Exploring the world in comfort. That’s the theme of a recent commercial for the European travel company, Viking River Cruises. Scenes of Europe flow by to violin strains and a poetic cadence:
“Sailing through the heart of cities and landscapes with Viking, you’ll see things differently. You’ll get closer to iconic landmarks, to local life and cultural treasures. It’s a feeling that only a river can give you, that only Viking can give you.”
The commercial told me next to nothing about the company but the imagery they presented was intriguing. There might be something to be said for touring Europe that way. These seems like a far better use of a trip than some cruise with an inane cartoon theme. But hold on a minute. Let’s wind the Earth back around the Sun to Paris in 845 AD.
Sailing through the heart of cities and landscapes as a Viking, you’ll see things differently. You’ll sack more iconic landmarks, and loot more cultural treasures. It’s a feeling that only a river can give you, that only being a marauding, pillaging, burning, murdering, and thieving barbarian can give you.
Context is everything.
My home town used to be heavily Scandinavian and Nordic motifs decorate some of the businesses. There is a strip mall named “Viking Village” where the anchor store has a replica of a longship’s dragon prow on the peak of the roof. It’s truly amazing what a millennium does to the meaning of the names and symbols.
As Christians, we are not immune to losing the context of our symbols. There are artistic crucifixes in various places in my house. It is a valid symbol of remembrance. Crucifixion only became a widespread object of art after Constantine outlawed it as a method of execution in the Roman empire and its image of brutality faded. As a symbol of commemoration an artistic cross can be a good thing.
But in the Middle Ages it was used to adorn crusader shields. Now it graces everything from napkins to photo frames. It might be fair to say we’ve lost our sense of what the symbol is about. We do not think of the context of the cross.
It used to take hundreds of years to completely lose a sense of the context of an event. The meaning of symbols related to an event is shaped by the surrounding culture. This changes over time but that process used to be much slower. It’s easy to forget that before mechanization few people traveled very far from where they were born. There always have been small subsets of a community that traveled, such as merchants and soldiers, and occasionally entire groups would migrate to escape something bad in hopes of finding something better. For good or for ill, context was created and reinforced by where you lived and whom you lived with.
This is no longer the case. We move. We routinely travel distances that used to take days and lifetimes. Very few of us live with the people we grew up knowing. We are disconnected from what used to surround our sense of what a symbol meant, and vulnerable to the reframing of symbols by the technology that pervades the modern world.
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman described the effect of 20th century media in the decontextualization of information and serious discourse, and their repackaging as primarily visual entertainment. It is a dated polemic, having been written three decades ago during the dominance of broadcast television. We have vastly greater access to information than when the book was written. But the notion of decontextualization appears dead-on, making the book a must-read*. Our access to information is now mediated by portable devices that bounce us from one bit of disjointed content to the next.
Is it even possible to communicate context on a 5-inch electronic screen?
*I recommend reading this in tandem with The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr. Carr’s emphasis is different — specifically how the Internet is changing the way we think. But the book provides a necessary update for the idea of decontextualization.
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