Monday, May 16, 2005

The Bushfish, Part 1: What the Fish Means for a Christian

[Today, I begin a short series on the so-called Bushfish. I'm sure that this desecration of Christian symbolism has nothing to do with President Bush or his operatives. But the misuse of a Christian symbol to make a political statement is highly offensive and fraught with horrible implications. Blogger Rob Asghar first brought this to my attention.]

It's not uncommon for symbols of faith to be trivialized or worn out from misuse and overuse.

The cross is one such trivialized symbol. Worn by people who have nothing to do with Jesus Christ, employed by artists who like the cruciform but not the crucifixion, and portrayed in sentimental kitsch that's only marginally Christian, the cross is often rendered in trite ways.

This is far from how the Bible portrays the cross: A place of execution where Jesus of Nazareth, God-enfleshed, took our punishment for sin in order to open up eternity for all who place their faith in Him.

While people are certainly free to use it in any way they wish, for Christians, the cross is a symbol of God's goodness and fierce love for humanity, as well as a sign pointing to the new life and freedom from sin all can have when they surrender to Christ.

But we live in a world that tries to put a price tag on everything. As long as there are people who want to make a buck unscrupulously, meaningful symbols will be torn out of context, drained of the meanings with which they were first rendered by committed people, and exploited for commercial advantage.

A new example of this has come to my attention, which is particularly offensive.

The oldest symbol of Christian faith, the archeologists and historians tell us, is the fish. The ancient meeting places of Jesus-Followers, pursuing their faith underground because of persecution, was the fish. The symbol, carved in stone or wood or dirt, told ancient believers that here, they could worship and fellowship in safety together.

The background, of course, is Jesus' statement to some of His earliest followers, who were professional fishermen. When He first called them, Jesus said, "Follow Me, and I will make you fish for people." (Matthew 4:19)

To fully appreciate these words, you have to understand first of all, that the fishing done by these fisher folk was a gentle proposition. No hooks or rods and reels. They used nets, with which they scooped the fish out of the waters in which they trolled.

You have to understand something else as well. For the ancient Judeans, the sea was a place of dark and foreboding mystery. It was the place where they thought the most horrifying of creatures lived, the leviathan.

Part of what had made the Old Testament story of Jonah so amazing to these people was that God had delivered the life of a man who not only had been thrown into a stormy sea in which he would have been expected to die, but used a great fish as the instrument of his rescue!

To fish for people is to gently embrace people who would otherwise die, out of the evil into which we're all born in this world.

A Christian who uses the fish to symbolize his or her faith is then, expressing gratitude that God has saved us from sin and death and caught us in His nets of love, goodness, forgiveness, and grace. The fish tells the world that through Christ and our faith in Him, God has welcomed us into His Kingdom and that He can do that for anyone.

Today, Christians put the fish on their cars, doors to their homes, and on their computers as screen savers. Often, Jesus' Name is printed in the middle. Frequently though, a transliteration of the word appears, Ichthus. Ichthus is a Greek word that means fish. (We get the English word, ichthyology, the study of sea life, from this word.) It's a way for the Christian believer to acknowledge that, "'I once was lost, but now am found' and I owe it all to Christ."

[Next post in this series: A consideration of the Bushfish itself.]

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