Battle Billboards

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 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. 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 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.

Light from above or hopeless ambiguity?

Bull Shot

Sitting on an idling bus in the Lincoln Tunnel, I supposed I was too far underground for an epiphany to hit me. Then, on the way to Third Avenue it descended on me. I was passing one of the countless gift shops of Midtown when I saw it—a miniature replica of the Wall Street Charging Bull statue. Golden calves come in all sizes and shapes and when they grow up they may be very aggressive. Deadly even. Movie makers have long recognized the deep symbolism of the golden calf. And not just Cecil B. DeMille. Dogma, perhaps the most notorious of the anti-religion, religious films, centers around Mooby, a cartoon network golden calf, for one of its subplots. Even Bruce Almighty has the eponymous Bruce leaning back against the statue of a golden calf as he enjoys his new success in his new house, empty of all personal satisfaction. The list could go on. And of course, Wall Street.

What is it that makes us believe that gold leads to happiness? We all want it, if we are willing to look into the mirror with any semblance of honesty. Maybe we don’t want to be filthy rich, but who doesn’t really want to just kick up their heels and let their lucre do the work for them? Enter the “Prosperity Gospelers”—God wants it for you. Even if you demure and lower your eyes coyly, wealth will find you. And like that idol on Wall Street, calves grow up to be bulls. The horns of the dilemma are almost too literal. For a fulfilling life, give it all away. Like a misdeed long past, still unatoned, that bull follows you. You can’t escape a charging bull.

The episode of the golden calf in Exodus 32 is one of the more disturbing scenarios in Holy Writ. Moses, alone wreathed in the glory of the Almighty keeps forty days of silence and, tellingly, the clergy construct a golden calf. Probably an image of Yahweh. The next morning, “the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.” Until distant Moses returns home. The calf is burned and ground down to dust, the people drink it, and the Levites kill three thousand of their compatriots. Prequel to Jonestown? “For Moses had said, Consecrate yourselves today to the LORD, even every man upon his son, and upon his brother; that he may bestow upon you a blessing this day.” The killing of their neighbors is their ordination. A blessing bestowed upon those who would worship the golden calf. That 7000-pound charging bull will follow you, even into the tunnels and tabernacles. When the golden calf is loose, no one is safe.

Bull comes in all sizes

Battling Billboards

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.”

Solstice Now!

Who owns the solstice? Whoever it is, I wish we could just get it over with. The darkness falls before I step into my 5 p.m. class. It is dark when I drive home. The next morning, leaving for my 8:30 a.m. class, I drive to school in the dark. Back at Nashotah House a colleague once said his wife became “almost pagan” in her yearning to pass the winter solstice and head toward the time of year when light prevails over darkness. My wife pointed out a CNN story concerning a New Jersey billboard sponsored by American Atheists. The billboard, just on the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel into New York, shows the star of Bethlehem, the manger and the wise men. The inscription reads: “You KNOW it’s a myth. This season celebrate REASON.” Naturally, motorists are up in arms. Who owns the solstice?

Before the Thanksgiving leftovers even hit the fridge, Christmas season has begun. Santa always ends the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, making it official. Since we are capitalists, we do what the red-suited captain of industry says: shop. As long ago as A Charlie Brown Christmas complaints of the commercialization of Christmas have reverberated through the media. Personal properties and billboards enjoin us to “keep Christ in Christmas” and remember “the reason for the season.” Economists tell us to spend more to assist the sluggish economy. Meanwhile the light continues to fade; the days grow darker. Why confuse the issue with religiosity? Why not just spend some money on others, feel the release of endorphins, and be thankful?

Nobody knows when Jesus was born. The church selected December to celebrate the event because the shortest day of the year, for those north of the equator, had long been a time of fervent wishes for the return of light. The first-century Christian rivals, the Gnostics, believed in the continual, literal struggle between light and darkness. When sidelined by Orthodox Christianity, the torch was taken up by those who celebrated Saturnalia, Lupercalia, Hogmanay, Yule, Sol Invictus or any number of other winter festivals. Christmas was a relative late-comer to the celebrations that welcome the resurrection of the sun. So drivers from New Jersey should take it easy. The solstice is everybody’s holiday. I just wish that whoever’s in charge would give us all a little more light.