symbolism

Recharting Our Course

USERS OF MAPS—that’s all of us—may suppose that what we see is factual, accurate, bias-free. Of course location, distance, elevation, and comparative importance are reliably shown!

Not so fast, says social activist and pastor Ward L. Kaiser. A map may be “right” in some ways but still dangerous to the way we live in the world.

Why? Because maps are layered with meaning. Surprisingly, their most important messages may lie beneath the surface. In his full-color book How Maps Change Things, Kaiser helps the reader to dig in and discover some of those hidden, mind-bending messages.

As a college chaplain I am acutely, sometimes painfully, aware of the often-hidden narratives and symbols that define us as individuals and as a culture. This book has helped me analyze how maps—an increasingly pervasive form of symbolic messaging and storytelling in our time—connect us to power and privilege or consign us to society’s also-rans.

Examples make the case: An intriguing regional map developed for schools in Cuba raises the question of how this image contributes to that nation’s distorted view of the U.S. A secret map of Iraq drawn up in Washington so shifted our perception of that country that it lubricated the decision by the U.S. and other Western powers to go to war there. Several of the most popular maps of the world support a Eurocentric or North America-centered worldview, aggrandizing “our” place in the world and downplaying the importance of developing nations.

Kaiser’s point: Maps are always selective, often biased, constantly nudging us to see, think, and behave in particular ways. We shape maps; equally important, they shape us. Like the faith we hold, maps powerfully influence how we live in the world. And maps may work with our faith or against it.

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Jim Rice, editor of Sojourners magazine, has been a member of Sojourners editorial staff since 1989. He has also served as director of Sojourners Outreach Ministry and as coordinator of Sojourners Peace Ministry. He currently serves as a Research Fellow for the New Media Project at Christian Theological Seminary.

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