“When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea?”
“O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.’”
“The obvious is the hardest thing of all to point out to anyone who has genuinely lost sight of it.”
Jonathan Pageau is a good storyteller; he’s an even better story interpreter. In his YouTube channel The Symbolic World, Pageau unpacks the meanings of symbols to those of us who have lost sight of them—in movies like Gravity and Guardians of the Galaxy, in fairy tales like Rapunzel, in the icons of Holy Week, and in the parable of the sower. He interprets Halloween, Santa Claus, Twitter, and Kanye West. From the symbolism of trees to the symbolism of hair, Pageau provides many different points of entry and interest to follow, like trails of breadcrumbs in the forest which all lead to the same place: he wants you to participate in the Story of Stories—in the life of Christ. You might have come for the movies, the myths, the art, or the cultural commentary, but if you stick around long enough, you’ll realize where Pageau’s trail has led you.
“What I call ‘story,’ and what our ancestors called ‘tradition,’ is this golden thread of narrative, people, and spirit that can free us from the scholar’s autopsy of Scripture… Let us remember and celebrate the story of Christ… the story that animated the medieval mystery plays, the one that spans from the first word of creation, to humankind made in the Image; the fall, the covenants, the law, the incarnation, the death and resurrection, the ascension into heaven, the sitting on the right hand of the Father, and the coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead. That story is the culmination and condensation of all storytelling… It is the meta-story. It is about how meaning—Logos—is the source of reality.”1
To Pageau, stories and symbols have the potential to lead us to Christ the Logos, the source of meaning, consciousness, and the inevitable narrative structure of reality in which we live. In a time as raw and confused as ours—when the glut of information streaming through our smartphones is disturbing and apparently contradictory—Pageau speaks of universals and recognizable patterns. He shows us how the skill of reading our culture can enable us to live wisely in uncertain times.Jonathan Pageau’s channel, The Symbolic World, provides a means for the baptism of the evangelical imagination into this symbolic life.
As an Eastern Orthodox icon-carver, a student of the church fathers, and a Christian Platonist, Pageau perceives symbolic patterns in everyday modern life and trains others in this manner of seeing. His phenomenological perspective roots us back into the immediacy of our bodies and our senses. He speaks in terms of spatial and elementary categories that co-define each other: upper and lower, left and right, center and periphery, light and darkness, life and death, straight and crooked, rule and exception, hierarchy and inversion, strange and familiar, inner and outer, seed and fruition, question and answer, pure and impure, masculine and feminine, time and space, beginning and ending, the one and the many, heaven and earth. These categories were obvious and ubiquitous to premodern people, though they may appear quaint or even offensive to our current way of thinking.
But Christians can’t ignore this ancient cosmological perspective, however strange it may feel to us now, because the biblical authors were embedded in it and it permeates the Scriptures. Pageau’s channel provides a means for the baptism of the evangelical imagination into this symbolic life. The ancients experienced an “original participation” in life, without a clear divide between natural and supernatural, or between self and world. In philosopher Charles Taylor’s language, their sense of self was “porous” in relation to the world around them. By contrast, our sense of self is “buffered” and separated from the environment: I exist “in here” subjectively, and the world exists “out there” objectively. The wisdom of the Inklings can help us imagine this original participation which we have lost: they said that in relation to his environment, ancient and medieval man was “rather less like an island, rather more like an embryo,” that man was integrated with the cosmos, with “each different part of him being united to a different part of it by some invisible thread”2—that the universe itself was “tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival, not a machine.”3
For the patristics and medievals, every physical manifestation had a spiritual meaning. All created things had a hidden purpose or inner logos which connected them to one another and ultimately to God. There were no “bare facts.” In the words of theologian Hans Boersma, the church fathers and medieval theologians were “not satisfied with merely observing ‘facts.’ People were convinced that they could perceive the eternal mystery of the Word of God in these facts. This sacramental vision lies behind Augustine’s words… ‘We have heard the fact: let us seek the mystery.’”
But for people long-accustomed by science to see the universe as a neutral machine, to see humans as merely lumbering robots colonized by self-replicating genes, and to expect that the end of all things is best summed up by “Entropy Wins,” symbolic language and images may appear indistinguishable from superstition, even to Christians. The scientific attitude deals with reality as “thinly” as possible, isolating phenomena to understand causal relationships, and removing human subjectivity wherever it can. This approach has its power and its proper uses. But the scientific scalpel slices human consciousness right out of the picture: we can apparently understand just about everything scientifically except ourselves. It’s the “hard problem of consciousness”—and it’s not going away. When we try to understand the universe without ourselves at its heart, without grappling with the unique anomaly of human consciousness, we land in meaningless absurdity.
Jonathan Pageau, by contrast, starts with consciousness as the foundation of reality and then moves out from that irrefutable, glorious, and mysterious center to engage with the phenomena of the world. Stories, sacraments, and symbols knit subject and object, heaven and earth, back together. Symbols are not less than reality—as in, “it’s just a symbol,” as if we were talking about traffic signs. Symbols are intersecting points where different spheres of being overlap and cohere; they are reality’s “thick places” where meaning is layered upon meaning. Approaching them requires imagination, poetic intuition, and curiosity—you’ve got to be game.
Through symbols we participate in this cosmic festival, where humans are the image of God in a living, emergent, storied world. This world is grounded in the Logos through creation, courted by Him into a loving union in the present, with a future best pictured by the decisive defeat of that great enemy Death, followed by a wedding feast. A world in which all facts are of equal importance ends in the heat death of the universe. A world in which there are actually things worth celebrating, ends (or should I say, begins again?) with a festival.
Pageau insists on this hierarchy, that facts are not ontologically equal. As a general rule, both modern and postmodern thought hate hierarchies and seek to level the playing field. Through the lens of modernism, all facts are equal, which means all events are equally meaningless and nothing takes precedence over anything else. Through the lens of postmodernism, all facts are just personal perspectives, which means all events are merely private experiences. But a premodern symbolic perspective is inherently hierarchical and universal: it insists that some things really are more important than other things, and that this holds true for all people.
The event of a toddler picking his nose is not as significant as an event like the Exodus or the crucifixion of Christ. The majority of happenings in the universe are forgettable or incidental in this sense. But some events are so crucial, so thick with meaning, that symbols emerge from them (or gather around them) inevitably, due in part to the vast scale of human consciousness directed at these events. Thousands of years with myriads of people focusing attention and memory on one event will result in a profusion of symbolism surrounding it, in linguistic, artistic, and liturgical forms. Through attention and memory, we organize the world of phenomena into a hierarchy of meaning. Science lays out a set of facts on the table for us, but symbols and stories make clear which facts matter most and why.
According to Pageau, symbolism isn’t a relationship imposed arbitrarily onto things from the outside by human whim (that’s partly what distinguishes it from superstition, signs, and metaphors, which are arbitrary). We do not create symbols out of thin air: we discover them like the treasure hidden in the field. When we “seek the mystery,” as Augustine said, we open ourselves up to “those moments when the world ceases to be a mere accumulation of facts and, as it were, addresses [us].”4 The truth, goodness, and beauty we perceive in the world are not illusions or personal preferences, but are sacraments by which we can draw near to God. According to C. S. Lewis, “Beauty descends from God into nature: but there it would perish and does except when a Man appreciates it with worship and thus as it were sends it back to God: so that through his consciousness what descended ascends again and the perfect circle is made.”
But if it’s true that symbols emerge from the condensation of human attention and memory, how do we know we’re paying attention to the best and truest things? Can attention and symbol development get hijacked and misdirected? Yes, they can. Attention is sacred and limited. We should offer it up with discernment only to those things which nourish us, not to bullshit substitutes, as I’ve written about elsewhere. Premodern people had an abundance of attentional resources that we don’t have anymore: their spiritual attention did not have to compete with social media algorithms and the internet carnival. We face levels of distraction and diversion—the commodification of our attention—that was unknown to them; all the more reason to be open to traditional symbols borne from our ancestors’ attentive depths, and skeptical of new, shallow, and flashy versions. Compare the stories of the saints to the insta-lives of celebrity influencers, or the biblical narratives to your Twitter feed, and it becomes obvious that attention can generate idols instead of sacraments.
According to Pageau, legitimate symbols show us things that are already intrinsically or analogically related to each other as part of a pattern. These patterns express themselves in a series of embedded microcosms, nested hierarchies, or holons, in which every emergent whole is more than the sum of its parts, but the pattern remains throughout. The structure of the lower levels is the same as the structure of the higher levels which encompass and rely on them. This means that the entire created order is rife with analogies (and therefore, with intelligibility).
One can “zoom in” or “zoom out” and witness the same fractal pattern repeating itself in an atom, an organic cell, a tree, a physical body, a human psyche, a family, a church, a community, a country, an ecosystem, a complex biosphere, a solar system, and a galaxy. The scientific word for this is emergence; the spiritual word for this is logos. Being a Platonist and a Christian, Pageau thinks of these patterns as emanating from the top-down, from the mind of God, but he has no problem dialoguing with scientists who perceive them as having emerged from the bottom up evolutionarily. Since Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, both the ground of being and the telos which lures the cosmos to its loving completion, He encompasses all bottom-up and top-down phenomena. In other words, there is ample space for an evolving creation within “the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23 ESV).
These patterns are exactly what Christians should expect to see in the world God created and continues to create: “In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:1–4 ESV). And not only was the cosmos made through Christ, but He “is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17 ESV). In the words of theologian Hans Boersma, Christ is the “central thread of the cosmic tapestry,” and the “eternal anchor for all of created existence.” Without Him, things fall apart. The loss of this symbolic understanding of the world—our collective inability to see Christ as central to all things—is part of the reason for the widespread fragmentation and confusion our culture is experiencing.
Through The Symbolic World, Pageau disciples people in the skill of finding this golden christological thread and these universal patterns that saturate both the world in which we live, and the worlds we make creatively and communally. Pageau’s fans are an assortment of Christians (Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant), non-Christians, nature-loving pagans, scientists, Jordan Peterson devotees, curious atheists and “nones.” Evangelical Christians who were accustomed to seek journalistic, forensic, and scientific truths from the Bible are learning to read the Scriptures differently, to plumb the depths of its symbolic meanings, finding a feast for their souls in those old, familiar stories. Atheists who rolled their eyes at Scripture’s scientific “errors” and obvious “impossibilities” are learning to recognize the golden threads of meaning in this strange, ancient library whose language and imagery refuse to fit into scientific categories. And here we have the collective, wide-eyed “Oh!” of discovery: the modern mind (shared by Christians and non-Christians alike) slipping out of its constricting preconceptions, trying on for size an ancient symbolic perspective, and finding that some things—indeed many things—become clearer this way.
We cannot return to the porous, embryonic consciousness of our ancestors, nor does The Symbolic World advocate for a nostalgic reversion to the past; and yet, this manner of seeing can help compensate for our present-day one-sidedness. We can take the insights of the ancients forward with us into the future: our cultural coherence, community-building, relationship with Scripture, and Christian practice depend on it.
As delicious as the symbolic morsels of Jonathan Pageau’s videos are, neither those interpretations nor the cultural stories they explain are enough, in and of themselves, to sustain us. We don’t need entertainment, and we don’t need to consume: we need to participate. “It is not enough to live by stories,” Pageau says, “we must live in them. Stories must be a path we walk, a part of the glue that holds us together, and individuals must unite themselves to a body well-formed in love, so that we grow up into the Logos Himself, who is the head.”5
Those trails of crumbs Pageau has left for you in the internet’s dark and tangled forest are meant to lead you into the church, into the sacred communal space where the story is lived and nourished by the celebration of the Eucharist. They are meant to lead you to Christ Himself, the Bread of Life, that you might never grow hungry (John 6:35).
3. Michael Ward, “Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis.”