Steven Reed is the husband of a loving wife and father of three daughters. A self-taught designer and illustrator, he earned a degree in business after serving a full-time mission in Idaho. Raised a Texan, he now resides with his family in Las Vegas, Nevada and makes a living running a graphic/web design company. The study and application of art and design led to a passion for the simple principles that undergird both beauty and truth. He loves being outdoors with his family and spends his spare time blogging about doctrines, symbols, temples, and the good things of the world at oneClimbs.com.
Have you ever thought about how saturated our world is with symbols? Color, shape, numbers, motifs and archetypes are featured in logos, advertising, street signs, books and in our religious lives we see them on temples and in scripture.
Most Latter-day Saints probably understand that the bread and water we partake of in the sacrament each Sabbath are tokens of a covenant and represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The Savior himself even took time while instituting the sacrament to explain the meaning of symbols to his disciples:
"And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins." Matt. 26:26-28
How does understanding the meaning of those symbols contribute to your experience?
Think about how that experience would be different if you had no idea what those symbols meant?
To someone new to the whole experience they would see teenage boys praying over some bits of bread and tiny cups of water. They would think that this meager snack was probably insufficient for tiding over the congregation's hunger for the next three hours!
Symbols in the Latter-day Saint experience
As members of the Church we learn the basic meanings of many symbols found in the scriptures and ordinances of the gospel, but many are not prepared for immersive and highly symbolic environment of the temple. In my experience, properly preparing people for that experience is vital and one of the ways we can do this is by helping people expand their knowledge and literacy in the language and understanding of symbols.
If I threw out a few symbols like water, blood and fire, you could probably rattle off a few of the doctrines or themes that they represent, but what about numbers? You might associate the number three with divinity but what about the numbers two, five, six, eight and nine? Do any doctrines or themes come to mind?
In the LDS faith, especially when it comes to temples, understanding the potential meanings of symbols can greatly enhance your experience, just like understanding the meaning of the sacrament emblems.
How I came to appreciate symbolism
As a graphic designer, I've always understood that certain colors, shapes and motifs have a deep psycological impact on people. It is almost like certain archetypes are hardwired into our minds and that we respond naturally to them without realizing it.
My passion for design led me to study symbolism in more depth and I came to discover that symbols are drawn from nature and number and endowed with meaning by various groups, individuals and especially by God as well as the devil who likes to hijack them for his own use.
More than anything, I wanted to become fluent in this alphabet of symbols so I could better understand what was being silently communicated around me in the world and especially in scripture and temple worship.
Some great resources for studying symbolism
There are a ton of fascinating and informative books out there; I'd like to recommend two of my favorites.
The first is called A Beginner's Guide to Constructing the Universe by Michael S. Schneider who is an amazingly insightful mathematician. This book reads somewhat like a school textbook and you can probably get through it in a week. This book alone will get you thinking about numbers and symbols in ways that will blow your mind. The first time I read this book I couldn't put it down because I was so excited with what I was learning.
The second book is actually so dense it is broken into two books: The Day Star: Reading Sacred Architecture by Val Brinkerhoff. If you are looking for a solid and exhaustive ride into the world of LDS symbolism then look no further. These books are packed with so much information and amazing photography that it's hard to know where to start. Brinkerhoff takes you on a journey through a wide variety of symbols represented by "shape and number, light and color, time and space, words and sound." It took me three months to get through these two books and while I couldn't recommend them higher, they are a bit pricey.
There are a whole host of other great books out there and the fact that there is so much information out there about symbolism can be somewhat of a turn off to the average LDS member. The very idea of teaching symbolism to small children can seem daunting if you don't even know where to start yourself.
Several years ago I pondered a question, "What would happen if I entered the temple for the first time with just a basic knowledge of a wide range of symbols?" With three little girls of my own I began to think about how I could simplify all of this for them and perhaps for others.
As I watched them learning math and phonics with flash cards I made a few "symbol cards." I wrote associated meanings on the back and then basic archetypes on the front. I started with the numbers 1 - 10 and some various temple themes. What happened next was amazing to me.
These small children were beginning to not just remember the meanings of these symbols but then they started looking at the world around them and looking for associations. We created "I spy" games using these symbol cards and it was really fun. I created version after version, refining and expanding the functionality of the cards.
I decided to share what I created with the world for free at LDSSymbols.com.
I gave a fireside on symbolism to the youth of my ward, developed that into a video presentation that I posted on YouTube called "Reading Temples" and my latest project is a Kickstarter campaign that will allow me to put professionally-designed symbolism cards into the hands of Latter-day Saints everywhere!
Understanding the many potential meanings of symbols can help us gain "eyes to see" so that we can be more richly instructed by the Spirit.
What Korihor couldn't see, Alma could:
"The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator."