Signs and Blunders

You would think several more severe aftershocks in Christchurch would have knocked the triviality of the "Wellywood" story off the news pages. But no, we are still hearing of the furore as residents of the windy city debate the wisdom of Wellington Airport's plan to erect a tongue-in-cheek sign on gorse-covered hills above Miramar. For anyone who hasn't been following this, the Airport authorities have had plans and a budget drawn up for a huge Hollywood-style white sign to welcome visitors to "Wellywood". This name is apparently the moniker used fondly by some Wellingtonians to refer to the core role of the film industry in the city's identity and wellbeing. Responses range from 'disgusting' and 'shameful' through 'tacky' and 'undignified' to 'smart' 'awesome' and 'iconic'. Pro- and anti-sign Facebook pages have sprung up and it seems everyone in the Absolutely Positively City has an opinion. And of course, the concern expressed by local body politicians in Hollywood itself has contributed to the decision this week to set up a seven-person ThinkAgain Tank to consider the wisdom of, and alternatives to, the planned sign. But the hype has been way out of proportion; I rather liked Sean Plunket's blogpost:
Now for the record I am somewhat ambivalent about the Wellywood sign.
I do not find it offensive because it is just a sign.
I do not consider it a symbol of corporate oppression or anti-democratic capitalism
because it is just a sign.
I do not think it tells anyone what this city is or what it is about because it is just a sign.

All this has got me thinking about signs, in the week following the church's celebrations of Pentecost, a momentous day in the life of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, when his living presence - the Holy Spirit - was gifted and implanted into their lives in a new and powerful way; the story is told by Luke in Acts 2. Theologically, what happened in the temple precincts that first-century summer day, was the democratisation of the Spirit of God. The One who had been given at special times to special people and for special purposes is now available, by Christ's resurrection, to indwell and empower the lives of all who receive him. The wind, flames and diverse languages all acted as signs of God's Spirit being released into the faith community, in order for them to continue the ministry of Christ in the world:
Jesus said to them "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive Holy Spirit.”
John 20: 21 - 22

So is Sean Plunket right to say a sign is "just a sign"? Recent scholarship in linguistics, sociology and theology would say "No" because some signs are performative. This means you can "perform" or do something by using certain words or other symbols. For example, you don't have to physically do anything to promise something to someone. All you have to do is say, "I promise," and the act of promising is performed. So saying, "I take you as my husband," "I order you off my property" or "I hereby bequeath my piano" enacts something - a promise that can be legally enforced. Circumcising a little Muslim or Jewish boy performs something - the incorporation of that child into a faith and a community. Baptism is also a performative sign, according to Baptist scholar James McClendon.
Christian baptism, as it is understood by Baptist theologians.. and as it ought to be understood, is a performative sign. It has the special quality, according to Christian belief,
of involving both the human participants (the church and the candidate) and God.
Baptism is a "word" addressed by the candidate to God. ("the appeal of a good conscience toward God," I Peter 3:21) It is that "word" in which the candidate claims the power of the resurrected Christ for himself. It is a prayer, but an acted prayer rather than just a spoken one. Like every petition, it is performative. It is also a "word" from the church to the candidate - a "word" in which the church says something like: "We receive you as our brother/sister in Christ." And it is a "word" from the candidate to the church, a "word" in which the candidate says something like: "Friends, I take my place in your midst. Receive me!"
(p 410)

McClendon goes on to explain the place of convention and of mystery in sign and acknowledges that performatives are subject to infelicity or "going wrong." In a second language, we might get the words wrong, and insult when we intended to thank, or perhaps wrong intentions or subsequent actions (such as failure to consummate a marriage) may somehow spoil the performative action.

I considered this notion recently when attending a craft day at a local campsite. An Auckland church that specialises in Signs and Wonders - their website offers "powerful meetings full of the power of the Holy Spirit" - was also there for the weekend. Before dinner on the Saturday night, the 50 ladies in my group had to walk past the room where the Christian meetings were being held. A number were disturbed by noises (shouting, coughing, groaning) coming from the room and by seeing people being led back to their cabins in a state of distress or stupor. Although I am a convinced "Charismatic" myself, and understand that a ministry of exorcism was probably going on, many of the witnesses were quite disturbed. My attempt to gently explain the reality of spiritual oppression and that Jesus had come to set troubled people free, did not allay their concerns, and some quickly concluded that if this was church, they wanted none of it. I have to admit I thought there was a pastoral issue there; their signs and wonders were having a performative affect they had not considered or failed to manage. It was more like Signs and Blunders, a powerful example of infelicity.

New Testament miracles were called "signs" (semeion) because they confirmed the presence and power of God. They were not meant to be an end in themselves, but signs of God at work in the world. In John's gospel particularly, those who see with human eyes see only miracles; those who see with the eyes of the spirit see “signs” (Loader). John shifts the focus from miracles as fantastic achievements to miracles as signs about deeper meaning. The feeding of the 5000 leads to the claim “I am the bread of life,” the healing of the blind man to the saying “I am the light of the world.” A dead man Lazarus is revived to demonstrate “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live even if he dies and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” In the realm of God, a sign is not "just a sign".

“Do you consider yourself a sign of God at work in the world?” That was the question some of us considered as part of our Essential Jesus Bible Study last week. Quite a challenge, yet isn’t it what Jesus meant for us? As the Father sent me, so I send you. Despite our vulnerability to infelicities, we are apostles as well as disciples. In the tradition of the first Pentecost, our daily life can be not just a sign, but a performative sign of God's presence and power.

To Chew Over: Do you consider yourself a sign of God at work in the world? How?

A Pentecost Prayer:
Almighty God.....
it is You who pours out Your Holy Spirit,
but we act as managers of your gift.
We can recognize your presence in teachers and leaders,
But we forget, you breathe your Holy Spirit so all can know your love.
Forgive us when we do not recognize your Spirit's gifts in others.
Forgive us when we do not recognize your Spirit’s gifts in us
May our faith not stop short at discipleship: following only.
Help us grow to become apostles: sent out to all people in your holy name
and empowered by your risen life, Amen.