Thursday, December 04, 2008

What I'm going to do about those "God" billboards

Living in West Texas, I endure my fair share of church talk. Maybe more than my fair share. It's dry out here, but I float along quite pleasantly in a sea of "thank the Lord" and "Lord willing" and "God's in control" and "whatever the Lord puts on your heart". The problem is compounded by the fact that I work for a business that leans fairly heavily -- and, in the annual Christmas prayer, fairly explicitly -- toward jingoism.

But the church talk doesn't bother me all that much, because I figure that the proliferation of theologically loaded statements is more a cultural phenomenon than a theological one. When brother Fred Wilson tells me, "I just prayed about it, and the very next day I found my keys / recovered from cancer / turned straight / won the lottery", I can usually just smile and nod, translating his statement into something more theologically innocuous ... like, "Hooray!"

But the continual barrage of "God" billboards grates on my nerves. You know the billboards I'm talking about: white text on a black background, with a single witty saying attributed to "- God". Here are some actual pictures:

More generally, the problem that these billboards have is what I'd like to start calling the "naked theological statement". It's the more sinister partner of the "theologically loaded statement" that I mention above. Whereas the theologically loaded statement is a statement carrying some other message but has an implicitly theological rider ("Lord willin' and the creek don't rise"), the naked theological statement is an explicitly theological statement presented with almost no surrounding context. And the God billboards aren't the only bearers of naked theological statements ... no, indeed, church signs have served up similar fare for years.

A big part of my difficulty with nakedly theological signs is that they set up this painful resonance between the postmodern and modern sides of my psyche. When I read a sign like the ones above, my modern side immediately starts screaming about the various faults of the doctrines that the billboards imply. My postmodern side perks up in response, and the whole thing goes something like this:

MODERN: (muttering) ... think it's hot here ... say what? That billboard we just passed, what did it say?

POSTMOD: It said, "You think it's hot here?"

MOD: "hyphen God?"

POSTMOD: Well, yes, but I would have said "dash God".

MOD: You would have been wrong.

POSTMOD: Mm. (nods sagely)

MOD: (thinks) So are they really suggesting that God sends people to hell where they burn in fire for all eternity?

POSTMOD: Seems like they're saying something like that.

MOD: What trash. If they ever ... wait, what? Did you see that? What did that church sign say?

POSTMOD: Something like, "Big bang theory, you've got to be kidding."

MOD: With a comma up front? As if they were telling the big bang theory it must be kidding?

POSTMOD: If you read it according to standard rules for grammar and punctuation, then yes, I guess that's what it says.

MOD: Do these people live in caves?

POSTMOD: Obviously?

MOD: (drives a minute in silence) The thing that really gets me is how utterly inconsistent these people's theologies must be. I mean, how can you say God is good and also say that God tortures people with fire for all eternity? A three-year-old could see the contradictions with that. It's utterly inane.

POSTMOD: Consistency isn't everything. These sorts of doctrines have endured for quite a long time, so apparently people find them helpful. Maybe people accumulate the set of doctrines that they find most helpful in their lives, rather than the ones that offer the most internal consistency.

MOD: They should accumulate the doctrines that best reflect what actually happens in the real world, not the ones that make them happy. Some statements about God are just false and we have an obligation to say that they're false.

POSTMOD: Happiness is kind of a low bar to set. Even then, I'm not sure we can do any better than saying, "these are the doctrines that tend to help people live good lives".

MOD: But surely certain propositions about God are more true than others! "God is Love" and "God is hate" can't say equally true things about God, can they? And it seems like the propositions that are more accurate would tend to be the ones that were the most helpful.

POSTMOD: I'm not sure. The truth of any statement has to be judged inside a particular worldview, maybe inside a particular person. So it might be that a set of questionable statements about God actually produced in a given person's mind a more accurate image of God than a set of solid, internally consistent statements.

MOD: Well then what about "healthy"? Surely we can pick out a few doctrines that seem to have turned out to be pretty harmful. Surely we can take, say, anti-semitic interpretations of the New Testament and say, "those are bad"?

POSTMOD: Probably. But it's not like you're discussing an entire theology here, or even an entire person. You're dealing with a single, naked statement -- maybe a proposition, maybe not -- with almost no context.

MOD: So how should we discourage bad theology propagated via church signs?

POSTMOD: (wicked chuckle)


No no! I really want to do this, but it is not the right way! Likewise, it isn't going to do much good to put up a "good theology" billboard across from each "bad theology" billboard. Symmetrical responses just won't work, if only because the answer to a naked theological statement has to be a complicated, embodied theological experience, the sort of thing that can't be put on a billboard or bumper sticker. We have to find a powerful asymmetrical response, something subversive that undermines the naked theologians before they even know what's going on. Something complex, like ... art.

As I was researching this topic, by which I mean having lunch with a friend, he mentioned the distinction between what he perceived to be "good" Christian art and what he thought of as "bad" Christian art. One of the characteristics of good Christian art is its complexity and ambiguity; its ability to be interpreted in a number of different ways, and its respect for the viewer's capability to create meaning. Bad Christian art, on the other hand, is bumper-sticker art, saccharine and simple, intended only to propagandize and evangelize.

I hope that this same paradigm works for theological messages as well: that complicated, narrative things are the right tools to counteract bad pop theology. So where the naked theologians sell bumper-stickers, I will tell stories. Where they sell rear-bumper Jesus fish, I will share paintings, sculptures and films. And where they give sound bites, I will ask people to come in, sit down, and share a meal.

MOD: That's so crazy.

POSTMOD: It just might work.


Ryan English said...

But the God erecting our penis sign would be hilarious.

Seems like good/true/better messages are much more difficult to disseminate en mass, so we're left to correct them in the microcosm of our personal networks. Too bad

Steve said...

"Symmetrical responses won't work". Now that's something for me to ponder. The old Crosstalk show used to upset me because I felt it wasn't set up to arrive at truth (I was thoroughly modern back then in the 80's and 90's) but to keep the two sides in constant parity to heighten the attention by creating constant tension. They never strayed too far from symmetry.

laughingjack said...

Deeds over words? Living over speaking?

"So crazy it just might work"

Welcome back, good to see you hit the ground running. The scary thing is I can see you arguing with yourself on the loop or something. try not to crash.

Wes said...

I can see you having that conversation with yourself as well......but like all things, sometimes we can miss the forest for the trees......sometimes child like innocence can help.....but I do like the last part of this blog. We all can be more Christ-like if we would have a meal & tell a story instead of spouting crappy one liners and selling fads....WWJD?

A. Lo said...

But if you could find a way to adhere paintings, sculptures and films to the back of automobiles (especially large trucks with gun racks), then you'd really be on to something.

Oh, and I laughed really hard at the penis church sign. Gives me some ideas for the sign at AH. . .

scoots said...

Short statements are well suited for when people share common presuppositions, so that you don't have to explain a lot of complexities, because you already agree on the basics.

I think that's what the original billboards, a few years ago, were for--they tended to build on people's general sense of being Christian, in order to call people out for their hypocrisy or apathy. My favorite is the one that says, "Loved the wedding. Invite me to the marriage."

The billboards in more recent years are rip-offs that generally lack the wit of the originals, plus a couple of the ones you've posted here have very specific agendas (creationism and jingoism), rather than urging people to practice what they presumably already believe.

You're right that a nuanced theological claim can't usually be as brief as a billboard allows. But moral exhortation can be brief, if you know your audience. Jesus gives a great example: "Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near."

Matthew said...

Hi, everybody, glad to see your comments again.

@Steve: Yeah, I think the ideas of asymmetrical resistance and subversion are really interesting.

@Scoots: True, but I can't imagine that Jesus ever walked out to the street at rush hour, yelled, "Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near!", and then walked back inside. Besides, even that - a particular person yelling - would be significantly different than an anonymous billboard with a slogan attributed to God.

You're right about there being other, more positive billboard messages (they're shown at, and I expect you're also right that those were encouraging for some church people. But what about the people outside the church? Do you think these billboards are, overall, a positive experience for them? I mean, I suppose that the feelings of people outside the Christian circle might not matter, but it seems like they should.

victor said...

As God erects our peter, He will light our way!

Are we not all made in the image of God?

Is the Kingdom of God not to be found in each of us?

Did Jesus not say to His peter, ‘the apostle in charge of His Church and His new Bride to be’ while calling him Satan, did He not tell his peter to get behind Him cause men’s thoughts were not God’s Thoughts?

I’m I close to blasphemy or would this not make a good post her?

I may as well add, Forgive us Lord for we know not what we do!

God Bless,


Matthew said...

Heh. You can say that last part again. =)

God said...

Besides billboards, I write occasional advertising jingles for radio these days and have also submitted a few of those amusing anecdotes to Readers Digest.

You may also have noticed that nowadays I do fewer magic tricks and instead have chosen to concentrate on my ventriloquist act, where I allow people to put words in my mouth and pretend to be a dummy.

Matthew said...


God said...

I KNOW! Sometimes I surprise myself. But with so many puppeteers, it's to be expected I guess.

I hope everyone's caught my act with Rick "Jimmy Nelson" Warren - I've really hit the big time there. But I won't lie. When he's alone with me, he calls me "Danny O'Deity" and makes me say whatever he wants.

Anonymous said...

Amen, brother. Amen.

Hahahahaha. This was an awesome post. Those billboards drive me crazy too. A person has to have an insane sense of self to presume to make a quote on behalf of God.

victor said...

You simply need to walk the insanity line and pray that God's Angels pick you back UP again if you slip off that is cause "IT" can be pretty scary on occasions but if you're 'Emerging From The Fire' then you must know what you're doing! Hey Men?:)

Anonymous said...

And, a friendly, "hello" to God. I was wondering when you would get a blog.