Sunday, October 19, 2008

Mike Aquilina, Signs and Mysteries. Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols

This is Mike Aquilina's, author of several popular patristics books like The Way of the Fathers, The Fathers of the Church and The Mass of the Early Church. , most recent offering and it is an excellent one. He is also the author of The Way of the Fathers blog- the sine qua non of patristic blogs. In Signs and Mysteries. Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols, Aquilina combines his interest in the Fathers with his fascination- demonstrated on his blog- with early Christian material culture. The combination in this book produces a unique resource and one which I would heartily recommend anyone, Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, purchase for their own libraries.

The format of the book focuses on chapters dealing with the images themselves; twenty-five all told in addition to one background chapter. Each chapter works out the origin of each image, considers the Scriptural connection, highlights what the symbol means in a Christian context, discusses notable artifacts employing the symbol and cites patristic and modern writers who explain the symbol. Just as importantly, Aquilina's superb illustrator, Marie Ravotti, has provided illustrations of many of these notable artifacts so that the reader can see as well as read about the symbols as they were employed in the early Church. The combination of text and image gives us an excellent resource for unlocking the common stock of Christian symbols which is the inheritance of all Christians.

Aquilina's writing is, as usual, lucid and easy to read. This is a hallmark of Aquilina's books which combine an easy-to-read style with careful thought and testing of the evidence. Aquilina rarely goes past the evidence and is careful, in this book, to note when an image could be ambiguous (used by more than just Christians) so that the reader will not make the elementary error of mis-identifying the use of, say, the ankh in a non-Christian context. Or we hope. Experts have made such errors as well.

Aquilina's main aim in this book was to create a symbology- a kind of key to the 'language' of Christian symbols and how they connect to our faith. This is a crucial task in our post-Christian environment in North America, where knowledge of the Bible and Christian symbols is minimal even among many believers, so many Christians wouldn't know a Christian symbol or what it means if it came out and bit them. Yet, we find ourselves in the West in the very peculiar position of being surrounded by Christian symbolism which has been disconnected from its original context and is in danger of being reduced to a kind of post-modern chaos of images and art. If we Christians want to reclaim our tradition, we have to learn again the symbolic 'language' of our art and literature. We need to remember that our Christian faith hasn't emerged fully formed out of God's forehead, but rather is the result of centuries of reflection, written and non-written, on the truth of our faith. Signs and Mysteries is an excellent resource in unpacking the meaning of this reflection.

This concern with symbology also warms my heart because it connects with my own theological sensibilities. One of the major influence on my theological thinking was a book I read several years ago: George Lindbeck's, The Nature of Doctrine. In that book, Lindbeck emphasizes the importance of doctrine as a 'grammar of faith'. That is, he argues that doctrine helps us speak about our faith intelligibly and meaningfully because it provides for us the 'language' of how to speak about God. Aquilina's book helps us with that grammar and connects it to the visual realm as well as the written. This is what makes it such a useful resource.

I heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of the 'language' of our faith. The language, I grant, has a Roman Catholic lilt to it, but not in such a way as to make it unintelligible to the Eastern Orthodox or Protestant reader. In fact, I plan to purchase a copy for the church library at the Anglican church I attend. It is too valuable a resource not to spread around a bit.


1 comment:

Matthew said...

This book looks interesting! Sadly, U of T doesn't have it in the stacks yet. I know you're not supposed to spread this sort of personal info on the web, but which Anglican church will you be buying it for?