Culture At Large

What does the cross mean today?

Andy Rau

Does the cross mean something to you?

When I say "the cross," I'm not talking about the historical fact of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. I'm talking about the actual cross itself--the t-shaped symbol that graces church walls and Bible covers around the world.

I ask because lately I've been wondering if the cross as a symbol still means anything to the average person, Christian or otherwise. The problem with the cross symbol--if I can call it a problem--is that it's everywhere. It's on your church sign, on the church wall, on your Bible cover and on your Christian website. It's incorporated into the logos of countless churches and Christian organizations. It's on bumper stickers, custom checkbooks, and music CDs. If you asked somebody to draw the "official symbol" of the Christian church, you'd probably get a cross (and maybe that fish symbol, I suppose).

Then, of course, there is the long and varied history of the use of the cross symbol in the thousands of years since Christ's ministry on earth. The cross has been identified with all manner of human acts and movements throughout history, noble and ignoble alike. The cross we use today is a symbol that carries with it all sorts of conflicting messages.

But it's not just the church that makes ample use of the cross symbol. Crucifixion symbolism crops up in all manner of movies. It's been depicted (and desecrated) countless times in artwork, from artsy museum pieces to rock-n-roll album covers. Lately, Madonna and Kanye West became the latest in a long, long string of celebrities to use crucifixion imagery to make confused comparisons of themselves to Jesus.

In fact, it's the latter fact that caught my attention. Sometime between Kanye West wearing a crown of thorns for a Rolling Stone cover photo and Madonna affixing herself to a giant cross during a concert, I realized that I wasn't really offended by this sort of foolishness anymore. The cross image is so common that I can no longer really figure out exactly what its use--and even its desecration--is supposed to mean.

In an essay about his novel The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco explained his decision to use that particular title despite the fact that roses do not make any major appearances in the actual novel. Eco, something of an expert on symbols, claimed that he chose the rose as a symbol precisely because its ubiquity has made it meaningless as a symbol. "The rose," he wrote, "is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left." It can symbolize anything you want it to, or nothing at all.

Has the cross reached this state--is it so commonplace that it has no real value as a symbol in 21st-century America? When you see a cross--in a church, in a museum, on a website or a business card--what do you feel? Awe, sorrow, humility, worshipfulness, annoyance, anger, or nothing at all? Has it retained its symbolic power and majesty after so many years of use and misuse? Or is it now just a decoration, one whose historical and cultural baggage actually gets in the way of meditation on Christ's sacrifice?

What do you think? Am I onto something, or am I over-reacting? And if I'm right, is it too late to restore meaning to this once-powerful, now-commonplace symbol of our faith?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, News & Politics, Social Trends, History