Angels are everywhere at this time of year.The Christmas stories of the gospels of Matthew and Luke have made them an indelible part of the tradition.It’s not unusual for entirely secular individuals to be decorating with them and they are generally without controversy in public displays of holiday spirit. A colleague once asked me why Americans were so credulous when it comes to a belief in angels—the numbers of believers are quite high, statistically.I wonder if it’s because we need them.Considering that the Republican Party is the Evangelical’s party, it’s no small wonder that even atheists embrace angels.We all could use a little help from on high.This time of year, such hope can be disguised behind tinsel and bows.
America must seem a strange country to those who immigrate (or had immigrated, when that was possible).We wear our religiosity—and this is not the same thing as true religion—not only on our Christmas trees, but even on billboards by decidedly secular highways.It’s as if even all the things America stands for, such as love of money, guns, and automobiles, only hold together with the saccharine glue of a sickly sweet religion.A Bible-believing nation that has no idea what the Bible actually says and lauds a president who breaks at least a commandment a day and gains no reprimands.We have shown our red neck to the rest of the world and yee-haw we are proud of it.And we got the Good Book to prove it.
After all this shakes out we’ll be needing some angels, I suspect.My colleague felt that sophisticates, big city skeptics, ought to be more willing to dismiss unenlightened beliefs such as those in spiritual beings.The thing is, spiritual beings serve a very useful purpose.They keep us honest—and I don’t mean in an Evangelical way; I’ve seen Evangelical honesty and it’s as corrupt as the Devil.No, I mean that angels are important to show that we have hope.Maybe they are secular angels—even the Bible doesn’t give any description of them at all, so how can you tell a secular from a religious angel?That lack of pedigree doesn’t mean we don’t want them watching over us.Belief is an important part of being human, secular or not.The billboard space tends to go to those who want your money, and that applies to the ones that appear to be religious as well.If this is the way the religious behave, we’d better hope there are angels everywhere.
Here in the east, it’s not unusual to see Amish buggy road caution signs. Well, not so much in New Jersey, but in my somewhat frequent trips into Pennsylvania and upstate New York. On a recent trip to western Pennsylvania I mentioned to my mother that I’d never seen any Amish along the infamous route 322, where such a sign resides. Driving down 322 on my way home from that trip my wife and I passed three Amish carriages and one baby stroller. Religion has a way of surprising you along the highway. Roadside sects are not uncommon. Apart from the many biblical billboards I’ve been seeing lately, there are any number of indications that once you get out the urban areas of the nation, religion is alive and well. While driving to Ithaca, New York recently my wife and I simultaneously spotted a sign we’d never seen before. We have made this trip to upstate many times, mostly along Interstate 81. The sign was for a tourist attraction called “Historic Priesthood Restoration Site.”
Being hopelessly mainstream, we assumed this meant Catholic priesthood. The problem was, what was either historic about this area north of Scranton, or what might be this restoration? Once we found wifi access again, I learned that the priesthood referenced was that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I have to keep reminding myself that Mormonism had its start in parts of upstate New York—an area so prone to religious flare ups that it was called the Burnt Over District back in the day. So Joseph Smith and Emma Hale had lived just over the border in the area of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania while Smith was working on the Book of Mormon.
A great deal of America’s religious history may be found on roadside markers. We are an inventive people when it comes to ways of exploring what we consider the divine world. Mormonism has been one of the more successful brands of American religion and although we tend to associate it with Utah now, it was a faith that grew up here in the green hills of the mid-Atlantic states. Being inveterate seekers, Homo sapiens go after new revelations with surprising aplomb. And we’re willing to change the constitution of old religions to fit new prejudices. Religion is anything but static. To test this theory simply get behind the wheel and drive out into rural America. You’ll be surprised how much you can see even at highway speeds, if you have eyes to see.
One of the problems with driving is that you can’t get pictures of billboards. Well, given the way people drive around here, I suspect that may not always be true. Nevertheless, I always think of billboards as trying to sell something. There’s sometimes fairly easy to shut out, but in long stretches of otherwise uninteresting road you fall into their trap. Now having grown up in western Pennsylvania, we always thought the people out east—Philadelphia was the largest city in the state, after all—were more sophisticated. It is around here, however, that I often see billboards selling evangelical Christianity. If you put out your wares, you’ve got something to sell. Money to make.
As I was traveling that stretch of somewhat plain highway 33 between Stroudsburg and Easton I noticed a billboard reading “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” To shore up its academic credentials the billboard footnoted Genesis 1:1. An inspirational sunrise, if I recall, shown over the Bible. Of to the left—of course to the left!—was a small “no circle” and inside the famous skeletal progression from ape to human. The message was “no evolution.” The more I pondered this, the more strange it became. Most Americans are well aware that billboards aren’t exactly the locus of truth. They are gimmicks to try to get you into the store. Like the one a few miles down that advertises the world’s largest humidor; even those with no interest in tobacco might feel just a touch curious what such a place might look like. Why would you take your most intimate personal beliefs and put them on a billboard? Does that make evolution any less likely?
A strange perception has lately taken over this country. The idea that an individual’s wants equate with the truth. Shout it loud enough and it has to be true. Billboards would never stretch the truth, would they? Is that image enlarged to show texture or what? And wouldn’t a better choice of anti-evolution rhetoric have been Genesis 2? That’s where God makes Adam from lowly dirt. Yes, Genesis 1 gives us the dramatic six-day creation, but Genesis 2 manages to say it all happened in one day—isn’t that more in keeping with capitalistic ideals? Greater efficiency leads to greater profits, after all. And profits, we all know, are the real purpose behind billboards for any product under the sun.
As predictable as crocuses in early spring are the controversies that crop up around holiday billboards. Even living in the quite blue state of New Jersey, I see plenty of advocating for the keeping of Christ in Christmas that the “keep Christ in Christie” campaign seems to lack. This year, however, the American Atheists billboard kerfuffle has shifted to Memphis and Nashville. There protests have been lodged that using children on “holidays for all” billboards is a kind of exploitation. And as we all prepare for the visit of baby Jesus, or Santa Claus, or any variety of mythical nighttime visitors, American Atheists are only asking that we all share the presents. It is an odd kind of culture war. Christmas, as we’ve long known, predates Christ. The holiday was usurped from pagan tradition and baptized into a holy day that was barely observed until the nineteenth century. The commercialization of the holiday gave it the current shape we recognize, and some Christian groups feel compelled to reclaim it in a kind of cultural crusade that will only end with complete acquiescence.
This is a holy war in which neither side is right. In the work-a-day world that I inhabit Christmas is above all a long weekend with a respite from the drudgery of a long commute to ensure that the system continues. Thousands stream into New York City, which, amazingly, does seem to transform for the holidays. The city that is, for most of the year, cold and heartless, suddenly displays a more human face. Giant wreaths and tall trees appear, bright decorations hang in windows. Menorahs and dreidels become manifest. Signs of Kwanzaa or other solstice-related holidays are evident for those who know how to spot them. People in general seem more generous than usual. Even many businesses relax their time-grabbing strictures a bit. Christmas did not begin as a Christian holiday, nor, it seems, will it ever be fully supersessionist.
Celebration, I would suggest, is worth celebrating. Should atheists use a poster-child for the secular celebration of the holiday season? Should Christians have displays of mangers on church property where all passers by can see? Should Mensch on a Bench be displayed in stores? Should Santa be advocating for corporate giants who only want us to spend? Perhaps the answers are obvious. In my mind they are. We gather our families in, and in the northern style that has always resonated deeply with me, we look out the window and await the coming of the purifying snow.
Perhaps the oddest intangible accompanying democracy is the concept that all things are negotiable. Add to that a capitalist sensibility that everything has its price and even truth itself feels like a matter of debate. We see this all the time with Creationists so desperately wanting the Bible to the “true” that they twist science into a fairy tale noose from which to hang their literalist god. The tendency, however, does not stop with them.
Surely one of the most tense stretches of pavement in the country is NJ 495 leading into the Lincoln Tunnel. The aorta pumping countless metallic cells into the heart of Manhattan, drivers and passengers often sit motionless in it for seemingly endless periods to crawl forward like an inchworm entering the Olympics. It is there that Battle Billboards takes place.
I have followed the Atheist billboard development with some interest. In my limited experience with the Lincoln Tunnel, I have noted the digital billboard on the Jersey side bears the message of atheist.org near the major Christian holidays, so as Easter approaches the newest one reads “Celebrate Living Without God” to promote a rally on the Mall in DC. Both religion and science make claims of how to know the truth. Truth with a capital T should be non-negotiable by definition. The problem is that nobody has the Truth. We’re still trying to figure it out. Atheist.org holds a firm conviction that life would be better without religion. Clearly not everyone agrees. Clarity, it seems, is the chimera of debates over Truth.
A few seconds after the atheist.org ad flashes off the big screen, an ad for Wrath of the Titans (coming soon to theaters) flashes on. Irony can be sweeter than honey and as bitter as the Dead Sea. The most recent Clash of the Titans (2010) borrowed little from classical mythology beyond the names and large plot lines. An atheistic Perseus just doesn’t fit the classical taste. In the new film, Zeus—surely one of the prototypes for modern conceptions of God—is captured by Hades and has to be rescued by his unbelieving son. Could any movie be a more thinly disguised Easter story? Atheists? Wrath of the Titans? Which way to jump? Fortunately for me, traffic going into the Lincoln Tunnel in these lanes is one way. That’s the kind of certainty we all can live with.
CNN’s Belief Blog carries the beleaguered story of the Lincoln Tunnel billboard battles. Last month a billboard proclaiming that the Christmas story is a myth had been sponsored by American Atheists to try to raise awareness that not all commuters are Christian. In response, the billboard has now been rented by the Times Square Church and newly proclaims “God is” with a number of devotional qualifiers. ‘Tis the season of wearing one’s passions on one’s red sleeves with white trim. Since this is America, it must be writ large.
The recriminations fly like childhood accusations: “but s/he started it!” Can’t mature adults agree to disagree? In a world constantly filled with inequality and strife, religion is used as a cudgel to enforce uniformity. The holiday season is much more than various religions marking their territories. The symbolism of the return of light after a long descent into darkness is archetypical, no matter whether it is the finding of oil to light lamps, the birth of Jesus, or the triumph of Sol Invictus or any of a plethora of other celebrations. It should be something that all people are able to share.
It is the “other” that is feared: the groups who do not share our religious outlooks. “He who is not for us is against us.” It is much safer to slap the other with a billboard barrage than to have to look into the eyes of another human being and say, “I respectfully differ.” Instead of welcoming in the light, we dig further into darkness. The Manichean sensibilities are undiminished after all these centuries. Some would argue that all must be brought into conformity for peace to prevail. To them I say, “I respectfully differ.”