The car was drunkenly weaving across lanes in substantial traffic along Interstate 80. Erratic driving that, although not breathalyzer confirmed, suggested impaired operating. It’s something you never like to see. We stayed behind the vehicle, knowing that it was safer to keep such a car in view rather than attempting to overtake it when the driver veered into the left lane. Since the same muted colors recur on vehicles these days, we needed a quick way to identify this driver at a glance. The Jesus fish on the rear served the purpose well. This situation struck me as a kind of parable, although it really did happen. One of my brothers is a driver by profession. He often tells me that if someone cuts him off in heavy New Jersey traffic, more often than not the car bears a Jesus fish. WWFD?
The ostensible purpose of the Jesus fish is to witness to the world “here is what a true Christian does.” While the New Testament, if I recall, indicates that the true believer puts others before him or herself, the rule of the road is somewhat less spiritual than that. None of us are saints when we get behind the wheel. We’ve got places to go and the drive isn’t really much fun with thousands of other cars bunging things up constantly. Still, if you take the extra effort to put that Jesus fish on your car, aren’t you signaling that this driver holds her or himself to a higher standard? Or maybe the fish is a talisman, like “Baby on Board,” that will somehow protect from the careless, aggressive driver thinking only of self.
The irony here is not that the driver is making poor, or aggressive decisions behind the wheel—let the one without sin cast the first stone—but rather that s/he implicates Jesus in the act. There’s a ready, steady market in evangelical paraphernalia. The WWJD bracelet keeps the question within sight much of the time—but keep your eyes on the road! One of the main problems with the Ichthys symbol is that it is generally on the rump of your car. Out of sight, out of mind. As you finish that last drink before climbing in behind the wheel, the fact that your personal Lord and Savior is being announced to the world may just slip your sodden mind momentarily. The real question is whether a car is the best place to announce your religious commitments. It was the the man in front of the fish, after all, who said “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Except in heavy traffic, of course.
I don’t have any bumper-stickers on my car. As clever as I may think any particular one to be, driving down the highway is not the place that I want other drivers to get ticked off at me. A more judicious use of turn-signals would be my preference over mass-produced witticisms. I suspect that most readers know of my liberal leanings. Some have even bothered to inform me that they no longer read my musings precisely because of this. On the information superhighway, unlike the real highway, you can just click off and not be annoyed anymore. My bumper, therefore, will stay clean. While in a parking lot recently I saw a bumper-sticker reading “Not A Liberal.” I had to ponder this a bit.
I grew up conservative, although, as working-class folk, we didn’t label ourselves with that word at home. I wouldn’t have even known what it meant. Liberal, in its basic form, has to do with generosity and being respectful of others. The media has built it up into a kind of evil juggernaut that intends to take over the safe, unchanging world of religion and politics. I wonder how liberal became a dirty word. Who, among your friends, would want to remain so if you disrespect their views and refuse to show generosity? I get the sense that even conservatives are liberal with their friends. When I walk past the homeless sleeping on a subway vent to keep warm, I wonder if conservatives ever read the parable of the good Samaritan. What bumper-stickers would the homeless wear?
A polarized society had better prepare for the big chill. In my admittedly limited experience, people come in a continuum of positions, not just one extreme or the other. It makes better news, however, when we divide into camps, the more clearly to spar with one another. What separates us is more important than what brings us together. Yes, I grew up conservative. I continued, however, to grow up. I suspect in some things I am still conservative, while in many I am liberal. I’m not sure what I’d put on my bumper-sticker. What do I want people to know about me while I’m driving? I think it might be better to suggest “I Respect You,” than an implied “I don’t like your views.” Then again, since it happens so often, I now look for a Jesus fish automatically when I’m cut off in traffic. Be careful of what you put on your bumper, because dirty words are in the eyes of the reader.
“I drive my car, it is a witness. My license plate, it states my business.” Only the hardcore may be able to place this quote from Daniel Amos’s impressive 1984 album Vox Humana. Even when I moved away from Christian rock after college, I kept Daniel Amos in my head—this is truly inspired artistry. Pop culture and religion courses have become a standard offering in religion departments over the past few years. We are, even as secular as we may be, a very religious society. When my daughter’s high school music program went off on its biannual concert tour, this year they headed south. On the itinerary: Dollywood. I came near to Gatlinburg, Tennessee on the trip I made to South Carolina to see my father for the final time, but I did not stop. I am told, however, that Dollywood is something to see. In one of the gift shops, my daughter snapped a couple of photos for my blog that draw all these disparate thoughts together.
What we put on our cars is what we want the world to know about us without ever seeing us. This makes cars a perfect evangelistic tool for both the shy and the aggressive. The car becomes a tract. A statement that this vehicle is driven by an evangelical. I’m not sure it makes me feel any safer on the road. How many times have I been rudely cut off in traffic only to find a Jesus fish winking at me from the bumper of the offending car? Sometimes swallowing a Darwin amphibian. Religion speaks more loudly behind the wheel than it does from the pew. In the stress of traffic, what do we really believe?
Cars are also the ultimate tools of self-assertion. Human beings, with little natural armor or predatory equipment, surround themselves with metal and accelerate themselves at velocities that nature never intended. We feel godlike behind the wheel. That metal box in front of us, driving too slowly, or having just pulled some stupid maneuver, is not a person. It is a thing. And those who choose to declare their faith on that object are under constant judgment. Well I know the evangelistic pressure to witness—fundamentalists are expert at manipulating guilt. Put these plates on your car and the world will know what you really are. But be careful. It’s not how you say, but how you play that will express what you truly believe.
One of the most ironic of Christmas messages is “peace on earth.” The irony comes in the means of declaring that peace. Apparently first-century angels were declaring peace to the entire world, according to Luke. The peace that we see proffered, however, often extends only to those like us. What is the harm in extending Christmas joy to all? Must one be a Christian of a particular stripe before the joy of giving can be bestowed? Over the last several years various Christian groups have sought to reclaim ownership of the holiday they borrowed from the pagan Romans, Celts, and Anglo-Saxons. Make it exclusively ours. Peace to us, and let others find their own way home.
In a season of charitable giving, understanding seems to have fallen off the list of Saint Nicholas. In his guise as Santa Claus he makes the rounds of the entire world, according to the mythology that children are told. Do we ever really picture Santa delivering gifts to those who live in Iran, North Korea, or Afghanistan? Does peace on earth apply to them? The thing about peace is, unless everybody has it nobody has it.
Can we learn to share Christmas? Those who fret over Xmas forget that first-century Christians abbreviated Christ with an X (chi in Greek), just as they represented him by a highly stylized fish. Today an empty fish on your bumper declares what an X cannot, apparently. The message is that Christmas belongs to us, not secular pretenders who just want an excuse to make their kids happy. For most of the history of Christianity, Christmas had been a low-key event, barely noticed by most of the faithful. When the possibility of material gain was added in, however, the holiday became especially holy. Should we share the doctrine but not the gain, or should we make Christmas a gift to all the world – a season when all might reasonably hope for peace?
A recent edition of Science Illustrated ran an article about a potentially revolutionary understanding of mammalian evolution. Reponomamus robustus, a large mammal from the Cretaceous Era has been found with dinosaur bones in its stomach. The implication, of course, is that this early mammal may have eaten dinosaurs instead of the conventional reverse of the scenario. Science is open to such radical ideas, but my thoughts turned to the culture war being waged on automobile bumpers across the United States.
Several years ago the Jesus Fish or ichthus symbol began appearing on the backend of cars in what seemed at first to be a “baby on board” tactic with a don’t-ram-me-I’m-a-Christian subtext. Some drivers, however, associated the Jesus Fish with an evangelical power play, a showing of numbers that indicted all other drivers as “non-Christian,” and therefore, by implication, accident-worthy. The Darwin Fish showed up soon thereafter, a counter-symbol for those who seemed to be declaring that Christians could be evolutionists as well. Sensing a challenge — which always appears as a threat in neo-con eyes — the Jesus Fish or Truth Ichthus swallowing the Darwin Fish swam onto car posteriors. Then the dinosaur eating a Jesus Fish came out, and I am certain that I once saw a Jesus Fish eating a T-rex on some oversized vehicle hind-end.
A friend once asked me why I spent my time arguing with those who are so obviously wrong (the anti-evolutionists). The unfortunate answer showed up in the White House at the turn of the millennium and the radical restructuring of society encouraged by the “religious right” gains credibility from the sheer number of people willing to adorn their cars with Jesus Fish. The real victim in this volley of statements in chrome is a guy who said nothing about evolution and who, I’m sure, would be amazed at how misrepresented he is. As the love-hate relationship between Jesus and dinosaurs continues to wax and wane, I’m staying out of it, but I’m more frightened by the fish than by the dinosaur.
During my summer-term courses I feel it is only fair to break the lecture time up a bit. Rutgers summer courses can run four hours at a stretch, and no matter how valiant the student, no one can pay attention to me for that long. I have long had an interest in the Bible in popular media, so for each class session I show a brief clip of a movie that features the Bible, often in a pivotal role. We then discuss how it is presented. As a personal pork barrel I give the students a multiple choice question on their exams as to which movies we have watched (it also gives them incentive to be in class, I hope). One summer, after sending the exam off to the print office, I realized I’d made a mistake. As usual, my interest in 1950s sci-fi flicks led to trouble. One film I hadn’t shown a clip from, and which I thought was Bible free (I hadn’t seen it in a long time) was The Creature from the Black Lagoon, a perennial favorite for both camp and kitsch.
Of course, The Creature from the Black Lagoon does have the Bible in it. The movie begins with a narrator reading Genesis 1.1. Well, I had to give all the students credit for that question, because there was no wrong answer. Nevertheless, the easy association between beginning the film with the Bible and its evolutionary plot-starter seemed worthy of comment. Back in the 1950s evolution was already a hot-button issue (so I’ve read). Forces lined up on the scientific and biblical fronts faced off like angry hockey players as they swung at that hard black puck of the truth. It does seem odd in a country so heavily reliant on science that the foundation of biology and its benefits (if scientists hadn’t recognized and reacted to the swift evolution among microbes I’d likely not be here typing this sentence) that one particular interpretation of a very small section of the Bible should have the power that it does. I’ve seen carnivorous, chrome-plated bumper Jesus fish eating the peacefully walking Darwin fish! Old metaphorical Moses would be scratching his head, I’m sure.
The Creature was, of course, also a metaphor (if I’m not shoveling out too much credit where it isn’t really due). The sequels to the original film grew progressively worse, but those who have the patience to sit through The Creature Walks Among Us discover that the gill-man is a man after all, under all that green rubber. The beast is us. Not too weighty of a revelation to be sure, but it isn’t too weighty a movie. Like any discriminating Bible reader I choose what to accept and what to explain away. When I watch The Creature from the Black Lagoon, it ruins the story for me to think ahead to the denouement of the gill-man being a real man. It is a passage I simply choose not to accept. (This is, of course, a metaphor.)