On Applying Old Symbols (A Parable)

[I thought of this parable as I contemplated the tiny, but apparently sincere, minority of “heritage”-minded people who believe that the Confederate battle flag is not a symbol of racism.

In hermeneutics class there was a saying ‘context is king’. Perhaps it has a wider application. When you cut something out of the past and paste it into the present (a symbol, a procedure, a style, etc.) it may comfortably retain the cherished traditional meaning within your particular sub-culture. However, others outside your tribe will experience/interpret it in the context of their cultural values/ideals/style. The more culturally insulated a person is, the less sensitive he will be to this reality. If we are going to be a fragrant aroma amongst the perishing, we need to take heed.]

Once upon a time there was a small Christian school in Podunk, South Carolina. Actually, it wasn’t really small anymore. It was thriving. When it started 50+ years ago, it was just a handful of kids from the local Baptist church hiding from decaying morality and evolution in the science books. However, in the last 10 years or so, it developed a reputation for educational excellence, and it was pretty cheap, by private school standards. That, combined with the fact that the local county school district was one of the worst in the state, caused enrollment to swell.

To their credit, the 6 old Deacons Emeritus of First Baptist Church, who comprised the school’s governing board, saw this as a wonderful opportunity to minister to the community. They were sincerely committed to communicating, in word and in deed, the beauty of the Gospel to the whole student body and their parents—many of whom did not attend their church (or any other). At the same time, though, they were very concerned that having such a large number of students from outside their church could have an adverse effect on the “holy environment” that was at the core of the school’s very purpose. They resolved to protect their school’s environment from any unnecessary risk.

So, when a large group of parents and students requested that the school have sports teams, it didn’t take the board long to reject the idea. Sports seemed to bring out the worst in people—pride, aggression, outbursts of anger (and that’s just the parents in the stands!). Nope, they weren’t going to risk it. Over the next couple of years they saw many families withdraw from the school over the lack of sports. This didn’t really concern them until they realized that many kids were joining traveling teams that played on Sunday. They started to reconsider.

Nevertheless, they remained convinced that organized sports were a petri dish for all kinds of ungodliness to grow. They gave great thought to ways they could reinforce sport’s noble virtues (humility, hard work and strength) to counter the sports-inflamed passionate sins of pride, aggression and anger. If they were going to have sports, they needed a symbol of virtue to be their mascot. The mascot must embody the virtues they wanted to guard.

Hmmm…. mascots were typically animals. Usually they were carnivores with fangs showing. Lions, tigers and bears communicated an ungodly aggression and top-of-the-food-chain pride. It should probably be a herbivore. However, as they researched, they noted that herbivore mascots seemed to always have horns that figured prominently. Horns were a symbol of power in the Bible and usually associated with evil pride. So, they needed a hornless herbivore that symbolized Biblical virtues.

Eureka! A donkey. It is strong. It is known for hard work. It has a humble reputation. Best of all it is biblical! Abraham used one when he took Isaac to the altar. A donkey is the only animal that God ever used to speak for Him (Numbers 22). Mary rode it into Bethlehem at the beginning, and Jesus rode it into Jerusalem at the end. Perfect! The Board’s vote was unanimous that their mascot would be the—

Oh, did I mention that these people only used the King James Bible?

The Board planned a big event for last week of school in the spring. They would invite the media and local dignitaries to the big assembly where they would announce their new sports program and unveil their new mascot. When the big day came they just didn’t understand the mixed reaction they got when they announced the new school mascot.

First Baptist Christian Asses

Most laughed. Some gasped. A very small percentage of people clapped along with the deacons.

As the stunned parents discussed it that evening, they began to understand how this happened. The board members never watched TV, never watched movies or even listened to “secular devil music”. Their understanding of pop culture wasn’t really even “pop” 60 years ago when they think it was. They grew up in (and remained in) a culture and never looked beyond its borders (except to decry others’ moral and social inferiority and warn of the dire consequences that would necessarily flow from it). In their minds, they were the remains of what was once an almost universally-held social consensus. They hadn’t left the world, the world had left them and they didn’t see the need to understand much about where it went—their concern was to remain where they were. They would be the home that the prodigal world could return to when it came to its senses.

Over the days that followed, concerned parents and teachers tried to explain to the board why it wasn’t good to be referred to as “Asses”. Referring to someone as an “ass” was an insult and expression of contempt. Worse still, “ass” was a slang term for a body part and was often used in a sexually-oriented manner. Plus, it no longer had a biblical connotation (modern translations didn’t use that word). But, these warnings just strengthened the Board in its resolve. “Just because the Devil has co-opted our precious symbols does not mean that we should stop using them! We refer to God as ‘God’ even though idolators refer to their deities as ‘god’. We don’t stop teaching about the Noahic covenant sign just because homosexuals put rainbows on their bumper stickers. Modern Bible translations can float in the cultural winds all they want to, but we will stay true to our tried-and-true traditional words, symbols and message. WE DON’T CHANGE OUR MESSAGE TO COMMUNICATE TO THE WORLD—WE COMMUNICATE OUR MESSAGE TO CHANGE THE WORLD!!!”

The Board did not back down. In fact, they moved forward. They were sick to death of the fact that modern cultural style, driven by ignorant, ungodly people, was turning beauty into ugliness. They would not let this go unchallenged! So they promoted their holy Asses with passion. They instituted the “Ass of the Week” award that was awarded to a student from each grade who had demonstrated hard work and excellence (with humility) the previous week. They had T-shirts printed as a prize and put each student’s picture on a large bulletin board in the foyer under a huge “Asses of the Week” sign.

A picture of that bulletin board went viral.

Regardless of all its positive qualities, the world only knew that school for one thing. They couldn’t see past it. They never would. The Board never understood why.