My latest "In Good Faith" column is a special mid-August bonus edition. Yes, my monthly column has gone bi-monthly (at least this time). If it sounds vaguely familiar, it's because I used a recent blog post (Bumper Sticker Theology) as the basis. Enjoy.
“Honk if You Love Jesus”
By the Rev. Tim Schenck
Sitting in summer vacation traffic has me reflecting on bumper stickers; specifically Christian-themed bumper stickers. I’ve always wondered what general impression of Christianity these four and five word pronouncements offer to non-churchgoers. I don’t think it’s very positive.
Most of these stickers are vaguely self-righteous, like “Keep Christ in Christmas.” I don’t disagree with the sentiment; in fact, I’ve essentially dedicated my life to it. But the underlying theme is “You’re doing this all wrong; I know best; and anything you do is not enough.” Which is not exactly the most endearing, welcoming message during the “Most wonderful time of the year.” Anyway, I’ve always thought about making a sticker that proclaims “Keep Mass in Christmas” just to see if anyone notices – that is, after all, the derivation of the word. On the evening of December 24th Christians throughout the world celebrate the “Christ-Mass.”
Bumper stickers are really about self-identity. They’re a way of telling the world that you’re smart (“I went to an Ivy League school!”) or your kids are smart (“She’s on the honor roll!”) or that you have certain political leanings (“Obama!” or “Mitt!” or if you never got around to scraping it off, “Dukakis!”) or that your identity is wrapped up in your favorite sports team (“Go Orioles!”).
Religious bumper stickers are no different in that sense. We all crave an identity and stickers are a way of driving an identifying stake into the ground. So when you see stickers like “Christians Aren’t Perfect, Just Forgiven,” it’s a way of claiming that tenet for the individual’s own life. Again, it can also be read as saying, “You – the guy in the next lane – is neither perfect, nor forgiven.”
Then there’s the fish symbol. I remember being in high school and being mortified when my mother put one on her gray 1985 Honda Accord. I thought it was some sort of Jesus freak thing that only hand-waving followers of televangelists put on their cars (she thankfully didn’t fit into this category). It wasn’t until years later that I learned the true story of this ancient symbol of Christianity.
Back during the early days of the church when the persecution of Christians was running rampant, they needed secret code to identify one another. The fish had a double meaning: it evoked Jesus (the call to the disciples to drop their nets and follow Jesus; the miracle of the Feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish; the post-Resurrection appearance when Jesus eats a broiled fish on the beach to prove he wasn’t merely a vision) and it was also an acronym. The Greek word for fish, icthus, served as an acronym comprising the first letters in Greek of “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” Not surprisingly, this symbol was often found in the catacombs of ancient Rome. In other words, it served as something akin to a bumper sticker.
For the record, I’ve never put an Episcopal Church sticker on my car (let alone a fish) not because I’m embarrassed to be an Episcopalian but because with the way I drive I don’t want my cutting someone off in traffic to be someone’s lone impression of my denomination. I did learn to drive in Brooklyn, after all.