrating how they were implied by images in Song of Solomon. In the midst of his defense, he expressed frustration with his angry readers, wondering why they could not understand the terms as he meant them. As I read the blog, I was struck by how perfectly this struggle being acted out over the web reflected the reality that Crystal Downing describes in Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication: the reality that if we do not understand how the signs of language change over time, we risk alienating our audience. In her book Downing not only provides a clear and astute diagnosis of this problem, but she also guides her readers to a list of practical solutions to help them negotiate the complexities of holding to God’s truth while expressing that truth in signs that will resonate with a contemporary audience.
As her title reveals, Downing essentially provides her readers with an introduction to the semiotics of communication. She places what could potentially be a difficult topic within a very practical context: “How to effectively ascertain and communicate the essentials of Christian faith in our pluralistic culture” (15). Within this context, she then takes her read-ers on a journey in which they will begin to understand not only the basics of semiotics but also why understanding these basics is so essential for Christians today. To help her readers on this journey, Downing first introduces them to the concept of (re)signing: a word that she coins, which contains within it both the idea of being resigned to the essential truths of Christianity [using an early definition of “resigned,” which was “to yield up with confidence to another for care or guidance” (22)] and the idea of being willing to re-sign those truths for new audiences. She then illustrates this concept by introducing the ruling metaphor of the book: a coin on its edge. For Downing, this image exemplifies the balance for which Christians should strive. Rather than idealizing past traditions on one side of the coin or putting all of their hope in change for the future on the other side of the coin, Christians who balance on the edge are able to place these concepts in conversation with each other so that they can hold to past truths even as they convey them in different ways for present and future audiences. Downing then illustrates how this type of life might be lived by providing several examples including the example of Christ. Downing asserts that by asking His followers to see the law differently as He shows them the value of “working” on the Sabbath and to see the role of the Messiah differently as He embodies sacrifice rather than political power, Christ repeatedly (re)signed truth.
After providing this practical context for her readers, Downing takes them through a detailed introduction to semiotics beginning with its ancient foundations in the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero and continuing with the contributions of early Christians such as Tertullian, Augustine, Boethius, Abelard, and Aquinas. She then turns to structuralism and spends significant time discussing Ferdinand de Saussure and two key concepts: the idea that a sign (parole) is ultimately regulated by a system (langue) that controls what signs may be produced and the idea that each sign consists of “a signified concept in the mind and the signifier that generates the concept” (105). She discusses these concepts not only to help her readers understand how semiotics developed but also to set the stage for her later use of theories by Jacques Derrida, Charles Sanders Peirce, and Mikhail Bakhtin to critique Saussure’s ideas. Before getting to her critique, however, she illustrates the complexities within structuralism as she discusses developments contributed by theorists such as Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, and Julia Kristeva. Eventually, she arrives at radical structuralism, which posits that individuals are ultimately unable to escape from language’s control: an idea that was challenged by Marxist theorists such as Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, and Raymond Williams as they explored how to fight against hegemony. With this discussion, Downing opens up the question of where Christianity might fit within these ideas. How might Christians, for example, participate in shaping culture rather than simply being shaped by it?
For Downing, the answer lies in determining “which Christian signs must be changed – and when – in order to fit new cultural contexts” (164), and she turns first to Derrida in order to create a strategy. Through deconstruction, Derrida reveals that the neat binary structures established by Saussure are problematic, for they always contain their own paradoxes within them that tend to be ignored. Using Derrida’s concept of “hospitality” in which true hospitality can only occur when we invite in someone or something completely “other,” Downing returns to the metaphor of the coin, asking her readers to consider opening themselves up more freely to ideas on the “other” side of the coin (the side that makes them uncomfortable). While Downing acknowledges that this process may be frightening and a bit dangerous as Christians engage with ideas counter to the truths of Christianity, she recognizes that it is essential if Christians are to (re)sign the truth of Scripture for today.
From this background, Downing then moves the theories of Peirce, who also challenges Saussure’s dyadic structure for understanding signs by positing a triadic structure of object, representamen, and interpretant: “you see any object as a sign (representamen) that makes sense in your mind (interpretant)” (200). Peirce’s triadic structure emphasizes the “other” since the interpretant is always “other” to the object. In addition, Peirce’s triadic structure enables a continuing creation of signs since each interpretant is also a sign or representa-men that then generates new interpretants. After explaining Peirce’s ideas in contrast to Saussure’s theories, Downing then demonstrates their significance for Christians first by illustrating how Peirce’s theories can explain why Christians have interpreted the sign of the Eucharist in different ways throughout history, second by demonstrating how Peirce’s ideas about how we perceive the world may help us to understand the truth of the Trinity, and third by using his triadic structure to critique the idea of salvation as an “economy of exchange.” Ultimately, Downing concludes that while Saussure’s theories perpetuate extremes of complete tolerance or intolerance as we negotiate the complexities of changing society, Peirce’s ideas allow Christians to live “on the edge” of evaluating and adjusting.
Finally, Downing brings Mikhail Bakhtin into the discussion, focusing on his concept of the “incarnational aspects of language” (284; italics in original) as a means of demonstrating how a truth such as the atonement may be explained differently depending upon the varying contexts in which it is explored. For Bakhtin as well as for Downing, the issue is not whether to choose one explanation or to repudiate them all but rather to place them in dialogue with each other and with the contexts in which they were created in order to decide “which ones best communicate to people today the truth of salvation through Christ” (299; italics in original). With this final component in place, Downing presents her ten principles for living on the edge as Christians. Effectively pulling together the threads from the previous chapters, Downing sets out a clear list that helps Christians determine how to hold to essential Christian truth while (re)signing it for a contemporary audience.
As this summary reveals, Downing covers a good amount of complex material in her book, which could be intimidating for readers with no background in semiotics. The fact that it is not intimidating is due almost entirely to her masterful writing style. Downing provides a true introduction to semiotics, taking her readers carefully through these complex ideas without assuming that they know more than they do and without talking down to them. She carefully introduces terms and concepts and provides clear examples and illustrations to help her readers envision the complexities inherent in the topics she covers. She also uses repeated images such as the coin on the edge to remind her readers of the overall thread of the argument in the midst of this detailed introduction. Convincing Christian readers that understanding semiotics is essential for conveying Christian truth is not an easy task, but Downing is persuasive. By recognizing and addressing the challenges of the topic, Downing cultivates good will in her readers so that they are willing to take the journey with her. This good will is necessary, for readers must be willing to read the book carefully, in order, and in its entirety. Each chapter builds upon previous ideas, and the practical suggestions given in the conclusion are integrally connected to the complexities of semiotics that Downing explores earlier.
To help her readers through this potentially difficult journey, Downing utilizes strong organization, effective examples, and engaging wordplay. Downing leads her readers carefully through the various topics, providing clear and direct transitions so that her readers always know why she is discussing a particular topic or theorist and how the ideas apply to the overall argument. She refuses to let her readers get so bogged down in the complexities of semiotics that they forget to consider how these ideas contribute to the overall question of how Christians can maintain the truths of Christianity while expressing them in a new way for a contemporary audience. She repeatedly reminds them where they have been and where they are going so that the development of her argument remains clear in their minds. She also helps them engage with the various topics by providing vivid examples that are surprisingly apt. In fact, part of the enjoyment of reading the book is seeing how Downing relates the various examples back to the topics. As Downing recognizes, the examples are oversimplifications, but they are useful to help readers visualize complex concepts. They also provide an entertaining glimpse into Downing’s personality as she reflects on experiences from her past. Downing’s engaging personality is also seen in the wordplay that occurs throughout the book. The various puns that she creates not only remind readers of the reality of words as signs but also let readers enjoy her sense of humor. While she might overdo the puns a bit, particularly toward the end, overall, they add to the engaging style of the book.
While the style of the book definitely helps readers negotiate the complexities of the topic, Downing’s depth of scholarship and careful argumentation are her greatest strengths. She provides not only a wide view of the history of semiotics moving from Plato to Bakhtin but also an intensive exploration of important twentieth-century theorists. Her ability to synthesize their ideas and present them clearly and concisely to readers who are not experts in the topic is masterful. She also demonstrates an excellent understanding of theology, moving easily from exploring historical developments of various doctrines to detailing more current controversies. Her use of semiotics to explore various Christian doctrines is particularly effective, allowing readers to see clearly how they might use the concepts of semiotics for themselves as they not only explore the complexities of how Christian truth has been revealed throughout the ages but also question how to present it to today’s audi-ence. Downing’s ability to pull together the various threads of her argument not only into a coherent whole but also into a persuasive call to action is impressive. While some of the conclusions might be a little too neat, causing some readers to wonder if she is oversimplifying too much, Downing’s book is meant to be an introduction, and it provides an excellent foundation for more in-depth analysis of the implications of her ideas.
Overall, Changing Signs of Truth is not only an excellent introduction to semiotics but also a powerful argument for why Christians must engage with semiotics as they try to connect with a contemporary audience. Designed to appeal to a wide audience, Changing Signs of Truth would be an excellent text for a graduate or even an undergraduate course. With this book, Downing not only explains the complexities of semiotics and introduces her readers to important theorists, but she also relates semiotics clearly to Christian theology as well as to the practical question of how Christians may continue to promote the truths of Christianity while (re)signing these truths effectively for new audiences. With an engaging style, Downing manages to provide not only a strong foundation for semiotics but also a fascinating look at the realities of Christian rhetoric in today’s world.