Bargain Basement

Signs, in my experience at least, lend themselves to being over-read. How often a heedless moment suggests something more than was intended—signs try to say too much in too few words. Indeed, poets rather than marketers ought to be sought. I found myself in Barnes and Noble recently, since Borders is gone. In all fairness, I attended two independent bookstores as penance afterward. Nevertheless, in the corporate atmosphere of the last major brick-and-mortar chain, I saw a sign. Several, actually. One of the most obvious is how many tchotchkes the store had, as opposed to wall-to-wall books. Barnes and Nobel has never been particularly imaginative in its selection of floor stock, but now it is a great place to buy toys, electronics, and coffee. Maybe pick up a book as an afterthought on your way out.


The front space just inside the door of a bookstore is prime real estate. Publishers have to pay extra to have their books displayed immediately inside the doors—something they reserve for sure-fire rapid sellers. The average customer will walk in, down the center aisle and there they will find promoted (and demoted) items, laid out on their own tables. So it was that I saw a sign reading “Religion & Spirituality Bargain Priced.” In fact, they’re free. Not the books, but religion and spirituality. Even in this secular world, people are not shy about buying books in these categories. Step into the religion aisle sometime. You may be surprised how much you find there. In fact, those who track the industry often include Christian books as a third major category besides fiction and non. We trust those who know enough to write books about such matters. The Bible, despite its detractors, is a bestseller by any measure.

Do we, however, value religion and spirituality? So often religion is portrayed as the root of all extremism while spirituality is relegated to the weak-minded. The science section generally takes up only half the shelf space of religion. People want to know what it’s all about. The rates are anything but bargain priced. Some religion may indeed be simple, but most religions are unexpectedly complex. Those who engage them seriously know there is more to life than just fact and fiction. There are middle grounds and outer limits. There are places that have yet to be discovered, let alone explored. We are in the infancy of intellectual awakening. Of course that shows in how quickly we’ve abandoned our bookstores and gone off after less weighty things. If you have a moment, though, on your way to the coffee bar, you might pick up some religion cheap, and who knows where it might lead?

Do Not Enter

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind,” so runs the chorus of Five Man Electrical Band’s only hit, “Signs.” It is hard to imagine a more righteous hippie classic. When I was a younger man, I believed in signs. It made sense that if the world were unfolding according to a divine plan laid out for good, Christian folk, signs should be scattered throughout the world, pointing us in the direction we should go. I used to look for them assiduously. As I grew a bit more cynical with the years, and learned a bit more about science and probability, the idea that coincidences bore anything more than incidental meaning became a fixed paradigm. Every now and then something happens to make me question my assessment.

On my way into New Brunswick recently, I passed a sign. I used to drive this road several times a week when I was teaching at Rutgers, but I hadn’t been this way in a few months. I knew there had been construction going on, but a new road sign caught my attention:

Now, I’m one for finding the significance of buried statements. Here was a bold-face declaration that seemed to come directly from the almighty. In a day when Christianity is portrayed as an intolerant, bigoted institution, the simple truth of a road sign might actually bear considerable significance.

Throughout my life I’ve taken road signs a little too literally. When I worked at Nashotah House and I spied an orange sign on the road toward the seminary reading “Detour Ahead,” I knew that it was personally meant for me. The fundies from my college days frequently exploited the One Way signs liberally scattered across our nation, pointing their arrows into the mythological air. Anybody, of course, can make good use of a stop sign. A sign miraculously appearing that spells it out: Church of Christ Turn Left, can be nothing other than a divine message for a weary world. At least for those who still remember hippie bands with a certain fondness, and who don’t take themselves too seriously.