After watching my Mad Max video, a friend asked me, “how do you know that’s what the author had in mind?”

The same question might be asked of you reading this. How do you know what I’m communicating right now? Simple answer: because I’m telling you and you, of course, know how to read and understand English. There’s a lot about interpretation which we already know.

While there’s a bit of mystery in detecting and interpreting narrative symbolism, on the whole, it’s more like what we objectively do every day. We speak because we expect to be understood. Authors write and invest images with symbolic meaning because they likewise expect us to understand them. But how could they have this expectation? How can we know with relative certainty when an image possesses more than it’s surface meaning and what the meaning is?

While I’ve read and thought a great deal on symbolism, I’ve yet to find a succinct objective explanation on how authors mark out symbols and how audiences intuitively pick up on them. Lacking any simple guide, I’ve honed in on the following.

1. Humans are by nature makers and interpreters of symbols. Language is the primary way we use this ability every day.

2. Words are symbols. A word like “hand” is not the thing itself but a written or spoken representation of the appendage at the end of our arms. Cultural context has invested the sound or combination of letters with that meaning.

3. Since words are symbols they can and often do have more than one meaning. Within our culture, the word “hand” has a number of alternative definitions. And we add to a words list of meanings by bending and adapting them in new contexts.

4. New meanings to words are communicated, not by spelling them out (as in a dictionary) but through implicit connections in the context. This is how “giving someone a hand” came to refer not to the literal act of cutting off that body part but instead to help or applause. The specific context in which these expressions were first used became the key by which the audience was able to understand their meaning. And thus a new definition of “hand” was added to a growing list of definitions, spreading to the wider culture and eventually into the dictionary.

5. Some words (like “hand”) because of the availability of their primary definition are more adaptable to alternative meanings and therefore have a long list of secondary definitions.

6. Without context, we naturally assume a word’s primary definition.

7. Determining if another meaning is intended is a matter of weighing the contextual evidence (both external (the cultural) and internal (the conversational)). More evidence leads to a greater degree of probability.

8. Images within a narrative work in the same way that words do. The image may possess no alternative meaning and thus simply be the thing itself (in other words the primary definition – a picture of a rock is, of course, a rock). But it also may mean something else (an alternative meaning, i.e. symbolic meaning).

9. In a narrative, writers define an image as a symbol by making a connection to a preexisting cultural meaning (An eagle could represent the United States, Freedom and or Flight etc.) or they make some connection to an alternative meaning within the context of the book or film etc. itself. Metaphors and similes spoken in dialogue are potentially carried over into corresponding images within the world of the story. A metaphor in one conversation can define the corresponding image in another scene. But connections can be made implicitly through the narrative as well. The mirroring of one image with another through proximity and similarity is one technique at an authors disposal. The effect of cutting between two similar images in a film has the effect of placing those images side by side with equal sign in between – in essence an implicit metaphor.

10. Since people intuitively understand how symbolism in language works, they are well supplied to make the leap in interpreting narrative symbolism. Whether they cognitively know it or not, symbolism works it’s magic even on the unsuspecting reader.

Hi. I’m Matt. And this is Logos Made Flesh.

This movie may not look like a sermon to the sexes. It’s an action film. One crazed carnivalesque chase scene, from beginning to end. And yet Fury Road has been widely recognized as a feminist film! It’s about powerful women, specifically the war-rig driver Furiosa and the female band she rescues from sexual enslavement. And in a land of mothers, we’re introduced to even more badass women.

The male Max, by contrast, seems a lesser figure. For the first quarter of the film, he’s an incapacitated victim. And when released, he rarely speaks, fighting alongside or at the direction of Furiosa. But this is a movie equally for men and it would be a mistake to downplay Max’s role. What he does and what’s done to him becomes the film’s symbol of redemption.


The film presents Max as a bird of prey. Though he tries to fly from captivity, he’s confined to a birdcage and made to wear a muzzle that resembles a beak. Which is in part defined in the dashes bobbling birds head. But Max isn’t just any bird, rising from the ashes of a fiery crash, he’s revealed to be the Pheonix. And it’s this resurrected bird who appears destined to confront the beast who boasts. “I am your redeemer. It is by my hand you will rise from the ashes of this world.”

But it’s a lie! Under the control of Immortan Joe (who lives by machine), People, like nature, have been reduced to fuel. His female concubines are charged to give birth to his warriors. And if they aren’t producing them, they’re being drained of their milk to fuel them. Males are likewise exploited, promised a heavenly reward if they fight and die for Joe’s rule. And if they aren’t fighting, their blood is drained like gas for those that do.

It’s because the women have been oppressed by this man that they fly to a world without men. But for obvious reasons, they find that world equally doomed. It’s Max who stops them from going further. Like them, he began the film avoiding others. But now he’s a changed man.


Subjected, like the women, to the position of a rape victim, Max is bound via a chain of blood to the war-boy Nux. and through that image symbolically impregnated with him, placed at the mercy of his unborn child in the driver seat. The film further suggests this relationship in the mirrored images of an unborn baby’s foot and umbilical chord.

At first, Max shows little concern for his newborn. It’s only after their link stops Nux from carrying out Joe’s wishes and Nux turns to use that same link to help Max, that Max comes to embrace Nux as Son. Investing him with a boot and the control of the War-Rig. Nux has become a little Max which is what his name reflects. Now a mother, Max washes in “mother’s milk” and is accepted into the “land of many mothers.”

It’s this male and female Max who turns the women towards the source of their oppression. Life, for Max, is found in redeeming this one. Which can only happen when men and women unite against the exploitation of the beast and his machine.

Fury Road isn’t just a post-apocalyptic film. It’s the apocalypse itself – a retelling of the book of Revelation. The Citadel, over which Joe rules is the city of Babylon with its legendary hanging gardens. Joe is the beast, possessing a mouth like a lion. And the dragon, seeking to devour the woman and her child.

Like Revelation, Fury Road is epic vision of humanities restoration from the fall. According to Genesis, Revelation’s source, it was in following a serpent, that the sexes were cursed to an endless cycle of subjugation. The serpent was cursed to eat the dust and war with woman. The woman to war with man. And man to war with the ground until he returns to the dust in death, to be eaten by the serpent.

But both the book and film pick up on Genesis’ promise that one day the woman’s child will crush the serpents head. Max is said to eat shlanger. Joe is called a shalnger. And because the word is undefined in the film it evokes the imagine of the one thing Max does eat. Instead of being eaten in the dust. Fury Road opens with Max eating the serpent’s head.

Son of Man

In Revelation, it’s Jesus, the Son of Man, the ideal man and representative of all men, who brings this war to an end. The Pheonix is a traditional symbol of him. Max, like Jesus, is “lifted up” on a cross so that his universal blood can give life to the dying. Nux’s hoped for resurrection becomes a reality not in Joe’s exploitation but in the passion and resurrection of Max who pulls Nux from a symbolic tomb and womb.

In the end, it’s Max’s born again son who gives his life for others, in witness, the meaning of martyr, overturning the oppression of jihad to halt the long train of war. The woman also brings about an end to the war, slaying the beast by stripping his mouth and her hand of the machine. But in the midst of the fight, Furiousa receives a mortal wound. A symbolic inversion of woman’s creation from a bone in man’s side. And yet its this creation account which explains why man sacrifices to restore the unity between the sexes.

It’s though a picture of marriage that Max becomes one with Furiosa. He reopens her side, drains his blood to fill her and ultimately gives her his name. This is life. Man lays down his life for his wife as the Woman gives life to their child. And through mutual self-giving renews the world. Fury Road ends like Revelation with a marriage between Christ and his bride, a transformed people and city where the water’s of life flow without ceasing. By the sacrifice of the ideal redeemer, woman and the world are lifted up.

All that from one hell of an action film.

I’ve been thinking about No Country for Old Men (2007); a great film with an ending that, like most Coen brother films, is rather odd.

A couple years ago, I was struck by it’s similarities to the Seventh Seal, a 1957 film about the silence of God. After years spent in crusade, a knight returns to his homeland. The figure of death comes for the knight on the beach whereupon the knight challenges him to a game of chess. They make a deal. As long as the knight holds out, death will not take him and if the knight wins, death will let him live. For the rest of the film, the knight uses his reprieve to search for meaning and certainty. He wants to know, not just to believe, God exists. He fears the silence of God means God isn’t there and his life (mostly lived in crusade) was therefore meaningless.

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men also has a figure of death offering reprieve through contest. As with the classic depictions of death, No Country’s villain, Anton Chigurh, wears contrasting black attire with a kind of hood (his strange haircut covering his forehead and ears) and employs the use of a harvester (a cattle gun in place of a scythe). Chigurh is a clinical automaton of destruction. He casually stalks his prey, killing anyone else who takes note of him. He’s clean and principled. Not at all, as someone says in the film, like a man. And as with death, he operates by the invisible hand of chance. This is symbolized in the one reprieve he offers some victims – a coin toss. If they “call it.” he lets them live. And if they get it wrong… Well, you know. But one thing they cannot do is refuse to play. A refusal to play is an instant loss.

These life and death stakes along with the uncertainty in the coin toss is No Country’s defining metaphor. Just as in the Seventh Seal, No Country wrestles with the problem of knowledge and faith. Here’s why the film, with its shots of arid landscapes, men on horseback, wearing cowboy hats and boots etc., feels like a western; No Country in its depictions of amoral violence disabuses us of the classic westerns moral guarantee. The virtuous-man in the white hat does not necessarily defeat the corrupt man in black. In essence, No Country for Old Men calls to mind the good old days of the Hollywood western (good guy defeats bad guy) and in doing so offers our modern era as those days very own dystopia (good guy isn’t guaranteed to win and often doesn’t). Now it’s just the flip of a coin. Nothing in life is certain.

This loss of his youthful certainty and meaning weighs on the aged Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the film’s main character. Bell remembers the good-old days and is himself an embodiment of the good old days. His occupation, southern accident, small town location, goofy deputy, and his clear reluctance to use a gun, point to Sheriff Andy from the Andy Griffith Show who likewise typified classic Hollywood’s moral guarantee. Like an aged Andy Griffith, confronting the heinous crimes committed in our world, Sheriff Bell finds himself an exile from those simpler black and white days.

In this chaotic new world, Bell becomes increasingly averse to risk. His opening monologue says it all.

“The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, “O.K., I’ll be part of this world.”

In the end, Bell quits, undone by fear of losing his life for nothing. His last straw comes when he is forced to “call it.” In returning to the scene of a murder, Bell finds the door’s lock punched out, evidence that Chigurh has also returned to the scene. Bell looks into the circle. In the reflection, the film shows Chigurh standing on the other side of the door, waiting for him to make his move. Bell hesitates, considering what to do. This is in essence the western dual or Chigurh’s coin toss. Will it be heads or tails? Will he enter or turn tails and run? Is Chigurh there or not? Bell chooses to enter and confront Chigurh. But Chigurh is no longer in the room. On the floor, Bell sees a dime showing heads. Bell has called it. He can live another day. But he sits down in the dark a broken man. This risk was too much. He won’t risk again.

In the end, he sits at home, pondering with his wife the emptiness of his dreams.

“Two of ’em. Both had my father in ’em… The second one, it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin’ through the mountains of a night… It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin’… and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it… And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up…”

Given that he’s quit the fight, waking up from his dreams refers to Bell’s loss of faith in the reality of some good place where his father has gone before him.
Is Bell right to give up? Does the film agree with him? Given life’s uncertainty it could very well be that he’ll never find security with his father. Heaven may not exist. This disordered world may never be put right. But is uncertainty a reason to give up on the dream? To lose faith?

I think the film actually condemns his decision to quit. The film, appears to me, to be alluding to pascal’s wager. Not as a pragmatic reason to believe in God, per say, but as a pragmatic reason to risk. Given the certainty of death, a failure to “call it” is an instant loss. Given the inevitability of death the only option is to bet it all on hope of that better day.

Life has always been uncertain. Young men live by risk because they don’t know what they can lose while old men die for fear of losing. There is No Country for Old Men.

Is Jesus Jehovah?

May 23, 2016  2 Comments

Toni knocked on my door yesterday. She’s a five-foot, 80-year-old woman with a warm grandmotherly disposition. As I opened the door, she gave me a big smile and said, “Well Hello, Matt! I’ve moved, but I wanted to make sure you had someone calling on you.” She then introduced Greg – a much taller gentleman in his late 50’s. “Have you read the booklet I left you? Do you have any questions?”

I love talking with Jehovah’s Witnesses. There’s a great deal about them I respect. They’re willing to suffer for their beliefs. They read the Bible. And though they distort some essential Christian truths, there are some things they get right more than the average Christian. Many Christians, for instance, have this idea that our only goal in life is to go to heaven when we die. And while this is true, it’s not the entire picture. The Bible points beyond this intermediate state to renewed bodies in a new heaven and new earth. JWs get that right.

But I can’t just let the JWs off on their false teachings.

Toni and I (and occasionally Greg) ended up talking on my front porch for more than an hour. The topic at first rotated around the JW’s less controversial view that consciousness ceases at death.

She opened her Watchtower magazine and turned to the section answering the question “What happens When you Die?” She then pulled out her gray New World Translation (the distinct “Translation” of JWs) and read from Ecclesiastes 9:5. “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.” She next turned to Genesis 2:7, “God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” And from there she jumped to Genesis 3:19, God’s curse for sin, “for you are dust and dust you shall return.” Toni tried to convince me that these verses prove consciousness ends at death. The soul was created with the body and ceases to exist when the body dies.

“No,” I said. “It’s not that clear. What about other passages which indicate that consciousness continues after death, apart from the body – like when a very dead and disembodied, Samuel appears and speaks to Saul in 1st Samuel 28?

“That wasn’t Samuel. It was a demon,” she said.

“Really,” I asked. “because 1st Samuel doesn’t say that. It says it was Samuel that spoke to Saul. I think you’re mistaken in your interpretation.”

The conversation continued in a friendly manner like this for some time. Toni would offer a proof text on a given topic which appeared to undermine some Christian teaching. And I’d counter with another text which undermined her argument.

“The Bible doesn’t disagree with itself,” She chastened with a smile.

“No, it doesn’t,” I said returning the smile. “But it’s not clear in the way you make it out to be.”

But the intermediate state isn’t my concern. I think JWs are wrong on this issue but there are genuine Christians who hold to this idea, and I wouldn’t cease to call them brothers and sisters because of it.

As our conversation continued, I told Toni and Greg, “There are many things I really do admire in your teaching and practice. But there’s just some major issues you totally get wrong and are deal breakers.”

“Like what,” She asked. She had tried to stay away from the topic of trinity.

“Well the Bible says that Jesus is God,” I said.

“How can that be?” She replied. “Jesus said, ‘the Father is greater than I.'”

Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe Jesus is God in the same sense God the Father is God. For them, he’s a lesser deity, the first created being through whom God created everything else. And they detest any suggestion that Jesus is Jehovah (God’s name by which He revealed Himself to Moses and the Israelites).

This is where there New World “Translation” fits in. In it, they’ve attempted to erase any proof that Jesus is God. For instance, they’ve changed John 1:1 “and the Word was God” to “and the Word was a god.” And they’ve altered Jesus words in John 8:58, “before Abraham was, I am (which is the meaning of God’s name, Jehovah, in Hebrew) to the much less specific, “before Abraham was, I was.”

But the Bible’s more than a list of unconnected verses, a fact they often fail to forget.

“Can I see your Bible,” I asked?

She handed it to me. I turned to Isaiah 9:6 and handed it back to her.

She read aloud: “For a child has been born to us, A son has been given to us; And the rulership will rest on his shoulder. His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”

She looked up at me. And somewhat hesitantly said, “Yes, I believe he’s talking about Jesus. But that doesn’t mean Jesus is Jehovah. Jehovah said he would not give his glory to another (Isaiah 42:8).”

“Precisely,” I said. “Can I see your Bible again?”

She handed it back to me. I turned to John 12:36 and read,

“Although he (Jesus) had performed so many signs before them, they were not putting faith in him… The reason why they were not able to believe is that again Isaiah said: ‘He has blinded their eyes and has made their hearts hard, so that they would not see with their eyes and understand with their hearts and turn around and I heal them.’ Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory, and he spoke about him.

“Who is John referring to,” I asked. “Whose glory did Isaiah see?”

“Jesus,” she replied.

“Right,” I said. “And what passage is John referring to when he quotes Isaiah, “He has blinded their eyes and has made their hearts hard…? Isaiah 6:10, I answered.

I turned to Isaiah 6 and handed the Bible back to her.

“Now in that passage, whose glory did Isaiah see?

She started reading from verse 1. “In the year that King Uz·ziʹah died, I saw Jehovah sitting on a lofty and elevated throne, and the skirts of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were standing above him… And one called to the other: “Holy, holy, holy is Jehovah of armies. The whole earth is filled with his glory.

“Whose glory did Isaiah see,” I asked.

Toni closed her Bible and tucked it under her arm. “Well there’s a lot we could talk about, but we really have to be going.”

No joke! It was that quick!

“No, no, no,” I said. “Let’s do another one.”

I reached out and tried to take the Bible from under her arm. She held it there tightly before releasing her grip.