My first year in seminary, I was preparing for my Christian theology final, and I discovered a strange possibility within Christian thinking. Almost any Christian doctrine, insight, or practice possessed a transparency or a resonance with many other doctrines, insights, or practices. When I listened for the resonance, I could “redescribe” any single Christian doctrine in terms of another doctrine, insight, or practice. For example, I discovered that resonance and redescription was possible between the doctrine of the “Four Notes of the Church” and the Christian practice of baptism. In the last paragraph of the Nicene Creed, the First Council of Constantinople described the Christian body in Four Notes. As Christians we confess that the church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” When the council penned this phrase, they likely had the Macedonian heresy in mind, a heresy that denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. In thinking through the Spirit’s divinity, the council decreed that it is the Spirit who makes the church whole, sanctified, universal, and grounded in the teaching of the apostles.
In hearing the resonances between the doctrine and practice, I could then redescribe baptism according to this line from the creed. In baptism, the church is “one.” Which is to say, that while Christians differ in the manner and timing in which they practice the rite, baptism is part of what unifies and makes whole the Christian body. In and through baptism, Christians become members of the visible and invisible church—a church that is singularly and simultaneously past, present, and future. When I was baptized into the church, I became part of the same body that, for example, the Ethiopian eunuch entered (Acts 8:38). Though thousands of years, thousands of miles, race, culture, his death, and a whole host of other things separate me from this early Christian, we are both still one, still unified, still whole in Christ. Baptism marks that reality.
Second, baptism is also an act that marks the holiness of the Christian. It is not necessarily that the water saves the sinner, but the act instantiates the reality that the Christian is brought into the resurrection of Jesus, from the death of sin into a life of holiness, a life of sanctification. Baptism is, third, a universal or ecumenical practice among Christians. In fact, the Catholic Church places such emphasis on baptism’s universality that it recognizes all forms of Christian baptism as legitimate and binding. At least from the Catholic perspective, baptism is part of what makes us a “catholic” church. Finally, baptism is an apostolic practice. Jesus gave the practice to the apostles, and the apostles handed it down to the early church. Ever since that moment, Christians have engaged in that same handing down of the practice from one generation to the next.
Resonance and redescription have the potential to generate all kinds reflections and intersections, albeit within certain limits. One could describe God’s Covenants in terms of the Doctrine of Creation; Salvation in terms of Eschatology; the Lord’s Supper in terms of the Trinity. Resonance and redescription have their limits though and could potentially lead to various problems, like nonsense, formulaic repetition, or distortion of meaning. Given the example above, describing baptism in this way could potentially lead to a loss of baptism’s primary meaning, as the creed states in its next phrase, “We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” However, handled properly, the connections between the doctrine and the practice enrich, expand, and enliven each other. Whenever I see a baptism now, I do not think of it as any less than God’s forgiveness of sin, but I also see it as more than that. I see in it layers of meaning that include and invigorate the particularity of the baptism I witness.
Analogy as a sensitivity to resonance and an act of redescription
I count sensitivity to resonance and the accompanying act of redescription as the key operations of analogous thinking. Which is to say, I count an analogy as a way of seeing or a mode of interpretation that identifies profound similarities between two or more things, events, texts, images, or concepts that are, on the surface, quite different from one another. For all of their difference in form and content, the “Four Notes of the Church” and baptism bear a deep connection to one another.
As a Christian practice, analogy need not stay within the boundaries of Christian content. Analogy could offer those of us interested in communication new and fresh avenues of exploring intersections and integrations for our studies. By way of a final example in this blog series, I want to return to an established practice in faith-learning integrations—redemptive readings—in order to illustrate what difference analogy might make.
In order to develop an alternative to the problems of redemptive reading that I noted in Christian reflection on Gran Torino, I want to think of redemption through analogy. I want to hear the resonances between various and differing theological statements and redescribe them in a single and analogous statement. That single, analogous statement will, I believe, open unexpected and insightful possibilities for the prospect of redemptive readings within, in this particular case, popular music. However valuable unexpected and insightful those possibilities may be, my reading also needs to avoid the problems of thin and unethical readings. I want to close this series reflecting on how my alternative redemptive reading addresses those two issues.
A theological analogy
If you have been a Christian for a number of years, you have probably encountered these three theological or doctrinal statements: creation out of nothing, resurrection from the dead, and justification by faith. Creation out of nothing describes the reality that God brought the world into existence apropos of nothing. Nothing caused God to do this. God used nothing to do this. Creation is wholly a product of God’s own creativity, power, and love. Resurrection from the dead names that event when God, through the power of the Spirit, brought to life Jesus’ dead body and will, in God’s good future, do the same to us. Resurrection is more than just resuscitation. It is life without death. It is the death of death. Likewise, justification by faith is Martin Luther’s phrase to explain the salvation of the sinner. When God looks at humans, God sees sinners. However, because of Christ, God clothes the sinner in Jesus’ righteousness through the gift of faith. When the Christian believes, God looks at the sinner but sees someone justified, someone clothed in Jesus’ righteousness.
While the content of these doctrines could not be any different, their differences hide a similarity buried beneath the surface of their content, and I want to name that similarity in a single word: redemption. The word “redemption” signals an analogous relationship between the three statements, and that relationship is a kind of logic or grammar. If I had to summarize that analogous logic or grammar, it might go something like this: Redemption is God’s act in which God brings that which is out of that which is not. Put differently, redemption in all of these cases describes a moment in which God performs impossibilities. God brings being or life out of its absolute opposite, from non-being, death, and sin. God brings the is of heaven, earth, light, animals, plants, seas, land, and humans out of the not of nothingness—life from the formlessness and void of the abyss. God brings the is of resurrection from the not of death—new life from the barren nothingness of the grave. God brings the is of justification from the not of sin—salvation from the deathly abyss of brokenness and depravity.
Analogies offer three potential gains, or two versions of the song “Shut It Down”
While these analogies are, in my opinion, interesting in and of themselves, it is the potential gains that are of interest for any Christian thinking about communication studies. For the sake of space, I want to do several things at once: I want to name at least three gains from the analogy above while offering a redemptive reading of a phenomenon from popular culture. I’ll start with the gains of this particular analogy.
First, analogies can give us ways of saying old truths in fresh or interesting ways. If you have studied at the intersection of communication and Christianity for any length of time, you have probably encountered “redemptive” as a term that describes one insight into the way media or communication can function. This term usually refers to some form of healing or good that can come out of a particular film or song or communicative interaction. “Redemption” in these contexts usually has a very limited meaning in terms of content, much like the aforementioned redemptive readings of Gran Torino. However, the theological analogy above can be understood as a fresh statement on God’s work of redemption. Redemption does not simply have a particular kind of content. Redemption can have a logic or grammar or, put differently, a “gesture” in which a communicator aims to bring something healing or life-giving out of something diseased or death-inducing. In this way, a communicator can offer a redemptive message with content that has nothing particularly “redemptive” about it. Something can be redemptive in its grammar or logic if it, in some way, mirrors the logic or grammar from above: that which is out of that which is not.
With this understanding of redemption in mind, the fresh restatement of an old truth can, second, open new horizons for imagining what it is we think we already know. If you grew up Christian, you might already think you know what redemption looks like. However, the analogy above might potentially open up odd and startling insights that might have no particular content that could be construed as Christian. I think a redemptive logic is present in feminist singer-songwriter Sarah Jaffe’s cover of hip-hop artist Drake’s song “Shut It Down.”
In his composition, Drake sings about a woman who does not get noticed very much, who is working hard to make it. She is a student. She has a job on top of that. Drake sees her downheartedness and wrote a song for her to listen to while she gets dressed. He means it to empower her, to make her feel better about herself. Like a song within a song, he sings to her. It goes like this:
Put those f—ing heels on
And work it girl
Let that mirror show you what you’re doing.
Put that f—ing dress on and
Work it kind of vicious
Like somebody’s taking pictures.
Shut it down, down, down
You would shut it down, down, down
You be the baddest girl around, round, round
They notice, they notice.
When I hear this song, I hear the absolute opposite of redemption; I hear the nothingness, sin, and death of misogyny. I hear a man telling a woman to become for him an object that he would desire sexually. In becoming that object, she can feel better about herself and her difficult life. I hear a special kind of abyss: I hear the objectification of a woman’s flesh masquerading as encouragement.
However, when I hear Sarah Jaffe’s cover of “Shut It Down,” I hear something that, third, shocks me out of my complacency. I hear something complicated and strange, something sad and somehow beautiful and filled with possibility.
Jaffe seems aware of the misogyny of Drake’s song. Through her voice and instrumentation, in her phrasing, tempo, and tonal color, her song seems capable of acknowledging all those systems that objectify women. She knows all those countless gazes that turn female flesh into objects. When I hear her sing, I hear a deep sadness about those systems, a longing to see them undone. However, out of the abyss of misogyny, I hear the possibility that if this one woman—this same student working a job to boot—if she can see in her mirror what it looks like to look at herself the way a camera does—with that same misogynist gaze—then in that one act of seeing, she has the potential to shut down those systems. If she could do that, then she would be “the baddest girl around.”
Even though there is nothing redemptive in the content of the song, it is the gesture Jaffe makes with it that makes it, for me, redemptive. When Jaffe makes something potentially misogyny destroying out of the misogeny of Drake’s song, I count that as redemptive. She makes something that is life giving—her song—out of that which is death inducing—Drake’s song. Jaffe’s cover is redemptive because it performs a similar logic as that which is out of that which is not. In that similarity, it strikes me as redemptive.
Now, even if you find all of this persuasive, the two criticisms from one-to-one comparisons still remain unanswered. Does this count as a thick reading? Does this count as an ethical reading?
For me, this example does have a thickness that is missing from the thin, redemptive readings of Gran Torino. I count it as a thicker reading for two reasons. First, the analogy carries with it layers of reflection and material. The analogy that which is out of that which is not serves as the tip of an iceberg. There is a lot of mass floating underneath that statement. When I turn to Jaffe’s and Drake’s songs, the analogy becomes not an end in itself but a tool. It serves as a fulcrum by which a critic can leverage that theological mass. It is certainly possible that a critic could deploy the analogy in a thin reading, in a way that strips it of the accompanying theological thickness. However, the layers of content built into the analogy have the potential to get us into thicker, more complex territory.
Second, thickness is also a result of layers of difference. The differences between the three theological statements help give this particular analogy an urgency and richness not necessarily present in most one-to-one comparisons. The differences of theological content are compounded with the difference between theological language and popular music, which is again compounded with the differences between Drake’s and Jaffe’s version of the song. In short, I count this as a thicker reading than redemptive accounts of Gran Torino, because it manages layers of content and layers of difference.
As to the ethical potential of this reading, I must admit two things: what I would like to be true and what is actually more likely. I would like to think that the architecture of this particular analogy has ethical judgments loaded into it. When I mull over Scripture passages from Genesis, the Gospels, and Romans, I want to think that the weight of sin, nothingness, death, void, abyss all work to cultivate an ethical sensibility that takes something like misogyny seriously. My hope is that, by sitting with this content long enough, contemplating it, and working through it analogically, these Scripture passages have formed me in such a way to be aware of abysses and voids, of sin and nothingness, when I encounter them. This might be true in part, but I must admit that it is not close to a complete picture.
The reality is that there is nothing inside the analogy that might keep a critic from an unethical reading. Rather, if this reading is an ethical reading, it has more to do with my community than anything else. Which is to say, ethical readings are less a result of concepts and more a result of my interaction with others. I need Annalee Ward to tell me that redemptive readings of Gran Torino are problematic, because they never struck me as problematic until I listened to her voice. Likewise, it was a friend and colleague, Julie Morris, who sat me down one day and said, “You have to listen to this.” She played me Drake’s “Shut It Down” and then Jaffe’s. She offered absolutely no commentary. However, when I heard Jaffe’s version, I responded almost immediate, “Now that is good theology.” She encountered these versions through her friend and colleague, Ashleigh Elser.
As a result of these interactions, this essay is, in large part, my attempt to put into action what Ward, Morris, and Elser have taught me about thinking ethically as a Christian. When it comes to issues like the masked misogyny in popular culture, the reality is this: I need a community of women to teach me what misogyny looks like. Like my need for James Cone’s alternative imaginative horizon on issues of race, I need the imaginative horizon of women. Without them, I do not think I can be an ethical human being. While the thickness of analogies likely holds open more potential for ethical readings, the analogy is, on its own, insufficient for the task.
Along with a community of ethical reflection, analogies have great potential for those of us interested in faith-learning integration. They hold out the possibility that the rich, complexity of Scripture and the Christian tradition can provide for us a resource to engage the complex issues and problems of the world in which we live. Without that level of complexity, without that thickness, Christian intersection with communication studies may remain, as Robert K. Johnston and Annalee Ward suggest, thin and unethical.
My special thanks to Annalee Ward, Julie Morris, and Ashleigh Elser.
Annalee Ward leads the Wendt Character Initiative at the University of Dubuque. The Initiative publishes the journal Character and… which highlights the insights of students as they reflect on a host of issues related to the formation of persons. It is a great read for undergraduate students. Her other remarkable insights appear in publications including Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film, Understanding Evangelical Media, and Evangelical Christians and Popular Culture.
Julie Morris is a doctoral candidate at Duke Divinity School, where she explores the intersections between gender and theology.
Ashleigh Elser is a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia. Her work and education appears on the school’s Religious Studies website.
 What contemporary Christians name “The Nicene Creed” was completed at the First Council of Constantinople. The creed produced at the First Council of Nicea (325) did not have the final section regarding the Holy Spirit. For a brief but clear account of their relationship, see John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches, Third Edition: A Reader in Christian Doctrine, from the Bible to the Present (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1982), 28-33.