A Review by R. LaMon Brown of Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication by Crystal L. Downing, IVP Academic, 2012
I was attracted to this book for three reasons. I had read with benefit Downing’s earlier work How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith. One of my favorite authors is the Italian Semiotician Umberto Eco, who wrote The Name of the Rose. And as a former missionary and present pastor, communicating the Gospel is central to my vocation.
Semiotics is the study of signs. Downing is convinced and I am convinced by her that this book can help readers to understand how words and signs work so that we can more successfully communicate the Christian faith in today’s pluralistic culture.
Downing calls us to become effective communicators by (re)signing the truth. Her word (re)sign has two components. 1. We are resigned to the essential truths revealed by God. (As all through the book, she reveals hidden or forgotten meanings of important words. The word resigned here uses an old meaning “to yield oneself up with confidence.”) 2. We need to re-sign truths by generating fresh signs or metaphors that will make those truths meaningful to contemporary audiences.
Downing refuses to idealize either the past or the future. She calls on Christians to be like an ant on the fluted side of a quarter, between the right side and the left. Only from this position can we effectively (re)sign the truth.
To summarize this complex work is simply beyond my abilities. I wrote 17 pages of notes! The argument of the book proceeds piece by piece from chapter to chapter in which she deals with specific semioticians and historical movements. By the time she gets to chapter 7 and the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, Downing is able to affirm that how we perceive reality reflects the Trinitarian nature of God who created us. Her argument at this point is brilliant—or so it seems to me.
In addition to the Trinity, Downing isolated two additional beliefs that are central to her understanding and communication of truth, i.e. the Incarnation and the gift of salvation through Christ’s atoning work.
The latter part of the book is devoted to the practical application of the earlier portions. However, one cannot simply start there. She warned early on that the book must be read as it was printed. Each section builds on the next.
I cannot say enough good things about this book. I hope to reflect more and more on the insights offered in it.
Two suggestions for future editions. A convenient glossary is needed for new terms and other words that are used in a technical manner. It is too difficult to find the original place where a specific term is defined and/or described. Continue reading