Where Is Dr. Langdon When We Need Him?

For the Week of July 13, 2015
by Rubel Shelly

In case you donít know, Robert Langdon is the central character in a series of Dan Brown novels. The most successful to date is The Da Vinci Code. Adapted for the big screen, Langdon was played by Tom Hanks. In both print and film, Langdon is Professor of Religious Symbology at Harvard University.

Havenít you wished for someone who could give us the definitive meaning of symbols over the past few weeks? What does the Confederate flag mean? Is it a symbol of hatred and racism? Or does it stand for history and heritage? Should it disappear from public view? Or should it be displayed with pride? Do people who fly it do so to intimidate others? Or do they honor the sacrifice of their ancestors?

Yes, there is a Harvard University. But, no, there is not a Department of Religious (or Secular) Symbology there. Neither is there such a department or specialty anywhere except in fictional novels. So we ponder the Stars and Bars.

I am not an aspiring symbologist, but all of us have some degree of awareness that symbols are important. They communicate; think of the male or female body outline on a restroom door or a cigarette in a circle with a diagonal mark through it. They conjure up powerful emotions; consider the star of David, cross and crucifix, or star and crescent.

Flags are particularly important symbols. During the most recent Fourth of July celebrations, American flags were unfurled across Major League Baseball diamonds. They were sold en masse at stores and displayed on front porches. They were placed at both civilian and military grave markers.

But what if your favorite team had unfurled the flag of North Korea? What if your neighbors had posted an ISIS flag beside their front door? Or what if tiny Nazi flags had appeared overnight at graves in Arlington National Cemetery?

I am a white Southerner. I was born to a culture that featured segregated waiting rooms at the doctorís office and train depot. I attended twelve years of public school at an all-white school. (I learned later that the nearby all-black school received our used and discarded textbooks.) Neither my home church nor any other in my small town had any black members.

It is embarrassing to admit I grew up in a racist culture and was insensitive to social injustices in which I participated as a privileged member of the majority. It is heartening to see positive steps taken in terms of legal statutes, civil rights, and protection for minorities and oppressed groups over the last half century.

If I am serious about treating others the way I want them to treat me, I can have no part in defending persons, laws, customs, behaviors, or symbols that communicate their exclusion or inspire doubt about my goodwill toward them.

I do not judge everyone with a different view of the matter to be racist or a monster. It takes time for long-entrenched ideas, habits, or symbols to be rethought. For one Southerner, however, I am grateful our culture is finally rolling back the prominence given to an irredeemable symbol of racial bigotry.

It doesnít take Robert Langdon to tell us we donít need such a symbol.