Monday, March 17, 2008

The Power and Confusion of Religious Symbols

As a pastor who is also a firefighter I understand the power of symbol. The same symbol can evoke both positive and negative reactions depending on the background or attitude of the person observing. But you can't entirely predict what that reaction will be. Wearing a clerical collar can get me cold stares or polite people holding doors for me. However, some objects with symbolic value do not necessarily bring out negative reactions. They simply identify, or so I thought. Like the Roman Catholic rosary, for example. At least until this latest trend picked up by the RNS showed differently.....

Police say rosaries are newest gang symbol
By Esmeralda Bermudez
ALBANY, Ore. -- Never did Jaime Salazar imagine that wearing a rosary-like crucifix to school would provoke a national stir. But when the 14-year-old and his 16-year-old friend, Marco Castro, were suspended recently for refusing to remove the religious beads because they were “gang related,” it thrust Oregon into the headlines and has triggered questions over the evolving role of rosaries in religion, fashion and street gangs. In the latest cultural take of a symbol that's gone from Catholic altars to Britney Spears' bosom, the rosary is blurring the lines of liberty and safety on campus. Some call the rosary-gang connection a stretch. But for educators and public safety officials charged with blocking fluid gang trends, rosaries in the past few years have become one more marker to track suspicious activity.

This brings up an interesting issue for society as a whole. If symbols are negatively used, or if they are adopted by violent and criminal factions, do they immediately become something to be legally banned? The cross, for example, has been used in countless places, including questionable tattoos, biker insignia, not to mention a certain socialist government from the 30's and 40's. Madonna has worn it in sexually provocative scenes, and it has been immersed in urine and called art. Yet the cross still remains a positive and universal symbol for the faith it normally represents.

Banning the rosary in schools because some gangs may use it is simply an unrealistic stretch, at best. Symbols are impossible to control, and one can not begin to predict how they will be used or interpreted. I remember some years back in my last parish where the public school asked that when we held their classes or events at our parochial school we should provide "symbol free environments." How do you interpret such a directive? In the end the personnel from the public school that came to our school did not have an issue with our "symbols" and we never covered them up or removed them. After all, they lived in a community that was full of it, and like most citizens they were free to ignore it, as many do every day they pass a church with a cross on the steeple.

So what are these administrators supposed to do with the rosary if it is true that some gangs have begun to wear them? Nothing. I think the issue is just another example of a society gone to extremes of paranoia.
BTW, the discipline and use of the Rosary has long intrigued me, but I have never figured out how one might adapt it for Lutheran usage. It would seem that it could have potential for the devotional life of Lutherans, but can a Catholic rosary be effectively "reinterpreted" to fit a different theology, or is it simply not doable? One purpose of the Rosary, as I understand it, is to provide focus to prayer. There is a more recent tradition of Anglican Prayer Beads (example to the right), which are based upon the Rosary concept, but assign different prayers, and leave the precise prayers to the discretion of the person. Darel E. Paul has actually worked out an interesting adaptation of the Rosary called the Lutheran Rosary. It's a pdf document that includes a helpful diagram of the traditional Rosary with an evangelical interpretation.


Christine said...

Hello Pastor,

Blessed Holy Week!

Yes, Lutherans could certainly develop their own unique way of praying the Rosary.

There are now several versions of what is called "The Scriptural Rosary" in the Catholic tradition.

Here is a small excerpt from the Luminous Mysteries:


Our Father

"After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves."
(Mk 9:2)

Hail Mary

"And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them." (Mk 9:2-3)

Hail Mary

"Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus." (Mk 9:4)

Hail Mary

"Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, "Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." (Mk 9:5)

Hail Mary

"While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud." (Lk 9:34)

Hail Mary

"then from the cloud came a voice that said, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.' " (Mt 17:5)

Hail Mary

"When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid." (Mt 17:6)

Hail Mary

"But Jesus came and touched them, saying, 'Rise, and do not be afraid.' " (Mt 17:7)

Hail Mary

"And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone." (Mt 17:8)

Hail Mary

"As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, 'Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.' " (Mt 17:9)

Hail Mary

Glory Be to the Father~

Lutherans could simply pray the Angelic Salutation as "Hail Mary (or hail highly favored one), full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus."

Other prayers could be substituted for the Assumption and Crowning of Mary and the Jesus Prayer could certainly be incorporated, as suggested by Darel Paul. The Apostles Creed, The Lord's Prayer and the Glory Be are, happily, prayers Catholics and Lutherans share.

Coming from a Lutheran/Catholic background I find that the Rosary helps one to "pray with the body" as well as the mind.

Rev. Don Engebretson said...

Thank you for the "excerpt from the Luminous Mysteries." While I have thought about a Lutheran approach to the Rosary for a while now, the concept in practice is quite new for me. Darel Paul's article on the Lutheran Rosary is quite helpful in addressing the usual concerns and objections. For now I am inclined to use the Jesus Prayer as Paul suggests.

A blessed Holy Week to you as well!