Public Displays of Religiosity [PDR] & Interstate Theology

Last week my daughter (age 9), son (age 13), my dog (5 years old in human years), and I made a long, relocation trip across the United States. This fall I begin as a PhD candidate and Research Assistant at Arizona State University.   On June 30, 2014, we loaded, with the assistance of some friends, our valued possessions into a 22′ moving truck and attached our car to a car carrier.  The following morning, July 1, we started our trek at 4 am from Bowling Green, Kentucky.  The voyage traversed approximately 1700 miles total and took approximately 28 hours.  Here’s a map detailing our route:

As can been seen on the map, we spent the majority of our traveling on Interstate 40.  And the roadway provided a corridor tour of Mother Nature’s handiwork.  New Mexico and Arizona especially caught the eyes of my children for the geographical landscape of both states are so drastically different than anything my kids had ever seen.  The expansive ravines, rock formations, and wildlife evoked several “look at that!” exclamations throughout the trip.  At the same time, we witnessed some of Mother Nature’s destruction.  For instance, Arkansas seemed especially chaotic with recent flooding and tornadoes.  The destruction that we witnessed left my kids in silence as they stared in disarray out the truck window.

I-40 from KY to AZ.
I-40 from KY to AZ.

As you can imagine, a road trip like this one needs some entertainment.  Thus we created several thematic music CDs.  For instance, we started our trip listening to the Soggy Bottom Boys’ “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which contains the line “I bid farewell to ol’ Kentucky/the place where I was born and raised.” Additionally, we completed several Mad Libs worksheets (“Dad, I need a plural noun”).  Yet one of the most interesting practices throughout our trip was the intentional documenting of any signs of religiosity that we witnessed from within the moving truck.  My kids, serving as research assistants, quickly noted that there were small, marker crosses several places on the side of the interstate signifying the loss of life.  Some of these crosses were fairly plain while others were ornate.  Speaking of crosses, there is a mega-church on the outskirts of Memphis that has three very large crosses looming in the Interstate distance.  But these three crosses did not compare in size to the large, white cross towering in the panhandle of Texas:

Panhandle of Texas
Panhandle of Texas

We scanned for radio stations only to discover several available Christian radio stations.  In fact, every aspect of religiosity that we documented was Christian.  To be more specific, with the exception of two Catholic billboards, every aspect of religiosity was Protestant Christian.  The most identifiable signs of religiosity were literally signs – billboards.  Throughout our trip, we viewed Christian billboards asking:

  • “Do You and Jesus Have a Good Relationship?”
  • “Accept Jesus as Your Savior for Eternal Life”
  • “If you died tonight, where would you spend eternity?”
  • “Repent, Jesus is coming soon!”
  • “Do Not Commit Adultery!”
  • “Believe in the Lord Jesus and ye shall be saved.”

All of these religious symbols, including the crosses, billboards, and radio stations, initiated several conversations during our road trip.  First, we discussed the fact that there were only Christian symbols throughout our trip.  I am sure religious traditions other than Christianity are present within the 1700 mile section we traveled.  Where was their physical presence? Which engendered another tangential topic.  What happens when non-Christian religious groups rent billboard space, host radio stations, or use their own religious symbols to commemorate sacred spaces?  Do they have the freedom to do so? I am not referring here to Constitutional freedom of religion, but rather a social freedom provided by the local community.

Yet the conversation continually centered around the messages of the billboards.  The billboards were similar to bumper stickers in the sense that they transmit a non-contextual theology.  The scripture verses being quoted were only portions of a verse and provided no insight into the broader context in which the statement was being offered.  But they also have very specific religio-cultural context that may or may not be transmitting correctly or understood by recipients of the communication.  Commandments were usually the norm: Repent! Do Not…! Believe! as if authority rests within the billboard itself for all who drive by.  What is the intention of those utilizing the billboards to communicate their religious messages?  My children, who are not well-versed in the Christian scriptures, failed to understand the meaning behind the majority of these messages.  Why is a billboard concerned about their impending death? How can someone have a good relationship with Jesus?

What kind of messages do these billboards communicate to those who do not identify as Christian? What would a devout Muslim in the midst of Ramadan think about the messages?  All the Muslims I know are confident in their afterlife status and believe in Jesus (in an Islamic way).  If the signs are failing to transmit a theological message, then what is the real purpose of such signs? Do the signs hold political power attempting to maintain Christian dominance?

How do Christians (or atheists) who do not maintain these particular non-contextual theological statements contend with the constituency that do?

Interstate 40 in New Mexico.
Interstate 40 in New Mexico.

Photos courtesy of Carson Shoemaker. Thanks to Callie Shoemaker for her research assistance.

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6 thoughts on “Public Displays of Religiosity [PDR] & Interstate Theology

  1. Great article, Terry. I often make hour long drives across Pennsylvania (and most times through Amish and conservative Mennonite communities) where signs and billboards like this are frequent sightings. I really appreciate how you describe the “non-contextual theology” of such signs and billboards, as well as your questioning of their authority. Much to think about. And kudos to you for having an honest and open conversation with your kids about it.

  2. This is a really great point. I used to have a job that involved driving over large portions of Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Michigan. And you’re right, the sheer amount of non-contextual Christian theology is a bit overwhelming. What’s more, as a Christian myself, I worry that it is not only non-contextual, but really not very good theology. For example, on the drive from Columbus to Cincinnati, there is a series of billboards that has all 10 commandments list. On the flip side is the question, “Do you know where you will spend eternity?”

    My first gut response when I saw these years ago was, “Well, probably not with you.”

    Which isn’t helpful either, I now realize. There has to be a way to engage this kind of faith with both honesty and open-mindedness. I’m just…still working out what that is.

    Good luck in Arizona!

  3. I have had similar thoughts and conversations during my road trips. I also often wonder about the purpose of these billboards, especially the ones that ask me to repent or accept Jesus as my savior. My questions fall on slightly different lines. Do the people behind these billboards honestly believe that if I am not Christian a billboard on the highway threatening my eternal life is going to convert me? (If someone knows about the effectiveness of these billboard campaigns, even anecdotally, I would love to hear about it.) Or are they not aimed at outsiders at all? Are they directed at those Christians who might be wavering in their beliefs?

    Either way, my reactions to these signs, as an atheist, fall along similar lines as the comedian Michael Ian Black. He talks about the difference between “I <3 Jesus" and "Jesus is the only Lord and Savior." He says it in much cruder language, but the gist is that the first is expression a personal passion and the second is trying to force that passion on others. I don't mind the first one. The second one is divisive.

  4. Wendy,

    Thanks for your comments. I agree with your questioning of the intention of the billboard messages – who are the target audiences?

    What the authors of the billboard messages were not as concerned with the number of conversions from their billboards, but more concerned with their own agency in displaying the billboards? What I mean is this: What if they feel like they are performing a prescriptive duty by using the billboards. So when their minister says, “Spread the gospel message,” they can be confident that they are fulfilling the request? This is pure speculation on may part, but it seems like it might fill a void for someone less extroverted.

    thoughts?

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