A Fractured Shibboleth

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, July 14, 2016

A Fractured Shibboleth

It stretched 548 feet across the vast, open space of Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London, the national gallery of international modern and contemporary art. Titled “Shibboleth,” the Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo had created a jagged, open crack down the length of the museum’s massive concrete floor. It began small at the top of the slope as a hairline crack, and then widened as it progressed, gaining depth and creating additional, smaller fissures.

The meaning? 

From the museum: “A ‘Shibboleth’ is a custom, phrase or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to a particular social group or class. By definition, it is used to exclude those deemed unsuitable to join this group.” Or from the Oxford English Dictionary, shibboleth is “a word used as a test for detecting people from another district or country by their pronunciation; a word or a sound very difficult for foreigners to pronounce correctly.”

Delving further into the title’s origins, the museum explained the biblical incident recorded in the book of Judges, “which describes how the Ephraimites, attempting to flee across the river Jordan, were stopped by their enemies, the Gileadites. As their dialect did not include a ‘sh’ sound, those who could not say the word ‘shibboleth’ were captured and executed. A shibboleth is therefore a token of power: the power to judge, reject and kill… [Salcedo] invites us to look down into it and confront discomforting truths about our world.”

Museum placards proclaimed the “‘Shibboleth’ asks questions about the interaction of sculpture and space, about architecture and the values it enshrines, and about the shaky ideological foundations on which Western notions of modernity are built… In particular, Salcedo is addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world.”

The idea is that such fractures will, in the end, undermine everything which may attempt to rest upon it.

Upon seeing it myself, I resonated with the reviewer in the London Telegraph who wrote, “After I left the hall, ‘Shibboleth’ rattled around in my head all day, and it haunts me still. When I ask myself why, I realize it is because it looks like a wound, a gash that can’t heal. It offers no hope, leaving you feeling as empty as the abyss it opens up beneath your feet.”

As I stood over the gaping split, I realized this was not simply a testament to a colonial past, but was reflective of our present world which is increasingly divided by all kinds of shibboleths – words that only those of a particular tribe can pronounce, and those who would be included must

This is particularly striking when it occurs within the Christian faith through those who seem intent on setting up ever-increasing proofs of who truly belongs, who is authentic, who is friend and who is foe. Rather than C.S. Lewis’ “mere” Christianity, we are growing increasingly fragmented and divided by an ever-narrowing explosion of sub-orthodoxies built on divides such as traditional vs. contemporary, Calvin vs. Arminius, emergent vs. seeker-targeted – and then elevating such conversations to the level of the Nicene Creed. We can, and should, have robust conversations about such matters, but with a sense of humility that within orthodox Christianity there can be authentic disagreements of opinion. As Augustine notes, in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity. And much more falls into the “non-essential” camp than many would seem willing to attest.

There are some shibboleths that must be erected. This is the heart of Jesus’ teaching of the narrow road and the narrow gate (Matthew 7). But we should be reminded to stand against a pharisaical circle of “new” orthodoxy being erected around the historic creeds, often built in the name of personal taste or opinion. 

Salcedo offers a difficult reminder. We are marked by divides between North and South, rich and poor, black and white. There is hope, of course, in Christ – the one who can bridge divides, heal all wounds, and fill the deepest emptiness. But when His people are the ones erecting such shibboleths, one wonders how deep and wide the fracture may grow before we can bring the unifying news of Christ to bear on a deeply fractured world.

James Emery White


For the Tate Modern exhibit, including visual pictures and a video interview with the artist, click here.

Adapted from James Emery White, Christ Among the Dragons: Finding Our Way Through Cultural Challenges (InterVarsity Press). Available on Amazon.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.