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.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008