Last summer, an atheist organization put some rather silly signs on buses, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, as if riders were going to get off at the next stop and torch the nearest cathedral. As I’ll argue in the near future, it isn’t nonbelievers that the faithful need fret about, but the damage being done to religion by some among the faithful themselves. On my way to work — depending on which way I go — I pass probably a dozen or more church signs day after day, and it strikes me that, in many cases, nobody is working harder to keep people from churches than the churches themselves. Does the local corner parish really think that “Exercise your heart: walk with God!” emblazoned on an ugly roadside rental sign is going to get me through the door this Sunday?
Over the course of the summer, I’ve made note of a few such signs. These range from the inane and the unfunny (“Hot outside? We’re prayer-conditioned!”), to depressingly asinine (“if you’re going in the wrong direction, God allows U-turns”); and, perhaps most commonly, the straightforwardly menancing: (“Pray now or Pay later”.) My favourite in the latter category is this one: “Afraid of burning? Ask Jesus for Son block.” Nothing like the threat of torture to make people see things your way.
From time to time, I admit, I’ve noticed church signs that struck me as vaguely clever. Some years back, a local adult video store put up a sign that read, “membership has its privileges.” The adjacent church countered with, “membership here has its privileges, too.” Well done. Then again, this was the Church of England, which holds that pretty much everybody is saved without effort, so it’s not clear what those privileges are. (The comedian Eddie Izzard has observed that a Church of England inquisition would give heretics a choice between “cake or death”, and then be surprised that there was “such a run on cake.”)
In a summer of looking, I found signs that were coy, some that were smug, some that were straightforwardly hateful, but never once did I see one that was profound. And why not? With one of the great works of English literature — the King James Bible — and millennia of theological thought before them, surely they can do better than something that sounds like it was written by the runner-up for a job at a greeting card company. The threatening ones, at least, had the virtue of sincerity, and I’ll take “Pray now or pay later” over “Rainbows are God painting" any day.
Taken together, the manner in which so many churches sell themselves these days suggests something slightly pathetic and out-of-touch, like those television and movie-trailer ads that use the latest slang to get teens to stop using drugs. (In my day, they told us that staying clean was “rad” and “totally awesome”, and while I never did drugs I was tempted to start, just to hit back at whatever boneheads thought it was a good idea to condescend to me and my friends.)
One needn’t accept the metaphysical assumptions upon which churches are based to recognize their importance as social institutions, making contributions to the conversation about how we ought to lead our lives. It is therefore painful to see so many of them reduced to hawking their wares like the most undignified used car salesman. There is the rule about books and covers, of course, but a lack of imagination and whiff of desperation in exteriors seldom bodes well for the interior contents.
I could go on and on. Just last week I saw, “Christians never meet for the last time” - in my books, at least, that's not a selling point if it includes people who think up slogans like that. Same for, “prayer is the key to Heaven’s door”, since keys can lock doors, too. And just this morning I found a blog — defunct now, sadly — that catalogued crummy church signs. My favourite is: “Heaven is not Burger King. You can’t have it your way.”
Damn. And here I was hoping for extra pickles upon arrival.